Travel To Galapagos Islands On A Budget: Visiting the Galapagos islands may seem like a faraway dream, accessible only to those with deep pockets, as Galapagos cruises are priced at several thousand dollars. However, despite this assumption, it is possible to travel through South America, Southeast Asia, and other parts of the world for months for several thousand dollars.
So, is the Galapagos really worth it? The answer is a resounding YES. It is a place unlike any other and planning a trip on a budget while still enjoying excellent tours, private accommodations, and good food can be a fun challenge. Exploring the islands of San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, and Isabela, swimming with sharks, paddling with marine iguanas, admiring giant tortoises, and relaxing on the sand next to baby sea lions are some of the incredible experiences that you can expect on the travel to Galapagos Islands.
The Galapagos has a fascinating story to tell, from its volcanic genesis to the various types of people who have inhabited the islands throughout time. The islands have a unique ecosystem due to their isolation from other continents, a community of rare species, and volcanic rock landscape, and they sit at the junction of three major ocean currents that bring nutrients. At one point in time, the islands were even a haven for ancient pirates and then used as penal colonies in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Sadly, the abundance of animals in the Galapagos also drew unwanted attention from hunters who desecrated entire populations of tortoises to make oil and food during long ship voyages. It’s worth reading the story of Lonesome George, the world’s last Pinta tortoise from the Galapagos islands. It is a somber reminder of the importance of humans proactively protecting creatures on this planet.
In 1835, a young Charles Darwin stepped foot on the islands and observed how creatures of the Galapagos had adapted to their surroundings. His time spent in the Galapagos was heavily attributed to the development of his theory of evolution. We highly recommend spending some time at the Centro de Interpretacion (Interpretation Center) on San Cristobal island, which has an impressive gallery of Galapagos island history. The Charles Darwin Research Station in Santa Cruz also has valuable information on conservation efforts and is the final resting place for Lonesome George.
Animals in the Galapagos Islands
One of the main attractions of the Galapagos islands is the incredible collection of endemic animals that inhabit the area. The sight of marine iguanas swimming in the water is an unforgettable experience, almost like encountering legendary creatures from the Mesozoic era when reptiles dominated the earth.
The Galapagos is home to an impressive array of wildlife, including Galapagos tortoises, sea turtles, yellow warblers, blue-footed booby birds, waved albatrosses, Galapagos penguins, fur seals, sea lions, bottlenose dolphins, beaked whales, hammerhead sharks, whitetip reef sharks, and spotted eagle rays. Whether you are on land or in the ocean, you are guaranteed to be in the presence of many of these amazing creatures.
Why should you Travel to Galapagos Islands as soon as possible?
It’s not surprising that many people have the desire to visit the Galapagos islands, as it’s one of the few places where you can see many endemic species in their natural habitat, relatively untouched by urban development. Despite various conservation efforts, the impact of human activity is still a concern. The population of the islands has grown significantly over the years; in 1972, there were fewer than 4000 residents, but in 2010, that number had risen to over 25,000. Locals express concerns about the overly touristy vibe of Santa Cruz Island but acknowledge the importance of tourism in protecting the Galapagos ecosystem.
A note on Best Budget Galapagos Cruise
You can absolutely see the Galapagos by organizing your own trip. Regardless of how you get around between the islands, you will need to fly from Quito or Guayaquil to either of the two airports on the island– San Cristobal (SCY) or Santa Cruz (GPS). While cruises are heavily marketed for the Galapagos, it’s not necessary to book one in order to experience the islands.
They’re worth considering if you want to do a specialty trip focused on scuba diving or seeing certain animals; however, there’s plenty to do (and see) if you plan your own itinerary. It’s fairly easy to book day trips to any of the smaller items you may want to visit. Ultimately, the most economical route is to skip the cruise and travel independently.
Most decent cruises will cost $280 per night, and the fees don’t even include the airfare to get to the islands. As food for thought, the G Adventures Galapagos island hopping cruise (one of the relatively inexpensive 7-day cruises you could find) costs $2099 to visit three islands without all meals included. While it’s possible to find deals in Quito or Guayaquil, it’s important to be cautious when booking a cheap cruise, as there may be underlying reasons for the low cost that could affect your experience.
How can you Travel to Galapagos Islands on a budget?
Once you are in the Galapagos, you can organize day trips, tours, multi-day tours, bike rides, gear rentals, and hail taxis (white trucks) to take you around and travel via ferry between the islands. We recommend arranging your flight so that you fly into one island and out the other. During low-visitor season (June to November), it is easy to organize tours the day before you want to set off. During peak visitor season (December to June), you may want to organize a few days before or have a longer list of alternatives for companies you’d like to work with.
The wifi on the Galapagos islands isn’t great. Don’t waste your precious time by doing painfully slow research on your phone– do as much as you can beforehand. Have a list of what type of tours you want to go on, which company you’d like to travel with, and an idea of how much it costs. Once you are on the islands, it’ll be easy enough to refer to your list and talk to the tour company in person. There are hoards of tour companies that operate all year round, so you should always be to do what you like.
Using the ferries in the Galapagos
The islands of Santa Cruz, Isabela, and San Cristobal are conveniently connected by daily ferries that run between them (typically morning and afternoon). They cost a fixed rate of $30 for a 90 to 120-minute ride on adventurously bumpy waters (take motion sickness pills if you’re prone to nausea).
You can buy your ferry ticket the morning of or pre-arrange a few days before with a tour company. Remember to show up at least 20 minutes before departure time because your belongings will need to go through an agricultural inspection. While most people choose to travel to the Galapagos with backpacks, you will do just fine with hard luggage as well.
Note: Santa Cruz and Isabela use water taxis to charter from the ferry to the dock, so have some small changes readily available in your pocket.
What are some cool, low-cost activities besides tours?
There are many affordable activities to do on the islands, such as self-guided snorkeling, bike rentals, walking to beaches, and taking taxis to get around. Additionally, many attractions are within walking distance of major towns, where most visitors stay. Most museums, conservation centers, and similar buildings are free, but donations are appreciated. Keep in mind that the waters can be cold, so if you plan on snorkeling or diving, ask for a full-length wetsuit. We highly recommend visiting one of the Santa Cruz tortoise reserves or the Isabela hatchery, which costs some money but is worth it.
Eating well and finding cheaper food
Food on the Galapagos can be notoriously expensive compared to mainland Ecuador. Practically everything needs to be brought by boat, which drives up the costs of ingredients. While in Quito, travelers can find a plethora of meal options between $2.00 – $4.00 but may have to do more digging on the islands to find food with good value (some meals can be in the $25 – $30 range). Pescado (fish) is a cheaper local resource and is widely available in the form of fish steaks or soups such as encebollado de Pescado (a delicious must-try item).
Generally, the eateries close to the port or along the main roads near tour agencies are going to be more expensive. Try walking a few streets behind the main areas, keep your eye out for places where locals are eating, and you’ll be sure to find gems such as perfectly prepared BBQ seafood platters of octopus, fish, shrimp, and lobster for $15.00 at La casa del asado de Anibal Garcia on Isabela, the $4.00 daily dinner special of soup, fresh juice, and a main course at Restaurante Lucky on San Cristobal, or massive grilled lobster at one of the many eateries in Los Kioskos in Santa Cruz.
This street holds a boggling number of open-air restaurants that all vie for your patronage with competitive prices.
What other ways to save money in the Galapagos?
- Bargain for your tours. Most companies will be willing to negotiate with you, and you’ll have much better leverage if you visit during the non-peak season.
- Buy groceries for breakfast. Many of the tours leave early in the morning, so you might have to skip breakfast at your hostel, or it may be difficult to find restaurants at that time. Buy fruit and pastries for breakfast instead of eating out, which should save you a few dollars every day.
- Split expensive taxi rides. Ask around at your hostel to see if anyone might be going to the same destination as you. You can split costs such as going to/from the Baltra airport or to the tortoise reserves in Santa Cruz.
- Buy your flight to the Galapagos as soon as possible. As you get closer to the departure date, prices can climb past $500.00.
For a 6-day trip to the Galapagos, where you can visit 3 islands, do two full-day snorkel tours, eat well, and sleep in nice private hostel rooms, you can expect to spend around $1111.45. That would be an average of $185.24 per day, which is a great deal considering it’s much less than the cost of the average Galapagos cruise. Plus, you can enjoy the freedom to choose your own restaurants and places to stay and plan your own itinerary. Check out our post-travel itinerary for more details.
Galapagos budget breakdown
There aren’t many ATMs located on the islands, so it’s best to come prepared with enough cash to cover your lodging, tours, and accommodations. Santa Cruz does have an easily accessible ATM, but it is hard to find any in San Cristobal or Isabela.
The Galapagos is a friendly place where locals are willing to share their knowledge of good food, tour guides are helpful in booking arrangements across islands, and taxi drivers negotiate fair prices. Almost every hostel and tour company also has wifi and large jugs of drinking water that can be used to refill water bottles. But most importantly, visiting the Galapagos makes one stop and consider how crucial it is for people to help preserve these precious species of animals and plants. Without focused effort, many of these incredible creatures will not be able to thrive, and future generations won’t be able to appreciate them.
Every little bit counts– from a small donation at a conservation center to reusing water bottles, limiting the use of plastic bags, to picking up bits of litter on the street, so it doesn’t wash into the ocean… all of this matters more than you know. With some planning and research, you will be able to cook up the ultimate travel to Galapagos Islands and experience these things for yourself. If you’re ready to start preparing, you can check out the Galapagos packing list that will get you ready for the islands. Let us know if you have any other questions related to the budget travel to Galapagos Islands!