11 Days in the Galapagos Islands on a budget

The Galapagos Islands, a place in the world like literally no other! One of the last remaining true wildlife havens and where animal counters are frequent, friendly and amazing every single time. This, gives the islands a pretty premium price point which can put off a lot of budget conscious travellers like us. However, putting aside the varying multi day cruise options, there is a whole load of stuff you can do on the Galapagos islands that a) is free, yeah you read the right completely free and b) identical to what you would see if you paid for a multi day tour.

What you’ll read in the guide below, as well as a summary of everything we got up to in our 11 days on the Galapagos, is a money saving guide and some handy tips for how to get the most bang for your buck whilst still experiencing this natural wonder in in the best possible way. Put the kettle on, grab a grab a pack of biscuits and strap in. This is a long one…

An Overview

The Galapagos Marine Iguana
The Galapagos Marine Iguana

Before i get into the nitty gritty, I’ll start with a quick summary of our costs. Simply getting to the Galapagos is not a cheap undertaking, as well as the reasonably expensive flights you also need to factor in an $100 entrance fee and a $20 tourist card. Here is a top level overview of what we spent.

Flights – Guayaquil to San Cristobal return $396
Entrance fees and taxes – $120
Boats between islands – $105
Scuba diving – $150
Kicker rock snorkelling tour – $100
Getting to El Chato Tortoise Sanctuary – $40
General living costs – $300 (roughly)

As you can see, if you factored out the scuba diving it isn’t quite as expensive as you might think. Yes, it is a lot more expensive than the mainland but it isn’t crazy if you consider where you are and what you’re seeing.

Flights

There are 2 main airports on the Galapagos, Baltra (located just off Santa Cruz island) and San Cristobal (located on San Cristobal island). You can fly from either Quito or Guayaquil, but most if not all flights go via Guayaquil. We chose to fly from Guayaquil a) it was cheaper and b) it was more en-route for our trip. Flying to Quito is possibly more efficient, especially as if you fly into Ecuador chances are you’ll land in Quito anyway.

The majority of flights go to Baltra but it is worth comparing the price to flying to San Cristobal. San Cristobal airport is no more than a 15 minute walk from town and therefore free to get to your accommodation once you land. Once you land in Baltra however you need to take a small bus, a boat and then either a taxi (at time of writing around $25) or wait for a public bus to take you across the island.

San Cristobal – 4 Days total

For ease of consuming the information I’ll go through the islands one by one, rather than day by day. San Cristobal was our first stop and we stayed at the wonderful Hostel Gosen. Located less than 5 minutes walk from the pier it was $20 for a private double room, including possibly the biggest bed I have ever slept in. If you choose to stay there, ask for the ‘grande cama’. On arriving we wandered to the Malecon (free) and were instantly greeted by a family of sea lions on the beach next to the pier. Noisy, smelly and sometimes rather aggressive we watched them for a little while. Some of them even seemed to play up to the camera and pose for photographs.

You will get a bit blaise with these guys, literally everywhere
You will get a bit blase with these guys, literally everywhere

Having your own snorkelling gear can be a huge expense saved when in the Galapagos, we snorkelled almost every day and use basic Cressi masks that we picked up from Amazon for around £20.

From the right edge of the seafront as you look out to see you can walk around the harbour to the Interpretation Centre (free). This centre is packed full of information on the islands themselves, the wildlife, how easily the environmental balance can be thrown off, how humans/tourism are affecting the islands and what is being done to combat it. There were some really informative displays, including one that showed how the size of the towns has changed only in the last 20 years.

From the back of the centre you can walk out towards the coast and to Tijertas Bay (free), there are two sections of Tijertas bay. There is a viewpoint right up at the top of the cliffs were you can see large numbers of Frigate birds (if you’re lucky you may even see a male displaying it’s red chest pouch) and get a really impressive view both out to see and over the island itself. Down level with the water there is also a small concrete pier where you can climb down into the water and snorkel. We had heard rumours of turtles, rays and even small reef sharks being spotted here. Whilst we were here however there was a family of sea lions and a couple of shy sea turtles in the water. There were plenty of Darwin’s finches and crabs dotted around the area as well.

It appears turtles fight? This poor chap got into a spot of bother and had to be saved for a park guide
It appears tortoises fight? This poor chap got into a spot of bother and had to be saved by a park guide

Close to Tijertas Bay there is a beach called Punta Carola, home to a HUGE number of sea lions. If you’re aim in the Galapagos is to snorkel/swim with sea turtles I honestly believe this is the place to do it. They take over the beach and have a tendency to lie across the paths, getting really angry when you decide to try and cross them. This did lead us to one rather hilarious situation where we were stood at one side of 2 particularly rowdy sea lions, and a lone man at the other. Neither of us particularly wanted or knew how to navigate around them, eventually this lead to me and Vicki traipsing through the undergrowth (sorry fauna) to simply pass without fear of losing a leg. Anyway, once you eventually make it to the beach you will hopefully see there are sea lions EVERYWHERE! They are in the water, on the beach and in the bushes. We found that, after overhearing a tour group, snorkelling off the right edge of the beach is by far the best. The current is not as strong and there was a much higher chance of seeing sea turtles. Snorkels in hand we headed off, deciding on the best spot to enter without harassing too many sea lions. On the way out in the water we were joined by a sea lion who was particularly friendly, aggressive, playful?! He circled us for a little while and seemed to take great enjoyment in floating towards us slowly, upside down before making a quick darting bite for one of our GoPro’s. A creepy little creature, but also very cool to be in the water with. Especially after seeing the hilariously un-graceful way they move on land. After our hair raising encounter we went turtle spotting, and the bay did not disappoint. In the small section of water we snorkelled through we saw around 10 turtles, including one absolute monster that was as big a turtle I had seen anywhere in the world.

Our angry sea lion friend
Our angry sea lion friend

Take your camera EVERYWHERE! Never be without it, I don’t remember a single time we ventured out and didn’t take at least one photograph

Back down at the pier, over at the far left edge there is a small section of beach that in the late afternoon is filled with pelicans and blue footed boobies hunting. It is quite interesting to see the differing tactics, the boobies fast and graceful the Pelicans… loud and splashy! We had spent our whole 11 days without thinking we had seen blue footed boobies, but when flying you simply cannot tell. At this end of the beach there were lots of them around, most of which stood on rocks and allowed us to get some pretty impressive photos.

One of the most commonly done tours in the whole of the Galapagos is to Kicker Rock ($100-$120) (or Leon Dormido as it’s known locally). This rocky island out to see get’s it’s name from looking like either a boot or a sleeping lion depending on how imaginative you are. It is commonly known as a hotspot for huge shoals of fish, sea turtles, rays, reef sharks and if you’re lucky hammerheads. The snorkelling trips usually have two separate spots, one at the far end of the rock and one down the main channel. It is down the main channel where it is not uncommon to be able to see hundreds of sharks swimming below you, we weren’t quite this lucky. But still saw loads of turtles, possibly the biggest school of fish I have ever seen and a reasonably big (we think around 2m) reef shark swimming below us. Once the snorkelling is done lunch is usually included and you spend a couple of hours on a beach. If you go to Manglecito beach make sure you get in and snorkel, we found lots of sea turtles, a lone, young black tip reef shark and sea lions.

You see the sleeping lion/boot right?
You see the sleeping lion/boot right?

Watching the sunset from the pier is also pretty special, and it’s also the only easily accessible place on the 3 islands where you can see a sunset.

San Cristobal in Summary
Learning about the Galapagos in the Interpretation Centre – free
Snorkelling at Tijertas bay – free (possibly snorkel hire if you don’t have your own)
Snorkelling at Punta Carola – free (possibly snorkel hire)
Snorkelling at Playa Mann – free (possibly snorkel hire)
Watch sunset from the pier – free
Search for blue footed boobies on the beaches – free
Kicker rock snorkelling tour – $100-$120

Santa Cruz – 4 days

Santa Cruz is the biggest, most populated and most touristy of the 3 islands we visited. Similar to San Cristobal there is an abundance of things to do here all of which cost from nothing to next to nothing. We stayed here twice with a stay on Isabelle between, the first time we stayed at Galapagos Best Homestay ($17 a night for a 3 bed dorm) which was a really nice hostel but a 20 minute walk from the town. The second time we stayed at the Flightless Cormorant ($20 for a private twin) hostel which was right on the seafront and much closer to everything. For the $3 different, stay close to the centre.

The first stop on Santa Cruz should definitely be the Darwin Centre, located just 5 minutes walk from the edge of town it is a research, information and giant tortoise breeding centre. Here you can see numerous informative displays (we found them much better than the San Cristobal centre), lots of giant tortoises of varying ages, land iguanas and a display room to lonesome George. For those who don’t know the story of Lonesome George he was the last living member of a certain type of tortoise species. They studied him genetically and tried to pair him with females of the closest matching species but unfortunately he had problems with his reproductive system and therefore couldn’t have kids. He now sits proudly in a temperature controlled room after being worked on by an American taxidermist. There was a member of the research centre there to give us a small talk on his story and conservation in general.

Remember to take your passport, you can get a Galapagos islands passport stamp from the small guide booth where you sign in AND a Darwin centre stamp from the information building near the main toilets and cafe.

1m wide Eagle Ray at Tortuga Bay
1m wide Eagle Ray at Tortuga Bay

For the avid snorkelers out there Tortuga Bay (free) is the go to spot for snorkelling on Santa Cruz. Located around 40 minutes walk out of town it is quite the hike but well worth it once you get there. On your way out of town check out Lake Ninfas (free) (check the name of it), better on a really sunny day but it is a bright blue lagoon located in a mangrove. Tortuga Bay itself combines 2 separate beaches, the first of which had extremely big surf and strong currents. We were told to follow the beach round to the right and we ended up on a small inlet that as much calmer. We snorkelled here twice and out first foray out was pretty unsuccessful, seeing a whole load of nothing. However, the second time we visited we found a few reef sharks over at the fringes near the trees and a 1m wide eagle ray. The eagle ray seemed pretty content letting us follow him around for quite a while, completely unfazed by us being there. Once we had, had enough a quick flap of his wings and off he went out of sight.

Another great snorkelling/swimming spot is Las Greitas ($0.60), just a quick hop across the harbour in a water taxi and a short walk through a pretty impressive salt flat and you arrive at a large crack between two sections of rock. The visibility here is crazily good and whilst the marine life isn’t abundant like some other places there were a couple of pretty large parrot fish knocking around. You can also swim to the far end of the first lagoon and climb over to the rocks to a second and even third lagoon, the rocks themselves are slippy and pretty sharp so I’d only advise this with water shoes or some kind of protective footwear.

The Giant tortoises in their natural habitat at El Chato
The Giant tortoises in their natural habitat at El Chato

One of our favourite activities on Santa Cruz, and when we partook in at least once a night was simply standing on the pier. Once the tide comes in and darkness starts to fall large numbers of baby black tip reef sharks swim up into the shallows, at one time we counted 30+ in one spot. We also say Eagle rays, sea turtles and a big school of golden rays simply just stood on the pier. Amazing!

School of Golden Rays
School of Golden Rays

A trip to the Galapagos islands also wouldn’t be complete without seeing the famed Giant Tortoises, the best place to do this is the El Chato Tortoise Reserve. There are plenty of places you can see these huge animals, but El Chato is the only one that gives the appearance the tortoises are not kept in pens. They are free roaming in a huge open grassy and wooded area and can come and go as they please, roaming around the surrounding countryside. It is quite expensive to get there, costing us a total of $40 in a taxi but is well worth the trip! Even just driving into the sanctuary there were tortoises crossing the roads and holding up the traffic.

Sharks from the Pier
Sharks from the Pier

Our final activity on Santa Cruz and our most expensive in the Galapagos was scuba diving! We went with Macarron divers and our 2 dives cost us $150, taking us out to North Seymour and Mosqueras! We had read previously that Gordon Rocks was by far the best site, but was pretty dangerous if you weren’t really experienced. The second best happened to be North Seymour so that is where we headed. In our ideal world we had hoped to see Hammerheads, or at least some kind of sharks. Whilst the day was well organised and guide really good the visibility in the water did kill a tiny bit of the enjoyment. We did see a Galapagos shark (glimpsed it’s fin as it swam away), 3 reasonably big black tip reef sharks and our guide claims to have seen a 3.5m hammerhead. Vicki did see a smaller one however! There was plenty of other life around including sea turtles, sea lions, huge shoals of fish and rays! Whilst we did see sharks, a couple of extra metres of visibility would have made the experience truly amazing!

Santa Cruz Summary
Darwin research centre – free
Snorkelling at Tortuga Bay – free (possibly snorkel hire)
Las Ninfas lake – free
Las Greitas – $0.60 (possibly snorkel hire)
El Chato Tortoise Reserve $45 (taxi and entrance fee)
Scuba diving – $150

Isabella Island – 2 days

Isabella island is the biggest of the 3 easily accessible islands but has the smallest town, called Puerto Vilamili. We stayed at a small guesthouse on the pier side of town called Hotel Neptuno, at $15 a night for a private twin it was a bargain.

There are a couple of really cool things to do on Isabella, the first of which being Concha de Perla. This is a small lagoon just next to the pier with really great snorkelling. We saw sea turtles, a pretty large sting ray and even swam with a marine iguana! There were a couple of large schools of fish and some other smaller colourful little ones dotted around the edges.

The lagoon is linked directly to the open ocean and seemed to be a lot better in late afternoon as the tide was coming in.

There is also another tortoise sanctuary here called Centro de Crianza, it is walking distance from town and passes through the Flamingo Estuary, a boardwalk with lots of wild flamingos dotted around. The sanctuary itself is much the same as the Darwin centre in that is mostly for breeding and therefore all the animals are in pens. Whilst still impressive to see, and 100% required for the preservation of the species El Chato is still the best to see them.

Becoming one with our inner tortoise at El Chato
Becoming one with our inner tortoise at El Chato

From the western edge of the beach you can also cycle all the way to the Muro de las Lagrimas (the wall of tears). We didn’t actually do this, but did walk some of the way along the route. There are plenty of places to stop along the route and lots of interesting things to see.

Isabella Summary
Concha de Perla – Free (possibly snorkelling hire)
Centre de Crianza – free
Flamingo Estuary – free
Muro de las Lagrimas – (bike hire)

Other Information

Boat tickets can be a pretty big expense when self travelling the Galapagos, clocking in at a standard rate of $30. However, at the time of writing there is one tour agency on Santa Cruz that sells tickets for $25. It may not seem like much, but if you started from Santa Cruz and visited all the islands you’d save $20 in total! For the budget backpacker that’s quite a lot of cash.

This photo is taken from the Galapagos sign, the big supermarket is just out of frame to the left
This photo is taken from the Galapagos sign, the big supermarket is just out of frame to the left

I hope this post has been helpful for anybody thinking about visiting the Galapagos when in Ecuador, it is genuinely the most constantly amazing place I have EVER been and ever will go. Don’t let the myth of super high prices put you off, bite the bullet and do it! You will not regret it.

PS, we did make a short compilation video of our time in the Galapagos. Check it out below

11 Days Exploring the Galapagos Islands from James Eastham on Vimeo.g

Tags

another on the list, backpacking, budget travel, galapagos islands, isabella island

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