Galapagos Islands on a budget: Comparing cruises to DIY trips
The Galapagos Islands are expensive, there’s no doubt about it. But that doesn’t mean you should leave it off your itinerary.
Where else in the world can you swim with sea lions and penguins? Or walk among fascinating birds, like the blue-footed boobies, that are unafraid of humans?
The Galapagos Islands are unique and trust me – they might be expensive – but they’re totally worth it. And just like any expensive place, there are tips and tricks for making it work for your budget. If you’re careful enough, the Galapagos doesn’t have to burn a hole in your pocket.
The cost of getting there
The cost of your flights will possibly be your biggest expense. Don’t make the mistake we did of flying from Quito to the Galapagos – it will save you money if you fly from Guayaquil. All the flights take this itinerary: Quito – Guayaquil – Galapagos. So getting on at Guayaquil will also enable you to miss a leg of the flight.
Book early on, as the flights book out fast with cruises booking large numbers of tickets in advance for their customers. You’re also more likely to get a cheaper flight. Expect to pay between US$400 – US$500 per person, return.
Unfortunately, on arrival you have to pay US$100 to enter the Galapagos, as well as a US$10 baggage fee when you leave mainland Ecuador. Although the US$10 fee does go towards screening all luggage for organic food and plants that could damage the island’s fragile biodiversity, most of the US$100 doesn’t go towards improving the islands. At all.
This is a real shame, as up until 2009, all of the fee was distributed all around the islands to help protect and preserve the Galapagos.
However, our naturalist guide who was a Galapagos local and wildlife expert, said it no longer goes to the islands but to some politicians’ back pockets and government programmes on the mainland. Which is upsetting but there’s nothing you can do about it – you have to pay the fee.
If you’re doing an organised tour on the islands, it’s unlikely these fees will be included – so make sure you check before you fly. You’ll have to pay in cash at the airports, otherwise they will confiscate your passport until you get the cash out in town and visit the tourism agency to get it back.
Book a last minute cruise
Many people we met – including customers on board the Seaman Journey we lived on for four days – had forked out a lot of cash for their tour, as they had booked months in advance. They paid around US$2,000 for their tour.
Our other friends, who were on the same trip, had booked their Seaman Journey tickets last minute and paid US$900 each. This is better than half price.
Another friend of ours, Kate, booked her trip from Quito as well, with Galapagos Natural Life. This company is associated with the website Galapagos Last Minute and she was able to reserve an eight day trip on board a luxury boat with G Adventures. It cost her US$2,570 and this included return flights to and from Quito, so it was quite a deal.
This same trip is being sold on the G Adventures website for US$4749, so Kate saved more than US$2,000!
These tour savings were all made from mainland Ecuador too – and if you book after you arrive on the Galapagos, you can expect to save even more as you can go to the boat companies themselves. These offices can be found on Galapagos’ biggest island – Santa Cruz – and is the best point to start your trip from as there will be more tour options.
Travel in the off season
The only issue with booking your cruise last minute is that it will be harder to find a vacancy compared to if you book months in advance.
However, if you travel when it’s not high season, you shouldn’t have a problem. Obviously holiday times like Easter and Christmas are very busy (and more expensive) times to visit the Galapagos. The official peak season is classified as mid-June to early September and mid-December to mid-May.
We went at the beginning of April and found it to be perfect. It hardly rained (even though it was the tail end of the rainy season) and the weather was warm. We would advise visiting between the beginning of February to mid-May.
What’s included in a cruise
With most cruises, once you buy your ticket you won’t have to worry about money for the duration of the trip. Some include flights – but not all – so check this before you book from mainland Ecuador.
The cruise company will most likely pick you up from the airport and then transfer you to the boat. Once on board, all your meals will be made for you and the cost included. However, alcoholic drinks are normally extra.
Snorkel gear and flippers are often included, but you’ll probably have to pay extra for wetsuit hire.
At the end of the tour, you’ll be expected to leave a tip for your guides and crew. A rough guideline is US$10 a day, per person, for the guide and US$15 a day, per person, for the crew. So if you’re a couple, a four day cruise will cost you US$200 in tips. This isn’t set in stone though (it’s a lot of money!) and you shouldn’t feel obligated to pay it.
We paid US$170 in tips for ours.
Explore the islands on your own – DIY tours
Don’t feel that a cruise is the only way for you to explore the Galapagos – it’s almost just as easy to venture out on your own. The majority of visitors go on organised cruises but by staying on different islands and doing activities in your own time will not only save dollars but support more local families than you would if you stayed on one boat.
The best place to begin is Santa Cruz as this is the main island and is situated in the center of the Galapagos. You can easily get on last minute day trips to various islands, or explore Santa Cruz itself.
For a day trip, you can expect to pay around US$110 – US$190 per person. We forked out US$120 each for a day trip to Isabela Island because I was desperate to see penguins.
This price included:
- A guide
- Speed boat ride there and back (US$60 per person)
- Transport around the island
- Snorkel hire (but no flippers)
Although the trip was quite good, we didn’t learn anything new from our guide and realised the much cheaper option would’ve been to do the day trip on our own.
Organise your own day trips
If we’d gone to Isabela on our own, I figure it would’ve cost us around US$85 each instead of US$120. That’s a saving of US$70 between the two of us.
All you need to do is research where you want to visit before you go. You can do this by reading a guide book, researching on the internet, or even going to a tour office on Santa Cruz and asking what you visit on the day tour, and then copying this itinerary on your own.
For example, with our Isabela day trip we went to see the Giant Galapagos Tortoises at the research centre and then saw the pink flamingos at a nearby lagoon. We had lunch at a restaurant and then took a small dinghy boat across a bay to snorkel with the penguins at Laguna Concha Perla. That was the entirety of the day trip.
To do this on our own, we could’ve bought our ferry tickets from the harbour front booth in Santa Cruz (US$60 each) and hired snorkel and fins for the day from any tourism agency (US$5 each). Once on Isabela, we could’ve got a taxi driver to take us to see the tortoises and flamingos (US$15). Then we should’ve hired a water taxi to take us snorkelling (US$20). And we would’ve bought a cheap lunch (US$5 each). This is the same trip for US$87.50, rather than US$120.
Get a taxi driver to take you around
It’s cheaper to hire a taxi driver for everything you want to see on the islands than to do an island tour through an agency. We discovered this was the case when we booked a tour on Santa Cruz to visit the lava tunnels, the El Chato tortoise reserve and two massive holes in the ground called Los Gemelos, caused by the collapse of underground lava tunnels.
For this, we paid US$25 each, but if we’d got a taxi driver to drive us around instead (and our guide was essentially a taxi driver who spoke no English) we would’ve paid US$15.
Stay in hostels or camp
There are numerous expensive eco-lodges on the Galapagos but if your budget doesn’t stretch that far you can find cheap accommodation.
We paid US$30 a night on Santa Cruz for a double room with our own ensuite. Granted, we didn’t have air-conditioning but we had a fan, and there wasn’t any hot water in the shower (although we didn’t need it as it was so hot), but we found it comfortable enough for that bargain price. There was also free wi-fi.
The hostel was on Avenue Charles Darwin in Santa Cruz – the main street – so the location was perfect.
I would advise arriving at Santa Cruz and then walking around to the hostels near and along the main street. Many of the cheaper accommodation options aren’t advertised online – nor do they have a website – so this is the best method for finding budget accommodation.
You can also bring a tent with you and camp on either San Cristobal or Santa Cruz. For the former, campsites can be found at El Ceibo for US$5 a night and at Puerto Chino (which park permission). Any privately owned beaches, like Garrapetero Beach on Santa Cruz, can also be used for camping if you ask permission from the owners.
Eat the menu of the day
Thankfully, although many things are expensive in the Galapagos, food is not one of them. In fact, you can probably eat out more cheaply than you could buying the over-priced goods in the supermarket and trying to cook a meal.
For example, you can expect to pay about US$4 for breakfast which includes bread, jam, eggs, juice and coffee. And a meal of the day for dinner can set you back as little as US$3 for a soup, main dish of fish and rice, and a juice.
If you’re open to spending a little more, you can get a delicious slipper lobster for as little as US$14. In Australia we’d pay around US$60 for the same dish, so it’s a bargain!
Do things for free
You might not believe it, but there are also many free activities to do on the Galapagos. These can all be found on the inhabited islands – San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela – which are also the only places you can visit without a guided tour.
The best free things to do in the Galapagos islands
- Darwin Research Center – You can walk to the center from the middle of town in about 20 minutes and get the chance to see tortoises and land iguanas that are part of the Galapagos breeding programme. This is where the famous Lonesome George lived until his death in 2012.
- Ceramic Garden – On the way to the Darwin Research Center, you’ll find a Ceramic Garden on the right hand side of the road.
- Tortuga Bay – This is a beautiful white sandy beach that takes about an hour to walk to from the centre of town. Although it’s not a great snorkelling spot, you can find many marine iguanas sunbaking, cacti on the rocky shores and baby sharks swimming in the shallows.
- Las Grietas – If you want to know what the locals go on the weekends, it’s here. Catch a water taxi across the harbour and then walk about 15 minutes, crossing a beach, to get to this canyon. There’s a mix of salt and sea water inside the rocky walls and you’ll see local kids jumping from great heights into the water.
- Mangroves – If you head to the far west of town, about two streets back from Avenue Charles Darwin, you’ll come across a little mangrove. You can walk along the boardwalks for about half an hour, trying to spot the fish in the water.
- The harbour at night – Every night on San Cristobal we walked along the foreshore and harbour area to watch the sea lions. In the evenings they come to the beach to sleep and they can be heard yelping and whining at each other from a distance.
- Playa Mann – A great beach to swim at and around a 10 minute walk from the centre of town.
- Interpretation Center – A further five minute walk past Playa Mann will bring you to the Interpretation Center which will give you a good rundown of the history of the Galapagos – some of it is rather spooky!
- Las Tijeretas– Located behind the Interpretation Centre, this area is 2.4km of trails that take you to a lookout point over the ocean and a cove that’s perfect for snorkelling at. You might also get the chance to spot frigatebirds and see sea lions lying along a beautiful beach.
- La Loberia – About a 30 minute walk from town, or a US$2 taxi ride, will take you to another cove that’s perfect for spotting sea turtles. Visiting at around 2-3pm both times, we saw huge sea turtles as we snorkelled.
- Jacinto Gordillo Breeding Center of Giant Tortoises – Another breeding center for Giant Tortoises where you can also see lots of babies of varies sizes.
- Laguna Salinas – This is one of the best spots to see flamingos in the Galapagos, as it’s the perfect habitat for them.
- Wall of Tears – Thousands of prisoners died building this wall during 1945 – 1959, before the brutal imprisonment system was banned in the Galapagos.
- National Park Tortoise Reserve – This tortoise reserve has the largest number of different tortoise species in the whole of the Galapagos.
- Laguna Concha Perla – Mentioned before when I was writing about our Isabela day trip, this lagoon can be reached by water tax, or alternatively you can ride your bike to the entrance of the lagoon’s trail. Here you can snorkel with penguins, sharks and turtles.
Have you been to the Galapagos? What are your money-saving tips?
By Carmen Allan-Petale
Carmen is one half of the couple behind Double-Barrelled Travel, a travel blog focused on vlogging. Carmen married Dave two years ago and they quit their journalism careers in mid-2013 for a life on the road.