When you think of Galapagos, you think of Charles Darwin, endless wildlife, islands, swimming with sea lions, epic diving, but also an absolute crack in your travel budget. Don`t stress out, just follow the next steps and you`ll get yourself an amazing time on these epic islands without going bankrupt. The following is a great way to do Galapagos on a cheap budget.
Don`t book ahead
So here you are, you got your guidebooks ready, binoculars around the neck and already dreaming away with all the old diaries of Charles Darwin. You go on the internet and are ready to book yourself a cruise. Don`t!!! Cruises sold on the internet or cruise + commission + commission + commission = very, very expensive. Get yourself to Quito or to (preferably) Guayaquil. In some cases you might find yourself a 10 day cruise for less than a 1000 dollars, in that case, consider booking it. Check recommendations of the company beforehand as qualities and comfort of the cruises vary immensely. Keep in mind that almost all cruises do not include flights and park fees.
Whether you decide to do a cruise, do free camping or stay in hostels there are three expenses that are inevitable for every traveler:
Ready for take off
You checked for possible last-minute deals and didn`t find one. All you have to do now is book a one-way ticket to the islands. There is no mandatory for you to buy a return flight. Just make sure you don`t spend more than the permitted time you are allowed to stay in Ecuador. For most countries this is 90 days. There are two airports on the Galapagos, one on Santa Cruz (Baltra) and one on San Cristobal. Those with more than 6 days time to spend on the islands I recommend to fly to Isla Santa Cruz and fly back from Isla de San Cristobal. Those with less than 6 days time, go to San Cristobal and enjoy your time there. This island offers everything you would expect from Galapagos and most activities are for free.
Arrived on the island and now?
Alright, trusting you followed my advice in flying in by Santa Cruz. You pay your entry to National Park in the main hall (don`t worry they`ll make sure you don`t leave without paying it). Once you got your passport stamped (optional), paid your fees and got your luggage, you can walk to the free bus which will be waiting outside. The bus brings you to the Itabaca Channel. Take a ferry across ($1). On the other side of the channel you can choose to take a taxi ($20, up to 4 people) or a bus ($2). The bus will drive you in 90 minutes across the island to the town Puerto Ayora.
Go to the tons of tourists offices and see if you can get a good deal for a cruise. Some of them might need to fill up a space for cruise leaving that night. Anything less than $100 a day, including food and drinks might be worth it. Don`t forget to bargain.
If you didn`t find yourself a cruise, or just want to explore the islands on your own. Find yourself a nice hostel. In most hostels you can find a decent (private) room for $15 per night, per person. Ask around, or jump in a cafè with WiFi to check out latest deals on booking.com or Airbnb. Those who don`t feel like walking, taxis take you to any destination inside town for a $1.
Those with a tent can ask at the tourist information for current campsites and fees.
You got yourself an accommodation, maybe even already a good night sleep and you`re ready to go and explore. There is plenty of free activities on the island.
A nice start of point is the Darwin Centre. The center is really close to town, so no taxi needed. In the center you can gain some information about the history of the islands, the wildlife and you can spot your first giant tortoises in the breeding center. A good starter for your further explorations around the island.
Want to see an amazing beach, catch some waves or go for a snorkel. Take a walk to Tortuga Beach. The entrance to the park is at the end of town. From the entrance it`s about 30 minute walk to the beach. Enjoy the beach or set foot to Tortuga bay. Here you can go snorkeling in the mangroves and spot baby sharks or beautiful sea iguanas. Left your snorkel back home? Snorkels can be rented at most offices for $3 a day.
A nice walk/snorkel activity is going to las Grietas; a volcanic cliff formation, partly under water. Take a water taxi from the harbour (70 cents one-way). Enjoy the walk around the national park and cool down while snorkeling through this impressive little corridor of crystal clear water.
The most popular paid excursions on and around the island are:
Time for some island hopping
So you`ve done all you wanted to do on the island and the travel bugs are tickling again. It`s time to have a move on. Santa Cruz is like the central station of the Galapagos Islands. All the ferries leave and arrive from here. There are 3 more islands you can explore on your own:
Stack up with cash, there are no ATMS on this tranquillo island! Nice chilled out vibes there are plenty though, as well as national parks and completely deserted beaches.
Again you`ll be able to find a hostel here for $15 per person for a room. Check tourist information for recent campsites and prices.
Isabella is full of activities and the good news: a lot of them are for free!
Take your snorkel, or hire one for $3 and go snorkeling at beach next to the harbour. You`ll might have to share your beach chair with a sea lion, but they rule over all the islands, so you`ll be very likely used to them by now. Get a tan, go spot fishing penguins or play with some sea lion pups in the water. Another option close is a small wooden path on the other side of the road, leading to a mangrove forest. Here you can spot sea turtles, sea lions, penguins, sharks, rays and many more.
Rent a bike and bike along the coast to the wall of tears. Stop at the tortoise breeding center on the way to spot some super tiny and super big ones. Continue your way and spot them with dozens in the wild. On your way back stop at the several spots on the beach and try to do some snorkeling. Some people have spot some epic wildlife over here.
Prices of bike rentals vary a lot. Keep in mind that you get what you pay for. Nothing is more annoying than having your nice day cut off by a broken chain.
Do a day tour to the volcanoes Seria Negra and Seria Chico. Tours are around $30.
One of the most popular tours on the island, is a tour to Los Tunneles (around $85). This tour will take you snorkeling to a mangrove forest further out town and then to the magical volcanic rock formation of Los Tunneles. Most of the time you can spot the famous Blue-footed booby here.
Depending the season wales and orca`s can also be spotted around the island.
Isla de San Cristobal
The island that has it all. Bars, national parks, great hiking, wildlife, great surf, you name it. If you`re lucky the owner of hostel Fragatas Home is looking for new guests in the harbour. A bit out of town, but your own kitchen and bathroom for $15 per person. The owner speaks perfect English and is more than happy to drop you of at some highlights on the island. Snorkels are free for rent.
The number of activities on the islands are endless and again, most of them for free.
Beach La Loberia is a $3 taxi ride out of town. But you can walk it as if it is not too hot. The walk along the seaside is nice. A lot of Iguanas and if you`re lucky some frigate birds as well. At the beach there is a small, but playful sea lion colony. Bird and nature lovers could consider continuing walking along the coast, following the path over the rocks. No matter what season, this path will always be quite. Surf fanatics may try to catch some waves along the coast. Be warned, the rocks and the strong current make this spot non-suitable for beginners. Even if you consider yourself as an advances wave catcher, always go with a local to make sure you go out on the safe spots.
Behind the university is an information center. Here you`ll not only find some interesting facts about the island, but it`s also a starting point of kilometers of trails leading to quite beaches and epic bays and snorkeling spots. A selfie with the massive statue of Charles Darwin is of course another must-do around here.
The most popular day tour, by far, is a tour to Kicker rock. A giant splitted rock formation in the middle of the ocean. If you`re lucky you might spot the elegant hammerhead shark here. Both snorkeling as diving can be done here.
The mainland can be discovered by a highland tortoise tour. Those want to do it independently can get a taxi to drive them to the lake where you can spot frigatebirds. From there you can go to the Tortoise sanctuary and finish the day with a chill out moment on a secluded beach. With a bit of negotiation you should be able to find a taxi who takes you to all 3 locations for $50.
Most wildlife is underneath the water. This means capturing most of your amazing experiences will need to be captured with waterproof equipment. If you`re not one of the lucky owner of a GoPro or descent waterproof camera, buy a waterproof case for your camera or cellphone. I bought a waterproof zip lock bag for my phone and it worked pretty good. Definitely worth the $5 on Ebay. But whether you choose for a cheaper or more expensive option, mark my words, don`t go to Galapagos without being able to take some epic shots under water.
Still not a suitable budget?
For those who still think they can`t afford the journey. Consider making a trip to Islas Balletas in Peru, also known as the poor man`s Galapagos. Less well known, less expensive, but still a lot of wildlife to see. A boat tour around the islands takes about 1.5 hours. Be prepared for rough seas and no cover on the boat.
After a burn-out it was time for a change. I quit my job, sold my stuff and bought a one-way ticket to the Dominican Republic. What was supposed to be a 4 month adventure turned into one year and counting......
Photo by: Vanessa Marques Barreto