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How To Visit The Galapagos Islands On A Budget
Don't Book Your Cruise In Advance
If you want to do a cruise, fly into Baltra Island and take a cheap bus to Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz. This is the port where most cruises leave from. You'll be able to book a last minute cruise for half the original price. For example, two backpackers I went diving with told me about how an eight-day cruise that was originally almost $3000 cost them a mere $1,200. And, that's only because they chose first class. You can also try booking a last minute cruise from Quito or Guayquil before you go, although Puerto Ayora is where you'll find the best deals. Note: If traveling during high season, you may not get the exact dates you want.
While a cruise of the Galapagos Islands is a great experience, some people are operating on a budget, or may just want to spend more time on land. For me, there were certain things I wanted to do, like diving, swimming with sharks and sea lions, laying on white sand beaches, hiking and seeing giant tortoises. I was able to do all these things without the help of a cruise. For instance, many of the hikes and beaches were free and didn't require a guide. Furthermore, diving with sharks and sea lions was $120, or $50 if you wanted to snorkel. And, a tour of the highlands of San Cristobal, including El Ceibo, a 300-year-old treehouse and bar, El Junco, a crater lake in a volcano, La Lobaria, a white beach littered with sea lions, Puerto Chino, a soft-sand beach with crystal-clear water and the Jacinto Gordillo Breeding Center of Giant Tortoises was $35 including lunch.
Travel During Shoulder Season
From April to June and from September to December it's shoulder season for the Galapagos Islands. During this time, you'll be able to book cruises for about 30 percent cheaper than you usually would. Just make sure to check that the activities you want to do will still be available. It's also easier during this time to get the dates you want for the cruises last minute.
Take Day Trips From Puerto Ayora On Santa Cruz Island
In Puerto Ayora, the main hub of Santa Cruz, you'll be able to book cheap day trips to other islands in the Galapagos for under $100. For example, a day excursion to Floreana will cost you $70.
Barter For Tours
While the agencies work together for certain tours, there are others where you'll be able to get better deals from certain operators. For example, when looking to do a tour of the highlands in San Cristobal, one agency quoted me $50. I walked around the corner to a different agency, who offered me the same exact trip for $35 including lunch. Look around, and see who offers the best packages and deals.
Take Advantage Of Free Activities
Not every site in the Galapagos Islands has an entrance fee. For example, some free attractions on the islands include:
- Playa Mann- One of the more popular beaches due to its central location, the waters are decently calm and there are many sea lions that play here.
- Interpretation Center- An informational museum on the history and ecology of the Galapagos. There are also relaxing hiking trails onsite.
- Las Tijeretas- This area provides an array of activities. First, there is an excellent lookout point at the top of the mountain. A cove below makes for a great snorkeling spot, to see turtles, sea lions and various birds. It is located within walking distance of the Interpretation Center.
- El Junto- Here you'll view a crater lake inside an active volcano. It's fun to hike around the rim of the volcano and explore some of the forest trails.
- La Loberia- About a 30 minute walk from town, this beach attracts many snorkelers and surfers, although the water can be a bit rough. The scenery is beautiful, though, and you'll see numerous sea lions lounging on the shore.
- Puerto Chino- Although a bit far out of town, this white sand beach offers calm, clear waters and the chance to see a lot of wild life and unique rock formations. Climb to the top of the big, black volcanic rock formation for aerial views of the clear water and marine life. When I was here, I actually witnessed a shark jumping out of the water.
- Jacinto Gordillo Breeding Center of Giant Tortoises- Here you'll see the giant tortoises that the Galapagos Islands are so famous for. You'll also see baby tortoises, walk through an informational museum and possibly see the tortoises in the mating process.
- Darwin Research Center- An easy walk from the center of town, here you'll find a giant tortoise and iguana breeding center.
- Ship Ports At Night- Visit the ship ports at night for some shark viewing. The animals are attracted to the lights given off by the docks. You may have to wait a bit, but if you're patient, there's a good chance you'll see some. When I was there I saw baby sharks, manta rays, sea lions and many tropical fish.
- Bahia Tortuga- A white sand beach that's home to crabs, marine iguanas and many different bird species. This is a popular beach for surfers due to the big waves.
- El Chato Tortoise Reserve- Located in the highlands of the island, you'll be able to observe giant tortoises and an array of bird life like Darwin Finches, Short-eared Owls, Vermillion Flycatchers and Paint-billed Crakes. Here, you'll also have the option to visit El Chato Lagoon.
- Garrapatero Beach- A popular swimming beach featuring flora and fauna like birds, poison apple trees, mangroves and marine iguanas. You can also camp here, with permission.
- Hike to Media Luna Hill- Media Luna means "half moon" in English, and the hill is named after the shape of this ancient volcanic crater. It's about a two-hour uphill hike from Bellavista.
- Volcan Sierra Negra- This picturesque hike will allow you to see great views of northern Isabela.
- Laguna Salinas- This is a pristine spot where you can view wildlife, especially flamingos.
- Wall of Tears- This historical site was created by prisoners who were forced to build this wall from 1945-1959. Thousands died during its construction, and the site is supposedly haunted by their ghosts. There's also a really nice beach here with plentiful marine life.
- National Park Tortoise Reserve- Here, you'll be able to see a species of tortoise that isn't found anywhere else in the world.
- Laguna Concha Perla- This is a prime snorkel spot where there are manta rays, sea lions, fish, penguins, sea turtles and more.
Only TAME, AeroGal and LAN fly to the Galapagos Islands, all going from Quito or Guayaquil. TAME is the cheapest of the airlines, but doesn't fly everyday. Don't even bother trying to call them or book online. It won't work, and you'll just get frustrated. Instead, email GT Tours at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask them to help you make a reservation. Likewise, if you can fly from Quayaquil instead of Quito, the flight will be shorter and cheaper.
If you do decide to book your cruise in advance, check for agencies that give discounts with flights. For example, if you book a cruise on GalapagosIslands.com, you get free round-trip flights when booking an eight-day cruise on a luxury boat, and one free round-trip flight when booking a cruise for two people on an eight-day first class ship.
Camping is your cheapest option for accommodation on the islands. You'll just have to make sure you're in a designated camping area. For example, on San Cristobal you can camp for $5 a night at El Ceibo, the area that's home to the largest tree on the island. You can also camp at Puerto Chino with permission from the park. In Santa Cruz, it is possible to camp at Garrapetero Beach with permission from the owners. Basically, if it's private land, just ask for permission.
While there are a lot of pricey hotels on the islands, it's also possible to stay in comfortable budget hotels for a fraction of the price. On San Cristobal, I stayed at Leon Dormido, a clean accommodation located 10 steps from the water. I paid $25 a night for a single room with air conditioning, television, Wi-Fi, hot water and a comfortable bed. Other affordable hotels in the area include Hostal Casa de Laura, Mar de Azul, Hotel San Francisco and Casa de Nelly. In Santa Cruz, budget hotels include Casa Hospedaje Germania, Galapagos Best Home Stay, Los Pinguinos, El Castillo Galapagos and Hotel Verde Azul. On Isabela Island, check out The Jungle Hostal, Caleta Iguana and Brias del Mar.
Participate In A Volunteer Project
If you've ever wanted to volunteer abroad, I can't think of a better place than the Galapagos Islands. Here you'll not only be helping the environment and immersing yourself in a unique ecosystem, you'll also be saving money. Ecuador Eco Volunteer offers an affordable program based in Santa Cruz, helping get rid of invasive plant species and cleaning up beaches. Moreover, there are various WWOOFing projects on the islands, where you'll be able to volunteer on an organic farm in exchange for room and board. If you've got a couple months to spare, the Charles Darwin Foundation accepts volunteers and helps them get discounted airfare and accommodation. For an excellent year-long program, check out World Teach, which costs $5,490 for the year for room, board, flights and park entrance fees. Volunteers will also receive a stipend to help offset the high cost of living in the Galapagos Islands.
Purchase Non-Organic Groceries Before You Arrive
A lot of food is imported to the Galapagos Islands, meaning groceries are more expensive there than in Quito or Guayaquil. Try to stock up on snacks and water before you go. Just know you won't be able to enter the islands with organic produce.