The Galapagos Islands are on the bucket list of most travelers who visit South America. The sad truth is however that most backpacker’s simply cannot afford to visit the islands that Charles Darwin made famous. We struggled with this dilemma for many months; do we or don’t we visit the Galapagos? As it has been our dream for so many years we decided that YES, we just had to do it. If it meant cutting a month or two off of our trip we felt it would be worth it. So is it possible to do the Galapagos Islands on a budget?
Here is the truth; the Galapagos islands are more expensive than most mainland South America countries. However, you CAN do it relatively cheap and not completely break your budget. We spent a total of 18 days on the islands and have outlined some Galapagos Islands on a budget tips and tricks along with a breakdown of what we spent and where we spent it.
See the amazing Giant Tortoise on the Galapagos
Before leaving for the islands this was our first dilemma, do we book a cruise or try and do a DIY trip around the islands? We had spoken to a Dutch couple in Colombia who had returned from the Galapagos and spoke really highly of the cruise. We were interested until the told us that the cruise cost them $1500 each for 5 days (and that was a bargain according to them). After some more research we realized that this was a pretty good price for a cruise, but not something that we had the money for – so a DIY trip it was!
The DIY tour wont take you everywhere but you can still see and do amazing things
The difference between doing a cruise and doing the Galapagos on your own is that on a cruise you get to see more of the islands. As the islands are a protected nature reserve people are only allowed live on 4 islands; San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela and Floreana. Therefore these 4 islands are the only islands that you can visit on a DIY trip! If you had dreams of visiting Fernandina or Wolf island then you better book a cruise. You will get to see more wilderness and diversity on a cruise, but then you also need to pay for it. Of course, we were disappointed not to be able to visit more – but that will be for our next visit!
This is the most important part of your DIY trip to Galapagos – and it’s going to take quite a big chunk out of your Galapagos Islands budget! There are 4 things worth considering when booking your flight: flying from Quito or Guayaquil, what island to fly into and out of, how long to spend in the Galapagos Islands and booking the correct flight. Our tips and suggestions for each are below.
This is the question people ask us most – did you fly from Quito or Guayaquil? We flew from Guayaquil! The reason was that we wanted to explore the rest of Ecuador before the Galapagos – the Quilotoa Loop and Banos particularly. We also only booked our flights three weeks in advance, when we were in Otavalo, and to fly from Quito with a few days notice was too expensive!
Flights are generally cheaper from Guayaquil than Quito, and getting a taxi to the airport is more economical too. A taxi to Guayaquil airport from the center is around $5 while from Quito downtown to the airport is around $30! There isn’t much to do in Guayaquil but if you want to visit the Ecuador coast or travel south to Peru it’s a pretty convenient location.
We recommend that you fly into one island and out of another island when planning your DIY Galapagos trip. We flew into San Cristobal island and out of Santa Cruz (Baltra). The reason was that we wanted to visit three islands and didn’t want to have to back track to our first island again. The airport on San Cristobal is very near the town (you could walk if you REALLY wanted, but we would recommend a taxi), but on Santa Cruz (Baltra) you need to get a bus, ferry and then another bus before arriving in the center.
Crater Lake on San Cristobal Island
This is a really important question. We have winced a few times since we returned from the Galapagos at people who were planning a trip and told us that they had 5 days and wanted to visit 3 islands. Of course the longer you spend on the islands the more money you will spend, but if you want to visit more, give yourself more time!
The days where you have a flight you are not going to be able to do much else so don’t make any plans for them. When you are traveling from island to island there are two boats a day; at 7am and 2pm. Each boat takes around 2 hours so you will be losing some of your day here, and if you want to do a tour that day it makes it difficult! So plan accordingly!
If you want to visit the three main islands (San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela) we would recommend you have 10-14 days. If you only have 5-7 days just visit 1/2 islands max!
Keep enough time to relax on the beaches!
This is THE most important thing, as a non-Ecuadorian person, that you need to be aware of before booking your flight. LATAM airlines will most likely be the company you fly with to the Galapagos. They have different rates for their flights; depending on whether you are a local person (in this case Ecuadorian) or a foreigner. So when you are booking your flight always choose the option TOP! Yes, that’s right ‘Top’. It doesn’t say anything like ‘Only for foreigners’ or ‘Only for Ecuadorians’.
I was aware of this ‘rule’ before booking the flights but had also read in numerous places that there could be deals from time to time on flights to Galapagos. When booking the flights I kept my eyes peeled for it to say ‘Only for locals/Ecuadorians’ but nowhere did it say that. It just had the options Top and Economy. Now the difference between Top and Economy was that with Top we had flexible booking and could bring 2 bags but for more money. We didn’t want either of these options so booked economy. At $332 each we thought this was a pretty standard price (if you google it people tell you that foreigners have to spend between $300 and $400).
Spotting penguins helped us get over the annoyance of paying an airline fine
We started to realise that something was wrong when we couldn’t check in our luggage online. After speaking with the customer care team on Facebook the day before (they mentioned nothing about booking the ‘wrong’ ticket) we were told to go to the airport early to check in our bags. It was there that they informed us that we booked the ‘wrong’ ticket and had to pay a FINE of $190 each!! Not only that but we didn’t have the benefits of the ‘Top’ ticket (e.g. no 2 bags and no flexibility). Yes it still hurts, mainly because we feel it is a scam. Surely after booking our flight they could have known that from our passport numbers we were not locals, and we could have changed our flights. Or that somewhere on their website they could have made it very clear that one option is for foreigners and one is for locals. Then again, that would just detail the racism and scam that this clearly is. So readers do yourself a favor and book the Top option – if you go with LATAM.
In total (with the ‘fine’) we spent $1040 or $520.50 each for return flights to the Galapagos Islands.
Okay, the other part of visiting the Galapagos that will take a big chunk out of your budget! There are two fees you need to pay before entering the islands; the Transit Control Card (TCC) and the Galapagos Islands entrance. You need to buy the Transit Control Card in the airport before your flight and it costs $20. Keep it safe during your trip as you will need to hand it in before boarding your flight out. The entrance fee costs $100 and you will pay this when you arrive on the islands. We have heard rumours that they are thinking about increasing this fee to $200 in the future (it used to be $50), so bare in mind that this may change!
If you are visiting Isabela island it is important to know that there is a separate entrance fee to get in that is $10 per person.
Total extra fees were $280 or $140 each.
Entrance fees are steep but worth it to spot wildlife!
You have finally arrived on the islands! Hopefully your wallet isn’t completely empty at this point. Our choice of accomodation for most of our stay was AirBnB’s. This was because, traveling as a couple, it was cheaper and made more sense to do this, but there was many hostels on each island.
We spent 6 nights on San Cristobal staying in Casa de Elkin, an AirBnB that was about a 20 minute walk from the centre of the main town Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. It was sufficient – we had a private bathroom and we had paid extra to have dinner with the family (more on that later). We also got some free Spanish practice – which was nice! We spent $121 for the 6 nights, or $20 per night.
Blue Footed Boobie on San Cristobal Island
We had 6 nights in Santa Cruz which was spread out over two visits. Our first visit saw us stay in an AirBnB which again was about 15/20 minutes from town. It cost $93, or $23.25 per night for a private room with shared bathroom. For our second visit we stayed in Hostel Carliza which which was more expensive at $35 per night, but the location was excellent.
We spent 5 nights on the notoriously more expensive Isabela Island and again we stayed in an AirBnB called Casa Peregrino. It was in a neighborhood outside the main town and took about 10 minutes to get into the centre. We paid $237, or $47 per night. It was the most expensive accommodation of our entire trip but it was the cheapest we could find online for Isabela.
In total for 17 nights we spent $521 or $30 per night – which isn’t too bad between two people!
Ah, food – that pesky thing that keeps us alive! In the Galapagos you can spend ALOT on food if you so wish, or you can spend a normal amount – like we did.
In San Cristobal we were lucky enough to be able to pay our host to cook us dinner. So for $5 each every night we sat around the dinner table and discussed in our best Spanish what we did each day. The food was, for the most part, pretty nice too! For breakfast and lunch we went to the fruit shop each day and bought bananas, apples and oranges. We then went to the panaderia and bought some bread. Not the most varied diet but it kept our costs low.
In Santa Cruz we kept our diet of fruit and bread for breakfast but we were able to enjoy lunch abit more thanks to getting Menu del Dia for $4 each. We found cheap dinners too for $3 in the evening!
In Isabela we had a mixture of different options, although we primarily relied on fruit and bread again! We also bought some food in the supermarket and cooked in our room (as we randomly had a kitchenette in the room). We were also able to get lunch in the market for $4.50!
In total for 18 days we spent $302.90 on food (and water). That’s about $18 per day for 2 people – not bad!
Top Tip: Bring reusable water container or hold onto a plastic bottle as many hostels provide free water.
Tours will take a massive chunk of your budget if you do alot! We did some tours but mostly we just tried to do everything that was free on each island. To be honest there wasn’t much (certainly not wildlife) that we saw on the tours that we didn’t see when doing free things.
Seeing more of San Cristobal on the 360 tour
In San Cristobal we did the 360 degree tour which cost a fairly eye watering $140 each. We did get lunch included though so we had a good break from our fruit and bread diet! We also did the Taxi Highland Tour here which brought us out to different points of the islands. This cost $50 in total, if you have more people you could just share the cost between everyone.
We didn’t do any tours in Santa Cruz so we avoided some extra costs here.
In Isabela we rented bikes to visit the Wall of Tears and these cost $25 from our AirBnB host (although Aoife’s bike got a flat tyre so we ended up walking back.). We also did the famous Los Tuneles ($105 per person) and Volcan Sierra Negra ($30 per person).
Los Tuneles on Isabela Island
In total we spent $625 on tours on the Galapagos – or $312.50 each.
Top Tip: To get the most out of doing free things on the islands buy a pair of snorkeling gear before you come over. We bought a pair each in Jugueton, Guayaquil. There was a store in the center and also the bus station. They cost $20 and we sold them again for $15 in a tour agency before we left. If you want to rent snorkeling gear on the islands it cost’s around $10 each time!
One other cost worth thinking about are the inter island ferries that you will be taking. We got 3 ferries in total (San Cristobal -> Santa Cruz; Santa Cruz -> Isabela; Isabela -> Santa Cruz) and spent $25 each for each transfer. We have heard of people spending more but as we were quite flexible we could bargain (e.g. getting the afternoon transfer from Isabela to Santa Cruz was $25 but the morning one was $30).
On Santa Cruz and Isabela you also have to pay for Water Taxi’s, which take you from the ferry to the island (no it isn’t included in your ticket price).
Entering and leaving Santa Cruz we spent $0.50 each each way on the water taxi.
When arriving at Isabela we paid $1 each for the water taxi to the dock and another $1 when leaving.
Our total between island transfers was $157 or $78.50 each.
Sleepy sea lion
There are also some smaller fees that we paid during our time in the Galapagos.
Total other costs were $14.70 or $7.35 each.
Below is the breakdown of what we spent by island (for 2 people):
San Cristobal Island (6 days) – Total $630.25
Santa Cruz Island (7 days) – Total $350.20
Isabela Island (5 days) – Total $672.85
So the total we spent for 17 nights \ 18 days on the Galapagos Islands was $2940.60 or $1470.30 per person (including flights and entrance fees). That works out at $86.50 per person per day. A really high amount for a backpacker but, for the Galapagos, a pretty cheap stay! Could we have done it cheaper? In hindsight yes, we probably wouldn’t have done as many tours (e.g. Los Tunneles) and maybe stayed less time (2-3 days less). But we had the best 17 days of our lives and so every penny was worth it!