The Galapagos Islands aren’t typically a place that you’d associate with budget travel, but the great news is that it’s definitely possible to take a trip there without breaking the bank.
Yes, these islands are more expensive than other destinations in South America, but there are plenty of ways to explore the Galapagos on a budget without missing out on much of what this fantastic destination has to offer.
We recently visited these incredible islands off Ecuador and absolutely loved our time there.
This, combined with the fact that we met many other travellers also trying to be as cost-efficient as possible, gave us some great ideas about how to see the best of the Galapagos on a budget.
So here goes …
- Ultimate Backpacking South America Packing List
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- Top 5 Things To Do in Ecuador
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Getting to the Galapagos on a Budget
Nestled around 1000km off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos archipelago is an isolated set of marine islands in the Pacific Ocean.
This means getting to this remote destination is the first challenge for budget travellers!
Currently, 3 airlines operate daily flights from Quito (Ecuador’s capital) to Baltra airport (in the Galapagos) – via the southern mainland city of Guayaquil.
Flights typically cost from $300 – $500 USD return, but if you book in advance, you should score you a cheaper deal.
Not leaving your flights to the last minute therefore is our 1st tip when it comes to seeing the Galapagos on a budget.
Our 2nd tip, is that flying direct from Guayaquil, instead of Quito, is likely to land you a much better deal.
Many travellers choose to fly all the way from Quito – generally because it’s a much more attractive city than Guayaquil and has much more to offer the visitor in terms of history and architecture.
However, if you’re really looking to visit the Galapagos on a budget, flying direct from Guayaquil is by far the cheaper option.
In this way, we managed to find return flights to Baltra for only $210 USD!
You can also shop for the cheapest flight deals around by using a comparison site like Skyscanner which will easily compare different airlines for you and find the lowest price.
Other Transport Costs
Besides flights, there are also a couple more items you’ll need to allow for when it comes to getting to the Galapagos cheaply.
1. The Galapagos Transit Control Card exists to control migration on the island. It costs $20pp USD and can be purchased directly from the airport
2. The National Park fee is payable by all tourists that aren’t Ecuadorian citizens. The cost is $100 USD (cash only).
3. Buses are the cheapest way to from Baltra airport to Puerto Ayora (the main town of the Galapagos Islands) and cost around $2 USD. They aren’t always reliable however, so you may need to pay for a taxi instead. A taxi ride should cost $18 USD, but will be cheaper if you can find others to share the ride with.
Eating & Sleeping Cheaply in the Galapagos
It’s surprisingly easy to see the best of the Galapagos on a budget if you’re dedicated to economising when it comes to accommodation.
Whilst luxury hotels, resorts and restaurants abound on the islands, there are many cheap hostels offering great rates too.
Typically, you’ll pay around $30 USD for a private ensuite room with hot water and air conditioning. This really isn’t bad for 2 people when you consider how remote the Galapagos are.
We stayed at The Flamingo Hostel, which is attached to the pricier The Flamingo Hotel.
We liked the Flamingo Hostel because although basic, it was clean with comfy beds and free tea and coffee.
Just don’t get confused and book the hotel instead by accident!
We also heard good things about Hotel Espana, which although a little more expensive, has free wifi and is very well located near to town and the beach.
Unfortunately, food is a little trickier to manage if you’re visiting the Galapagos on a budget.
With the average mid-range restaurant meal costing around $14-$16 USD, prices can quickly add up.
However, there are a few cheaper options available. Here are our favourites on Santa Cruz:
1. Lemon & Coffee is a small restaurant on Avenida Charles Darwin where great burgers cost just $6-$7 USD.
2. ‘Kioscas’ sell amazing and cheap fresh seafood and other simple dishes for $8+ USD on Avenida Charles Binford.
3. Small supermarkets in the town sell empanadas for just $1.50 – $2 USD, as well as fresh pastries / snacks.
Exploring the Galapagos on a Budget
The really good news when it comes to activities is that there’s a lot to do for free or cheaply on the main islands of the Galapagos.
Santa Cruz Activities
Our top recommendations for budget activities in Santa Cruz include:
1. The Charles Darwin Research Centre is FREE to enter and only a 10 minute walk from the centre of Puerto Ayora. It’s a good way to spend a few hours as you can see some great wildlife and learn more about the conservation on the islands. You can also watch an interesting film about Galapagos conservation, see some museum exhibits and visit the areas where giant tortoises and land iguanas are cared for by scientists.
2. Tortuga Bay is a pleasant hike from town that takes around an hour. It is one of the most stunning beaches we’ve ever seen and definitely one of the best things to do in the Galapagos on a budget! There are many birds and marine iguanas to check out there and the water is beautifully clear. It’s also possible to hire kayaks and snorkel.
3. The Handicraft & Fish Markets dot the main road to the Darwin Centre and are a great place to stroll around. Watch pelicans and sea lions try to nab fresh fish from the market traders, or treat yourself to some cheap souvenirs at the handicraft market stalls.
4. The Lava Fields in the highlands can be visited for around $30 USD in a taxi. The highlands offer a different landscape, which is lush and green compared to the barren appearance of much of the rest of the island. You can see giant tortoises ambling around in their native environment, and hike the lava fields that remain as the stark remnants of ancient volcanoes. This is a great activity to do if you’re exploring the Galapagos on a budget because, if you get a small group together, you can share the taxi costs, and see more of Santa Cruz very cheaply.
5. Las Grietas is a fantastic rocky gorge created by the sea where you can swim or snorkel in crystal clear water. To get here, it’s about a 15-20 minute walk along a trail past the Finch Bay Hotel. To reach the hotel, it’s just 60 cents for a speed boat taxi from the main dock to the “otro lado”.
The biggest decision faced by most travellers wishing to see the Galapagos on a budget is whether to invest in a cruise or stick to day trips and island hopping?
This is not an easy decision to make, we know (!), but based on our experience we’d definitely recommend at least a short cruise if you can work it into your spending allowance.
There are over 100 agencies in Puerto Ayora offering last minute deals and selling the remaining spots on their boats.
This does make it possible to pick up some great deals if you’re flexible with your timeframe.
If you’re looking to cruise the Galapagos cheaply therefore, it’s well worth investing some time to walking around the various agents and negotiate with the tour operators.
Without a doubt the best deals can be secured on the day from the islands themselves, so whilst it’s a bit of a risk in high season, and pretty labour intensive, if you’re set on a cruising the Galapagos on a budget, this is the best way to do it.
Cruises run from as little as 2 nights – 10 nights and range in price from $220 USD to well into 4 figures, so you can work out exactly what’s best for your price range.
As well as how many nights you want to spend on board, you’ll also need to decide what class of boat you want: Tourist, Tourist Superior, First Class and Luxury.
Costs vary wildly as you’d imagine, but at the cheapest end of the scale, a 5-night, tourist class cruise, picked up as a last minute deal, could cost you around $600 – $750 USD.
Pushing the boat out a little (pardon the pun!) we went for tourist superior cruise and managed to negotiate the price down from $1350 to $980 USD!
We felt this was a good choice for us – the food was excellent and plentiful, the cabins small but comfortable and our English speaking guide was fantastic.
Cruise routes also vary with many options on offer.
While a little more expensive, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the route we did through the west, which took in Fernandina, Isabela, Santiago, Rabida and North Seymour over 5 nights / 6 days.
From volcanoes and lava fields to red, black and white sandy beaches as well as mangrove forests, we hiked and snorkelled daily.
We also saw an incredible range of wildlife including marine / land iguanas, sea lions and their pups, penguins, blue-footed boobies, sea turtles, giant tortoises, white-tipped sharks, hawks, manta rays and so much more.
If a cruise is out of the question when you’re visiting the Galapagos, then there’s a couple of day trips which are cheaper, but still allow you to see other islands.
Daily speed boat taxis travel to nearby inhabited islands such as Isabela, Floreana and San Cristobal for $30 USD each way.
Once there, it’s easy to book cheap hostels for the night and to explore the islands independently or jump on a day tour.
For day tours to islands that include an official guide, as well as hiking and snorkelling opportunities, return transport and lunch it’s normally around $100 – $180pp USD.
Again, a great tip when trying to explore the Galapagos as cheaply as possible is to use your best negotiating skills!
We had a great day visiting Floreana island from Santa Cruz on one such tour and paid only $120pp USD. This allowed us to hike in the highlands, as well as snorkel with sea turtles and more tropical fish than you can count!
For even more Galapagos info, check out this great comprehensive article from Universal Traveller.
While the Galapagos certainly aren’t what we’d call a cheap destination, they can at least be affordable and will continue to grow more so as tourism to the islands grows.
In general, if you manage to secure cheap flights, as well as keep your accommodation and food costs down while you are there, you should have some spare cash to invest in some Galapagos tours or cruises.
We wholeheartedly recommend a cruise, especially as it includes accommodation, all of your meals and guided tours.
And by booking last minute there’s many bargains to be had.
What we would say is that every penny we spent in the Galapagos was worth it – we’ve never been somewhere so beautiful with so much to offer in terms of stunning landscapes and incredible wildlife.
Do you agree?
Let me know your top tips when it comes to enjoying the Galapagos on a budget.
Rob and Sarah are a British couple who left their jobs in favour of indefinite world travel and adventures.