Many of us dream of going to the Galapagos Islands. The thought of seeing animals and bird species not seen anywhere else in the world is certainly a huge draw. Yet, instinctively so many people think that the price tag is well out of their reach. Are the Galapagos Islands accessible on a budget? Your budget? Read on as we break down our costs and planning process for a 10 day trip across these stunning islands.
Deciding Which Islands to Visit
I have never enjoyed boat travel due to getting sea sick. So, for us the decision to travel on our own and utilize land tours was a simple decision. It turns out that this mode of transport on the islands is the cheapest and most flexible one to boot.
Independent travelers (those without a cruise ship) can see the following islands: Baltra (the airport island for Santa Cruz), Santa Cruz, Isabela, San Cristobal, Floreana, Espanola, North Seymour, Santa Fe, Bartolome and South Plaza.
For us it was important to understand which of these islands had the best chances of seeing endemic wildlife that we came there to see. Therefore we chose to go to Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal.
Flying into the Galapagos offers two choices: You can either land on Santa Cruz (Baltra is the neighboring airport island that serves Santa Cruz). Or you can land on San Cristobal. We chose to fly into Santa Cruz first and leave out of San Cristobal.
Baltra to Puerto Ayora
Landing on Santa Cruz you will end up on Baltra Island first. Baltra is on the northern end of Santa Cruz island and Puerto Ayora the main town on Santa Cruz is on the southern end. To get there you will first need to board the airline bus ($5 per passenger) that heads to the Itabaca Canal separating Baltra Airport from Santa Cruz (NOT the service for Baltra dock).
It is approximately a 10 minute ride to Itabaca Canal. Here you will take a water taxi to cross the channel. Sometimes you’ll catch the ferry operated by the city government which costs $1 per passenger. The private ferry, a smaller boat, is $2 per passenger. Bags go on top of the ferry, and you go inside. Payment is made while on the boat. The crossing takes about 5 minutes.
From the Canal it is 26 miles (42km) to Puerto Ayora up and over the Highlands of Santa Cruz and through the cooler and sometimes drizzly scalesia forest. You will have a choice of taking a bus or a taxi. The bus is only $2 per person but waits until it is full to drive the hour to the center of Puerto Ayora. Taxis will be $20+ and can accommodate 4 people who can all share the price.
Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz is the most touristic and populated island of the Galapagos. The Highlands of the island are the best place to observe Giant Tortoises. Tortuga Bay offers, marine iguanas, Sally Lightfoot crabs and white tip reef sharks.
Playa Garrapatero on the north of the island has a freshwater lake where flamingos can be seen. You may also be lucky enough to spy herons and other birds. While at the dock waiting to board your boat, you will most likely see lazing sea lions and frigate birds soaring overhead.
What to See and Do on Santa Cruz Island
El Chato Natural Reserve
The El Chato Natural Reserve located in the Highlands of Santa Cruz island was one of our favorite places to visit. This reserve is the best place in all of the Galapagos to observe the Giant Tortoise in it’s natural habitat – no barriers or cages. The turtles end up here after crossing the reserve on their permanent migrations from the coast to the highlands.
The reserve is truly a lovely place where you can drink organic lemongrass tea or coffee (picked from the reserve grounds) after spending some time walking the grounds and observing these gentle giants. To enter the grounds, the cost is only $5/person and the beverages are a tip system.
Tortuga Bay oddly does not have any turtles on it. It is a huge stretch of white sandy beaches, mangroves and many many marine iguanas. The snorkeling here is not great as the waves create murky water. But if you want to go for a swim, be aware that the first beach that you come to has waters with strong currents. Wait until the second beach, as the water there is calmer and better suited for those taking a dip.
Charles Darwin Research Station
This iconic national-park site is where over 200 scientists and volunteers are involved with research and conservation efforts. The most well known of which involves a captive breeding program for giant tortoises. Paths leading through arid-zone vegetation take you past tortoise enclosures, where you can look at these Galápagos giants.
Several of the 11 remaining subspecies of tortoises can be seen here. This is also the home of Lonesome George – if you want to pay your respects. Although we appreciate the important work that is being done here we much preferred visiting the El Chato Natural Reserve where the tortoises are not in captivity.
To get there you will need to take a $1 water taxi from Puerto Ayora’s port across Academy Bay to Angermeyer Point. You will walk by the Angermeyer Waterfront Inn, a small beach, then down a path which takes you out by a salt lake and across some lava rock, and then through a small wooded area.
The trail is well marked and takes you across some interesting sights. We arrived above the emerald pools on a day that was quite gloomy. Unfortunately we did not get to enjoy the crystal clear water of these 3 pools which were formed due to fissures in the lava rock. Even though it was quite cloudy, there were plenty of people willing to take the cool plunge into the waters below.
Puerto Ayora is the largest city in all of the Galapagos. There are unique shops and galleries to visit as well as a large selection of restaurants and cafes.
Best Coffee – Hands down, the best coffee is at 1835 Coffee Lab and yes, they do have almond milk.
Best Food – Los Kioskos is restaurant row in Puerto Ayora. The street is filled with delicious and well priced options for lunch and dinner. Rob ate freshly caught and grilled seafood while I was spoiled with different vegan options that the restaurants prepared for me nightly. Our favorite on the strip was Playa Sol Y Mar.
Best Wildlife Hangout – The Fish Market was a fun place to hang out. Yes, I know I am vegan, but I also enjoy wildlife. This is where baby sealions, a huge variety of birds including frigates and brown pelicans would hang out knowing that they would receive a piece of the action.
Daytours to other Islands from Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz offers a lot of day tours to neighboring islands. Each of these tours take a full day and costs approximately $200-$400 per person.
Bartolome Island, after a 30-40 minute hike up a mountain offers sights of neighboring islands. There is great snorkeling here as well. You may get a chance to see penguins, marine turtles, tropical fish and white tipped reef sharks.
It takes approximately 4 hours to boat to Floreana and back from Santa Cruz. A true time commitment. There is a green beach on the island to see flamingos, rays and sea turtles. The island also has a dive site called the Devil’s Crown as well as opportunities for snorkeling with marine life.
North Seymour Island
Directly north of Santa Cruz and Baltra islands is North Seymour. The island is teeming with bird life and is a great spot to see blue footed boobies, frigate birds and land iguanas.
Santa Fe Island
This island tour may be combined with the South Plaza island tour or be a stand alone one. Some of the wildlife that you may see on Santa Fe Island includes: sea lions, sea turtles, rays, tropical fish, crabs, marine iguanas, mockingbirds and herons.
South Plaza Island
South Plaza Island provides a great opportunity to see a lot of different bird species, such as Nazca booby and swallow-tailed gulls. There is a large colony of sea lions that reside there as well. You can also snorkel on South Plaza, with a chance to spot manta rays (if you are lucky).
Isabela is the largest of all the islands in the Galapagos. It was formed over 1 million years ago by the merger of 6 volcanoes making it one of the most volcanically active places on earth.
This island is also the least touristy and least developed of the big 3 (Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isabela). Isabela is the island where I would recommend spending the most amount of time.
Getting to Isabela
There are two ways to get from Santa Cruz to Isabela. The cheapest way is to board a $25 per person speedboat from Puerto Ayora. No need to return to the airport in the north. The only drawback is that the water can be quite choppy and it takes 2-2.5 hours for the gut wrenching journey. Once on Isabela there will be taxis (pickup trucks) waiting to take you and your luggage to your hotel. The cost is $1 – $2 per person depending on time of pickup.
The other option is to take a plane. There are two airlines that make the 30 minute journey from Baltra (so you do need to spend the time and money to get up there). One is FlyGalapagos and the other is Emetebe. Emetebe does have an office on Santa Cruz. We found the prices in person to be almost half of the ones listed online. FlyGalapagos is very difficult to communicate with online and does not have an office in Santa Cruz.
Once on Isabela a taxi from the airport will be approximately $5 and will take 5-10 minutes.
What to See and Do on Isabela Island
Puerto Villamil is the main town on Isabela and home to most of the island’s 2,000 or so inhabitants. In our opinion it is also one of the prettiest towns in the Galapagos, fringed by long white-sand beaches and lagoons.
Wildlife on Isabela is diverse and interesting. The ecosystem is affected by the new lava fields and this means the vegetation is different than in the other islands. There is a great variety of wildlife on Isabela Island including birdlife such as pink flamingos, penguins, cormorants, herons, boobies, pelicans, finches, Galapagos doves and Galapagos hawks.
Other creatures that may be seen on the islands include white tipped sharks, marine iguanas, land iguanas and giant tortoises as well as sea turtles and varieties of rays. Interestingly, sub-species of the giant tortoise have evolved on Isabela since there were obstacles for them from moving about freely. These barriers include the lava fields there.
Best Tea – The Booby Trap has the most phenomenal organic lemongrass tea (from their own garden). They are listed as having the best coffee on the island but because they do not carry alternative milk I did not try it and cannot vouch for it’s taste.
Best Food – By far the most delicious food that we had tasted on Isabela was at the Endemic Turtle Restaurant. They had quite a few options for my vegan diet and many dishes for Rob including fresh fish and pizza.
Los Tuneles Tour
If you do only one tour in the Galapagos, it hands down has to be Los Tuneles. This is the day that you will see an incredible amount of endemic Galapagos wildlife. The tour is run by various operators in town and range in price between $105 – $145 for virtually the same activities and length of time (approximately 6 hours).
Los Tuneles is the result of lava platforms that collapsed into the sea, creating hundreds of lava tunnels and bridges of lava, above and below the water. The tunnels are a marine paradise and is a spectacular place to spot marine life while snorkeling in the clear waters surrounded by scenic lava formations.
Los Tuneles Wildlife
These lava tunnels are home to many species such as white tip reef sharks, manta rays, seahorses, penguins, sea turtles, sea lions, giant mantas, colorful fish and blue-footed boobies.
We swam with giant sea turtles numerous times. It was such an incredible experience as we would see one and then would be surrounded by them. Green Sea Turtles are one of the most widespread species of marine turtle, found in tropical and subtropical waters throughout the globe. However, the Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia Mydas) is the only species of turtle that nests in the Galapagos Islands.
We saw blue-footed boobies at various stages of development. Blue-footed boobies are one of three boobie species found on the Galapagos. They are large, distinctive birds, found along the Eastern Pacific coastline where they often nest on small islands with rocky coasts. Their name comes from the Spanish word ‘bobo’, meaning foolish or clown – referring to their clumsy movement on land.
Their plumage is brown on top, with a white rump and black tail, whilst their underparts are white. The most distinctive characteristic of the blue-footed booby is its large blue feet, which play an important role in courtship. Females are thought to select males with brighter feet, as they are an indicator of his overall condition and thus the quality of his genes. They tend to be larger than males, and have darker blue feet.
A lovely surprise of the tour was seeing the seahorses. The seahorse can grow up to 30 cm long and belongs to the same class as other bony fish. However, their head resembles a horse, thus giving it its name. It has a worm-like tail and prefers living in tropical waters. The Galapagos sea horse is yellow due to the habitat and diet available in the Galapagos, but they are not endemic.
What comes across as a surprise for many is that male seahorses are impregnated instead of the females. Contrary to popular belief, seahorses do not have fixed partners. They often change partners during each breeding season.
The Wall of Tears
This is a must do self guided tour. You can either rent a bicycle (my recommendation would be from here). Clean bikes with good brakes and only $1.50/hour. Or you can hike the 4 – 5 km trail (one way – depending on where you start) to the Wall of Tears. If you plan to walk, budget 2 hours each way as a minimum (plus stops). And if you are biking, it is about 1 hour each way (plus stops). We made many stops (biking) as there is so much to see and it took us 3 hours.
To get to the trail continue along the main road in Puerto Villamil past the Iguana Crossing Hotel. At the fork take the dirt road on the left (closer to the water). Continue for 2 km. From here on you will see different (well marked) trails headed towards the water and into the mangroves. We decided to ride all the way to the Wall of Tears first, do the hike up to the view point and then pick different trails to hike up on the way back.
Along the way we saw many giant turtles going about their day. We were lucky enough to spot a frisky couple of tortoises trying to mate. It was an honor to see, as spotting giant turtles mating in the wild is supposed to be a rare occasion.
After a few more hills we arrived at the historical site of the Wall of Tears. The wall is 25 meters tall and was constructed by the prisoners of a penal colony established on Isabela Island during 1945 to 1959. The site’s appropriate name has to do with the sweat and tears that went into the wall’s construction.
These prisoners (mainly political ones) worked through hot days, walking long distances and carrying heavy volcanic rocks to complete this nonsensical wall in the middle of nowhere. They were severely punished along the way as well and many ended up dying. The island lore is that you can hear the prisoners cries as you stand near the wall. I must admit, it is an eerie and sad place.
From the Wall of Tears there is a trail up to a gorgeous look out point. Although tough to do in the heat of the day, it is well worth the effort.
On the way back we stopped at many of the trails and look out points enjoying the views and wildlife. This is a fantastic way to see the island and it’s many wildlife inhabitants.
Hiking Sierra Negra Volcano
Sierra Negra is one of the six volcanoes that form Isabela. It is also the most active one on the island. Walking up the trail we learned quite a bit about the islands native flora and fauna. We got to enjoy the landscapes of the volcano’s enormous caldera as well as the smaller caldera further up. We even got to see the illusive land iguana which we did not see anywhere else. The views from the top were stunning as well.
This naturalist-guided tour (as you are not permitted to hike there without a guide) takes 5-6 hours to complete and costs $40-$60 per person. We thoroughly enjoyed this tour.
There is a boardwalk behind the Iguana Crossing Hotel. It is filled with large marine iguanas, various birds and most importantly pink flamingos. We stayed at the Drake Inn (next door) and had a view of the boardwalk. I would walk over every morning and evening to see the beautiful pink creatures.
The boardwalk turns into a trail which leads to the island’s Giant Turtle Breeding Center. There is a little interpretation center within, which is very informative and worth a visit. Entrance is free.
Kayaking Tintoreras Tour
This is a short tour that we did prior to Los Tuneles and would not recommend. Yes we saw a few sea turtles, penguins, white tip sharks and sea lions. However, the tour felt rushed and the amount of wildlife was nothing compared to Los Tuneles. The cost is $50-65 per person, is listed as 2.5 hours yet was only 1.5 hours for us. (And we did it with the top rated tour operator).
Snorkeling Concha De Perla
A wooden walkway runs from the town to Concha de Perla, where you can swim and snorkel among tropical fish, sea lions and penguins. Grab a mask and snorkel to see the wildlife. For us this would have been a better and free alternative to the Tintoreras tour.
San Cristobal Island
San Cristobal is the capital of the Galapagos Islands and is one of the oldest islands of the archipelago. It is also a surfers paradise with wonderful beaches where you can take a big wave accompanied by giant tortoises, sea lions or rays.
Getting to San Cristobal
Many people start or end their tour of the islands on San Cristobal. There are many commercial flights that fly here from the mainland daily.
From Santa Cruz, there are speedboats that travel the 2-2.5 hours directly to San Cristobal. From Isabela, one would need to take two ferries – one from Isabela to Santa Cruz and another from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal. Flights are available twice a day and take 30 minutes from Santa Cruz and 45 minutes from Isabela.
We chose to fly, as the prospect of 5-6 hours on a speedboat was untenable with my sea sickness. The flight from Isabela through Emetebe was $145 per person (we paid cash in the office on Santa Cruz). And the views from the 8 passenger plane were amazing.
What to See and Do on San Cristobal Island
Puerto Baquerizo Moreno
Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the main town of San Cristobal Island. It has a small core with restaurants and shops in close proximity to the bay. The main attraction in town is the bay which is covered with hundreds of sea lions.
Sea lions stroll down the streets, swing in hammocks and lounge in chairs. These are all normal and adorable sights in this quaint town.
Best Coffee – The cutest spot replete with hamacks to swing in while you drink awesome coffee is Fresco Coffee. They even make their own almond milk (as it is not available on the island). In addition they also serve delicious wholesome food (including vegan options).
Best Inexpensive Food – We were not looking for the cheapest food on the island, just good wholesome vegan food and stumbled upon this place – Lucky Restaurant. Daily specials are $5 and include a full dinner with soup which Rob really enjoyed. I loved the vegan vegetable fried rice which had big chunks of vegetables for $8.
360 Degree Tour
As the name implies, this tour circumnavigates the whole island of San Cristobal and visits the most interesting spots.
Highlights of this full day tour are snorkeling with marine life in Rosa Blanca and Sardina bays and visiting the impressive Kicker Rock. There are 6 stops and depending on weather the tour either goes clock wise or counter clockwise around the island:
2. Punta Pitt (photo opportunity of the Red-Footed Booby birds)
5. Cerro Brujo (photo opportunity of the massive rock formation and opportunity to see beautiful birds)
6. Kicker Rock (snorkeling – many have seen the hammerhead sharks here although we did not).
For us, the experience at Kicker Rock was the best of all the stops of the day. If you are set on seeing a hammerhead shark perhaps just do the Kicker Rock tour which spends the whole day there. We went with this tour operator. Paying cash at the office was $140 per person (which was the lowest quote on the island).
We must also mention that our guide owned tour operator was fantastic. The guide, the captain and boat, the food (so different from the food that we got on the tours in Isabela!) were all really great. We can wholeheartedly recommend EcoChallenger Galapagos as a great operator for either the 360 tour or for Kicker Rock.
Just north of the city, down some cool paths and beaches is the Interpretation Center of San Cristobal. It is a wonderful place to spend some time and learn about the checkered history of the Archipelago, the wildlife and the indigenous vegetation.
The self-guided tour is free of charge and is along the path to Cerro Tijeretas.
From the Interpretation Center, wooded paths lead up towards one of the most beautiful areas of San Cristobal. This lookout point has a panoramic view of Shipwreck Bay and Kicker Rock, called Frigatebird Hill or Cerro Tijeretas. As the name suggest, this area is home to tow species of frigate birds found in the Galapagos.
It takes about 45 minutes to walk to the top of the hill (depending on how many times you stop and your fitness level). The views are well worth it.
There are different lookout points from Cerra Tijeretas. One of them has a Charles Darwin statue and a path down to the water where you can snorkel. It is safer and more comfortable to go at low tide, because at high tide the waves can be a little strong and may push you into the rocks.
Beyond the most northern viewpoint of Cerra Tijeretas there is a small path that leads to Playa Baquerizo. This path requires shoes with good tread as you will be climbing over jagged volcanic rock for about 1 hour each way. It is a moderate to at times a strenuous hike. The pay off though is well worth it if you are keen to swim on a deserted beach with giant sea turtles.
A path along the water leads up along the volcanic rock and past many a lounging iguana to a look out point. Along the rock face of the cliff to the left of the view point are many bird species including the Blue-Footed Boobie.
Highlands and Puerto Chino
Highlands tours to Puerto Chino are available for about $80 per taxi. We chose to rent some bicycles and bike there. Unfortunately we got stuck in a torrential storm which forced us to return to town.
There is a safe bike path that takes you all the way to Puerto Chino. The distance is 25 km and should take 2-3 hours there and 1.5 – 2 hours back. Getting there is a steady climb which at times becomes quite vertical. Taxi’s will offer to take you to Puerto Chino (with the bikes) so that you can cycle back mostly downhill.
Along the way make sure to stop at the Tree House Cafe for a coffee or lunch.
San Cristobal offers day tours to Espanola Island. On the island you will be taken for a one hour hike and will likely see Nazca-Boobies, Albatross. and sea-lion colonies. There will also be a snorkeling opportunity. This is a full day tour with quite a bit of time spent on the boat getting there and coming back (4-5 hours). The cost will be approximately $200 per person.
Things to Consider
- As you plan, consider what you really want to see. Do you want to spend most of your day on a speedboat, racing to get to another island or would you rather spend more time enjoying where you are?
- Tours, ferries and inter island flights are at least 30% cheaper if reserved and paid for on the islands. We had pre-booked all of our tours for Isabela on line and had paid 40% more than our friends who were on the same tours as us but had paid in person. The costs for inter-island flights were 50% more on-line. Paying cash in Santa Cruz saved us $200. The same for ferries. I had pre-booked on line for the ferry from Santa Cruz to Isabela and had overpaid as well. Ferries are listed as $25 pp when you are at the dock in Puerto Ayora and I had paid $35 on line. Not a big deal, but still annoying.
- Most of the tour operators draw from a pool of independent guides who are linked to specific boats. We had booked through the top operators listed through Google thinking that we would get better boats or better guides, yet it all ends up being about the same.
- Hotels are about 30% cheaper if booked while on the island. This was proved to us over and over again by our friends who were traveling with us. For us it is important to know where we will be sleeping at least a few days in advance, so we rely on Rob’s hotels.com and Airbnb discount stacking tricks to save us 25% on most hotel stays.
- Bring $US with you to the Galapagos! Drawing cash on the islands is a bit of a crap-shoot. On Santa Cruz there are plenty of machines yet some run out of money, others offer only $100 per withdrawal and others just do not work. I followed many a tourist around from ATM to ATM to withdraw enough for Isabela. Please note that Isabela only has one ATM which may or may not work so plan accordingly.
- To get from Isabela to San Cristobal or visa versa is either a 45 minute plane ride ($145 pp cash) or two 2 – 2.5 hour ferry rides ($50 pp cash). There is no direct ferry, so you must go through Santa Cruz and spend the day traveling.
- Wifi on the islands is quite unreliable. Santa Cruz was manageable, San Cristobal was worse and Isabela was untenable. There were days when the wifi/data didn’t work at all anywhere on the island.
- Shops on Isabela and San Cristobal do not sell alternative milk. Only cows milk.
Galapagos on a Budget
We were pleased that we were able to see everything that we wanted to in the Galapagos on a budget of about $150 per person per day. Now, we do get 25% off with Rob’s travel hacking tricks of getting 25% off hotels (and you can as well).
We stayed in nice places with free breakfast, wifi, air conditioning and usually with very nice views. Our food was healthy and fresh. We ate in nice restaurants and at times made sandwiches or salads in our hotel room. With the tours we did too many and paid too much for them, though. Had we arranged the tours in person, we would have saved another 30- 40%. And honestly, how many blue footed boobies does one really need to see?!
At first we wanted to visit as many islands as we could. We quickly came to the realization that spending the time that we did on the three islands was enough for us. To spend days on end on boats trying to rush to yet another island to see the same creatures that we had already seen was not our idea of fun.
The Galapagos was a trip that we had wanted to do for a long time and the islands did not disappoint. We loved every minute of it. Well, except when the wifi was not working and I had to communicate with clients. And during the ferry ride from hell (Santa Cruz to Isabela) when even steady Rob was turning green…but, other than that it was fantastic!
The Biggest Highlights
- Los Tuneles on Isabela
- El Chato on Santa Cruz
- Biking Wall of Tears on Isabela
- Snorkeling Kicker Rock on San Cristobal
We were pleased that we could do and see everything that we wanted to in the Galapagos on a budget of $150 per person per day. Our accommodations were good, we ate good food and saw everything that we wanted to see!
Have you been to the Galapagos? What were your top highlights? If you are planning on going and have questions for us, please go ahead and reach out. We will do our best to give you suggestions and help you plan.