Is it actually possible to travel to the Galapagos on a budget?
A trip to the Galapagos has been high on our list for quite some time but we had always assumed that it would be a very expensive proposition. Just Googling “Galapagos Tour” may send you into sticker shock. One of the first organic search results shows a National Geographic 10-day itinerary. The price range for that cruise is $7,000-$15,000 per person, plus flights to Ecuador! Ouch.
So we were pleasantly surprised to find that you can, in fact, tour the Galapagos with a relative level of comfort without spending a fortune. We found food and accommodation to be of particularly good value throughout the islands. Transportation in the Galapagos is similarly inexpensive and many places are walkable. And there are also loads of free and low-cost activities to partake in during your stay on the islands. We’re now happy to share all of our Galapagos budget travel tips in this post!
We found that you can easily get by in the Galapagos for less than $50 per day. In fact, we enjoyed a few days in which our total Galapagos expenses came in at less than $30 per person, while still having amazing experiences!
But then there are the tours. The enticing and worthwhile day excursions are what really contribute to busting your Galapagos budget. Galapagos tour prices (2017) for most of the better day trips now start at around $100. When taking many Galapagos day tours, those costs can add up very quickly.
You also have to bite the bullet on the airfare to get to the Galapagos. It’s not a cheap ticket, but you may be able to find somewhat reasonable airfare depending where you’re flying from. We’ll try to help with that too later in this post.
So while there are some significant expenses you can incur on a trip to these famed islands, we found that it is possible to visit the Galapagos on a relatively modest budget. You can certainly do it for a lot less than that Nat Geo tour! This post will explore our proven strategies and the Galapagos budget travel tips that enabled us to keep costs down without sacrificing some of those quintessential experiences you would expect to have in these islands.
Come take a peak at our Galapagos budget too. We meticulously tracked our travel costs and Galapagos tour prices during our visit, as there isn’t much up-to-date pricing listed on the web. Hopefully this will give you a realistic look at what you may spend on a Galapagos budget trip.
This is the first of a two-post in which we attempt to show you exactly how you can travel to the Galapagos on a budget. While this first post discusses our budgeting tactics, the latter post will uncover what we think to be a great itinerary for a DIY island hopping Galapagos trip.
Table of Contents
Two Ways to Do Galapagos on a Budget:
There are two tried & true methods to travel to the Galapagos on a budget:
1) Do It Yourself (DIY) Land-Based Island Hopping
2) Last-Minute Boat Tour / Cruise Deal
DIY Independent Travel Island Hopping in the Galapagos
Anyone can fly to the islands and explore them on your own, which makes for a great way to experience the Galapagos on a budget. There are three islands in the Galapagos that are connected by regular, twice-a-day ferries. These three islands are developed with loads of decent budget-friendly accommodation and restaurants serving reasonably priced meals. You can easily go “island hopping” throughout these three islands, which are:
- Isla Santa Cruz (Puerto Ayora)
- Isla Isabela (Puerto Villamil)
- Isla San Cristobal (Puerto Baquerizo Moreno)
Each of these islands has places you can walk to for free to enjoy hiking, museums, snorkeling areas, tortoise sanctuaries, and lots of wild sea lions & marine iguanas (among other wildlife). These three Galapagos islands also have plenty of tourism agencies where you can book day trips and excursions. During these day tours, you are able to access even more islands all throughout the Galapagos archipelago.
There is also a fourth island to consider, Isla Floreana, which also has budget-friendly accommodation and restaurants. But ferry connections to Floreana change frequently and run irregularly (1-2 times per week), often making it impossible to stay on Floreana for just a night or two. But there are still plenty of sights to see and activities to do from the other three islands. Those three islands alone can easily keep a traveler busy for weeks!
Independent travel in the Galapagos is most definitely the most economical way to tour the islands, as you can get by on about $30 per person, per day, before factoring in the costs of tours. More on that later.
Booking a Last-Minute Galapagos Boat Tour
There are many live aboard boat tours that ply multi-day routes throughout the Galapagos, where snorkeling, hiking, and wildlife viewing ensues. At the end of each day, you sleep in your cabin on the boat while anchored or moving to the next location. There’s a chef onboard who cooks you three meals a day. A naturalist guide accompanies you throughout the voyage. These boats primarily range in size from about 12-24 passengers (some even larger) and vary from sailboats, to catamarans, to full-on yachts. The boats also range in comfort, which tend to be categorized by four classes of boats:
- $ Tourist Class – Lowest standard possible, often not recommended. Cabins may or may not have A/C or private bathrooms.
- $$ Tourist Superior – No frills yet comfy. Some cabins may be bunk beds, but has A/C. Good option for lower budgets who want to maintain some level of comfort.
- $$$ First Class – High standards, very comfortable air-conditioned rooms, and great meals.
- $$$$ Luxury – Super high end. Expect large cabins, jacuzzis, gourmet meals, spas, and pampering.
If you book any of these trips in advance, prior to arriving in the Galapagos, you’ll likely spend well upwards of thousands of dollars per person. But if you arrive to the Galapagos with a flexible schedule and book a last-minute Galapagos cruise deal within a few days of departure, you may find Galapagos cruise prices around $700-$1,500 for a 4-8 day itinerary.
So where do you find these deals? You’ll tend to find the best last-minute Galapagos cruise prices on the ground once you are in Puerto Ayora.
There are also a number of travel agencies you can contact and begin an email exchange to enquire about what last-minute cruises may be available. One website that lists some of these deals is Galapagos Cruise Links.
That site will give you some idea of the going rates being offered for last-minute Galapagos cruise deals. But this is NOT an all-inclusive list, as there are many additional boats you can find deals for that aren’t listed on this website. Also, you can negotiate prices lower than what is listed there. So consider those prices as a starting point. Despite its downfalls, we still find this website to have the most up-to-date listings with actual prices posted anywhere else on the web. So it can be a good place to begin searching to get a gauge on last minute Galapagos cruise prices.
Still, you’ll find the lowest prices in Puerto Ayora in the days just before these cruises depart. If you don’t want to deal with the uncertainty of a last-minute Galapagos cruise, you’re better off either planning to do a DIY island hopping trip or forking over the cash and booking a boat tour in advance.
Galapagos Cruise Tour Prices Without Booking Last Minute
Booking a non-last-minute Galapagos cruise that instead has set dates, you’ll be spending well into the thousands of dollars. So it’s not a particularly inexpensive route, but you may still find some Galapagos cruise tours that fit your budget. On the lower end of the spectrum, you’ll find prices in the $2,000 range for a tourist superior (or above) ship. Note that some of these tours also include airfare from mainland Ecuador, which helps to justify the their cost. Here are a few companies offering liveaboard cruise tours around that price you may want to search through:
- Viator – this 4-day 1st class ship starting at $1,300 is among the lowest prices we’ve seen that’s a not last-minute rate.
- GAdventures – starts at $2,700 for 7-day cruise, including flights from Quito.
- Intrepid – starts at $2,700 for 6 day trip (4-day cruise) including flights from Quito.
- Tour Radar – starts at $3,400 for 5-day cruise on first class ship including flights from Quito.
Which Is Better: DIY Island Hopping Galapagos or Last-Minute Cruise?
This depends on your personal preferences and what you value. Anyone we’ve spoken to who has gone on a Galapagos cruise tour has loved it. A cruise is certainly a more convenient option of the two. Meanwhile we similarly loved our DIY island hopping trip across the Galapagos. We were satisfied that we got to experience all of the Galapagos’s highlights without spending a fortune.
So which is better? There are pros and cons to each method. It’s highly debatable and you’ll find people who have traveled to the Galapagos with strong opinions on both sides of the argument.
Which cost less? That has more of a clear-cut answer. Anyway you slice it, you can always form a DIY island hopping itinerary that will cost much less than even the lowest last-minute cruise deal.
Weighing the Pros & Cons of a Last-Minute Galapagos Cruise:
- A liveaboard cruise tour is the most convenient way you can see the Galapagos. Everything is planned for you. You don’t have to worry about booking day tours and finding somewhere to eat. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy.
- You won’t be returning to a town each day. Instead you’ll remain in the natural environment of the islands and drift off to the sound of the ocean.
- You’ll get the exclusivity of exploring some islands that are not accessible to day tours.
- You’ll build camaraderie and make friends with the people you’re cruising around with as you share these incredible experiences together.
- To get a last-minute deal, you may have to spend time and effort in the Galapagos inquiring with multiple tourism agencies. This comes at the expense of your time otherwise enjoying all the Galapagos has to offer.
- Not knowing in advance whether or not you’ll find a deal that fits your time/budget will prevent your ability to further plan your Galapagos itinerary.
- If you get easily seasick, the ability to return to land each night may be a negative point to consider.
- It’s pricey. Even the last-minute “deals” tend to be more costly than traveling independently throughout the Galapagos.
Last-Minute Galapagos Cruise Prices
In the name of travel research, we ducked into dozens of Galapagos tour agencies in attempts to find the lowest last-minute Galapagos deals possible. The best deal we found during our January-February 2017 visit was $750 for a 5-day itinerary on a tourist superior ship.
Other examples of last-minute Galapagos cruise prices we saw were:
- $700 for 4-days on a tourist class
- $1,000 for 6-days on a tourist class
- $1,000 for 4-days on tour a tourist superior ship
- $1,100 for 8-days on a tourist superior ship
- $1,300 for 6-days on a first class ship
You may come across guidebooks or blogs that cite these last-minute Galapagos cruise prices to be much less than some of the examples that we’ve shown here. While it is most definitely possible to find lower rates than what we’ve listed (particularly during low season), we caution that prices have risen dramatically within the past year. Last minute cruise prices listed in 2016 and prior may be outdated. One agent showed us his last-minute cruise prices from 2014, which were almost half of what they are today for the exact same boats and itineraries!
Considerations When Deciding on a Last-Minute Galapagos Cruise Deal
Some of the last-minute cruise deals will seem very enticing on the surface, but you need to look carefully at the details to decide whether it’s worth it for you.
Our best offer – the 5-day cruise for $750 – is usually priced around $3,000. So we found $750 to be a pretty good deal and seriously considered booking it. But it’s important to take a closer look at such bargains to fully understand what is involved.
Consider Ship Class, Configuration, and Cabin Location
Having a nice cabin with a window could be worth splurging on, compared to a tiny interior room with some bunk beds. Be sure to ask lots of questions about the ship itself. What is the bed configuration (bunk beds)? Is there a private bathroom? Is there air condition? Is the cabin an upper or lower deck? Does your cabin have a window?
Find Out About Additional Expenses
It’s also important to factor in additional expenses. It’s customary to tip the crew $10 per person, per day so add that to your budget. More importantly, some cruises will charge extra for snorkeling equipment and wetsuits. Charges can reach $30 per day for these rentals, which would add $200 to a week long cruise. So understand what is included and what is not.
Look Closely at the Cruise Itinerary
Boats must obtain permits for each of the locations they visit in the Galapagos and each of these permits will cost the operator a different amount. Some of the popular landing sites have more expensive permits. Hence some low-cost itineraries may avoid these landings to save money. As a result, the cost-savings may be passed on to you. That’s good. However, you may pass right by some of the best sites in the Galapagos. That’s not good.
For example, the 5-day itinerary we were looking at completely bypassed arguably the most famed and photographed site in the Galapagos – Isla Bartolome – and instead went to neighboring Albany Rocks, which is somewhere you don’t ever hear much about. Similarly, this 5-day itinerary completely skipped the notoriously awesome birding and snorkeling island of Seymour to instead snorkel just a few kilometers away, next to the airport. It seemed that this itinerary was going to B-list sites in the Galapagos instead of A-list sites. While even B-list sites in the Galapagos can still be amazing, an itinerary that skips some of the best sites makes it all the more difficult to splurge on.
Understand that “5-Day Cruises” Are Sometimes Actually 3-Day Tours
On some Galapagos cruises, you don’t do much on the first or last day.
Let’s continue to use that 5-day last-minute cruise deal ($750) as an example. For that itinerary, the first and last day is void of much activity. Day 1 is really just a half-day of transferring onto the boat, then going to a beach. Day 5 simply tours the tortoise sanctuary on Santa Cruz, which you can easily do on your own for $3 per person and a cheap cab ride.
So you’re really only spending three full days out in the Galapagos islands during this “5-day tour.” You’ll find similar scenarios with longer tours too. 8-day tours are really 6 days sailing in the Galapagos, with seven nights of accommodation covered on the boat. These can still be awesome cruises, but it’s just something to keep in mind if attempting to perform a fair price comparison.
Last Minute Galapagos Cruise Deal vs. DIY Island Hopping
The agent offering us the last-minute 5-day, 4-night cruise deal for $750, claimed it would cost us more to stay on Santa Cruz and take day tours. So we decided to examine his claim more closely.
Let’s assume you stay on Santa Cruz for four nights, five days, in a decent hotel room with air-conditioning. On Days 2, 3, and 4, you take expensive all-day tours. This would be comparable to spending Days 2-4 snorkeling and touring islands during the 5-day cruise tour. Meanwhile Days 1 and 5, you visit the tortoise sanctuary, go to a beach, tour the lava tunnels, check-out museums, free snorkeling, etc. (similar to Day 1 & 5 of the 5-day cruise itinerary).
Here’s what this 5-Day Galapagos independent travel budget looks like based, as based from Puerto Ayora:
This would be an action-packed 5-day Galapagos itinerary based in Puerto Ayora all for less than $500.
Now let’s compare that to the 5-day cruise itinerary. On the liveaboard cruises, it’s customary to tip the deserving crew $10 per day, so that adds another $50 to the $750 cruise. The cruise tour deal included snorkeling gear but not wet suits. That would add even more to the total cruise tour price, but lets assume we could get by without any wetsuits. This totals a price of $800 for the last-minute Galapagos cruise tour.
Compare that $800 to the $475 spent on a packed DIY-itinerary outlined above. The DIY itinerary comes in at $325 less, per person. That’s a cost savings of $650 for a couple. For some, the $650 difference may be negligible. In which case, we say go for it – bon voyage! A last-minute cruise can be a great deal and a great experience!
Can You Really Experience the Galapagos Without Taking a Cruise?
There seems to be some sort of fallacy that you can’t really experience the Galapagos unless you take a cruise around the islands. We say that’s BS. Again, cruises can be a fantastic option if you have the budget for it. We don’t argue that. But you should know that you can still have all of the following experiences without taking a liveaboard cruise tour:
✔️️ Swim with sea lions
✔️️ Gaze upon wild flamingos
✔️️ Watch wild penguins frolicking in the ocean
✔️️ Stumble across marine iguanas & land iguanas
✔️️ Snorkel with loads of sharks
✔️️ Glide past dozens of sea turtles
✔️️ Hike up an active volcano
✔️️ Visit with wild Galapagos tortoises
✔️️ Be alone on a remote island with only your small tour group
✔️️ Dive with rays
✔️️ Climb through (and swim through) lava tunnels
✔️️ Come face-to-face with blue-footed boobies
✔️️ Tour around deserted islands with a naturalist guide
✔️️ Spot Galapagos hawks, finches, frigate birds, among other endemic species.
I’m not sure what other quintessential Galapagos experiences there are, but we were very satisfied that were fortunate to accomplish all of the above highlights without spending the extra cash on a liveaboard cruise tour.
There are also some advantages to not taking a liveaboard cruise tour. The obvious benefit is the price point, yet there are further considerations even if the price were the same. With a DIY island hopping tour, you have much more flexibility. You can do what you want when you want. You can pick and choose the sites you want to visit based upon your interests or how you’re feeling that day. There’s no strict agenda to follow. Eat whatever you want, when you want.
During day tours, you can visit many of the same great sites that the cruises go to. We saw liveaboards at most of the areas we visited during our day excursions. Sure, there are some further flung places that liveaboard cruises reach, in which day tours do not. But there are also some sites that you can visit with day tours that the liveaboard cruises don’t go to. Los Tuneles on Isabela Island is one example of that and it is an incredible place! Just take a look at our video below.
A DIY Island Hopping Galapagos Budget: Two Weeks
So what does a DIY island hopping trip to the Galapagos cost? Here are sample prices that we incurred firsthand during our island hopping Galapagos trip, January-February 2017.
- Roundtrip flights to/from mainland Ecuador: $364 (including taxes & baggage)
- Mandatory fees to Galapagos: $120
- Breakfasts: $2-$5
- Lunches: $3-$6
- Dinners: $3-$10
- Day tours: $40-$135
- Scuba, 2 dives including equipment: $150
- Beer in restaurant: $4
- Budget accommodation with A/C: $30 per night
Below is our complete Galapagos island hopping budget for our 13-day trip. Note that prices list here are per person and accommodation is based upon double occupancy.
Island Hopping Galapagos Budget Per Day
We were able to keep our daily expenses in the Galapagos less than $100 per person, per day ($1,129 spent ÷ 13 days = $86.85 per day). This included decent private accommodation, local seafood meals, and a day tour about every other day. There were a few bottled waters and beers along the way too, not accounted for in the table above, so realistically our daily Galapagos budget was likely closer to $90-$95.
Within this average there are days that had cost nearly $200, while other days we managed to spend less than $30 per person.
Nearly $100 per day is certainly higher than our typical travel expenses in most places around the world, we were quite content at everything that $100 per day can get you in the Galapagos!
But do know that you can easily spend a lot more than we did. We hope that our Galapagos budget gives you some guidance on what is possible. You can also easily spend less, particularly if you don’t take as many day tours as we splurged on. Read on for more detail about that.
Island Hopping Galapagos Budget Breakdown: Day Tour Prices
The biggest expense with a DIY island hopping Galapagos trip is day tours. Including the scuba dives, we spent about $700 on tours total. Ouch! Tours tend to average about $100 per day but they vary higher and lower.
Again, you may have come across guidebooks and other blogs that show lower prices than we’re reporting here. But that is because more recent (2017) prices reflect increased fees that are regulated and set by the Galapagos National Park, which the tour operators must abide by.
Finding the Best Deals on Galapagos Day Tour Prices
Similar to finding last-minute cruise deals, it’s worthwhile to price compare around a few different agencies before booking. Different agencies will offer the exact same day tour, often even on the same boat, at completely different prices. We found the price you’re offered can come down to how much commission the agent is willing to forgo to achieve the sale.
So how can you get the lowest prices on these Galapagos day tours? Here are some tried and true methods we can recommend:
Book last minute day tours. We found the agencies tend to offer good prices the afternoon/evening before each tour began. Shop around from about 3:00-6:00. Just be careful with this, because popular tours do fill up. So if there’s an in-demand tour that you’re really excited about, you may want to book further in advance. This holds particularly true during high season.
Ask for a deal. When entering a travel agency, be straight forward and ask if they have any promotions for tours tomorrow. This is a nice way to let the agent know immediately that you’re price-sensitive. Hopefully they’ll offer you a good price.
Be flexible. Particularly with last-minute bookings, sometimes operators are anxious to fill particular boats, rather than do a tour with a few empty seats. As such, you’ll often find deals on a tour one day, but it may unavailable the next.
Book in numbers. Agencies tend to give bigger discounts to larger groups since they’re collecting multiple commissions. So if you make some friends who all want to take the same tour, visit an agency together and book as a group.
Book multiple tours. Some agencies are willing to cut you a deal if you book multiple tours with them together.
Book direct if possible. Most of the tour operators don’t have a way to book direct, which is why you rely on the tour agencies. But occasionally they do – particularly for scuba diving. Book your dives directly with the dive shop rather than through an agency.
Know the Galapagos day tour prices. It’s good to have some sort of idea how much each tour costs. We saw saw some Galapagos day tour prices to vary greatly between agencies. One agency quoted us a Bartolome day tour price of $200, while another offered it for $130. That’s quite the difference in price!
Galapagos Day Tours Prices
Below are the most common day tours you’ll find offered on each of the main islands and the associated lowest price offer we came across during our trip spanning January-February 2017.
Isla Isabela Day Tour Prices
- Tintoreras half-day tour: $40
- Sierra Negra half-day volcano hike $40
- Tuneles (The Tunnels): $110
Isla San Cristobal Day Tour Prices
- Kicker Rock day tour: $100
- San Cristobal 360 Tour (*new day tour – 2017*): $135
Isla Santa Cruz Day Tour Prices
- Pinzon (*new day tour – 2017*): $100
- Sante Fe day tour: $110
- Seymour day tour: $130
- Plazas day tour: $130
- Bartolome day tour: $130
- Floreana day tour: $150
- Diving: Seymour/Daphne (2 dives) $150
- Diving: Gordon Rocks (2 dives) $180
Take Your Own Free Excursions!
The best way to cut your tour expenses is to not take a day tour every day. Thankfully there is a surprising amount of free things to do in the Galapagos, which can really help to cut costs. Here’s a roundup of that we think are some of the best free things to do in the Galapagos:
Free Beaches in the Galapagos
You can find amazing beaches to bask on, snorkel, or even go surfing! In fact, the beach at Tortuga Bay made Tripadvisor’s list in 2017 for Top 10 Beaches in the World! Pictured here, Tortuga Bay is a pleasant 45-minute walk down a path from Puerto Ayora.
Here are some other beaches you can easily access for free in the Galapagos:
Other Free Beaches on Santa Cruz: Playa de La Estacion (on the way to Darwin Center) and Playa Los Alemanes (take a quick water taxi from the ferry docks) are small but easily accessible beaches from Puerto Ayora.
Free Beach on Isla Isabela: Puerto Villamil Beach. Just walk towards the ocean from anywhere in town to find this long sandy stretch that has a lookout and marine iguanas.
Free Beaches on San Cristobal: La Loberia is a forty-minute walk from town to this beach with sea lions and surfers. Playa Mann is closer to town with cheap food vendors and nice sunsets. Punta Carola is a pretty beach that’s a short hike into the National Park. Yet go further to find the secluded Playa Baquerizo.
Free Snorkeling in the Galapagos
You also find some great free snorkeling in the Galapagos. Isla San Cristobal had the best free snorkeling sites in our opinion. Be sure to take a peak under the surface at both Las Tijeretas and Playa Loberia in San Cristobal. We saw sea lions, turtles, octopus, and lots of fish.
On Isla Santa Cruz, go snorkeling through the lava canyon that is Las Grietas. It’s just a 1-minute water taxi ride across the harbor, then a quick walk, to experience what is the most unique free snorkeling site in the Galapagos.
On Isla Isabela, try the Concha de Perla. We personally didn’t see much snorkeling there, but it’s known to have penguins, sea lions, and rays frequently swimming in this lagoon.
Free Hiking in the Galapagos
There are some nice free hikes in the Galapagos you can embark on. Isla San Cristobal had the most hiking opportunities that were easily accessible from town. We recommend the rocky and rugged hike from Playa Loberia to Barranco, where you’ll step over marine iguana until you reach a steep cliff where blue-footed boobies hang out. The well maintained network of trails that climb atop Cerro Tijeratas begins at the San Cristobal interpretive which you can use to trek to free beaches, free snorkeling, and a fantastic lookout point.
On Isla Isabela take the short hike across the boardwalk at Lagunas Salinas where you’re almost certain to come across some flamingos. Trek along further to see the Wall of Tears.
On Isla Santa Cruza there are a few short hikes you can take from Puerto Ayora. Just North of Puerto Ayora, you can find El Mirador de Tuneles which is the only free lava tunnel site in the Galapagos we know of (usually they’re on private property and ~$3 admission is charged). Los Gemelos in the highlands has a few kilometers of trails to view the collapsed craters. There’s a very short stroll along the boardwalks of Lagunas de las Ninfas. It’s a nice 40-minute walk down a trail to get to the aforementioned beach at Tortuga Bay. Also the Darwin Center has a mile-long trail just before its entrance.
Free Tortoise Breeding Centers
Each populated island in the Galapagos has its own tortoise-breeding center that you can tour for free.
Free Tortoise Breeding Center on Isla Isabela: Centro de Crianza Arnaldo Tupiza can be easily reached from Puerto Villamil by taking the trail that crosses Lagunas Salinas, mentioned above.
Free Tortoise Breeding Center on Santa Cruz: Go to the Darwin Center to see the giants from Puerto Ayora.
Free Tortoise Breeding Center on Isla San Cristobal: The Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado is the breeding center on San Cristobal but it requires a taxi to visit.
Free Museums in the Galapagos
There are also a handful of museums to check out with an entry cost of $0! A bonus point is that many of them are air-conditioned, which can provide some much needed relief while walking around the islands. The Darwin Center is the most famous, but our favorite was the information-filled interpretive center on San Cristobal.
Free Museums on Isla Isabela: The tortoise breeding center contains a museum all about these gigantic reptiles.
Free Museums on Isla Santa Cruz: If you’ve gotten your fill of the famed Darwin Center, you can also find a museum of renewable energy just before the trail to Tortuga Way.
Free Museums on Isla San Cristobal: But the San Cristobal Interpretive Center was the most informative free museum of them all in the Galapagos.
Where to See Wildlife for Free in the Galapagos
There are many free wildlife viewing opportunities even near the towns throughout the Galapagos.
Here’s where you can find some of the Galapagos’s more notorious residents without spending a dime:
Sea Lions: Everywhere. You can easily find them laying around the docks and beaches of all the Galapagos islands. Yet they were most thick in San Cristobal. You can even swim with them at Playa La Loberia and Las Tijeteras on San Cristobal.
Penguins: Among the three main islands, Isabela is the only one where these tuxedo-clad birds hang out. We saw them swimming around the ferry docks of Puerto Villamil, but they’re also known to frequent Concha de Perla and Puerto Villamil Beach.
Tortoises: The only place that we saw truly wild tortoises while in the Galapagos was in the Santa Cruz Highlands. You can easily explore with an inexpensive bike rental. Otherwise you can find semi-wild tortoises in the El Chato sanctuary which has a mere $3 entry fee.
Marine Iguanas: Everywhere. You’ll almost trip over them at most beaches and even the ferry docks.
Flamingos: You’ll find these pink birds feeding in the shallow waters of Lagunas Salinas on Isabela.
Sea Turtles: While it’s possible to see them at any of the free snorkeling spots we’ve mentioned, the only free snorkeling site we saw a sea turtle was at Playa La Loberia on San Cristobal.
Blue-footed boobies: The only spot we found these famed Galapagos birds without a day tour was on San Cristobal at the end of the trek to Barranco. Take a look on the edge of the cliffs to find those funny birds.
Galapagos Independent Travel Budget Breakdown: Food Prices
What’s For Dinner in the Galapagos?
Most restaurants in the Galapagos appealing to tourists are on the pricier spectrum. Expect to pay about $20 per person for a decent meal at a midrange restaurant. You find plenty of western food from pizza to cheeseburgers to sushi. It’s all rather expensive. Instead, we suggest enjoying the delicious local seafood found all throughout the islands!
Cheap Eats for Dinner in the Galapagos
By sticking to the local seafood you can easily find plentiful dinners around all the populated islands in the $10 range. A tried & true area to partake is the food kiosks that are strung all along Charles Binford street in Puerto Ayora. Here you’ll find delicious full fish dinners starting at $10. Any of the menu people will eagerly give you some suggestions, vying for your business. But instead of taking menu-holder’s suggestions, look for the set dinner deals written on white boards, and cost even less!
Know About Meriendas
These set meal specials you’ll notice on the white boards are called “meriendas.” By eating a merienda, you’ll find 2-course dinners with juice for $4. The menu people generally don’t like to point them out to you. Also, if opting for the merienda, you sit at a table inside with the locals, rather than out on the street with the tourists. Options usually range among fish and shrimp which is either fried, grilled, or smothered in a tasty garlic sauce. They were always filling, delicious, and of exceptional value for $4!
On Isla Isabela, you’ll easily find meriendas on the main street, Antonio Gil, for slightly more: $4-$7. The merienda dinner deals seemed to be less prevalent in San Cristobal, although you can still find plenty of cheap eats there too. In San Cristobal, instead of meriendas, try the food vendors at Playa Mann who grill up a variety of things-on-a-stick around lunchtime and sunset.
Cheap Lunches in the Galapagos = Almuerzos
Any day tour in the Galapagos includes your lunch. Keep that in mind to help justify the high costs of day tours. Sometimes lunch may consist of a mediocre tuna fish sandwich, while other times you may be delighted with some delicious freshly prepared ceviche.
Yet when you’re not on a day tour, you’ll want to find a way to keep your lunchtime expenses low. For that, you can find set menus referred to as “almuerzos.” These almuerzos are composed similarly to the meriendas mentioned above.
For prices starting at $3.50, you’ll get an enormous bowl of soup, a main dish with seafood & sides, and a fresh squeezed juice!
Budget Breakfasts in the Galapagos
It’s important to eat a good breakfast in the Galapagos before those long day tours. Often lunches during tours tend to be later, so don’t skip on the breakfast. Many of the restaurants serve typical American and English breakfasts for $10 and up. Instead, eat local.
First off, there are some decent bakeries throughout the Galapagos that have interesting pastries. Go the night before and grab some sweet chocolate bread or cheese-filled rolls to snack on the following morning. Restaurants tend to open late in the Galapagos (8:00 or 9:00), and many of the day tours and ferries leave well before that. So bakeries are not only an economical option. It may be your only option. Plan accordingly the night before.
For Isabela, there’s a bakery on the main street, $1 per item. In Puerto Ayora, the supermarket may be your best bet with pastries $0.50-$0.80. On San Cristobal, the Sabor Cuencano bakery has the best baked goods in all of the Galapagos ($0.60).
There are some local restaurants offering more complete breakfasts in the $4-$6 range. Be sure to get the set breakfasts for the best value. The only problem is that these cafes and restaurants often aren’t open early enough before a day tour or ferry. So such places are better options for leisurely mornings. Try the bolon (a ball of plantains & cheese), a personal favorite of mine! Descanso Del Guia (by the ferry docks in Puerto Ayora) sells them to-go in a plastic bag for $2 which is nice if you’re in a hurry. Or sit down there for a full breakfast for a few bucks more.
Another cheap breakfast option we can recommend in Puerto Ayora is the outdoor café at the ferry docks. The friendly guy behind the counter will make you a simple, yet great, grilled cheese sandwich plus a coffee for $2.50. It’s the perfect pre-ferry breakfast snack.
How To Drink in the Galapagos on a Budget
One expense we didn’t meticulously itemize in our Galapagos budget is the cost of drinking, whether that be for water or beers. That’s because we didn’t spend much on drinks in the Galapagos at all. We usually had free water at our accommodation. And although we love to drink around the world, alcohol in the Galapagos can be pretty expensive. That’s not really what you come to the Galapagos for. Aside from the occasional cerveza at the end of the day, we didn’t drink much here. Usually we were exhausted from a full day’s worth of activities.
Drinking water is often provided complimentary from big jugs at hotels and hostels in the Galapagos. Meanwhile a liter of water can range around $1-$2. You’ll go through many of those during a hot Galapagos day, so having access to drinking water is definitely a money saver. But not to worry if your accommodation doesn’t provide drinking water. You can find the big 6-liter bottles for less than $2 in the supermarkets. Since the 1-liter bottles are often nearly the same price as 6-liter bottles, it can be worth it to buy the the 6-liter bottles and use them to refill your smaller bottles.
As for drinking alcohol, it’s not cheap. It’s not unusual to see $10 cocktails and much higher at swanky places. Thankfully many establishments have lengthy happy hours. Two-for-$10 drinks seemed to be the most common happy hour deal. The lowest we saw was a three-for-$10 happy hour at a handful of places in Puerto Ayora. If you’re a real booze hound, it maybe worth it to bring a bottle with you. Although liquor is sold at the supermarkets, expect to pay at least $50 for something cheap.
Beers tend to be a more economical way to wind down the day. $4 for a cerveza grande (20 oz. bottle of beer) was fairly standard at most restaurants, although some charged more. You can get a beer in the supermarkets for less and enjoy on the beach. When you’re finished, just be sure to return the bottle and you’ll get back a $0.50 deposit for each one.
On Isla San Cristobal, you’ll find what seems to be the first and only microbrewery operating in the Galapagos. Endémica brews up a blonde ale that is a refreshing change from Ecuador’s two main national beers you’ll see everywhere throughout the Galapagos. You can visit Endémica during daytime hours and buy this Galapagos craft beer to-go for $2 per bottle. It’s a tiny operation and not really a place to hang-out and drink beer. Yet it can be an interesting detour for any beer nerds out there or to get some decent local beer on the cheap. Otherwise Endémica beer is priced $4-$7 in most restaurants throughout the Galapagos.
Where to Get Cheap Ferry Tickets for $25 Instead of $30
You can’t book ferry tickets directly with the ferry at the dock. Instead, you must purchase your ferry ticket from an agency. It’s a set price of $30 one-way, regardless of which island you’re going to.
But there’s one and only one agency throughout all the islands that was booking ferry tickets for $25 instead. Go see the ladies at the kiosk, right between the church and the supermarket. That’s conveniently just across form the ferry docks in Puerto Ayora. There’s a sign that says “Cristine” below another sign that says “Operadora Turistica Travel Agency.” Here’s a picture below to help you find it. It saves you $5 per ferry ticket, so booking these tickets for $25 instead of $30 will ulimtately save a couple $50 if taking multiple ferries throughout the islands.
Galapagos Budget Breakdown: Accommodation
You can actually find some decent and inexpensive places to stay all throughout the Galapagos. $30 per night will get you a clean room in a great location in Puerto Ayora with air conditioning, private bathroom with hot water shower, and even satellite TV. Wifi was usually pretty bad or non-existent, so don’t expect to stay connected. Despite that minor annoyance, we were pretty impressed with the budget accommodation in the Galapagos, given our preconceived notions of how expensive these islands could be.
You can just as easily find some rather expensive places if you do want to spend more, but we found the budget-friendly accommodations to be very adequate. We always prefer to spend more on doing things, rather than sleeping.
Is Air Conditioning Necessary in the Galapagos?
Some of the budget accommodation in the Galapagos are equipped with air conditioning, while others only have a fan. Despite the extreme hot temps in the day, it usually cools off to about 66-70 F (19-21 C) at night. Having air conditioning is nice. Yet we tolerated some non-A/C rooms during our Galapagos trip and we felt comfortable at night. But you’ll have to decide that for yourself. Rooms without A/C tend to be the least expensive, yet can still be fairly nice places to stay. So don’t rule them out entirely.
Booking in Advance vs Booking Upon Arrival
You’ll often find less expensive room rates by booking upon arrival rather than booking online in advance. Also, some places in the Galapagos are not listed on the online booking sites, so the only way to book is direct. Those that are listed online may offer lower prices in person. So it’s worth considering waiting until you get there to book.
However, we find it to be worth the few extra bucks to book accommodation in advance. We suggest to at least book your first night in advance. It can be quite the hassle to trek around an unfamiliar place while carrying heavy luggage in the scorching hot equatorial sun. Ultimately popular places may be booked full and you may end up spending more time than it’s worth looking for a decent place to stay at an affordable price.
Instead, consider booking ahead. We have scouted out a few of the most economical and best value places listed online, so that you don’t have to. But first, let’s examine the best booking sties to use in the Galapagos.
The Best Sites to Book Cheap Accommodation in the Galapagos
Most regions around the world seem to have a dominant site that is best for booking accommodation. But in the Galapagos the best deals really tend to vary across different booking sites and across the different islands. Here’s what we found:
Booking.com seems to have the biggest inventory of places to stay in the Galapagos and often the lowest prices, but not always. (In only a few instances Expedia/Hotels.com offers lower prices.)
Airbnb is an interesting option for the Galapagos. While we typically only use the site to rent rooms or full apartments, there are actually quite a few hostels and actual bed & breakfasts listed on Airbnb in the Galapagos, with some great prices. And if you’ve never used Airbnb before, you can use this coupon to save $40 off your Galapagos booking!
Hostelworld has only a few good deals that seem to make the most sense for solo travelers. Couples are often charged double the price for the same room.
Budget Accommodation in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz
Hotel España – We stayed here for 5 nights and recommend. I don’t think you can find any centrally located hotel in the Galapagos with with A/C, private bathroom, hot water shower, and even satellite TV for only $30 including taxes. This is a steal. It’s also in perhaps the best location in Puerto Ayora. It is surrounded by restaurants & tour agencies, and is just a few blocks from the ferries and supermarket. The $30 price was a walk-in rate only for economic rooms, which are pretty small but suited us just fine. Only standard and deluxe rooms (nicer) are available online, but at a slightly higher price. Note: if you’re a solo traveler, you can book a room at Hotel España for $30. But for couples, Hotels.com has the lowest online rate – search your dates and check availability here.
Hospedaje Stefany – This is currently the least expensive private room in Puerto Ayora that you can book online ($32 per night + tax). We stayed there for a night to check it out. It was okay and we hesitantly recommend. It was clean & adequate, yet small, not overly comfortable, and a 5-10 minute walk from most things in PA. It’s definitely worth spending an extra $3 per night to secure their bigger room that has air conditioning. You can find it here on Booking.com.
La Mirada del Solitario George – If you don’t mind a 15-minute walk to the main part of town, this is an excellent option for inexpensive private rooms with air conditioning that receives stellar reviews. Booking.com tends to give discounts on certain dates – check it here.
Hospedaje Germania – Boasts a great location, constantly rave reviews, nice rooms, low price and even has air-condition. What more do you need, really? Check rates for Germania on Booking.
Cheap Accommodation in Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabel
Gladys Mar – This is currently cheapest private room you can book online. The $29 (+ tax) room has a fan only and a shared bathroom. We stayed there. The room was clean, decent sized, and adequate for our needs. But those who are picky may want to keep searching. There was no hot water in the shared bathroom and the kitchen wasn’t really useable. Yet, go in with low expectations and you may be pleased, for the price.
Hostal Cerro Azul – For someplace a little nicer and with A/C, we recommend Cerro Azul. You’ll pay a bit more, but we think it may be worth it. Check Cerro Azul rates on Booking here.
Cheap Accommodation in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno
Hostal Suiza – This lovely place has among the lowest rates on the island. We stayed there and recommend Suiza without any hesitations. It’s centrally located, very clean & comfortable, and has friendly hosts. The $30 room has no A/C but we kept perfectly cool with the ceiling fans. A $40 room has A/C and even a full private kitchen. Hostal Suiza is listed on Booking, but the lowest rates can be found here on Airbnb. (Those new to Airbnb can save $40 with this coupon.)
Hostal Terito – This is another great option on Isabela. We met travelers staying here who said it was their favorite place they’ve stayed in all of South America and it has hundreds of similar reviews to back that up. This is of particularly great value for solo travelers who can find private rooms on Booking for just above $20. Couples will pay more, but it’s still good value. Search your dates here on Booking.
Casa de Jeimy – Yet for a budget room with A/C, consider Casa de Jeimy. It receives similarly great reviews, is about the same price, and has an awesome rooftop terrace to watch the sunset after a long day in the sun. You can find the best rates for Casa de Jeimy on Booking.
Pack These Things Before You Arrive in the Galapagos!
You can find just about anything you may need in the Galapagos, but you’ll pay a premium for it. This holds particularly true for sunscreen! Be sure to pack lots of it. Here’s a packing checklist of things to ensure you bring for the Galapagos so you don’t overspend once you’re here.
Sunscreen – The equatorial sun is intense and you’ll need to lather up very often. We never saw a bottle of sunscreen under $20 while in the Galapagos and we saw it priced at $30-$35 in many places! So pack a few bottles of sunscreen before you go. You may go through more than you anticipate. We recommend a minimum of SPF 30 and water resistance is essential. We like this Banana Boat Sport because it holds up well in water (it has “PowerStay Technology”, whatever that is) and is only $6 on Amazon.
Mask & Snorkel – There are a lot of great snorkeling sites you go to right from the shore. Many shops charge $5-$10 per day to rent out masks and snorkels that have been in hundreds of tourists’ mouths. Instead buy a mask & snorkel set before you go. This US Diver’s Mask & Snorkel is a great quality mask for a low price – $20. You’ll get your money’s worth after just a few uses, when compared to daily rentals. And if you wait to buy a mask & snorkel in the Galapagos, you’ll pay about $100. Also, consider one of these cool new panoramic full-face snorkle masks! We haven’t personally tried them out but lots of people were using these snorkel masks in the Galapagos, they look like a lot of fun and receive great reviews.
Motion Sickness Medicine: You can find sea sickness medicine throughout the Galapagos and it’s actually quite inexpensive. But it’s the kind that makes you drowsy. Instead we find that Bonine has less of that unwanted sleepy side-effect, so stock up before you go if you get seasick.
Mosquito Repellent – There are mosquitos in the Galapagos, but don’t come here with strong DEET repellent. Although it’s very functional, when you wear it in the water it becomes harmful and even kills the marine life. Instead consider a natural repellent to do your small part in keeping this pristine environment alive. We like this REPEL natural spray. You won’t find that on the islands.
Underwater Camera: If you travel all the way to the Galapagos, you may want to capture those memories. GoPros are fantastic, but the $400+ price tag is not. Did you know that you can find knockoff GoPros on Amazon for only $50? We shot all the videos in this post with this $50 DBPOWER EX5000. We’ve found it to be even better than our old (way more expensive) GoPro 3. And whether you bring a GoPro or a less expensive alternative, be sure you have a float attachment because it will otherwise sink if dropped. We use this GoPole which attaches to both real GoPros and the DBPower we recommend.
Waterproof Your Phone & Camera: For photos above the surface, be sure you have a waterproof phone case like this. If your phone gets splashed or dropped overboard, this will save you from a major headache. For bulkier items like a professional camera, consider buying a dry bag like this. It’ll keep your towels, electronics, and anything else dry.
Microfiber Travel Towel: Most hotels in the Galapagos don’t permit you to take towels on day excursions and some hostels don’t provide towels at all. Pack a lightweight quick-drying towel like this to throw in your bag during day excursions in the Galapagos.
These Athletic Sandals Are Perfect for the Galapagos: In the Galapagos you’ll constantly be changing from beaches to walking over rough terrain like rugged lava rocks. Rather than continue to change back and forth between shoes and flip-flops, these Columbia Athletic Sandals made for the perfect hybrid between the two. They’ve got the traction, durability and grip of sneakers, yet the comfort of a sandal. I was so glad I had these and highly recommend. They’ve become my favorite pair of flip flops I’ve ever owned.
More Packing Tips: See our Ultimate Packing Checklist, which shows everything that we traveled to the Galapagos with.
And Don’t Forget To Buy Travel Insurance!
We strongly recommend coming to the Galapagos with travel insurance. Given all the outdoor and water-based activities, there’s certainly plenty of room for risk of injury here. But having travel insurance will also protect you by covering other unexpected heavy expenses such as lost baggage, emergency evacuation, trip cancelation, sickness, missed connections, theft, etc.
During our trip, we thwarted off a sea lion attack (see video below!) Thankfully we were not injured and I departed the Galapagos with all my fingers. But medical expenses from a sea lion attack would add up quickly if we did not have coverage from travel insurance!
We use World Nomads as we find they tend to have the best mix of coverage and cost. We’ve been happy with outcome of the many claims we filed with them too. For the Galapagos, we recommend their Explorer plan, since snorkeling is not a covered activity in their Standard plan. Just enter your travel dates here to get a quick quote.
How To Find a Cheap Flight to the Galapagos
In addition to the expense of day tours, the other pricey line item to try to minimize is airfare to the Galapagos. There are many things to consider when attempting to book the lowest-priced flight to the Galapagos:
- Book A Flight to Galapagos or Fly To Ecuador First
- Book Round-trip or One-way
- What Airports to Fly Into and Out Of
- Which Airlines to Fly
- What Site Is Cheapest to Book On
- When To Book
Book A Flight to Galapagos or Fly To Ecuador First
We recommend searching both ways. Usually you can find lower fares by booking a flight to Ecuador, specifically to Quito, then booking a separate flight to the Galapagos. Plus, it’s worth doing it that way to spend a few days in Quito as there’s loads to do there. (See our post: Travel Guide: Top 20 Things to Do in Quito Ecuador).
But occasionally you can, in fact, find better deals by making a single booking. It really depends which airport you’re flying out of. So it’s worth taking a few minutes to search both ways to compare which fare is lower.
However, just realize that when attempting to book directly from the US, Europe, and elsewhere to the Galapagos – you are likely going to sustain at least 2 (possibly 3 or more) layovers. For this reason, we instead recommend flying to Quito first and spending a few days there if you have the time.
Book Round-trip or One-way to the Galapagos
If breaking up your flights by flying to Quito first, you’ll likely find a cheaper fare by flying round-trip to Quito.
But when booking your airfare from Quito to the Galapagos, consider booking two separate one-way tickets. Here’s why:
First of all, you can mix and match airlines this way. Perhaps one airline has a cheaper fare or a better time on the way to the Galapagos, but a competing airline has a lower priced or more convenient return fare. There tends to be no cost savings when booking round-trip from Ecuador to the Galapagos. So it may prove very beneficial to book two separate one-way tickets on two separate airlines. We saved a few hundred bucks on our airfare doing it this way.
Secondly, by booking two one-way tickets, you now have the ability to fly into and out of two different airports, which is ideal for a DIY island hopping itinerary.
What Airports to Fly Into and Out Of
There are two airports in the Galapagos that fly to mainland Ecuador: Seymour Airport (AKA Baltra, airport code: GPS) and San Cristobal Airport (airport code: SCY).
Seymour Airport (GPS) is technically on Baltra Island but serves as the airport for Santa Cruz. This is the airport that is used to reach the biggest city in the Galapagos, Puerto Ayora, where you can find the most tours and last minute cruises.
This is also the island that acts as a ferry hub, as it is the only island that has ferry connections to the other three islands we mentioned earlier. For these reason, we recommend flying into GPS.
If you’re planning to do a cruise tour of the Galapagos, most tours begin and end on Baltra / Santa Cruz, so it would make sense to fly in and out of GPS.
However, if you’re planning to do a DIY island hopping trip around the Galapagos, it makes more sense to fly into GPS and fly out of SCY. That way, if visiting San Cristobal, you’ll save yourself the time and money of a return ferry trip from San Cristobal to Santa Cruz.
Which Airline to Fly to the Galapagos
There are three airlines that fly from mainland Ecuador to Galapagos.
- LATAM (formerly LAN)
All three are fairly comparable in terms of quality of service, so we suggest to choose which one has the best price and/or schedule for your Galapagos trip.
Lowest Price Flights to Galapagos
Each of the three airlines flies from Ecuador into both Galapagos airports.
Flight prices do fluctuate, but at the time of writing the least expensive regular flight from Quito to Galapagos can be found on LATAM, from Quito to GPS for $174 (including taxes and baggage) and flies direct every Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 1:10 PM.
You can find flights any day of the week. TAME and Avianca fly from Quito to Galapagos, starting at $215 one-way and may involve a short stop in Guayaquil (no changing planes required).
Returning from GPS to Quito, the best price is again with LATAM on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays for $190. Flying on other days of the week and/or with other airlines will yield prices of $220-$230.
But for those on a DIY trip to the Galapagos, we suggest to instead fly out of SCY. You’ll find the lowest airfares with LATAM, at a price of $197 on Saturdays, Sundays, and Tuesdays.
What Site Is Cheapest to Book a Galapagos Budget Flight
For the Galapagos, we found searching with Skyscanner to provide some of the best real prices. Often searching Skyscanner yields lower prices than searching the airlines directly. Note: Skyscanner is just a metasearch and will ultimately link to a booking site (Expedia, the airline, etc.), where you can complete your transaction.
Also, Skyscanner conveniently omitted the misleading lower Ecuadorian-only prices that searches on Kayak and Google Flight had showed.
When To Book A Cheap Flight To Galapagos
We recommend booking your flights to the Galapagos as soon as possible in order to secure the best rate. The airfare prices tend to rise based on demand. Typically if you book at least a month in advance, you can still get the lowest available price except for high-demand periods such as Christmas.
Galapagos Budget Travel Tips
We really hope that this travel guide has helped to show that it is possible to have a budget-friendly trip to the Galapagos while still being able to experience what makes these islands so special. If you have any questions, please chime in the the comments section below.
We’ll try to have a follow-up article showing a DIY Island Hopping Itinerary posted in March, and we’ll provide a link to that post right here. So feel free to bookmark this page or save it to your Pinterest boards and check back later. Until then, happy travels!