Iguana resting on rocks in Galapagos Islands

How to explore the Galápagos Islands independently and affordably

Sandra ROSENAUFirst Published: Last Updated: Ecuador

This article may contain links to products and services we use and recommend. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. For more information, see our Disclosure Policy.

Visiting the Galápagos has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. I’ve always loved watching nature documentaries by the likes of Jacques Cousteau, Sir David Attenborough or Professor Bernhard Grzimek (a German peer of the former two). Therefore, visiting Ecuador without a side-trip to the Galápagos was out of the question.

A few days after we arrived in Quito, we stumbled upon a travel agency, OLE Expeditions, at Calle La Ronda, and as we were studying a sign advertising last-minute cruise prices, the travel agent, Mercedes, started chatting to us. We ended up spending a good half-hour or so with Mercedes as she walked us through some boat options and itineraries. We agreed with her to have a look at it over the next few weeks as we were in no rush to book anything, given we had ten weeks in Ecuador. Over the next few weeks, we did some more research into the places we wanted to visit in Ecuador and put together a potential itinerary. At that time, we thought we might travel to the Galápagos in March. So we told Mercedes, who came back with some indicative pricing on some of the boats. To our surprise, a lot of the boats we had on our shortlist, were already booked out. We also realised that visiting the Galápagos would eat quite a bit of our budget.

Sea lions at Puerto Ayora Galapagos Islands
Sea lions at Puerto Ayora

Galápagos cruises start with TURISTA class (that is, small basic boats with tiny cabins that have bunk beds), and the level of luxury slowly increases, first to TURISTA SUPERIOR (probably comparable with a three-star hotel), then PRIMERA (first class) and finally LUJO (luxury). We initially hoped to secure at least a TURISTA SUPERIOR boat (to have a cabin with normal beds and normal windows) at a decent price, and we even swapped our itinerary around and opted to go to the Galápagos in February, but the best price we were quoted was still heaps more than we were willing to pay.

We had initially thought about doing a loop from Santa Cruz via Floreana and Española to San Cristobal but as the pricing didn’t fit, and as I realised that that itinerary would involve travelling more than 100km across open sea at night when I can’t focus on the horizon to avoid getting seasick, we looked at more central itineraries as well. Itineraries that included islands closer to Santa Cruz like Santa Fe, Plazas, North Seymour, Bartolome, Santiago and Rabida or places at the north coast of Santa Cruz that can only be visited on a cruise like Caleta Tortuga Negra or Cerro Dragon). Still, the pricing did not really change.

In the end, we decided to travel to the Galápagos to try our luck there or just do day trips. We booked our flights directly on the LatAm (formerly LAN) and Avianca websites, from Quito to Baltra (the airport for Santa Cruz) and back from San Cristobal to Guayaquil. This would give us the option of either taking a cruise from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal or take an inter-island transfer. More on that below.

San Cristobal sign in Galapagos Islands Ecuador
San Cristobal sign with sea lions in the background

The morning we left Quito (our non-stop flight with LatAm departed just after 1300h) Paul got suddenly very sick with traveller’s diarrhoea, to the point that I ended up packing for both of us, and we had to take a taxi to the airport as he was too weak to travel by bus. Thankfully, an Imodium did the trick to at least stop the diarrhoea for the duration of our trip, and we got three seats for the two of us, o that he was able to lie down and rest during the flight.

Santa Cruz

Travelling from Baltra to our accommodation in Puerto Ayora was an experience in itself: Once landed in Baltra, you board one of the buses waiting for the arriving passengers. These take you (free of charge) to the Itabaca Channel (a small strip of water between Baltra and the north coast of Santa Cruz), where you board a ferry (USD1 per person) across the channel and then a CITTEG bus (USD2 per person) that takes 45 minutes to cross the island to Puerto Ayora on the south coast. We had booked Hostal Marysol for 4 nights, which turned out to be a three-minute walk from the bus stop by the pier. While reasonably cheap (USD40 per night plus VAT), we would not recommend it. Check our TripAdvisor review here.

Galapagos Islands Transfer Sign
Galapagos Islands Transfer Sign

Paul’s sickness did not improve over the next few days, so we ended up going to the local hospital two days later, where he received antibiotics and some other medication to get some good bacteria back into him. His condition improved for a day, and we were able to visit the Fundación Charles Darwin, but a day later, he was back in bed, so we returned to the hospital on Monday to get a stool sample analysed. The antibiotics he was prescribed were against a pretty common parasite (and his symptoms indicated that a parasite was likely) but in the end, he had a bacterial intestinal infection (which meant another type of antibiotics was added). Finally, after seven days, he felt better again.

So what happened with our cruise, you might ask? With Paul’s sickness, my concerns about getting seasick and the quotes provided, we decided to just do day trips… and we have not regretted it one bit. For starters, the whole cruise business is mass-tourism par excellence… Every day, several flights arrive on Baltra and San Cristobal, ‘dumping’ several hundred tourists on each island. Most are whisked away by cruise operators, and we saw them being hoarded around like sheep… onto a bus, on to the boat, through town, to and from a point of interest. We had the freedom to decide what we wanted to do and when we wanted to do it. Plus there are so many animals to see anyway, and so many activities and points of interest, many of them free of charge… We stayed for two weeks and even without being partially house-bound for the first part, we would not have gotten bored on the islands.

One of many tortoises on Galapagos Islands
One of many tortoises on Galapagos Islands

So what did we do on Santa Cruz?

  • Apart from visiting the Fundación Charles Darwin, where you can observe giant tortoises, land iguanas and several bird species and can roam through a small museum explaining the work of the Fundación, we stopped at Playa Estación on the way back from the Fundación, where you can swim among marine iguanas and Sally Lightfood crabs.
  • A few times, we would pop by the fishermen’s pier where the daily catch was up for sale and frigate birds, pelicans, herons and the occasional sea lion would hang out, hoping to be thrown some fish guts.
  • We looked for stingrays, baby sharks and turtles at the Laguna de las Ninfas (an inlet from the sea surrounded by mangroves) and ended up seeing a relatively big creature (potentially a dolphin – it was darker at the top and white at the bottom) speeding and jumping through the water out to sea.
  • We were given a tour by proud students of the Escuela de Gastronomia del Colegio Nacional Galapagos in Puerto Ayora (they even had us sample some food they had prepared… delicious).
  • We took a water taxi to Angermeyer Point and walked from there through the cactus forest and past an old salt mine, checking out Punta Estrada beach and snorkelling through Las Grietas, a small deep channel that reaches inland from the sea.
  • We hired bicycles, took a taxi up to Los Gemelos (two giant sinkholes up in the highlands) and cycled back with a detour to Rancho Las Primicias (2.5km each way from Santa Rosa) to observe giant tortoises and a lunch stop in the village of Bellavista (where you could also walk through lava tunnels).
  • I hiked the 2.5km each way to Tortuga Bay (a big half-moon shaped bay with very fine, white silica sand that has a lagoon at its western end with lots of marine iguanas (some also say turtles and baby sharks but I didn’t see any that day).
Encountering Iguana on Santa Cruz became normal after a few hours
Encountering Iguana on Santa Cruz became normal after a few hours

We did a day trip to North Seymour, where we saw common and magnificent frigate birds, blue- and red-footed boobies, land iguanas, sea lions and various other bird species, and Playa Bachas, where we saw more birds (including flamingos, pelicans and sandpipers), and some from our boat saw a turtle when we were snorkelling. We also encountered a four-metre-long tiger shark playing at the water surface in the Itabaca channel on the way back.
The trip included the pick-up from our accommodation, the bus ride to the Itabaca Channel, the boat ride to/from North Seymour via Playa Bachas, a bilingual naturalist guide, snorkelling gear and a tasty lunch, freshly prepared on the boat. We booked our day trip with Deborah from Galápagos Dreams (or GD) Adventures for USD160 per person. While we learned that we had paid USD10 more than others on our boat (who had booked with other agencies), we found Deborah to be very understanding of Paul’s sickness. She managed to change our booking to a day later than we had initially booked to give Paul an extra day of recovery, at no extra cost.

Paul taking a break on our walk around Laguna las Ninfas

After the initial four nights, we changed accommodation, staying at B&B La Peregrina (near the fishermen’s pier) for the rest of our time on Santa Cruz. This place was so much nicer than the first one… find our TripAdvisor review here. We had considered doing another day trip to Bartolome/Sullivan Bay (for USD170 per person with GD Adventures) but those two islands are quite a long way away and it’s a really long day (we were exhausted after our day trip to North Seymour), starting at 0600h, so we decided we’d give it a miss.

Our inter-island transfer with Emetebe (a local charter airline that services Baltra, San Cristobal and Isabela) ended up costing us USD145 per person (booked at the local Emetebe office in Puerto Ayora), involving a flight from Baltra to Isabela (25min), where we picked up more passengers (the plane fits maximum nine passengers plus the pilot) and fly on to San Cristobal (40min). The first flight was a bit bumpy, particularly as we flew through the clouds that tend to gather in the highlands of Santa Cruz and as we crossed over the lava fields, approaching the airfield on Isabela. The second flight, however, was super-smooth. The other option would have been to take a tiny motorboat (lancha) which costs a fraction of the price (USD30 per person) but involves travelling 2 1/2 hours across the open (and often choppy) sea.

San Cristobal

San Cristobal’s airport is less than one kilometre from town, so we walked to our accommodation, Casa de Jeimy. This time, we had a room on the second floor with our own balcony and sea/city views. Find our TripAdvisor review here.

We had initially thought about doing a day trip here too. A good option would have been the 360 tour, as the name might suggest a tour around the whole of San Cristobal that stops at various points of interest, including Punta Pitt (where you can see other booby species), Cerro Brujo (another gorgeous beach), Leon Dormido (a twin rock in the sea that is well-known for its marine life – divers we met reported seeing hammerheads, other sharks and turtles). All of this is possible for USD150 per person.

However, since we only had three nights / two full days in San Cristobal, we instead:

  • Visited the Interpretation Center where we learned a lot about the history of the Galápagos and the government’s plans to ensure tourism and the preservation of this unique ecosystem can sustain side-by-side. Did you know that only 6% of the income generated from those expensive cruises end up in the local economy?
  • Hiked up to the Cerro Las Tijeretas (a hill with great vistas along the coast and back to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, and many frigate birds).
  • Snorkelled in Las Tijeretas cove and at Playa Carola: We didn’t see any turtles or sharks but we swam with sea lions. Best is to bring water shoes as there is no beach at Las Tijeretas and there are many crabs as you step from the rocks into the water that defends their territory (I got some cuts on my right foot to prove it). There are also lots of boulders as you step into the water at Playa Carola. Also, check out the tides before heading to Playa Carola as it’s almost impossible to snorkel during low tide.
  • Hired bicycles (USD10 per person for 3 hours and brand new Giant bikes at our accommodation), took a taxi (USD10) up to Laguna El Junco (a fresh water lake at 700 metres altitude – you need to hike up the last 100 metres or so – with yet more frigate birds and stunning vistas), then cycled back through the highlands and the village of El Progreso (with a great look-out down to the coast and La Casa del Ceiba, a tree house in a giant Kapok tree, fully equipped and rentable for USD25 per person per night, with an adjacent café / bar – check out this article to learn more. We finished the afternoon with a cooling swim at Playa Mann (again with sea lions).

So how much did it cost us?

Flight to / from Galápagos43701Feb17 13:10/14:25 UIT/GPS with LatAm 14Feb17 13:20/16:10 SCY/GYE with Avianca
National Park Entry fee and Transit Control fee120Transit Control fee to be paid in cash upon departure in Quito/ Guayaquil; National Park entry fee to be paid in cash upon arrival in Galápagos
Inter-island Transfer14511Feb17 12:30/14:00 GPS/SCY with Emetebe
Excursions210Donation Darwin Research Centre: USD2.50; Day trip North Seymour / Playa Bachas: USD160 (booked on Galápagos Shark II via GD Adventures, Puerto Ayora); Bike trip Santa Cruz: USD25.50; Bike trip San Cristobal: USD17; Snorkelling Las Tijeretas / Playa Carola: USD5
Accommodation320Santa Cruz: 4 nights / Marysol, 6 nights / La Peregrina; San Cristobal: 3 nights / Casa de Jeimy
Dining and groceries258We found Galápagos to be super pricey when it came to dining. You can find the traditional "almuerzo" (set lunch usually with a juice, soup, main dish and sometimes desert) in Puerto Ayora (for example, Av Charles Binford) and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (for example, Lucky’s, and there is even a little eating place right on the water near Playa de Oro) for about USD3 per person, but the usual restaurants charge as much as more upmarket restaurants in the US. Even ice cream costs double or triple the amount the same brand would cost on the mainland.
Miscellaneous60Includes transfers, laundry, tips, etc
Total (per person)1,550

In comparison, a cruise would have cost us at least USD1,000 (for a three or four-night cruise plus tips for the guide and crew). Together with the flight to/from Galápagos, the National Park Entry fee and Transit Control fee, accommodation as well as dining and groceries on the days before/after the cruise, we would have easily spent $2,000 to $2,500 per person all up (this is US dollars) for 14 days.

If you do decide to do a cruise, here are some learnings from our research:

  • Travel agencies essentially phone the boat companies to check their availability of cabins and latest pricing. I found that the prices quoted by Mercedes from OLE Expeditions in Quito were pretty much the same as those quoted by Moonrise (one of the recommended travel agencies in Puerto Ayora) and GD Adventures. While December/January is considered the high season, we found that the quotes in January were lower, and there was more spaces/more choice available in January than in February or March. February is considered to have the calmest seas and March is considered to be the hottest month, so maybe these facts play a role.
  • Even last minute, there are limits to the discounts offered by cruise companies, if the boat/itinerary you have in mind costs USD3,000 per person rack rate, you may be able to secure a cabin for USD1,500 per person last minute (if they are not booked out), but don’t count on massive discounts (I’d say 50% is great already). The two final offers we were given (a few days before boat departure) were each USD900 per person and both in a lower deck cabin:
    (1) on a TURISTA boat with bunk beds (the DARWIN) for five days / four nights, with a rack rate of USD2,249 this is a discount of 60%;
    (2) on a TURISTA SUPERIOR boat with twin beds (the MONSERRAT) for four days / three nights, with a rack rate of USD2,819, this is a discount of 68%.
    In AUD terms, USD900 are still AUD1,200 per person for three nights (USD400 per person per night to sleep in a tiny cabin without proper windows, and in the case of the Darwin in bunk beds).
  • Given there are more than 60 boats sailing around the Galápagos, you can help the travel agent you contact by first researching what islands you’d like to visit. Great sources in terms of what wildlife to see where are travel guidebooks. Check out this article for some ideas. You can then determine which boats have an itinerary that covers those islands and the relevant cruise dates. Boats tend to do 15 days/14-night loops around the islands, so you can do all or half (eight days / seven nights) or less (pending itinerary from four days / three nights). Note that on the first day, you would board the boat around midday / early afternoon and on the last day, the cruise finishes in the morning / latest midday. A great source to determine which boats are out there and when they sail where are the following:

Final note

Whilst we encountered no mosquitoes on Santa Cruz, Baltra or North Seymour, we were eaten alive by mozzies in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, particularly anywhere near the waterfront (we didn’t have any problems at our accommodation). Also, while the sun in the Andes is already strong, the sun is even stronger in the Galápagos (particularly on North Seymour where there is pretty much no shade and the reflection from the reddish-brown lava stone ‘grills’ your face). Therefore, good sunscreen and insect repellent are a must on the islands…and there is enough supply of both on the islands too.

Many thanks to the folks (Jane PERRY and others) that had also visited the Galápagos Islands previously and had provided their views and recommendations.

How much does it cost to explore Ecuador? South America is considered to be one of the most affordable continents for travellers. Check out our blog post to learn how much it costs to visit Ecuador.