Isabela Island is the largest of the Galápagos Islands and is distinctly shaped like a horseshoe. It is made up of no less than 5 young volcanoes fused together with some of them still being active with the most recent eruption on Sierra Negro being only in 2018.
Galápagos Islands on a budget | Can it be done?
The Galápagos Islands were not really on our travel list mainly due to the cost. But as with more and more backpackers on a budget we decided that we simply could not go past with out giving this beautiful and iconic destination some of our time and hard earned money.
Over the course of this post we will try and give you an understanding of what you can see and do on a strict travellers budget and let you work out for yourself, with our help, if it can be done and if it’s worth it. What kind of experiences can you expect to get without booking expensive tours and cruises?
How to get to the Galápagos Islands
The first thing you are going to have to deal with is the cost of getting to the islands in the first place. No matter how much of a budget you are trying to stick to, there’s only one way, and that’s to fly.
Flights leave from Ecuador only. You cannot fly directly from your home country so we will assume that the cost of getting to Ecuador has already been met when you set off to visit South America. The flights leave from two airports, one in the capital, Quito, and the other from Guayaquil, on the southern pacific coast. Where you enter Ecuador will have a bearing on which one to use. We were entering from Colombia so Quito was the logical choice for us.
How to buy the ticket
The first obstacle you have to overcome is buying the ticket. It’s not quite as simple as it, at first, may seem as there are different rates for Ecuadorians and non nationals. The flight cost for a native of Ecuador is subsidised by the government and so much cheaper than the price we, as non-Ecuadorians, have to pay. Getting this wrong will result in having to pay back the difference before you can board the plane.
We did a vast amount of research on ticket prices and what we should expect to pay as a non national. We first looked on websites such as Expedia and google flights and these sites seem to automatically give the non national flights. Once we had got a rough idea of what we had to pay we started looking at the local airlines such as Latam and Avianca. We found the cheapest, easiest to use and understand was Latam.
The site has options to change the language into English and the monitory units into pounds sterling or dollars. Doing this gives you a pop up with the option to go to the Latam site from your home country, in our case the UK. This will then only give you tickets at the price for non nationals. To give you an idea of the cost at the time of writing the tickets were between £400 and £600 return depending on your chosen options.
At the airport you have to buy a $20 transit card and get your bag checked and sealed against invasive species that could harm the Galápagos Islands eco systems. You need to keep the card safe as you will need it for your flight back to the mainland.
Where in the Galapagos can you fly to?
There are two airports on the Galápagos Islands. One on San Cristobal just outside the main town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and one on Baltra Island which serves Santa Cruz Island. Depending on your planned itinerary you can fly in or out of either island or mix and match to suit your needs. As we were on a budget we chose the cheapest for us which was Quito to San Cristobal and returned using the same route.
Where to stay on the Galápagos Islands?
There are four inhabited island in the Galapagos archipelago, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela and Floreana. These are the only islands it is possible to visit on a land based trip without booking expensive tours. The first three have twice daily boat services between them. If you want to stay on Floreana then you will have to base your Itinerary around the boat times as they are not as regular as the others. In the end we decided against going there as it didn’t fit in with our travel plans.
The boats cost between $30 and $35 dollars per person per trip but that’s not where it ends, there are port charges and water taxi charges. In each port you will pay $1 each to be taken to and from the boat by the water taxi. Then you will have to pay the port tax which is again is a $1 except for Isabela which is a massive $10 just to step onto the island. As you can see the cost is building.
We will discuss were to stay on each island in more detail on the individual island posts but for now as a general rule the further away from the sea you stay the cheaper it should be. We found though that the further away from the sea you get the more run down the towns become so its a trade off between cost and the type of experience you want to get from you visit.
What can you do on each Island
This varies from island to island, we will go into the details of what we managed to do on a budget on the individual posts for each island we visited, San Cristobal, Isabela and Santa Cruz. If you’re on a budget, as we were, you will want to keep away from the cruise boats keeping it strictly land based. You will also want to avoid, as much as possible, the organised tours so this leaves you with two main options, walking and taxi’s.
We did a lot of walking and I mean a lot. Most of the things you can do for free involve a walk of some kind. Assuming you are there to see as many of the iconic animals as possible walking will be your main mode of transport. Taxi’s come at a cost but are a much cheaper option than a tour. On Santa Cruz there are buses that travel the route between the airport and the town these can be used to keep the cost down but it’s a very limited option. The other islands have no public transport.
The only other method that can be used is the hire of bicycles we hired bikes for the day on Isabela but the islands are surprisingly hilly so if you intend visiting the interior of the island you will need to expect a lot of uphill. If this is your thing then great you can get a bike for the day for between $10 and $20 dollars depending on how well you can bargain.
Where to eat and what to expect.
Essential things you may need on the Galápagos Islands
The second thing is an action camera of some kind a lot of the time you will be in the sea or on the beach. If you already own one don’t forget it, if not consider buying one before you leave home I assure you you will want to record your adventures. A good waterproof case for your phone could be an option but these can work out as expensive as the cameras.
Cash is king
Although there are cash machines on all the islands you’re better off getting as much cash as you dare carry on the mainland before you go. We found that most accommodation want to be paid upfront in cash. Some will take card but most charge a high percentage for this privilege.
You can get cash without ATM charges from Banco international on the mainland there is no banco international ATM’s on the islands. Depending on your type of card however you can use the ATM at the Cooperativa Policia Nacional without charge but these are only on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal.
The Banco Pacifico will charge you two percent but this is still way better the the rate the accommodations charge if you want to pay by card. Some tour companies will take card without adding a fee but it’s hit and miss. Banco Bolivariano will take Revolute Card without a fee.
Tours and excursions on the Galápagos Islands – (Where we broke the budget)
There are somethings for me that were worth the extra cost of booking a tour, boat trip or excursion. Having said that there are also ways of saving money here too. Firstly and most importantly don’t book, any tour, until you get to the island where you’re doing the tour from. There are literally tens of tour agents on each island trying to get your money and they all have what they call last minute deals. These can be tens of dollars cheaper than the online price they advertise.
Secondly don’t accept their first price even if they say this is their best offer. Some will say a price then immediately knock off ten dollars and say this is their best price. It’s not, they will go cheaper and if they won’t the next shop along will. I love to scuba dive and there are things you will want to see. For me diving with big pelagics was a “not to miss” opportunity. The cost of a two dive day on most of the dive centre websites is around $265 per person. If you book at the dive centre the day before the price comes down to $185 a saving of $80. If you are good at bargaining or booking more than one day you may be able to get that down to $160.
It’s exactly the same with the land based or boat trips. Shop around, don’t take the first price they offer and be cheeky you may get a bargain. It can’t hurt to try and if you do it in a friendly humorous way you may have a bit of fun trying too. Either way you will always get it cheaper than the online in advance price if you’re there, face to face with the agent.
Booking resources for your trip to The Galapagos
Tours & Tickets
You can book your visits as you go at the entrance to your chosen attraction or site. Or you could use the following links to book in advance or just to find out what your choices are in the area. GetYourGuide and Tiqets are our go to choices you could try Viator to see how they compare.
For a full list check out our resources page. Don’t forget always shop around to find the best deal for you. What works for us should be good for you but it’s always reassuring to check.
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San Cristóbal is the fifth largest and easternmost island of the Galapagos. It is comprised of three or four fused volcanoes, all extinct.
Santa Cruz Island, in the Galapagos, is home to the largest town in the archipelago Puerto Ayora which is the main Galapagos tourist hub.