Ecuador

Galapagos on a budget – the ultimate guide

Galapagos isn’t really a destination, which many people would consider cheap and in fact for most of us, including me and Sara, it’s pretty expensive. Nevertheless, it’s one of the most exciting destinations in the world, especially for wildlife; after all it’s claimed 50% of archipelago’s land species and 20% of marine species cannot be found anywhere else in the world. We spend 5, truly magical days here and below I share the most valuable travel tips on how to visit Galapagos on a budget.

To make thing easier to navigate, below is a small menu:

How to get to Galapagos

Getting around Galapagos

Where to stay in Galapagos

What to do in Galapagos

Cost

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Playa Loberia, San Cristobal – Galapagos

How to get to Galapagos

There are no international flights to the Galapagos and even if you buy a ticket originating abroad, your final flight to the islands will be from Quito or Guayaquil and you’ll go through immigration and customs in those cities. To get the best deal, we use a combination of 3 flight search engines: Momondo, Skyscanner and Google Flights.

Tip: If you’re traveling with a partner, searching for and buying two single tickets, as oppose to searching for and buying two tickets, may be cheaper – if only one ticket is available at a cheaper price you will not be able to buy it (or even see its price) if you perform a search for two tickets.

If you have some time to spare in Quito, check out Sara’s post: One Day in Quito

Before your flight

Checking in online will not be available at all and prior to doing it at one of the airports in Ecuador you’ll need to obtain the Transit Card ($20 per person). There are designated booths at the airport, where agents issue these cards. Official rules require you to have proof of return flight, accommodation and travel insurance. Although we were asked only for the proof of return flight, I do recommend you have insurance and accommodation booked, as you never know how strict these checks will get in the future. Our stay was via AirBnb with a local host and to make sure there are no problems entering the islands, we also booked a hotel, which we canceled once we got through entry point at the airport. Booking.com is pretty good at offering free, last minute cancellations and this is one of the options I recommend. Tip: hold on to the transit card, as you will be asked to present it when leaving.

Arriving in Galapagos

At the time of writing this post, there were only two airports you could arrive in Galapagos from mainland Ecuador – Baltra and San Cristobal. On arrival, you’ll need to pay an entrance fee to the Galapagos National Park: $100 for foreigners from outside of South America and $50 for foreigners from inside the continent (when arriving in Isabela Island you’ll need to pay additional $10).

Baltra is an island where only an airport is located and it’s connected to Santa Cruz via bus and ferry (you cannot avoid taking neither bus nor ferry). Once on Santa Cruz island, you’ll need to take another bus or taxi direct to your accommodation or to one of the towns – unless you have plenty of time and money, Puerto Ayora should be the only town you consider for accommodation, as this is where all tours and boat transportation originate from. Cost: bus from the airport to ferry terminal in Baltra- $5; ferry from Baltra to Santa Cruz – $1; bus from Santa Cruz ferry terminal to Puerto Ayora – $5

Although we did not arrive in San Cristobal, airport is just a short distance from the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and taxi will cost you only $2-$4 (if the driver asks for more, he’s likely taking advantage of you).

Tip: choose Santa Cruz (Baltra) as your arrival point to and San Cristobal as departure point from the Galapagos. That way, you will not need to come back to Santa Cruz, just to fly back to mainland Ecuador, saving yourself ferry ticket ride.

Getting around Galapagos

Walking

You can easily walk from one end of the town to the other in 30-45 minutes. This is true for all three major towns in all three islands on which you can stay: Santa Cruz – Puerto Ayora town, San Cristobal – Puerto Baquerizo Moreno town, Isabela – Puerto Villamil town.

Taxi

In towns and within close proximity, a taxi should not cost more than $2-$3 per ride. As example, I’ll give a ride we took from our accommodation in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (San Cristobal) to Playa Loberia – $3. Tip: always agree the fare before getting in, as taxis do not have meters.

Bus

As mentioned earlier, on Santa Cruz Island, a public bus runs from the airport ferry terminal to Puerto Ayora through towns of Bellavista and Santa Rosa – you may decide to take it, if visiting tortoise reserve – El Chato (details in “What to do in Galapagos” section). On San Cristobal, a bus runs from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, all the way to the highland town of Progreso – there’s nothing of interest there, so you’re unlikely to take it.

Ferry

Most inter-island travel takes place by boat, which takes around 25-35 passengers. A trip costs $30 one way from Santa Cruz to Isabela and from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal. There are no direct ferries linking Isabela and San Cristobal islands. Both trips take two to two and a half hours and departure twice a day: Isabela to Santa Cruz 6am and 2pm; Santa Cruz to Isabela 7am and 2pm; Santa Cruz to San Cristobal 7am and 2pm; San Cristobal to Santa Cruz 7am and 3pm. There are plenty of tour agencies on each island, from which you can purchase the tickets.

Taxi boat

Small boats offer rides within the port area and cost from $0.50 to $1. You will need to take one of these to get to your ferry boat, when doing an inter-island travel or a tour.

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Port Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz – Galapagos

Where to stay in Galapagos

My recommendation is to stay, AT LEAST, 2 full days in each of the three habitable islands: Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal. This is the minimum you’ll require to appreciate what each island has to offer and it will be difficult to experience it with tours originating from just one island. If you still choose to stay on one island only, Santa Cruz in the middle of the archipelago, will give you the most options in terms of tours.

Residents offer rooms with shared or private bathroom with kitchen facilities, so you can make your meals yourself and not overspend. For even cheaper alternative, there are plenty of hostels, which should have kitchen facilities too. Markets are available in each city you’ll be staying in: Puerto Villamil (Isabela island), Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz island) and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (San Cristobal island).

Tip: AirBnb, Booking.com and Hostelz are your best options for finding accommodation.

What to do in Galapagos

Isabela island

You could probably spend two weeks in this island and not be bored, but let’s stick to budget; here, you’ll find one of the best snorkeling/diving opportunities in the world and I suggest you take full advantage of it. As we did not stay here, we could only do a tour originating from Santa Cruz and little snorkeling we did, resulted in sighting of a sea turtle and few colorful fishes, so don’t make the same mistake we did! Stay in the island, go on a snorkeling/diving specific tour and give yourself a chance to see sharks, manta rays, sea horses and turtles, which are seen by tourists on regular basis.

If you can spare some extra time and money, a boat tour of the harbor area will give you an opportunity to see Blue-footed Boobys and, if you’re lucky enough, Galapagos penguins.

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Tintoreras, Isabela – Galapagos

Tip: there are many other activities available in the island, but similar stuff can be done on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal – these are slightly cheaper to stay and go around.

Tip: at the time of writing this post, there were no ATMs nor a bank in Isabela, so withdraw all the cash you’ll need in Santa Cruz or San Cristobal

Santa Cruz island

As this is the main hub of the Galapagos and most centrally located island, tours from here depart to all other destinations in the archipelago.

Charles Darwin Research Station and Visitor Centre

Located around 10-15 minutes’ walk from Puerto Ayora’s harbor, it’s a work place for many scientists, who are trying to preserve plant and animal spices found in the Galapagos. You’ll find giant tortoise in breading enclosures, here. Entrance is free.

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Charles Darwin Research Centre, Santa Cruz – Galapagos

Playa de la Estacion

On the way to Charles Darwin Research Centre, it’s a rocky beach with just a short stretch of sand, but if you go early enough you beat the crowd, it should be quite pleasant. Its also a good spot to watch the sunset.

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Playa De La Estacion, Santa Cruz – Galapagos

Tortuga Bay

A long (around 1200 meters), beautiful stretch of peaceful, sandy beach. There’s a small, very shallow, sea water enclave, where snorkeling is possible and we managed to see an octopus here. You may walk here from Puerto Ayora and it shouldn’t take longer than 40 min. We took a boat and it was $20 per person to go and come back, plus $0.50 per person, each way for the taxi boat.

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Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz – Galapagos

El Chato

A tortoise reserve located near the town of Santa Rosa. It’s like a big park and these giant creatures are totally on the lose! While completing a walking circuit, you’ll also enter three, short lava tunnels. There are no paved paths, but if it’s wet and your shoes are not suitable for this, you can borrow rubber boots here. Please remember that you’ll be entering home of these animals and act respectfully. Authorities of Galapagos recommend to keep a distance of at least 2 meters to any wildlife. Entrance is $5 per person and you’ll get free organic tea or coffee with that.

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El Chato Reserve, Santa Cruz – Galapagos

Tip: if you have time and money, rent bikes in Puerto Ayora, take the bus to Santa Rosa (bikes can go with you) and come back by bike. It’s a really good way to visit this place.

Las Grietas

This is a series of three, pretty deep pools, within a narrow rock formation. Getting from one pool to another, requires crossing some sharp rocks, so I recommend you take your wet-shoes. When we got here, it was really crowded and felt more like a water-park with kids jumping in and screaming; we didn’t see many fishes. To get here, you’ll need to take a water taxi to the other side of Puerto Ayora’s port, which will cost $1 per person each way. After that you’ll need to walk for around 20 minutes, passing through a nice beach – Playa De Los Alemanes. It’s a short, but pleasant stretch of sand and you may spot some manta rays here.

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Playa Los Alemanes, Santa Cruz – Galapagos

San Cristobal

Playa Loberia

Located just 30-40 minutes walk from the port of Baquerizo Moreno, or a $3 taxi ride, it’s a rocky beach with good stretches of sand, as well. Big population of sea lions live here and the young can be very playful and curious. With your snorkeling gear, enjoy an underwater swimming show, but be extremely careful not to touch them, or let them touch you, as your scent can easily make their mother reject them. Some colorful fishes can also be seen in this area.

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Playa Loberias, San Cristobal – Galapagos

Playa Punta Carola

Some rocks here, but mainly sand and, if you’re lucky, you can be bumping heads with a sea turtle while snorkeling. When we were here, a group of 5 of them could be spotted, two at very shallow water, just few steps into the water! Located around 30 minutes walk from the centre of town.

Playa De Oro

This is another beach located very close to the centre of town (only around 10 minutes walk). You can spot some sea lions here and lay down on the sand, but if you short on time, the other two are far better.

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Playa de Oro, San Cristobal – Galapagos

Note: most open air, public beaches and swimming spots are open from 6am to 6pm and park rangers will excuse you after the opening times. Only beaches within town may be occupied after 6pm.

If you like exotic places, check out Sara’s post about San Andres in the Caribbeans 

Cost

Plane tickets – Quito-Baltra + San Cristobal – Guayaquil = $376.70 (per person)

Four nights, double room with private bathroom in Santa Cruz – $111.73

Two nights, double room with shared bathroom in San Cristobal – $43.57

Island entry fee – $100 (per person)

Transit card – $20 (per person)

Baltra airport bus – $5 (per person)

Baltra ferry – $1 (per person)

Santa Cruz bus to Puerto Ayora – $5 (per person)

El Chato tortoise reserve entry fee – $5 (per person)

One day bike rental – $15 (per person)

Bus from Puerto Ayora to Santa Rosa with bike – $1.50 (per person)

Breakfast in a restaurant (average price) – $15 (per person)

Lunch or dinner in a restaurant (average price including drink) – $30 (per person)

Taxi to the airport in San Cristobal – $3

Isabela island tour + ferry ticket – $120 (per person)

Ferry from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal – $30 (per person)

Water taxi from Puerto Ayora to Tortuga Bay (return) – $20 (per person)

Water taxis (per ride, within port area) – around $1 (per person)

Altogether, we spent around $1115 per person for 6 days and you may think that’s not really “on a budget” travel, but cruises of Galapagos start at $1700, excluding flights.

There are many more activities available on and around all 13 islands of the Galapagos, but I tried to stick to budget, so did not include most of them. I hope I gave you enough information, but if you have additional questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch, as I’m sure you will want to do everything just right here.

That’s not all we experienced in South America. Check out our posts about major cities in Colombia: Bogota, Cartagena, Medellin and Cali.