I had always assumed that visiting the Galapagos islands was one of those faraway places that only people with deep pockets could access. I’d come across countless numbers of ads for Galapagos cruises priced at several thousand dollars, which made me quickly write it off in my mind. You can travel all through South America, Southeast Asia, and other parts of the world for months and live quite comfortably on several thousand dollars– so is the Galapagos really worth it? The answer is YES. It’s a place unlike any other. So, planning a trip to the Galapagos on a budget without skimping on excellent tours, private accommodations, and eating well became a fun challenge I was willing to take on. My friend and I ended up spending six days in the Galapagos where we visited the islands of San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, and Isabela, swam with dozens of sharks, paddled with marine iguanas, ogled at massive giant tortoises, and laid on the sand next to baby sea lions.
We were able to do all of this in 6 days at a bargain of $1111.00 per person, and in this guide I’m going to share all of my tips so you can do the same.
The Galapagos has a fascinating story to tell from its volcanic genesis to the various types of people who have inhabited the islands throughout time. The islands have a unique ecosystem due to its isolation from other continents, a community of rare species, volcanic rock landscape, and sits at the junction of three major ocean currents that bring nutrients. At one point in time, the islands were even a haven for ancient pirates and then used as penal colonies in the 18th and 19th century. Sadly, the abundance of animals in the Galapagos also drew unwanted attention from hunters who desecrated entire populations of tortoises to make oil and food during long ship voyages. It’s worth reading the story of Lonesome George, the world’s last Pinta tortoise from the Galapagos islands. It is a somber reminder of the importance for humans to proactively protect creatures on this planet.
People have relied on nature to survive since the beginning of time. Just within the past hundred years, we have altered the landscape of the earth so drastically that nature now depends on us to exist. We won’t be able to sustain on planet earth without these creatures, trees, ice, and water… so it is up to us, and only us to protect our home.
In 1835, a young Charles Darwin stepped foot on the islands and observed how creatures of the Galapagos had adapted to its surroundings. His time spent in the Galapagos heavily attributed to the development of his theory of evolution. I highly recommend spending some time at the Centro de Interpretacion (Interpretation Center) on San Cristobal island, which has an impressive gallery of Galapagos island history. The Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz also has valuable information on conservation efforts and is the final resting place for Lonesome George.
Galapagos Islands Map (link)
Animals in the Galapagos Islands
One of the main draws of the islands are the exquisite endemic animals that live there. My friend Sarah and I practically lost our minds seeing marine iguanas swim next to us in the waters. The experience felt a lot like being among legendary creatures from the Mesozoic era when reptiles ruled the planet. Some of the popular Galapagos animals include Galapagos tortoises, sea turtles, yellow warblers, blue-footed booby birds, waved albatrosses, Galapagos penguins, fur seals, sea lions, bottlenose dolphins, beaked whales, hammerhead sharks, whitetip reef sharks, and spotted eagle rays just to name a few (the full list is impressive). Whether you are on land or in the ocean, you are guaranteed to be in the presence of many of these amazing creatures.
Why should you visit the Galapagos as soon as possible?
It’s no surprise that so many people dream of visiting the Galapagos islands. It’s one of those places that has been relatively untouched by major urban development and is the only location where you can see many of these endemic species in nature. Although the islands are protected by various conservation efforts, the impact of humans will inevitably continue to creep into these places too. The staggering population growth of the islands alone is a good indicator– in 1972, there were less than 4000 people living on the islands.
In 2010, over 25,000 people were recorded living in the Galapagos. I had several conversations with locals who lamented about the overly touristy vibe of Santa Cruz Island, but felt conflicted because the tourism dollars also help to protect Galapagos ecosystem. Of the three islands I visited, Isabela was my favorite due to its simple charm, unpaved roads, and neighborhood vibe. Seeing the cinderblock structures and wide roads reminded me a lot of rural Vietnam, which felt like a hug to my heart.
A note on Galapagos cruises
You can absolutely see the Galapagos by organizing your own trip. Regardless of how you get around between the islands, you will need to fly from Quito or Guayaquil to either of the two airports on the island– San Cristobal (SCY) or Santa Cruz (GPS). While cruises are heavily marketed for the Galapagos, it’s not necessary to book one in order to experience the islands. They’re worth considering if you want to do a specialty trip focused around scuba diving or seeing certain animals, however, there’s plenty to do (and see) if you plan your own itinerary. It’s fairly easy to book day trips to any of the smaller items you may want to visit. Ultimately, the most economical route is to skip the cruise and travel independently.
Most decent cruises will cost $280 per night, and the fees don’t even include the airfare to get to the islands. As food for thought, the G Adventures Galapagos island hopping cruise (one of the relatively inexpensive 7-day cruises I could find) costs $2099 to visit three islands without all meals included. You may be able to strike a deal in Quito or Guayaquil, but I’d be wary about booking a cruise with rock-bottom prices (there’s a reason it’s so cheap and you probably don’t want to be the one to find out why).
How can you visit the Galapagos on a budget?
Once you are in the Galapagos, you can organize day trips, tours, multi-day tours, bike rides, gear rentals, hail taxis (white trucks) to take you around and travel via ferry between the islands. I recommend arranging your flight so that you fly into one island and out the other, which worked quite well during our trip. During low-visitor season (June to November), it is easy to organize tours the day before you want to set off. During peak visitor season (December to June), you may want to organize a few days before or have a longer list of alternatives for companies you’d like to work with.
The wifi on the Galapagos islands isn’t great. Don’t waste your precious time by doing painfully slow research on your phone– do as much as you can beforehand. Have a list of what type of tours you want to go on, which company you’d like to travel with, and an idea of how much it costs. Once you are on the islands, it’ll be easy enough to refer to your list and talk to the tour company in person. For example, we knew we wanted to do the Kicker Rock snorkel tour from San Cristobal island. Once we got there, we walked to our top choice tour company, arranged an excursion for the next day, negotiated free full-body wetsuits (which was supposed to have a surcharge), got help booking ferries for the rest of the trip, and got a better overall rate than what was quoted online. There are hoards of tour companies that operate all year round, so you should always be to do what you like. For more details on my particular Galapagos trip along with where we stayed and what we did, check out my itinerary on Galapagos independent travel.
Using the ferries in the Galapagos
The islands of Santa Cruz, Isabela, and San Cristobal are conveniently connected by daily ferries that run between them (typically morning and afternoon). They cost a fixed rate of $30 for a 90 to 120-minute ride on adventurously bumpy waters (take motion sickness pills if you’re prone to nausea). You can buy your ferry ticket the morning-of or pre-arrange a few days before with a tour company. Remember to show up at least 20-minutes before departure time because your belongings will need to go through agricultural inspection. While most people choose to travel to the Galapagos with backpacks, you will do just fine with hard luggage as well. We brought carry-on sized suitcases with personal backpacks and had no problems getting around. Note: Santa Cruz and Isabela use water taxis to charter from the ferry to the dock, so have some small change readily available in your pocket.
What are some cool, low-cost activities besides tours?
I’d highly recommend visiting one of the tortoise reserves on Santa Cruz or the hatchery on Isabela. We visited El Chato Dos to see giant tortoises and check out the nearby lava tunnels which cost $18 per person by splitting the $40 cab ride between three people and paying the $5 entrance fee. You can also do self-guided snorkeling, rent bikes to travel around the island, walk to the beaches, and take taxis to get around. Many attractions are also within walking distance of the major towns (where you’ll likely be staying). The majority of museums, conservation centers, and similar buildings are free (but will accept donations). There is always plenty to do in the Galapagos that doesn’t require going on a full day tour. Tip: The waters are quite cold if you plan on snorkeling or diving. Ask for a full-length wetsuit.
Eating well and finding cheaper food
Food on the Galapagos can be notoriously expensive compared to mainland Ecuador. Practically everything needs to be brought by boat, which drives up the costs of ingredients. While I was in Quito, I had no problem finding a plethora of meal options between $2.00 – $4.00, but had to do more digging on the islands in order to find food with good value (some meals can be in the $25 – $30 range). Pescado (fish) is a cheaper local resource and is widely available in the form of fish steaks or soups such as encebollado de pescado (a delicous must-try item). Tip: Many places offer hearty daily specials around $5.00 that are off the menu, so you may have to ask.
Generally, the eateries close to the port or along the main roads near tour agencies are going to be more expensive. Try walking a few streets behind the main areas, keep your eye out for places where locals are eating, and you’ll be sure to find gems such as perfectly prepared BBQ seafood platters of octopus, fish, shrimp, and lobster for $15.00 at La casa del asado de Anibal Garcia on Isabela, the $4.00 daily dinner special of soup, fresh juice, and a main course at Restaurante Lucky on San Cristobal, or massive grilled lobster at one of the many eateries in Los Kioskos in Santa Cruz. This street holds a boggling number of open-air restaurants that all vie for your patronage with competitive prices (a food lover’s dream).
What other ways to save money in the Galapagos?
- Bargain for your tours. Most companies will be willing to negotiate with you and you’ll have much better leverage if you visit during the non-peak season.
- Buy groceries for breakfast. Many of the tours leave early in the morning so you might have to skip breakfast at your hostel or it may be difficult to find restaurants at that time. Buy fruit and pastries for breakfast instead of eating out, which should save you a few dollars every day.
- Split expensive taxi rides. Ask around at your hostel to see if anyone might be going to the same destination as you. You can split costs such as going to/from the Baltra airport or to the tortoise reserves on Santa Cruz.
- Buy your flight to the Galapagos as soon as possible. We booked our flights via TAME airlines 4-weeks before our trip and paid $293.43 to fly from Quito to San Cristobal and then out of Santa Cruz back to Quito. As you get closer to the departure date, prices can climb past $400.00.
For my 6 day trip to the Galapagos where I visited 3 islands, did two full day snorkel tours, ate like a queen, and slept in nice private hostel rooms, I spent a total $1111.45. That’s an average of $185.24 per day which is such a bargain considering it’s a fraction of the price of the average Galapagos cruise. I also enjoyed the autonomy of being able to choose my own restaurants, places to stay, and building my own itinerary.
My Galapagos budget breakdown
There aren’t many ATMs located on the islands, so it’s best to come prepared with enough cash to cover your lodging, tours, and accommodations. Santa Cruz does have an easily accessible ATM, but I did not see any in San Cristobal or Isabela.
I found the Galapagos to be a friendly place where a lot of locals were willing to share their knowledge of good food, tour guides were helpful in booking arrangements across islands, and taxi drivers negotiated fair prices. Almost every hostel and tour company also had wifi and large jugs of drinking water that could be used to refill water bottles. But most importantly, visiting the Galapagos made me stop and consider how crucial it is for people to help preserve these precious species of animals and plants. Without our focused effort, many of these incredible creatures will not be able to thrive and the generations that follow us won’t be able to appreciate them. Every little bit counts– from a small donation at a conservation center, to reusing water bottles, limiting the use of plastic bags, to picking up bits of litter on the street so it doesn’t wash into the ocean… all of this matters more than you know. With some planning and research, you will be able to cook up the ultimate trip to the Galapagos and experience these things for yourself. If you’re ready to start preparing, I’ve also created a Galapagos packing list that will get you ready for the islands. Let me know if you have any other questions!
Add the Galapagos to your bucket list and don’t forget a single detail! PIN THIS post.