A detailed guide to visiting the Galapagos on a budget
Somewhere on most adventurers’ bucket lists is a trip to the Galapagos, and for good reason. These volcanic islands off the coast of South America have some of the highest numbers of species found nowhere else on earth. Marine iguanas, giant tortoises, and the only penguins found in the northern hemisphere live here. And because of aggressive efforts to preserve the flora and fauna, you are guaranteed to have close encounters with some of the strangest animals on the planet in their natural habitats.
As animal and nature lovers, we’d wanted to visit the Galapagos for ages. But as budget backpackers, we’d assumed this notorious destination was out of reach without breaking the bank. In August 2018, we were in mainland Ecuador and the desire to hop on a flight and visit the Galapagos became unbearable. So we scoured the internet and picked the brains of every traveler we came across who had been there to determine if we could venture to this dreamland. After lots of research, we determined we could do it. Within a week, we were on a flight with two and a half weeks to spend on the islands. And we’re happy to report: it is possible to visit the Galapagos on a modest budget.
How much does it cost to visit the Galapagos?
We’re budget backpackers, and have managed to travel around most of Latin America on a combined budget of $1000 USD a month for the two of us. That breaks down to about $15 USD per person, per day. Our 17-day trip to the Galapagos cost the two of us a combined total of $2,938 USD, or $86.41 USD per person, per day. So while a trip to the Galapagos costs more than traveling in most parts of South America, we felt like we got a great value, especially when you consider that a 4-5 day cruise of the islands costs about $3000 USD per person — flights not included.
So how did we manage to spend more than three times the amount of time on the islands for half the price? We island-hopped around the archipelago on our own instead of visiting with a cruise. And after talking with locals and learning about the social, economic, and environmental issues the islands face, we — and our wallets — were happy with our decision. This is how our expenses broke down (expenses listed are per person, in USD):
Flight from Guayaquil to Baltra airport: $187.61
Return flight from San Cristóbal airport to Guayaquil: $189.46
Galapagos transit card: $20
National park entrance fee: $100
Inter-island ferries: $80
Local transit (taxis, water taxis): $17.60
Food and groceries: $119.94
Activities (entrance fees, tours, diving): $487.50
Total cost for 17 days per person: $1,469 USD
Planning your itinerary
We knew we didn’t want to rush through the Galapagos, so we chose flights that were the cheapest and that gave us plenty of time to explore the islands. To maximize efficiency and minimize spending, we flew into Baltra airport on Santa Cruz Island, spent seven days on Santa Cruz, five days on Isabela, and five days on San Cristóbal, and flew back to Guayaquil from San Cristóbal. While you certainly don’t need that much time on each island, we enjoyed spreading out our activities and spending a decent amount of time relaxing on the sea lion and marine iguana-filled beaches.
There are four inhabited islands in the Galapagos that you can visit and stay on if doing a DIY island-hopping trip: Santa Cruz, Isabela, San Cristóbal, and Floreana. Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz is the largest town of the islands and offers the most options for accommodation, food, and tours. Isabela, Floreana, and San Cristóbal are much smaller, but still offer lodging, food, and activities.
Flights and entrance fees
This is likely one of the biggest, and most variable, expenses when visiting the Galapagos. Since we were on a long-term, flexible travel schedule, we were able to buy our tickets a week in advance when we were already in Ecuador. We looked at airfares and chose the cheapest days. If you have a tight schedule, we highly recommend booking your flights in advance.
Which airlines fly to the Galapagos?
There are three airlines that fly between mainland Ecuador (Quito and Guayaquil airports) and the Galapagos (Baltra and San Cristóbal airports): Avianca, LATAM, and TAME. All three offer comparable fares, but it’s worth checking each airline to see which is cheapest for your travel dates. We flew TAME from Guayaquil to Balta, and from San Cristóbal to Guayaquil, and were very pleased with the airline.
Important note: The airlines have different fares for Ecuadorian nationals and foreigners. Beware of buying flights through third parties, as you’ll likely see very cheap airfares, which is the price for nationals (if you’re a foreigner, you’ll be hit with fines at the airport).
Where should I fly into/out of?
If, like us, you’re planning a DIY island-hopping trip (the budget way to visit the Galapagos), we recommend flying into Baltra or San Cristóbal and out of the other one. It usually doesn’t cost more to get two one-way tickets, and doing so will save you a costly and sea-sick inducing ferry ride back to your starting point.
We flew into Baltra airport (Santa Cruz Island) and out of San Cristóbal (San Cristóbal Island), and if we were to do the trip again, we’d still do it this way. Starting in Santa Cruz allowed us to see the most day tour options available to us and helped us decide which activities we wanted to do from each island. Also, because Baltra airport is further away from the island’s main town of Puerto Ayora, arranging transport from the airport to town was very easy (you’re basically herded onto a bus, then a ferry, then onto another bus). Getting from town to Baltra airport on your own may be a bit more of a hassle. San Cristóbal airport, on the other hand, is right in town, and getting there on your own is a breeze.
Though a bit more expensive that mainland Ecuador, we generally found accommodation in the Galapagos to be reasonably priced. We searched across Hostelworld, Booking.com, and Airbnb for each island and ended up using a different site for each island.
Lodging on Santa Cruz: The best value we found in Puerto Ayora was Hospedaje Carliza II Backpackers through Booking.com (check availability here). We paid $25 USD a night for a private room with a private bathroom. We were pleasantly surprised with this hostel, as online reviews were mixed. Our room was clean and had a comfortable queen-sized bed, cable TV, hot water, and kitchen access. One of our favorite things about the hostel was its proximity to the market, where we bought fruits, vegetables, and fresh fish, plus very tasty empanadas at night for $1 USD each.
Lodging on Isabela: Of all the islands we visited, lodging on Isabela was the most expensive. We found the best deal to be Posada del Caminante through Hostelworld (check availability here). We paid $40 USD a night for a private room with a private bathroom. The free laundry service and unlimited free oranges and bananas helped make up for the low (but acceptable) water pressure. There was also a small outdoor kitchen for guest use, and plenty of hammocks to lounge in.
Lodging on San Cristóbal: We found the best deal in San Cristóbal through Airbnb (check availability here). We had a private room with a private bathroom and kitchen access for $20 USD a night. Though a 10 minute walk from downtown on a safe and well-lit bike path, our favorite perk of this place was the delicious lobster dinner Marioux prepared for us for $5 USD a plate.
Options and prices varied across each island, with Puerto Ayora (the largest town of the islands) offering the best deals and the most variety. Generally, we found produce to be slightly more expensive than on the mainland, but fresh fish to be a steal. At the market in Puerto Ayora, we bought fresh tuna steaks for $3.50 USD a kilo, or more than two pounds! Water, however, was pricey, so it’s best to stay at a place that includes free water or purchase 6-liter jugs from the grocery store.
Cheap eats on Santa Cruz: The best deal we found was the prepared food at the municipal market near our hostel. Though only available in the evenings, we had many dinners of empanadas and morocho (a rich, creamy corn-based drink with a taste similar to rice pudding). The empanadas were $1 USD each, and 2-3 made for a filling meal. Tip: make sure to put the green sauce and onions on the empanadas! We still dream about that green sauce. Other good value meals are the menu del días offered at the kiosks on Charles Binford. Set lunches with a soup, main, and a drink are $5 USD.
Cheap eats on Isabela: Isabela’s remote beauty also means slim pickings for cheap food, but we found reasonable deals at the tiny market near our hostel (a semi-circular structure with some food stands in the back). Plated lunches with a soup, main, and a drink are $5 USD.
Cheap eats on San Cristóbal: Because our Airbnb host here was also a cook, she was our go-to when we felt like eating fresh and delicious seafood for a bargain. A whole lobster tail dinner with sides and a drink was $5 USD, all from the comfort of home. Just another reason to stay with Dario and Marioux.
If you’re doing a budget DIY island-hopping trip, you’ll need to take ferries between each island. Ferries run between Santa Cruz and Isabela, and Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal. There are no direct ferries between Isabela and San Cristóbal. Ferries depart each morning and afternoon. If, like us, your itinerary takes you from Isabela to San Cristóbal in one day, you’ll need to take the morning ferry leaving Isabela to Santa Cruz, and then the afternoon ferry from Santa Cruz to San Cristóbal. The going rate for ferries is $30 USD each way.
To save a little money on the ferry to and from Isabela: Go to the white office on Charles Darwin Ave. (between Av. Baltra and Los Colonos). There is a sign advertising ferry tickets to Isabela for $25 USD. If you know which day you’ll be returning from Isabela to Santa Cruz, we recommend buying your return ticket there as well, as you’ll pay $25 USD compared to $30 USD if you buy it once on Isabela.
You’ve made it all the way to the Galapagos, and you’re probably dying to get up close and personal with some of the famed inhabitants. Luckily, you’re spoiled with a range of activities on each island that will showcase wildlife and some pretty stunning landscapes. Because 97% of the land in the Galapagos is a nature preserve, you’ll need to join a tour to visit most places. Unfortunately, tours cost a premium here, but many of them are well worth it. You’ll have certified, knowledgeable local guides who know the ins and outs of the islands, meaning you’re more likely to spot wildlife. And while it may hurt your wallet to dish out for some tours, remember: this level of regulation is necessary to protect the Galapagos and its creatures. Unfortunately, we’ve all seen the harm unregulated tourism can inflict on an environment, and we want these islands to be around for generations to come.
So which tours are worth doing? How much do they cost? Are there any free activities? After spending two and a half weeks in the Galapagos, we can tell you this: You will never be bored, and while you’ll need to join a tour to access many parts of the islands, there are plenty of free activities as well. To save money on tours, we recommend booking in person when you arrive. You’ll get a much better price and will have a chance to select a tour operator you like. If, however, you’re visiting during high season or will only have a short amount of time there, you may want to consider booking in advance. The prices below are prices we were quoted in person.
Activities on Santa Cruz:
Visit a giant tortoise reserve
While each island has a tortoise breeding center you can visit for free, there are two in the highlands of Santa Cruz where you can see these prehistoric-looking giants roam freely. El Chato and Rancho Primicias are two privately owned preserves you can visit via taxi, bike, or bus. If you want to see giant tortoises crawl right past you, plus see a change of landscape in the lush and dense highlands, this is a must. Plus, each preserve has lava tunnels to explore, included in the entrance cost.
How to get there: You can take a taxi, bus, or bike to the preserves. A taxi will cost you $40 USD round trip, and will wait for you while you visit. The bus costs about $4 USD each way, and a bike rental is $10 USD for the day. If you decide to bike the entire way round trip, the ride there is entirely uphill. If you rent a bike, you can alternatively hitch it to the bus there and ride downhill on your way back to Puerto Ayora.
Cost: In addition to transportation ($8-40 USD), there is an entrance fee of $5 USD per person to visit the tortoise preserve.
Diving (North Seymour/Mosquera, Floreana, Gordon Rock, Seymour/Daphne)
If you dive, the Galapagos are likely a dream destination. Due to the merging of three ocean currents, plus the level of protection the islands have received, the marine life is rich and varied. Here, you dive not for the coral or the tropical fish, but to spot giant creatures like hammerhead sharks and manta rays. If you aren’t doing a liveaboard, Santa Cruz offers the most options for dive tours. We dove at North Seymour and Mosquera and saw whitetip sharks, blacktip sharks, hammerheads, rays, and even a pod of orcas!
Cost and agency: After reading lots of online reviews and visiting about a dozen dive shops, we decided to go with Academy Bay. We found them to be very professional, and our guide Oscar knew exactly where to take us to have the best chance of spotting some amazing wildlife. A two-tank dive cost $175 USD.
Pinzón is an island between Santa Cruz and Isabela and can be accessed as part of a day tour from Santa Cruz. The popular activity here is a snorkel tour that usually includes some playful sea lions, and if you’re lucky, a chance to spot the only penguin species that lives in the northern hemisphere. While we didn’t do this tour, we heard good things from people who did.
Cost: $100 USD
North Seymour is located on Baltra Island (where the airport is), and is known for some great snorkeling and blue-footed boobies. We didn’t do the snorkel tour here (we opted for diving, which was great!), but heard good things from people who did.
Cost: $130 USD
Santa Fe tour
This snorkel tour was the one we heard the most raving reviews about while on Santa Cruz. Expect lots of playful sea lions who may nibble on your fins and show curiosity in your underwater camera.
Cost: $120 USD
That iconic picture you’ve probably seen of a peninsula jutting out into pristine water with two mirrored bays? That’s Bartolomé, and a tour here includes a hike to the lookout point and snorkeling.
Cost: $150 USD
Floreana is one of the four inhabited islands in the archipelago, and you can visit either as part of a day tour or take the ferry and stay a few nights on the island. On a day tour, you’ll snorkel with whitetip sharks, rays, and sea turtles.
Cost: $150 USD
Charles Darwin Research Center
Probably the most popular reason to visit is to see the giant tortoise breeding center. There’s also a nice walking path to see some of the bizarre plants, as well as a small info center about the islands. Just a short walk away is Playa de la Estacion, a nice little beach to see lots of Sally Lightfoot crabs and surfers.
Snorkeling at Las Grietas
Just a short water taxi ride and hike from Puerto Ayora, Las Grietas offers a chance to snorkel between two lava rock walls. Best of all is that you can visit independently without a tour. While we didn’t see many creatures in the water expect for some parrotfish and a moray eel, the site was beautiful. Our recommendation to get away from the crowds: snorkel through the first pool and keep going until you reach the third pool. You’ll probably have it all to yourself.
Cost: The water taxi from the dock at Puerto Ayora to the trailhead for Las Grietas is $0.80 USD each way.
Activities on Isabela:
Los Túneles tour
This was the snorkel tour we heard the most raving reviews about during our time across the islands, and it certainly lived up to our expectations. Not only does this tour include a short trek over collapsed lava tunnels to see blue-footed boobies, but the snorkeling showcased the densest array of marine life we saw on our trip. Sea turtles, whitetip sharks, blacktip sharks, rays, and seahorses were everywhere! Plus, we got lucky and saw some penguins on our boat ride there. We went with Pahoehoe Tours and had an awesome experience.
Cost: $120 USD
Tintoreras is the name for whitetip sharks in Spanish, so you can expect to see plenty of them here. You’ll likely also see sea lions and turtles, and if you’re lucky, some penguins. You can do this tour as either as a snorkel tour or on a kayak.
Cost: $55 USD
Sierra Negra tour
While the main attraction for many visitors to the Galapagos is the wildlife, the landscape itself is stunning and unusual. Cacti grows from black and red volcanic rock, all surrounded by turquoise waters. To see and learn more about the fiery origins of these islands, you can join a tour that hikes to the crater of Sierra Negra volcano, which last erupted in June 2018.
Cost: $55 USD
Diving (Tortuga Bay, La Viuda, Roca Union, Cuatro Hermanos)
The Galapagos is on any divers list of must-visit sites, and while there aren’t nearly as many dive sites or operators on Isabela Island as on Santa Cruz, there are a few dive sites you can access from the island.
Cost: $180 USD for a two tank dive.
Wall of Tears
The Galapagos haven’t always been a vacation destination. For more than a decade (1945-1959), Isabela Island was a penal colony. The Wall of Tears is a historic site where you can see the result of brutal punishment on this remote island. Prisoners were forced to construct a stone wall, and many died in the making. You can walk or bike here via a trail from Puerto Villamil.
Cost: Free, unless you rent a bike ($15 USD)
Concha la Perla
A nice snorkel spot just a short walk from the dock, you can see sea lions, rays, marine iguanas, and sea stars here. The best time to visit is during high tide, when you’ll have a better chance of spotting marine life.
Cost: Free as long as you have your own snorkel, or you can rent one from town for $3-5 USD a day
Activities on San Cristóbal:
San Cristóbal 360 tour
This full day tour takes you around the entire island of San Cristóbal, including beaches, multiple snorkel spots, hiking, and bird watching. Places you’ll visit include Kicker Rock, Punta Pitt, Rosa Blanca, Sardine Bay, and Cerro Brujo. It’s a good tour to join if you only have a short amount of time on the island.
Cost: $125 USD
Kicker Rock snorkel tour or diving
Kicker Rock is that famous formation jutting out of the ocean off the coast of San Cristóbal and is a beautiful place to snorkel or dive. Sharks and sea lions congregate here, and divers will see plenty of King Angelfish and sea stars on this wall dive.
Cost: $165 USD for a two tank dive, around $100 USD for a snorkel tour. We went diving with Galapagos Fan Dive and had a great experience.
A small beach close to town with lounging sea lions and some food stands. A nice place to catch sunset.
San Cristóbal Interpretive Center
This was the best museum we visited in the Galapagos, and is the starting point for a hike to Tijeretas. Here you’ll learn about the geologic, natural, and human history of the islands, which is fascinating!
Mirador and snorkeling at Tijeretas
This short hike leads to a nice lookout point over a cove with views of Kicker Rock in the distance. Make sure to bring your snorkel gear here to enjoy the cove. This was one of our favorite free snorkel spots.
One of our favorite beaches in the Galapagos because of the number of sea lions that populate it, hence the name. It’s about a 40 minute walk from the center of town.
Am I missing out if I don’t do a cruise?
A luxury cruise can take you to parts of the archipelago that are otherwise inaccessible to those doing a DIY island-hopping trip, but a cruise also comes with a big price tag. While we would have loved to see some of the other islands, we were happy to have packed in all the wonderful experiences we had for a fraction of the cost of a cruise. We also saw all of the wildlife we could have imagined, and we don’t feel like we missed out by sticking to a budget island-hopping trip. And after visiting the Interpretation Center on San Cristóbal and talking with locals on the islands, we learned about the many ways island-hopping is more beneficial to the ecology and economy of the Galapagos. Since most cruise operators are foreign-owned, the money is immediately funneled away from the islands. If you do a DIY island-hopping trip, you’ll be supporting locally-owned guesthouses, restaurants, and tour agencies. So it’s a win-win for the people who live there and for your wallet!
Tips for visiting the Galapagos
Drinking water can be expensive, so try to stay at a place that offers free drinking water. The only lodging we stayed at that didn’t include drinking water was our hostel in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island. If you need to buy water, purchase the large 6-liter jugs to reduce plastic and save money.
Goods are more expensive on the islands because they need to be imported, so whether it’s snorkel gear or sunscreen (make sure it’s reef-safe!), it’s best to buy it on the mainland and bring it with you.
Wifi is pretty weak across the islands. Don’t expect to download or stream anything.
When traveling to and between the islands, you’ll have to have your luggage inspected for any foreign plant materials. Do not bring any fruits, vegetables, or seeds with you, as these can pose threats to native plant species. If you are carrying any camping equipment, make sure it is thoroughly washed before traveling to the islands.
If you’re joining a day tour, lunch will almost always be included. If you’re heading out to a free activity on your own, we recommend bringing a packed lunch.
The inter-island ferries are long (about 2 hours between each island), and many people experience sea sickness. Bring some Dramamine with you and take it an hour before the ferry departs.
The Galapagos is a remote destination, and a medical emergency could end up costing you a fortune. Make sure your travel insurance is up-to-date and covers the activities you’ll be involved in.