Updated in December 2017.
The Galapagos Archipelago, also known as Darwin’s living laboratory, is home to an abundance of wildlife, both on land and underwater. Thanks to their isolation from the mainland for millions of years, animals here evolved into their own species to come with their unique environment.
Galapagos has been one of the highlights of my round the world trip, and it is a place I would return every time I have the chance. These volcanic islands, while they are at the top of many bucket lists, they have the fame of being extremely expensive. Many people see them as a dream destination, far away from reality, but the truth is that these islands can be visited on a budget and many backpackers like me visit them too.
Here I want to share with you everything I know about traveling Galapagos with a small budget.
Getting There Cheaply
The best way to get to Galapagos is by flying from mainland Ecuador – from either Quito or Guayaquil, with the latter often being cheaper. Check LAN Airlines and TAME as they often have cheap flights, going for as low as $250 round-trip. Normal airfares range from $300 to $500 round-trip (I paid $324 with LAN from Guayaquil). I would recommend following LAN Airlines newsletter for deals, as they often offer discounted airfares throughout all South America.
There are several flights a day arriving both to San Cristobal Island and Baltra Island. The airport in Baltra is the one that will connect you to Santa Cruz Island, which is the most developed island in all Galapagos.
In Santa Cruz, you’ll find Puerto Ayora, which is the most populated town, and while it is big and most things happen there, it is still quite small in comparison to mainland cities. It is also the main port from where most cruises and day tours depart.
San Cristobal Island, on the other hand, is less developed than Santa Cruz, yet it is the capital of Galapagos and another departure point for cruises – located in the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.
When flying to Galapagos, make sure to know from which island your cruise is departing – should you choose that option.
UPDATE: As of June 5, 2017, all national or foreign tourists must show the following documents prior to entering the province of Galapagos:
- Return airline ticket.
- Reservation in a hotel or with a cruise tour, that matches the dates of your return airline ticket, OR
A letter of invitation to enter as a guest of a permanent or temporary resident in the Galapagos Islands for no more than 60 days per year (a limit outlined in the Special Law for Galapagos). The letter must come from the resident – not from the visitor. Download a sample letter here (in Spanish). Note: A friend of mine went there recently, December 2017, and he wasn’t asked for his proof of hotel reservation. It seems like they MIGHT not be fully enforcing it now, but they might soon.
- Transit Control Card issued by the Galapagos Governing Council which can be acquired at the Governing Council counters in the airports in Quito or Guayaquil, Ecuador.
Of the above, the only new requirement is the hotel reservation or letter of invitation. The proof of a return flight and the Transit Control Card were previously required.
For How Long Should You Stay?
It all depends on what you’re interested in doing and how much you want to see. But, in my opinion, you shouldn’t be there for less than five full days (not including travel days). I would suggest more like seven or eight full days.
Cruises range from 4-days, 5-days, 8-days, and more. But a thing you must know is that a 4-day cruise only has two full days in other islands because the 4-days includes the departure and arrival days too. So, I don’t recommend doing 4/5-days cruise. Target for an 8-days tour (or longer) to enjoy a bigger variety of islands and some less visited, more pristine ones.
What Are The Cheapest Ways To Travel Galapagos?
Here I’ll go from the cheapest to the most expensive, but at the same time these go from the “most restricted” to the “most varied.”
You can volunteer in Galapagos! If you’re looking to spend a decent time in the islands and help with conservation efforts, then this might be a good opportunity to be there without necessarily spending a lot of money. Some programs might include your room and board while others might not. You must check directly with each program to see what they offer and for how much.
It will be expected of you to work a few hours a day, but then you’ll have some time off to explore around. Of course, this means that you will spend most of your time on one island and only visit the other islands when you have a day or two off.
While this can be the cheapest way possible, the price range can go from almost nothing (if you couchsurf or find a cheap program) to a couple thousand dollars.
Full DIY (Do It Yourself) Trip
A full DIY trip is the cheapest way most tourists do Galapagos. I recommend you don’t book your accommodation in advance unless you feel like you must do it or are going to the peak of high season or holidays (like Christmas or Easter week).
We arrived in Puerto Ayora with no accommodation booked and simply walked a few streets to scout for options. I recommend walking along Av. Charles Darwin, Thomas de Berlanga Street, and Isla Plaza Street, which were the ones where I saw most budget accommodation options.
We found several that ranged from $20 a night per person with A/C to $10 a night per person with a fan. This is cheap for Galapagos, but if you book online, you’ll find nothing lower than $25 per person. If you’re interested in booking your room online, here’s a good selection of hotels in Puerto Ayora. Or, head to HotelsCombined to search for a hotel in your preferred island.
While it is possible to find cheap accommodation, know that prices can go up to $500+ per room if you want to go fancy. When searching around (both in person and online), make sure the room includes a fan or a/c and hot water in the price, as some of them don’t include hot water for the most budget rooms.
The same applies to San Cristobal, Isabela, and Floreana, which are the other three islands you can visit when you go full DIY. You can take speedboats between these islands, with Santa Cruz being the central connecting island.
The cost is $30 each way and the journey takes from two to three hours depending on the island, and sea conditions. Usually, there are two scheduled speedboats to each island, with one in the morning around 7:00 am and one in the afternoon around 2:00 pm.
Most sites say that you’re not allowed to take produce and fresh food into Galapagos. That’s not true for the most part. There are certain restrictions, on which kind of food you can bring, but, in general, you’re able to take most fruits, snacks, and other foods listed on this page.
Pay attention to the green list, which includes the items allowed into Galapagos. The yellow list is restricted, which means you can take them, as long as they comply with certain regulations. The red list is simply forbidden.
Dining out can be a bit expensive, but you can still find decently cheap eats at street markets and local restaurants. In Santa Cruz, the street called Bordados El Alquimista is full of street-side restaurants with meals starting at $5. I ate there a few times, and it was not only cheap but also delicious and they served good portions. Other restaurants might range from $10-$25 a meal.
There’s a supermarket by the port, and while it has moderate prices, it is not cheaper than bringing food from mainland Ecuador. Only buy there what you can’t bring yourself.
Doing Free or Very Cheap Stuff!
Contrary to popular belief, there are a lot of free and cheap stuff to do in Galapagos. Many of these can be reached walking, so your total cost will be $0 while others will require a taxi or ferry ride, but these are not too expensive.
Some activities, though, will require you to either hire a guide or pay for a tour, since they are located in protected areas. But, in some cases, guides can be avoided if you ask for permission in the national parks office of the island.
A full DIY can cost you from $35 to $70 per day on average depending on how many activities you do, but as you saw, there are many budget-friendly options on each island.
DIY with Day Tours
This is the way I did it since I wanted to visit some islands I couldn’t do on my own. While this type of trip allows you to go to more islands, you still cannot visit the islands further from Santa Cruz, due to the lack of time to tour them in a day. Don’t book day tours online; wait to get to Galapagos and book them there. Bargain with them, especially if you’re doing more than one tour.
Day tours prices range from $80 (if you bargain) to $180. The only time I’d advise to maybe book online is if you’re going during high season (mid-June to early-September and mid-December to mid-January) since the number of tours running is limited to affect the ecosystem the least possible (more on that below).
In that case, I’d recommend checking Viator, which has a few day and multi-day tours available, but yes, they are slightly more expensive than if you bargain in person.
Why would you pay for a day tour?
As beautiful as Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Floreana, and Isabela are, there are other islands that are even more beautiful or that provide other snorkeling/diving and wildlife spotting opportunities.
I enjoyed my day tour to Bartolome, which has the iconic view that represents the volcanic nature of Galapagos. It is not great for wildlife, but it is quite nice for snorkeling and diving. I also visited North Seymour to see the Blue Footed Boobies, Frigate Birds, and other animals found there. This tour, though, I wouldn’t recommend unless you want to see big colonies of such animals. I believe the price ($150+) is not worth it (unless you’re a naturalist).
Other Islands you can visit with day tours are Isabela, Floreana, Santa Fe, Pinzon, and San Cristobal. In my opinion, it is not worth doing day tours to the islands you can visit on your own since they are best experienced by staying there at least a day or two.
How Day Tours Work?
Something you must take into account when planning your trip is that companies have a restricted schedule. The National Park allows only a limited number of visitors per island, so each tour company can visit X or Y island a few days a week. So, if one company is not going to Bartolome today, another one will.
Additionally, tours are strict on what you’re allowed to do according to the permits they got from the National Park. If it is a land tour (land permit), you’re not allowed to touch the water, and vice versa with a water permit.
For example, during my diving tours, we were not allowed to stand even on the rocks by the shore of one of the islands. And on my North Seymour tour, we were not allowed to swim in the water since we were walking on the island to spot the birds.
A snorkeling tour by the beach, of course, allows you to walk on the beach and surrounding areas.
Based on personal experience, if you want to go to Bartolome, book it first thing after you arrive, as this tour is very popular and fills up quickly (sometimes days in advance).
A DIY with Day Tours kind of trip will cost you around $100 to $170 per day on average, depending on how many tours you do. I averaged $122.42 per day, including two dive tours and two land tours.
Last Minute Cruises
Cruises fall on the higher end of the cost scale, but should you do your proper research and outreach, you might find affordable last minute cruises worth doing. Cruises are also the best way to reach those further islands day-trippers can’t visit and to see some of the most beautiful and untouched sceneries in Galapagos.
I originally intended to see Galapagos by cruise, but after contacting a few agencies, the itineraries I got did not fully fit my interest in places I wanted to see. Still, I got some pretty good quotes from them. Also, cruises don’t include diving in their activities though they do a lot of snorkeling.
Through emails and calls, I managed to find 4-day cruises from $730, 5-day from $780, and 8-day from $1,300. These prices didn’t include the airfare nor the park’s entrance fee.
It is said that you can find the best last minute deals between a month and three weeks before your departure date, so have that in mind when searching for deals. If you’re flexible on time, it is recommended just to arrive in Puerto Ayora and search there for a cruise, as it will be much cheaper. I did my “test search” and I didn’t find them much cheaper than from what I found through emails and phone calls.
These are the companies I called and emailed:
- Galapagos Tours Co.
- Imagine Ecuador – Of all the companies I contacted, they gave the best last minute deals.
There’s also Galapagos Cruise Links, which is a site where you can contact the cruise owners directly, not an intermediary tour company. You can bargain with them for lower than what you see on the site. This site is a hit-n-miss depending on how willing the cruise owner is on discussing prices.
Also, Viator has a few last minute cruises listed on their site. They may not be the cheapest, but they aren’t that expensive either.
Have in mind that not all cruises are the same, and service varies depending on the category – from budget to luxury. There are also other criteria you must have in mind when choosing a cruise, so to better understand them, check out the “Get Around” section of this Wikitravel page.
Lastly, should you not want to fuss too much with planning and figuring things out with transport and cruises, then I highly recommend checking the excellent cruise tours offered by G Adventures and Intrepid Travel. Both companies have an excellent reputation all around the world.
A Few Extra Things You Must Know
- There’s a park entrance fee of $100 charged right at the airport in Galapagos.
- There’s an additional $20 “transit control” fee charged before checking in your flight in Guayaquil or Quito.
- Smoking is technically not allowed in the islands (since they are all a national park) though some people do discretely.
- It’s not possible to buy a one-way ticket without proof of transportation from the islands. While this is true, I spoke with travelers who managed to fly into Galapagos with only a one-way ticket (but maybe they were lucky). Buy a round-trip, and should you want to extend your time there, it is easy (and free if the price is the same) to change the date of your return ticket or to switch your departure to another island. This is true only if you bought your tickets directly at LAN.com or Tame.com.ec (and not through an aggregator site like expedia.com and such).
Phew, this was a long post, but I shared here all my knowledge about Galapagos. And hey, it’s a once in a lifetime experience, so I want you to enjoy it just as much as I did!