The Galapagos Islands on a Budget
How to visit the Galapagos on a budget?
The Galapagos Islands are one of those wonders that feel like a distant dream; a place reserved for a trip you’re ready to drop your life’s savings on. Home to the hopes of every nature-loving explorer, The Galapagos can actually be accessible to those of us travelling on the cheap. It’s not easy, it’s not luxurious, and it’s certainly not as cheap as hiking through Bolivia or Peru, but I can promise you that it’s worth it.
I will preface this whole article by stressing that visiting the islands is not cheap. This is simply some tips for maximising your budget.
I chose to visit the islands via land. There are sometimes cheap options for last minute cruises, if you scour the streets of Guayaquil for companies setting sail the next day. I chose not to do this, as I wanted some assurances, and I’d been told by others that took these ‘cheaper’ tours that they still dropped a few thousand dollars on them. By all accounts, the cruises are spectacular. I still hope one day to be able to take one out to the more remote islands. However, we’re dealing with a backpack budget here still.
My trip, in total, cost me £737 ($950). I know many of you may balk at the price, but I did say it wasn’t cheap. I spent more on a week in the Galapagos than I did on more than a month in Bolivia, but it still worked out more economical than taking a cruise. This cost covers flights, accommodation, tours, food, drink and those sneaky fees that you seem to have to pay constantly when you’re on the islands.
Understanding the geography of the major islands is crucial if you’re planning to travel overland, so as to prepare for transport between islands. The Galapagos are made up of 21 islands, some of which are completely inaccessible to the budget minded traveller. The 3 biggest islands are the most accessible, and these are the ones that I chose to plan my land tour through. Santa Cruz, Isla Isabela, and San Cristobal. You can check out my more extensive guides to travel on each island, but here we’re just running through the basic things to know before entering or leaving each island.
Isla Santa Cruz
The most highly populated island in the Galapagos, Santa Cruz is a hub of tour operators, restaurants, hostels, general life in the islands. This is one of, if not the only, island in the Galapagos with a functioning cash machine. The queues are very long, and the machines almost invariably do not work. This is where I screwed up. Putting my misguided faith in Ecuadorian banking, I thought that I would be able to get away with not carrying all of my cash through the sketchy end of Guayaquil that I stayed in, and instead could get more out in Santa Cruz. Do not do this, bring cash with you. The machines did not work for me and I ended up in a pretty sticky situation once I was dead broke in Isla Isabela.
You can access Santa Cruz via transfer from the other islands, or via Baltra airport. Transfers can cost as much as £50 ($65) each, and you will need to pay entry fees. I’ve elaborated on these fees below.
Check out free or cheap things to do in Santa Cruz in my full guide here.
The largest island in the archipelago, and my favourite. This is the best spot for self-guided tours, hikes and snorkelling. I have a day by day breakdown of the best activities available for free or for cheap here, but if you love deserted hiking paths through flamingo filled lakes, swimming with sea lion puppies, or visiting the famous giant tortoises, then you already know you’re going to love it here.
Again, nowhere takes card on this island, including the tour operators managing boats off of the island. Bring cash. I ended up managing to get some from the Western Union, which is located in a residential part of Puerto Villamil. There’s almost no wifi on the island, so setting up transfers is very difficult. Try to make this an absolute last resort.
Isla Isabela is only accessible via transfer from other major islands. Boats run every morning from Santa Cruz. If you want to go from San Cristobal to Isabela, you will have to stop off in Santa Cruz, which is an annoying dig into some of your island time.
Again, for all the incredible things to do on Isabela you can check my full guide here.
Flashier and fancier than her neighbours, travelling from the surfing shacks of Isla Isabela to the luxury bars and hotels of San Cristobal is quite a big change in scenery. This is the most densely populated area I found for sea lions, on the beaches by Puerto Moreno, and you’ll be surrounded by crazy bird life just sitting and watching the sea lion pups play in the water.
This island is also accessible by its own airport, San Cristobal. You can take transfers from Santa Cruz to here, or organising a connecting transfer from Isabela via Santa Cruz. Either way you gotta do that annoying stop over.
Check out my in depth guide on San Cristobal.
How do you get to the Galapagos?
There are two airports in the Galapagos Islands, on Baltra near Santa Cruz, or on San Cristobal. Flights run every day from Guayaquil and Quito in and out of both airports.
I strongly recommend you fly into one and out of the other. I opted to fly into Santa Cruz, and out of San Cristobal, so as not to waste time and money doubling back on myself. The flights were not significantly different in price. I ended up paying £350 ($450) to fly from Guayaquil to Baltra, and from San Cristobal to Guayaquil. You could probably get better prices if you find flights at the right time.
The boats between islands can be booked on the islands themselves, from any of the many, many tour companies that operate on the major islands. The tickets aren’t cheap, and you have to make sure to plan your days around the departure times. I generally chose to take the very early boat journeys so as to maximise island times, which leave at around 6am. I paid upwards of £50+ for each of the journeys (Santa Cruz → Isla Isabela → San Cristobal), though you could almost definitely get these for cheaper if you were to play the tour operators off of each other. I was fairly desperate for anybody that took card, and thus couldn’t get the best bargains available. Again, I stress, bring as much cash as you can.
You will also need to pay to get from Baltra airport to Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz, which was surprisingly expensive considering it was an American school bus-style transfer, where I sat on the steps and hung my legs out the hole where the door used to be. When you leave the airport you’ll be asked for around $10 for a transfer. This is not the transfer to the town, as we throught, but instead just another fee you pay on entry. The boat and the bus into town collectively cost around $5 more, rather than the $2 that most tourist sites tell you. This drops you off at the station in town, and you can walk to almost any of the accommodation around.
You can also take a taxi directly from the point at which the boat drops you off, for around $20. I have explained in further detail which buses and transfers to take in my guide to Santa Cruz.
I flew out of San Cristobal airport, which was very easy to access. Hailing a taxi in the street is simple, and the transfer costs around $5 from the centre of Puerto Moreno. The airport is very small and easy to navigate, which isn’t particularly surprising considering they have about 2 flights a day.
Alright, these are the real shockers in the Galapagos budget. Only because these fees will catch you out, no matter how extensively you’ve planned. I read every bloggers guide that I could find, but there were still random new ones introduced every time I tried to get anywhere.
At the airport in the mainland you will have to pay for a $20 transit control card, to have your bag scanned and cleared by security, which is absolutely essential for entry to the islands.
You will then have to pay $100 for a ‘visa’ of sorts, allowing you access to the national park.
After this, you’ll need to pay the aforementioned ‘transfer’ fee that isn’t a transfer fee, of $10.
You need to pay fees to access each individual island on arrival also, ranging from $10-25 depending on the island. I do not know if this applies to the smaller islands, as I only visited the 3 largest. In some places you will also be asked to pay to have your bag cleared when entering the islands also, a few dollars typically.
These fees may be changed since I was here in October.
Eating & Drinking
At one point, having taken advantage of a bar’s vacant beach hammock for an obnoxious period of time, I figured that I needed to buy a beer to justify my presence there. As soon as I saw the prices of the beers, I decided that I’d rather just be a cheapskate.
In South America, you get used to eating £2 menu del dia’s, washed down with a cheeky 50p local pint. This is not the case in the Galapagos Islands. There are a couple spots where you can find a plain burger for around $5, but most other options are not very economical, or very tasty. Beers in the more popular bars were around $9 a bottle, which I’d consider shocking even at home in London.
You cannot take organic products of any kind in between islands, or from the main land to any of the islands, which makes any kind of food prep difficult. I opted to just not really eat or drink very much, which tends to be my go to mode whenever I’m somewhere expensive or difficult. I would not recommend this at all I have been unnecessarily starved many times, it’s not smart. It is cheap though.
You shouldn’t drink the tap water or drink juices with water in them. They do say this everywhere, and honestly I take a lot of risks with tap water since I drink it more often than I’m really supposed to. However, the high numbers of people warning me off the water in the Galapagos had effect, it’s apparently significantly worse than the water on the mainland. I drank tap water on the Ecuadorian coast and while it doesn’t make you sick, it does taste like absolute ass.
On each of the islands I’ve mentioned you should stick to the main towns to find budget accommodation:
For Santa Cruz, find spots in Puerto Ayora
For Isla Isabela, find spots in Puerto Villamil
For San Cristobal, find spots in Puerto Moreno
Other things to know
As well as checking out my individual island guides, it’s also worth checking out my list of ‘things to know’ before you head to the islands, as well as a collection of the best free activities available across the islands, all available here.
Useful? Pin it here: