Updated: Aug 2, 2020
It was truly a dream come true! I've wanted to visit the Galapagos Islands since I was a kid, i'm not sure the exact moment when I discovered these exotic islands, but I've dreamed about them and talked about going for a long time! And this just proves that if you visualize what you want you can make it happen. I spent 12 days on the islands swimming with giant sea turtles, staring in awe at giant tortoises and exploring the amazing and varied landscape.
The Galapagos are easier to get to than most people think, they do take some planning but they are not out of reach and can be done on a pretty low budget. With that said, I think these islands (as with all special places on the planet) deserve a lot of respect and consciousness when you travel to them. The more humans who go there the more we impact the delicate balance mother nature has created for these unique plants and animals. So if you do chose to travel to the islands please follow the island rules (they are posted everywhere) and practice "leave no trace"
There are two ways you can visit the islands, one is by a cruise and the other is to island hop on your own. A cruise can set you back $7000-$15000 per person depending on the ship and length of your stay. You do a cruise on a budget by booking a last minute cruises once you arrive on the islands. Most travel agencies will be advertising last minute offers so shop around and see what you can find! This, however, is not what I did, so I really can't say much more about it. I did hear some good things from other travelers about the cruises and you can get to some of the more remote islands this way. The other option to island hop on your own which can give you a bit more flexibility and leisure time and can be a lot more budget friendly.
Ok so lets dive in to all the goods about a DIY Galapagos trip.
There are three main islands that anyone can travel to and these are connected by regular, twice daily ferries. These three islands are developed and it is easy to find budget friendly accommodations and food. The three islands you can go island hopping on are:
Isla Santa Cruz (Puerto Ayora)
Isla Isabela (Puerto Villamil)
Isla San Cristobal (Puerto Baquerizo Moreno)
Each of these islands have beaches, places to walk, to hike, snorkeling, museums, tortoise sanctuaries (my fav!) and tons of wildlife everywhere! Sea lions and marine iguanas are easy to find and it's all free!
It's easy to hop between islands, the ferries cost $30 per person, and you will have to pay a water taxi to get you to the ferry and they range between 50 cents to one dollar. From Santa Cruz you can go to Isla Isabela or San Cristobal. Take note that there are no direct ferries to San Cristobal from Isabela, but you can fly on teeny tiny planes that cost at least $145 per person with baggage weight restrictions. Clearly not an option I chose but it is an option.
There is the option to travel to a fourth island, Isla Floreana but the ferries are irregular and do not run as often which can make it quite tricky to go for just a night or two, but if you have the flexibility you could head out here as well. But before I chat more about the islands themselves, it might be helpful to explain how to get to them in the first place.
How to get there?
To fly into the islands you will first have to make your way to Guayaquil or Quito Ecuador. These are the only two airports that have flights to Galapagos. I flew into Guayaquil and spent one night there. I did this to ensure I had plenty of time in case of flight delays on the way there. I certainly did not want to miss my flight to the islands. And it was a good thing because American Airlines cancelled one of the flights the day before and we had to scramble to get it fixed so our arrival times would still work out! Thankfully it was ok.
I had read on many blogs that you need to arrive to the airport at least 3 hours before your flight to Galapagos as you need to buy a park pass ($20 USD, hang on to this, you will need it when you leave the islands) and have your baggage scanned for fruits, seeds and other things you cannot bring to the islands. For me this only took about 15 minutes, the airport wasn't busy at all, but I imagine it could take some time if the airport is busier.
There are two airports you can fly into on Galapagos. One is on Baltra island just off of Santa Cruise Island. Once you land the airplane will be sprayed down with some kind of insecticide (not my favourite part but understandable) and then you can head inside the airport where you will need to purchase another park pass ($100 USD/person) You will also need to buy a ticket for the bus that takes you to the ferry. This bus was free when I did my research, but as you will see the islands have a captive audience and everything seems to have a fee now. Once you get to the ferry you will need to pay another dollar for this ride and then you can catch another bus or take a taxi into Peurto Ayora the main city of this island. I opted for the bus and figured I could manage to find my hotel on my own once I got into town. This bus is another $5 and takes about 30 minutes to get into town.
The other airport is on San Cristobal Island. I flew out of this island, but generally speaking the arrival process would be the same but you are only a 5 minute taxi ride into town from here and it will only cost about $2 USD.
If you are planning to do a DIY trip to the islands I suggest flying into one and flying out of the other. I'll outline my full itinerary to give you an idea of what you can do on your own.
Free things to do!
The best way to keep your budget in check is to not do a tour every day. Each of the three main islands have a great assortment of free things to do.
Isla Santa Cruz is most definitely the busiest of all the islands. The town of Puerto Ayora has numerous restaurants, shops, bank machines, and offers the most amount of tours. But it also has a number of free things to do. The Darwin Center is a free museum that is most definitely worth the visit. You can also check out the tortoise breeding center where they have every breed of tortoise from each of the islands. There is a hike you can take around the center which you can see lots of endemic flora and fauna and the tortoises. We went to the center the afternoon that we arrived. We did pay $10 for a guide along this hike since it was our first day on the islands and having a guide is helpful. You don't know what you don't know.
You can also go snorkeling at Las Grietas for free. It's a quick 1 minute water taxi across the harbour, costs about 80 cents per person and then a quick walk (15 mins) to an amazing and unique site for snorkeling. It can be quite busy there, I would suggest going early to avoid the crowds. We went later in the day, it wasn't overly crowded but there wasn't a whole lot of marine life for us to see. The location itself is worth the trip just to say you snorkeled in a lava canyon and when the sun is shinning it is quite beautiful.
You can hike to Tortuga Bay and take in a stunning free beach. The walk itself is about 40 minutes and relatively easy as the path is paved. Once you arrive at the beach you head off to the right and continue walking another 10-15 minutes and you will find the bay with calm waters perfect for swimming. We saw a number of marine iguanas here and we were lucky to come across a blue-footed boobie as well.
We also ventured to Playa El Garraptero another lovely beach which was free to visit but we had to rent bikes (more about this trip coming) to get there, or you could take a taxi.
Playa de La Estacion (on the way to the Darwin Center) and Playa Los Alemanes (on the way to Las Grietas) are also free beaches and easily accessed from town.
Los Gemelos in the highlands has trails where you can view the collapsed crater and you can also check out El Mirador de Tuneles which are free laval tunnels. We didn't end up here so again I can't say much more about them. We paid a whopping $7 (for two people) to check out the lava tunnels near Bellavista and they were definitely worth it! They are some of the longest tunnels on the islands and were huge!
Isla Isabela is a wonderful island and the beach is right out your front door. You can walk for ages along the beach and maybe even spot a baby sea turtle! Isabela has the best spot in my opinion for free snorkeling, Concha de Perla. It's right near the ferry dock, just take a quick turn to your left before the docks as you are coming from town, follow the boardwalk and you will come to a platform deck where you can get suited up and hop in! It's easy to rent equipment from a number of places in town if you do not have your own. While we were here we saw sea turtles, a huge stingray, sharks, and sea lions. Friends of mine were lucky enough to see a Galapagos penguin as well. Another free option is to walk the boardwalk at the opposite end of town at Lagunas Salinas (watch for the Iguana Crossing hotel) and wander your way to the tortoise breading center. Along the way you will see marine iguanas and pink flamingos fishing in the lagoons. You can also hike your way along the beach and into the national park making your way to the Wall of Tears. It's about 14km so depending on how your feet are holding up and the heat, you might want to rent bikes from town which you can do for about $10-$15 for a half day.
Isla San Cristobal might have been my most favourite island. And of course it had a few free activities too. The interpretive center was really interesting! I learned a ton about the history of the islands and how they came to be where they are today. They do have a bit of a dark history which I didn't really imagine they would have had. You can continue hiking up from here and make your way to a free snorkeling spot called Tijeretas which is also a great one! Turtles, fish and a few sea lions. Be mindful of the waves if you are getting closer to the rocks, getting smashed up against sharp lava rocks is no fun at all. Also from here you can head up to Mirador Cerro Tijeretas, a look out point that has great views out to Kicker Rock and if you are feeling energetic you can continue hiking to a secluded beach, Playa Baquerizo. The hike is a bit challenging, you will want proper shoes on as you are climbing up and over lava rocks and could easily twist an ankle or cut your feet on the sharp rocks. But it's worth the trek. The beach is beautiful and there were only a couple other people while we were there. I went snorkeling and there were about 6 sea turtles lazing about, a couple sea lions were asleep in the bushes along the beach and came in the water, as well as some swimming marine iguanas. Bring lots of water and remember that you hiked down on the way, so you will be hiking up on the way back.
Day Trips and Self Guided Tours
Each island has a variety of day trips to choose from. Santa Cruz has the largest number of day trips to choose from. We actually didn't do any tours from this island and stuck to the freebies or self guided bike tour. Because of the number of tours here you can't really go wrong! If you have a couple days on this island head out later in the afternoon to the tourist offices and see what they have for last minute deals. You might luck into a tour for a great price. We met some folks on the islands for only 5 days but they filled them full and had great success with tours from Santa Cruz. We rented bikes from Bike and Smile and opted for the less touristy route that took us up to Bellavista and then up to Cerro Mesa where you could pay a small entrance fee to hike a 5km loop that takes you by the largest crater on this island and through the tortoise sanctuary where you can see giant tortoises roaming around free in the wild. From here we biked back down and made our way over to Playa El Garrapatero. The beach was lovely and quiet, likely due to the grey cloudy weather. It was a nice break before we had to bike back up and around to head back to town. We opted for the e-bikes which we were very thankful to have for the 7km of uphill road we had to take from the beach. After that it was pretty easy biking heading in to town. On our way we also stopped at the Lava Tubes of Bellavista. They were quite impressive! They are almost 2km long and very high. It's a small fee to enter them, but worth it to help the owners keep a few (and I mean just a few!) lights in the tunnels.
Isla Isabela is known to be the island with all the wildlife. It's the biggest of all the islands and shaped like a seahorse. There are only a few tours you can do on this island. Los Tunnels is probably the best tour. It's a half day tour you can go early morning or around 11 am. Check with your booking agency about the tides and ask which is the best time to go on the day you want. We boarded our boat and headed for the lava arches and tunnels where we stopped for lunch and then took a short walk on the rocks to see blue-footed boobies and even got to see some babies. Then we traveled by boat to the snorkeling section and saw a ton of giant sea turtles, sea horses and sharks. We booked with Galapagos Bike and Surf. It wasn't the cheapest but we ran into a cash flow issue and needed to book with a credit card which they took thankfully. But they were honestly amazing! We were able to take our snorkel gear with us the day before so we could use it at Concha de Perla, the free snorkeling site. We also rented bikes from them on our third day and they hooked us up with last minute ferry tickets from Isabela to Santa Cruz and then Santa Cruz to San Cristobal which was basically a private transfer there were only a couple other people on the boat.
Another tour available on the island is Sierra Negra Volcano. It's an early morning pick up and you drive about 25 minutes to get to the volcano where you start your hike up. The caldera of the volcano is massive! And then you get to trek down and check out some pretty amazing lava fields. I'll let you discover this for yourself and not spill all the details here. Bring water, a hat and sunscreen! If the sun is out it will be hot and there is no shade at all on this trip.
San Cristobal Island like I said before was our favourite island. It also only had limited tours, but we loved the vibe on this island. We took the 360 tour which takes you on a fishing boat all the way around the island. Our hotel (Dolphin hotel) hooked us up with one of their friends who had a lovely new boat which was quite comfy. We ventured out to Kicker Rock to hopefully see some Hammer Head sharks which we did. Sort of. I managed to see only the tail as I turned around when someone else in the group yelled "LOOK!" The tour also took us to some stunning beaches and then we were able to snorkel some more and see some white tipped reef sharks and a couple more sea turtles.
Where to stay
Honestly this is such a personal decision and it depends on your budget. There are no real hostels on the islands. If you are a budget traveler the best option is to double up on a room, but even then depending on the site you book with you might only be booking a bed and not the entire room (lessons learned from experience) so double check your booking that if you want a private room for 2 people that you book for 2 people and don't assume that you get the whole room. We stayed in moderately priced accommodation which were perfectly adequate. I just need a place to lay my head at night so fancy extras are not my thing and something I can't speak to here. But there are a lot of stunning hotels around. Do your research and read reviews. I spoke with a few people prior to our trip who didn't book anything in advance and had no issues finding rooms for great prices once they arrived. But I like to plan ahead at least a little, so I used hotels.com to book most of our accommodations.
Where to eat
On Santa Cruz on the streets Baltra & Charles Binford there a many Kiosks/Los Kioskos to choose from with budget friendly meals of the day (menu del dia). In the evening they close down the street and move all the tables to the road. You can walk by the kiosks and see the catch of the day. It's a pretty great deal where you can get one fish (one large fish) for 2 people with rice, fries and "salad" (i use this term loosely as veggies were hard to come by) for $15-$20. We had Red Snapper one night and I think it was a Grouper the night before. They prepare it how you like on the grill and it was fantastic! There are lots of other restaurant options on this island as well, but less budget friendly.
Isabela on the other hand has limited selection. There is basically a row of places to choose from along the beach front. None of them were spectacular, but it was still good food and cheap. $7 for the meal of the day menu and you could choose from 6 or 7 different meals. Not a bad deal, some even came with dessert.
San Cristobal I thought was the more expensive of the 3 for eating out. Lots of different options to choose from, but we couldn't find a place that had a set menu of the day at low prices. The food was pretty good everywhere we went so just take a chance and try one out. If you have better luck finding budget food let me know!
What to pack
Sunscreen! This would be my top number one must have item. The islands are on the equator so the sun is strong! Buying more sunscreen on the islands can be very pricey so bring an extra bottle just to be sure and make sure it is reef safe so you aren't inadvertently hurting the marine life.
Light clothing that cover you from head to toe is also helpful. I used my Sargon a lot as a cover-up to hide from the sun when we were walking about.
Comfy walking shoes, and a pair of sandals
Shorts, T-shirt or tank tops
Bathing suit, towel
Toiletries - like sunscreen, things are pricey on the islands so don't skimp out on your toothpaste either. Toilet paper roll is also handy to have around since not all bathrooms always come with it or you have to pay for it.
Underwater camera! Or a case for your phone. You don't want to travel all this way and have no pictures of all the amazing things you see. I used my iPhone for all my other pictures and it worked just fine. But if you have a camera with a good zoom lens it would be helpful to get good pics of birds and other wildlife that you can't get as close to.
Small day pack and dry bag
Motion sickness/seasick pills. The ocean can be unpredictable and a ferry ride on rough seas can be really unpleasant!
We spent 12 days on the islands. We flew into Baltra and made our way to Santa Cruz and spent 3 full days here. As I mentioned we didn't do any guided tours aside from the guide at the Darwin Center. We rented bikes one day, hiked to Tortuga Bay the next and then went snorkeling at Las Grietas. Then a ferry ride to Isabela island. We had 4 days to spend here, 2 of which we did guided tours mentioned above. One day we wandered around to the tortoise breeding center and the beach and the last day we rented bikes and adventured to the Wall of Tears and spent some more beach time. To get to San Cristobal we had to get up very early to leave Isabela head to Santa Cruz, wait around a few hours and then hop another ferry. We arrived late afternoon so found our hotel and had some food. Then we booked our 360 tour. And the rest of the time took advantage of the free activities and hiked to the secluded beach. Sunsets on San Cristobal were awesome and could be watched along side a few sea lions.
The Galapagos Islands are a magical place. If you are heading there remember the animals were there first, give them the respect they deserve and leave their home as clean as when you arrived. Don't overthink your trip too much, it's fun to let go and wing it sometimes. And if you have any questions, leave me a comment and i'll be sure to get back to you! Happy Travels!
And just in case you need a little more Galapagos here is a video of my adventures.