Visiting the famous Galápagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador is often viewed as an expensive trip; a destination too expensive for your average budget conscious backpacker. There is definitely some truth to this; our trip to the Galápagos was by far the the most expensive part of our South American trip. However, there are many ways to save money while travelling here. The best way to do this is to travel to Galápagos without a cruise. In our opinion, it’s the best way to visit as a backpacker on a budget!
Considering the amount of hostels, websites and agencies that advertise amazing last minute deals on cruises, it’s no wonder that most people think this is the best, if not the only way to properly explore the islands. We found quite the opposite. Travelling the islands by ourselves and taking day trips to different uninhabited islands allowed us to create our own schedule, explore the islands at our own pace, and not be attached to a tour group and a single guide. We were still able to see almost all of the places we would have seen on a cheap cruise, and at a fraction of the price. It also allowed us to dive three times, without paying an exorbitant amount for a live-aboard or dive cruise. Unless you find an amazing cruise for a crazy cheap price, or are dead set on seeing the islands that are out of reach of day tours, we would highly recommend travelling the Galápagos without a cruise.
What You’ll Find in This Post:
- How to get to the Galápagos
- What you can do on each island
- What day trips you can take from each island
How to Get There
Getting to the Galápagos is probably the most expensive part of the excursion. Flying out of Guayaquil, Ecuador is the cheapest route, as all flights from Quito stop in Guayaquil anyway. Our round trip tickets were $456 CAD each, or about $355 USD on TAME.
You will fly out of the domestic airport, which is about 10 minutes from the center of Guayaquil (about a $5-6 USD cab ride). Three airlines fly to the Galápagos: Avianca, TAME and LATAM. All outgoing flights leave before noon. You have the option of flying in to two different islands. We would recommend flying into Baltra Island, the airport that takes you to Santa Cruz Island, where Puerto Ayora (the largest town) resides. You can also fly into the smaller, less busy San Cristóbal. This is the only thing we booked in advance of our trip to South America! We recommend that you book your flights and return flights EARLY, as we met some people stuck on the island who were only able to find very expensive return options.
Once at the airport you need to head to the desk in the middle of all the airline check-ins before you check in (they will point you in the right direction). Here you will be asked a few questions (how long are you staying etc.) and pay $20 USD as a payment for the bag check process. You will receive an affidavit and have your bag scanned. Once that’s done you can go check in normally.
Why so much bag checking? Well, biological security is tight in the Galápagos, as it should be, considering the islands’ significance in biodiversity. You cannot bring any fruits or seeds, or any plant or animal matter. Make sure your hiking gear and shoes are clean. You are definitely not allowed to bring any live animals. Dried foods like bars and pasta are okay. Don’t try to fool the system, they have dogs in the airport that sniff all the bags when you arrive on the island.
There are two breakfast places in the airport and some good wifi to pass the time. We got sandwiches and water on our flight with TAME. After your 1 hour, 40 minute flight (note that mainland Ecuador is one hour ahead of the Galápagos) you will land on Baltra Island and line up to go through “customs” to pay your $100 USD CASH entry fee. Make sure you have exact change. Everyone has to pay this fee, so unless you are Ecuadorian, add this to your Galápagos budget! Then you’ll collect your bags after you watch a dog sniff all of them for fruit and animals etc. and leave the airport!
A free bus will take you to the ferry, which heads across the Itabaca Channel to Santa Cruz Island for $1 USD. Then you can choose to take a 45 minute taxi into Puerto Ayora for $20-$25 USD, or sweat it out on the bus for an hour for $2 USD (it’s really not that bad!).
NOTE: We highly recommend flying into Baltra Island airport and out of San Cristóbal airport, if you plan on visiting both islands. This will save you a ferry trip between the islands. We also found it difficult to find information on when we could catch a bus back to the airport from Puerto Ayora, and taking a taxi is expensive ($20 USD at least). When you arrive at the Baltra Airport there is always a bus waiting so it is much easier. Also, the airport on San Cristóbal is only a 10 minute walk from town, making it easy to get to when catching your departure flight.
Inhabited Islands in Galápagos
There are four islands in the Galápagos with towns: Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, Puerto Villamil on Isabela, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal and Puerto Velazco Ibarra on Floreana. We travelled to the first three, and have a ton of information on them so that you can plan your trip accordingly. Below is an overview of each island and the day trips possible from the island. For a more in-depth look check out our posts on each one; San Cristóbal, Isabela, and Santa Cruz!
You can get between the islands via ferries that cost $30 USD (set price, no negotiating), and take about 2-3 hours depending on the sea conditions. There are multiple boats that carry about 25-30 people. Each island runs a similar system; you buy your ferry ticket from one of the multiple travel agencies and are told what boat you are on the day before. Show up at the dock at the allotted time (there’s one morning and one afternoon ferry departure time each island each day). Then find the boat captain that has your name on their passenger list. We ended up on a different boat than the one on our receipt all three times we took a ferry. So the most important thing is to show up on time and find someone who has your name on a piece of paper. It sounds harder than it is, just make sure you have your receipt from the purchase of your ticket, and you’ll be fine! You’ll get your bag inspected and then wait with the rest of the people on your boat until your boat is called. You’ll then hop on a water taxi ($0.50/person on Santa Cruz, $1/person on Isabela, no taxi needed on San Cristóbal) that takes you to your ferry. Make sure you have exact change for you departure and arrival water taxis! NOTE: These ferry rides are bumpy and wavy, so if you are prone to sea sickness, and even if you aren’t, come prepared! Try to sit somewhere on the boat with a view of the horizon, and bring Gravol just in case!
This is where most independent travellers base their trip, and where most cruise-goers start theirs. Correspondingly, it is home to the largest town, Puerto Ayora. It is the most central island of the archipelago and boasts the most day trips (and the most souvenir shops!). We stayed here for six out of our ten days, and kept ourselves very busy! Below is a list of activities you can do on Santa Cruz or on a day trip from there. For a more detailed overview of the island, including where to stay and what restaurants to check out, check out our Santa Cruz post.
Independent Activities on Santa Cruz:
- Snorkelling Las Grietas (free except for snorkel rental ($5 USD/person) and the two $0.80 USD water taxi rides to the start of the trail)
- Beautiful white sand beach in Tortuga Bay (free)
- Giant Tortoises at Charles Darwin Research Center (free)
- Giant Tortoises in highlands at El Chato/Rancho Primicias ($5 USD plus $40 USD round trip taxi ride or $15-$20 for a bike rental)
- Lava Tunnels in highlands (free entry, $40 USD round trip taxi ride or $15-$20 bike rental – can be paired with the highlands Giant Tortoises trip)
- Bird watching on North Seymour ($140-$160 USD)
- Pinnacle Rock view on Bartolomé/Bartholomew ($160-$180 USD)
- Snorkelling Pinzón ($130-$160 USD)
- Snorkelling Plazas ($130-$160 USD)
- Snorkelling Santa Fé ($130-$160 USD)
- Diving Gordon Rocks ($150-$175 USD)
- Diving Daphne Major/Minor ($150-$175 USD)
- Diving North Seymour/Mosquera ($150-$175 USD)
Isabela is the most laid back island we visited, providing more of a chill beach town vibe than the more touristy Santa Cruz or San Cristóbal. Puerto Villamil consists mainly of sandy dirt roads, lined with a few hostels, two main dive shops and a few tourist agencies. There’s a beach just down the road no matter where you are, and plenty of activities to do on the island for free. Though the island itself is the largest, and most westward of the inhabited islands, the town was the smallest we visited. For a more detailed overview of the island, including where to stay and what restaurants to eat at, check out our Isabela post.
Independent Activities on Isabela:
- See flamingos in Villamil Lagoon (free)
- Giant Tortoises at Centro de Crianza “Arnaldo Tupiza” (free)
- Snorkelling Concha Perla (free except for $5 USD snorkel rental)
- Check out marine iguanas at Playa del Amour (free)
- Wall of Tears hike (free)
- Snorkelling and exploring Los Tunnels ($80-$120 USD)
- See sharks at Las Tintoreras ($60-$80 USD)
- Hike up Sierra Negra Volcano ($30-$60 USD)
San Cristóbal was the last island we visited, and was a nice mix of the previous two. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno was noticeably less touristy than Santa Cruz, and there was a beach only a short walk away. However it still had many tour agency options and restaurants to choose from. Another nice thing about this island is that the airport is within walking distance. Check out what to do here below, or go see our San Cristóbal post for a more detailed outline, including where to stay and what restaurants to check out.
Independent Activities on San Cristóbal:
- Hike to Cerro Tijeretas and snorkel Darwin Bay (free except for $5 USD snorkel rental)
- Sea Lions at Punta Carola (free)
- Soak up some rays at Playa Mann (free)
- More Sea Lions at Playa Loberia (free if you walk 40 mins, or $3 USD taxi ride one way)
- Dive or snorkel Kicker Rock/Leon Dormido (Snorkel: $90-$110 USD, Dive: $140-$180 USD)
- Fishing and island viewing on a 360 Tour around San Cristóbal ($150-$180 USD)
- Bird watching on Española ($150-$170 USD)
And now you know that its super easy and awesome to visit the Galápagos without a cruise! Make sure to read our three island posts for in depth information on all the activities. They all include where to stay and where to eat on each island. You can check out our Pros and Cons of Cruising the Galápagos post, and our Ways to Save Money in the Galápagos Islands post to make the most of your once in a lifetime trip!