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The Galapagos, known for being one of the world’s most pristine ecosystems, is also known as being one of South America’s most expensive travel destinations. Its remarkable wildlife viewing puts it on many a bucket list. Being an animal-lover, it was at the top of mine and after stumbling upon a great flight deal to Ecuador, I decided to make it happen. The Galapagos isn’t exactly a location that can be traveled cheaply, but with a little planning, it can be affordable. I learned a lot while creating my itinerary and would like to share some of my tips on how to travel the Galapagos on a budget.
Before we continue, I think it’s important to understand why it is such a costly destination. There are a few reasons, but the main two being remoteness and conservation. The Galapagos is part of Ecuador but is located about 600 miles off the coast, making it very remote. Everything needs to be brought in from the mainland, driving up the costs of things such as food, clothes, and fuel. Conservation is the other main factor.
Last year, over 275,000 people visited the Galapagos. It’s important that the national park remains in its current, pristine condition. Upon arrival in the Galapagos, a fee of $100 in cash, is required at immigration (entry fees may soon be increasing, so please verify prior to departure). There is no way around this entry tax. It helps control the tourist population and funds are used to finance the conservation of plants and animals, upkeep of park infrastructure, and the enforcement of park rules. Now, how to travel the Galapagos on a budget:
Find Great Flight Deals
One way to save is to keep an eye out for great flight deals and book early. Sign up for email alerts from Scott’s Cheap Flights. If you can be flexible with your travel dates, you can find some amazing deals. You will want a flight to either Quito or Guayaquil, Ecuador. Flights into Quito are usually cheaper, but keep in mind you will have to catch a second flight into the Galapagos. The flight into the Galapagos is often cheaper from Guayaquil, but either of these options will do. You can also use Skyscanner to explore options and find the lowest current price. I flew from Los Angeles, California to Quito, Ecuador on Copa Airlines for under $400 USD round trip.
Travel in the Off-Season
The Galapagos has two seasons. The cool and dry season that lasts from June to November and the wet and warm season that lasts from December to June. The Galapagos is actually a great year-round destination and much of the wildlife can be seen no matter the season. To save money on cruises and accommodations, consider going in the off-season. The busiest travel times are around the holidays and spring/ summer break. September and October are cooler months and you’ll need a wetsuit in the water, but nonetheless, are great months to visit. I traveled during the first week of October and recommend it. There wasn’t an abundance of tourists and last minutes tours were easy to find. There was some rain, but not enough to disrupt our itinerary.
Cruise Vs. Land-Based Itinerary
Most people automatically think of a cruise when considering travel to the Galapagos. It’s not the only way to travel the islands though. One can still see a lot of the Galapagos with a land-based itinerary. A cruise has its perks- you can travel to the farther away islands, most things are included, you don’t have to plan anything, and you save travel time since the boats usually move locations at night. They can also be pricey. If booked in advance, cruises start at about $1,500 and can go upwards to $5,000 USD and more, depending on the boat and length of your trip.
If you definitely want to take a cruise then I suggest traveling during the off-season and waiting to book until you arrive on the Galapagos. You’ll likely be able to find some great last-minute deals if you can be flexible. Some boats won’t fill completely up and will give you a great discount, rather than take a loss. If you are on a stricter budget, I highly recommend independent travel and a land-based itinerary. It’s easy to get around the islands and you will save a lot by planning your own itinerary.
You can fly into either the San Cristobal or Santa Cruz airports and use the ferry to travel between islands. The ferry is $30 each way, or $25 if you wait and purchase last minute. It travels between the three inhabited islands of San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, and Isabela and runs twice a day (once in the morning and once in the afternoon). You can check the ferry schedule here.
There are a lot of affordable places to stay on these three islands and you can still travel to some of the uninhabited islands by arranging day trips with the many tour agencies around town. A land-based itinerary gives you more freedom and you’ll be able to see things on land that often aren’t included on cruise itineraries. Isabela is the most affordable of the three islands and has the most to do as far as activities go, so I recommend spending the majority of your time there.
Book Budget Accommodations
A lot of accommodations on the inhabited islands of San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, and Isabela are small family-run hotels or hostels. There are very few large or luxury hotels on the islands. I did a mix of budget hotels and hostels and had a great experience. Hostels can be found for as low as $25 USD/night and budget hotels average about $70 USD/night. You’ll want to stay somewhere within walking distance to town to save on cab fare. I would either book accommodations far in advance for the best price or wait until you arrive and wing it if you’re traveling in the low-season.
Hotel Star Fish
Hotel Star Fish is located on the island of Isabela and is a small hotel that’s clean and comfortable. The woman that runs the office is very friendly and knowledgeable about the island. She can arrange tours and any transportation that you may need. It’s also conveniently located in town and you can either walk or bike to pretty much anywhere that you need to go.
La Fortaleza De Haro
La Fortaleza De Haro is a small family-run hotel located on Santa Cruz. It’s a 15-minute walk to the beach and an even shorter walk to town. La Fortaleza de Haro has a pool, free/strong wifi and even looks live a mini castle! The owners will happily arrange activities and airport transfers for you.
Hostel Casa de Laura
Hostel Casa de Laura is one of the least expensive options on San Cristobal. Rates can be as low as $25 USD/night. Hostel Casa de Laura is conveniently located in town, but hot water isn’t guaranteed. I found this fine for a night or two, but I can’t imagine a week of cold showers.
Book Tours on Arrival
Most tours can be booked on arrival. There are many agencies in each town and I found that most hostels and hotels were happy to help me book as well. Although it may not be the most convenient option, you will get the best price by booking directly with the tour operator, rather than a third party. Keep in mind that many tours leave early in the morning, so make sure you arrange them the day prior to departure.
I had a great experience with the Eco-Challenger Galapagos agency on San Cristobal. I used them to tour Kicker Rock and had a terrific naturalist guide. On Isabela, I recommend booking directly with Cactus Dive Shop. It can be a little difficult to find, but definitely worth the effort. The guides are great and you’ll get a good price. It’s located directly next to Hotel Cactus and the locals can point you in the right direction. I used them for a snorkeling tour of Los Tuneles and had an amazing day.
Seek Out Inexpensive Meals
Finding cheap meals on the Galapagos can be somewhat challenging, but not impossible. Isabela is your best bet for affordable food. I found it to be the most affordable of the islands in general. Around town, you can find a lot of places serving lunch specials for $8 USD. These include soup, an entrée, and dessert. I found it to be a great deal. There are also a couple of places on the outskirts of town that serve giant empanadas, stuffed with your choice of meats and veggies, for $1 USD/each.