Galápagos on a Budget: The Broke Backpacker’s Guide to Ecuador
Before we got to Ecuador, I was certain that the only way we would be able to do the Galápagos was on an expensive cruise. My best hope was that we would be able to book one last-minute at a discounted rate. Traveling to the Galápagos on a budget wasn’t even on my mind.
As we traveled around and spoke to other backpackers, though, we learned many unexpected pieces of wisdom about the islands, and after being there for a week and spending around $600 each (including the $100 entrance fee at the airport), we realized that you don’t need to have thousands of dollars in the bank to visit this unique place.
There are 2 options if you want to travel around the Galápagos Islands: a cruise or a DIY trip.
At best, if you book it at the last-minute on the islands, a 5-day cruise will cost you a minimum of $800-$1,000/person (and it’s possible it wouldn’t even be a good one). 2 of those days would be mostly dedicated to embarking/disembarking.
If you do decide to do a cruise, do a bit of research on which islands you’d like to see and make sure you look at which stops the ship will make (some islands have very little to see: for example, Baltra is just the airport. Also, four of the islands are inhabited and you can visit them by simply taking a ferry).
Of course, there are advantages to doing a cruise – some may take you to places only accessible by a cruise ship, and if you’re not the do-it-yourself type it’s obviously an easy solution.
However, for the unemployed, flat broke, long-term traveler, or any tourist on a budget, a cruise is not a viable option.
The key to a DIY trip is flexibility. We started with trying to find a cheap hostel, thinking we would stay on Santa Cruz a few nights, then ferry to San Cristobal, Isabela, or Floreana and stay on each island for a couple of days, doing day tours from each place. But after seeing that the cheapest result on Hostelworld was $20/night, we decided to get creative.
We ended up finding someone on Couchsurfing.com to stay with on Santa Cruz for the entire week (couchsurfing is free). He was an incredibly nice guy, and we had our own room and bathroom at his place in Puerto Ayora – better than many hostels we’ve stayed in. After finding this irresistible set up, we had to change our plans a bit.
There are 4 inhabited islands in the Galápagos: Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela, and Floreana. Each of these places can be visited with a ferry ($30/each way) and doesn’t require an expensive day tour.
Here is a breakdown of how we spent our week on the Galápagos, with a summary of budget tips at the end.
Day 1: Santa Cruz
Our first day, we explored Santa Cruz. In the morning, we walked the 2.5 km trail to Tortuga Bay (free), where we saw marine iguanas sunbathing on the pearl-colored beach and pelicans perching in the mangrove trees.
We then took a taxi ($35 round trip for the two of us) to El Chato, a giant-tortoise reserve where the tortoises roam free in the wild. After walking through two lava tunnels, we got to the grounds and wandered around, watching tortoises lazily chewing on grass or enjoying a mud bath. We even saw a pair mating. Word to the wise: don’t get too close or they will hiss you at you – a raspy, reptilian sound that’s honestly a bit frightening.
That night we strolled around the docks. Sea lions slept casually on benches, accepted by the locals as just another part of the population. Pelicans eyed their prey from their perches on the railing, baby sharks swam in the waters beneath us, and a stingray glided swiftly past.
After only one day we could see that this was a place unlike any other, and we had so far only been on the most populated island.
Day 2: Floreana
Although its population is less than 200 people, Floreana is technically an inhabited island, therefore there is a ferry that runs there.
Now, before we came to the islands and I heard people telling me about the ferries, I naturally pictured one of those giant, smooth-sailing ships, with space for cars on the bottom and a deck at the top. This comfortable image was quickly shattered as we boarded a small speed boat and settled in for the two-hour ride. How I didn’t throw up on that journey I still don’t know (although I did puke a few days later on the ferry to Isabela). Every crash of the boat into the waves was like hitting a bed of rocks, and the jolting, undulating motion is difficult to get used to (the good news is the way back to Santa Cruz was always much smoother).
The seasickness was worth it, though. We disembarked on what appeared to be a deserted island, the classic Galápagos cacti growing around us and a mountain visible in the distance. We found one person at the tiny port who pointed us in the direction of La Loberia, a bay where you can snorkel (bring snorkeling gear from wherever you’re coming from because there is no place to rent it there).
We ambled along a path of jet-black volcanic rocks until we reached a small, white sand bay. Quickly donning mask and flippers to avoid the stinging flies, we jumped into the water and were rewarded with an outer-worldly sight.
For the next few hours, we swam with huge, neon-colored parrot fish, groups of unconcerned sea turtles, and playful sea lions that seemed to tease us as they swam circles around us, an expression of almost human laughter on their faces as we tried to keep up with them.
When we finally got out of the water, two baby sea lions saw us off, swimming so close to me I could’ve touched noses with them. They scrambled up onto the beach, looking up at us with eyes that seemed to say, “Going so soon?”
We snorkeled nearly every day while in the Galápagos, but looking back none compared to that first time on Floreana, no one in sight except the animals dancing around us.
Day 3: Pinzon & La Fe
Our first day trip that we booked through a travel agency on Santa Cruz was on the third day – a snorkeling tour to the bay of La Fe and the island of Pinzon ($100/person including lunch).
In La Fe, we saw schools of tropical fish and small, black-tipped sharks, as well as the usual pair of sea lions lounging on the rocks. It was also the first place we saw the famous blue-footed booby, perched atop a boulder and peering down at us with a measured stare.
In Pinzon, both excitement and apprehension mounted when a white-tipped shark about a meter and a half in length swam nonchalantly passed us. Being taught my whole life to be afraid of sharks, I was rather surprised when it barely spared us a glance before continuing on its way.
Day 4 & 5: Isabela
We decided to spend one night on Isabela, the biggest of the islands. With a meager population of under 2,000 (compared to the 12,000 on Santa Cruz), Isabela is known for its beautiful beaches as well as the famous Galápagos penguins.
We found a private room for two at Hostel Insular for $40 (not bad at all considering the inflated prices on Isabela). The first day, we explored the island, lounging on hammocks on the brilliantly white beach and snorkeling for free at Concha de Perla, a bay next to the pier.
On the second day, we did a morning tour ($40/person) of Las Tintoreras, a small group of islets near the port. As we sailed leisurely through the bay, we saw the small Galápagos penguins diving for fish and standing upright like soldiers on the rocks. Sea turtles and a ray floated past us, blue-footed boobies perched on outcroppings of land, and an old sea lion slept peacefully on the deck of a nearby boat.
We disembarked on an islet and made our way along another rocky, volcanic landscape, baby marine iguanas scuttling at our feet. In a channel, we saw dozens of completely still white-tipped sharks, floating in place under the water. Apparently, this is the only type of shark that is capable of not constantly moving. Near them, a small octopus slid into the water and fish hurried past.
We snorkeled in a neighboring bay, swimming through huge schools of fish that only slightly bothered to move out of the way and over sea turtles that, as always, were uninterested in our presence.
On the ferry ride back to Santa Cruz I thankfully held my lunch in place, watching rainbows skip alongside the boat like dolphins with each splashing of the waves.
Day 6: Santa Cruz (again)
On our last full day we originally wanted to do a day tour to North Seymour, an island north of Baltra famous for its population of land iguanas, frigate birds, and blue-footed boobies. However, by the time we got around to asking about tours the evening before, all of the regular spots were taken and only first-class seats remained for over $200/person. Obviously, we quickly decided that we had seen enough blue-footed boobies and instead chose to spend the last day relaxing on Santa Cruz (we also ended up seeing two land iguanas on our bus back to the airport in Baltra, so $200 well saved).
We spent most of the day laying on the beach and snorkeling at Las Grietas, a 30-second taxi-boat ride from the pier (80 cents/person). A small but beautiful bay surrounded by mangroves, Las Grietas was relatively deserted except for the giant blue heron patrolling the beach like a self-important lifeguard, the ever-present finches, a couple of marine iguanas, and a strange black bird slightly resembling a chicken.
The most incredible thing about the Galápagos was that every few minutes one of us would turn around, notice some animal that neither of us had ever seen before, and point it out excitedly to the other. Most of our conversations that week started with, “Oooh, look at that! What is that?!”
As for the animals themselves, most seemed to care very little for our presence, which meant we could sit inches away from them and they wouldn’t so much as bat an eye (except once when a sea lion got a bit angry with me for sitting on his bench and shouted at me until I got off).
Over the last few decades, the Galápagos has made progress in the conservation of their unique environment. As you land, you can see three windmills near the airport. Recycling bins are scattered around the ports, informational signs hang at strategic locations, your bags are checked for organic materials before you get on any boats, nesting areas for turtles and iguanas are roped off, and most places are only accessible with guides. They have also started educating children about the importance of conservation (the guy we couchsurfed with is an environmental conservation teacher at a local high school).
Still, there is some work left to be done. For example, plastic water bottles and other garbage litter the bay near the shore where the waves wash it up, potentially harming animals who mistake it for food. Every tourist that comes to the archipelago should come with a sense of responsibility for doing their part to preserve the delicate ecosystem.
Overall, we were glad that we didn’t feel any pressure to book a cruise as soon as we landed in the Galápagos. Realistically, we probably spent twice as little money, didn’t have to go around with an annoying tour group the entire time, and got to choose the things we wanted to do.
Anyone who says you can’t have a fulfilling experience on the islands on your own is mistaken. Still, the Galápagos is an expensive place, and you have to make your peace with the fact that you’ll probably spend more money there than anywhere else in South America (but in case you’re wondering, yes, it was totally worth it).
- Check all available lodging options: Couchsurfing.com, Hostelworld.com, Booking.com, and Airbnb.com are all good places to start
- If you’re staying in Puerto Ayora, take the bus after the ferry from Baltra instead of a taxi (it’s about 10 times cheaper)
- Charles Binford St in Puerto Ayora is a wide street serving cheap, local food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (there are no street signs, but it’s a few blocks from the pier and fills up with tables at night – you can’t miss it)
- When you can, buy ferry tickets and go to the island yourself rather than with a day trip. The ferries are usually $30 each way, but there is a place in Puerto Ayora called Christine that sells them for $25 (if you’re at the dock looking towards the water, it’s to your right next to a supermarket and an ATM)
- Share taxis and negotiate the prices
- There are things on each of the inhabited islands that you can do for FREE or for very cheap, make sure to do them on your own and not with a tour:
- Santa Cruz: Tortuga Bay, Las Grietas, El Chato Tortoise Reserve ($3), Charles Darwin Station
- Floreana: La Loberia, Playa Negra
- Isabela: Concha de Perla, the beach, lagoons, the Wall of Tears
- San Cristobal: El Malecon, La Loberia, Interpretation Center and Cerro Tijeretas, Playa Mann, Playa del Amor
– Iris & Roi
Have questions about how to visit the Galapagos on a budget? Have tips for other travelers? Write in the comments!