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The Galapagos Islands are known for being one of the most expensive destinations in the world.
If you google them, you will find beautiful cruise ships that take you around the archipelago for thousands and thousands of dollars. You will see luxury resorts and tours promising you the best experience – if only you pay enough. The islands have the reputation of being expensive, and it is possible to spend a small fortune coming here.
Yet, it is also possible to experience the beautiful nature and wildlife without blowing your budget. While the Galapagos Islands will never be the cheapest destination in the world, I have travelled here for less than 60$ a day. This budget included a double room with a private bathroom, two excursions and lots of awesome wildlife encounters that I wouldn’t want to miss.
You can do the same. By the end of this blog post, you will know exactly how it is possible to visit Galapagos on a budget.
How to travel to Galapagos on a budget
#1 Galapagos cruise vs island hopping
The first thing you will need to choose when planning a trip to the Galapagos Islands is whether to go on a cruise or to base yourself on the islands. Both ways of travelling have their advantages and disadvantages. Cruise ships take you to places that you often won’t see if you only visit the inhabited islands.
On the other hand, you can see most, if not all, of the wildlife, while island hopping. And there is no denying that you will save a lot of money by skipping the cruise.
As I mentioned above, I spent less than 60$ a day during my ten days in the Galapagos Islands. I have not seen a single ten-day cruise for less than 600$.
That said, if you have the money and want to live on a ship, go for it (and then tell me in the comments how you liked it). I have spoken to travellers who have had wonderful experiences on their cruises. But if you are very concerned about your budget, go island hopping like my friend and I did.
Finding a cheap cruise
We’re going to put the biggest emphasis of the post on island hopping, as we believe that this is the cheapest way to visit Galapagos. Nevertheless, we also want to give you some information on booking a last-minute Galapagos cruise. That way, you can make an informed decision and find out which travel style is right for you.
Where to book a cruise
If you want to travel on a cheap cruise around Galapagos, then forget about booking it far in advance. You can find the best offers for last-minute cruises, where you book any available spots on ships that are going to leave soon.
Booking a last-minute cruise is possible in Quito, Guayaquil and on the Galapagos islands itself. If you decide to book on the mainland, keep in mind that you will still need to fly to the islands. We’ll talk about it later, but getting affordable last-minute flights to Galapagos can be difficult. Therefore, we recommend that you fly to Santa Cruz and look for last-minute cruises here. You can find several agencies in town that can help you look for a good offer.
How long should the cruise be?
If you look around, you can find anything from 4-day cruises to 10-day cruises or even longer. The longer your cruise lasts, the more expensive it’ll be. But a long journey also means a chance of going to remote islands that you won’t be able to visit otherwise.
In the end, you will have to strike a balance between how much you’re willing to pay and for how long you want to go. You also need to make sure you have enough time. As we already mentioned above, it makes sense to book your flights to Galapagos in advance. Since it can take a few days to find a last-minute cruise, make sure you have enough time (at least ten days, ideally longer) in the islands.
Before booking a cruise, make sure to read up on the itinerary. Are there any islands that you absolutely want to see? Does the cruise ship go to remote islands that you won’t be able to visit otherwise?
The cheaper cruises usually only visit the islands close to the main islands. You can easily visit those on day trips by yourself, so there’s no need to book a cruise. So make sure to inform yourself well about the itinerary before you commit to any journey.
Also, take a look at what’s included on the ship. Will you have a private room or will it be shared accommodation? What kind of meals are included? Get all of the information and then book your cruise.
Galapagos Island Hopping
If you decide to travel to Galapagos independently, you will need to plan your itinerary. Most of the archipelago is part of a national park, and you can only visit the national park with a guide. That means that you are limited to four islands that you can visit independently. You have Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana, although most people skip the latter because ferry connections are irregular and planning a trip here can be a pain.
Let us introduce those islands to you so you can see for yourself what they have to offer.
My friend and I arrived in San Cristobal island. Besides Santa Cruz, this is the only island with regular flight connections from mainland Ecuador.
San Cristobal is the easternmost island in the archipelago, and you can find more sea lions here than I had ever hoped to see on this trip. If you travel here, you will base yourself in Puerto Baquerizo, the island’s largest settlement. The sea lions have chosen this town as their favourite breeding grounds, so go down to the harbour where these animals are already waiting for you!
Besides hundreds of sea lions, San Cristobal is home to marine iguanas, lots of funny birds and also giant tortoises that you can visit at La Galapaguera. Oh, and then there’s a beach with powdery white sand where you can hang out. There’s lots of stuff to do on Isla San Cristobal and if you want to know more details, check out our guide to the best things to do in San Cristobal.
The second island I visited on Galapagos was Isabela Island.
Isabela was my favourite, and if you have enough time, you should totally visit! The town here, Puerto Villamil, is the most laid-back you can find in Galapagos. You have easy access to a beautiful beach from here.
You can see flamingos, hundreds of marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, and so many more animals! Plus, with Isabela being the largest of all islands, there is the option of going on excursions. While those trips are usually costly, we decided to splurge here and climbed up an active volcano and went snorkelling with sea lions and sharks.
If you need more inspiration for your trip to Isla Isabela, we have written a complete break-down of all worthwhile activities.
Isla Santa Cruz was the last island I visited on Galapagos. We flew back to Quito from here after finishing our trip, but not before having a fantastic time.
On Santa Cruz, you can find the archipelago’s largest settlement. Puerto Ayora has around 15,000 inhabitants, which means better infrastructure and more fresh produce in the shops. But you haven’t come here for the town, have you? Santa Cruz is home to lots of marine iguanas, sea lions, giant tortoises and the Charles Darwin Research Centre which coordinates all research conducted in the Galapagos Islands.
On Santa Cruz Island, you can also go snorkelling or try delicious street food. Find out more about the food, the animals and all other activities here.
I do not have much to say about Floreana, mainly because I didn’t visit this island. While I have seen pictures of white beaches, amazing wildlife and beautiful nature, I have never spoken to anyone who has visited. I am sure it is worth it since it is less touristy than the other islands. Unfortunately, ferry schedules are irregular and make it difficult to come here.
You should consider adding Floreana to your itinerary if you have more than ten days in Galapagos. If you have less, stay on the three islands mentioned above. You will have lots of options for activities there without missing out on anything.
#2 When to visit Galapagos
Let’s start with the good news: There is no wrong time to visit Galapagos. You can come here at any time of the year, and you will have a great time.
Galapagos experiences two seasons. The cold and dry season lasts from June to November while the hot and humid season lasts approximately from December to May.
The cold and dry season is best for seeing underwater animals, as the waters around Galapagos fill up with nutrients during that time. On the other hand, the hot and humid season is said to be slightly better for watching land animals.
In the end, we think it doesn’t matter at what time you come. We went in February, and while that was during the humid season, we barely experienced any rain. The island climate is quite dry, and as soon as the rain stops, the sun comes back out again.
February is perfect for seeing sea lion babies. But as we said, no matter when you come, you will have a great time here.
#3 How to get to Galapagos Islands
All flights to Galapagos leave from Guayaquil. That means that if you’re coming from abroad, you need to get to Ecuador first.
You can also book flights from Quito. Those will have a short stopover in Guayaquil before continuing to Galapagos.
In the island archipelago itself, you can find two international airports. The biggest one is located on Baltra island, just next to Santa Cruz. The second airport is located on San Cristobal, within walking distance of Puerto Baquerizo.With Galapagos being a popular holiday destination, flights only get more expensive over time. Therefore, we recommend that you book early.
Many websites recommend leaving from Guayaquil, as flights are slightly cheaper than from Quito. We went from Quito, and on the dates we chose, those flights were precisely the same price as from Guayaquil. Also, you might find it easier to find international flights to Quito than to Guayaquil. Therefore, it’s usually worth researching multiple options to find the cheapest one.
One sure way of saving money, though, is by choosing a multi-stop flight. Arrive on Santa Cruz and leave from San Cristobal or the other way around. That will save you one ferry ride in Galapagos.
Galapagos entry requirements
In order to fly to Galapagos, you have to fulfil several requirements. First of all, you need to have your return flight booked. Usually, that shouldn’t be a problem as you will book it at the same time as your flight to Galapagos.
The requirements also state that you need to have either accommodation or a cruise booked for the whole duration of your stay. This makes it very difficult to fly to Galapagos and reserve a last-minute cruise there. One way to get around it is by booking accommodation with a free cancellation policy. Also note that even though this is an official requirement, many travellers report that they didn’t have to show any bookings.
Last, you have to pay two fees. The first one is for a transit card, which costs $20. You have to buy it at the airport before your departure.
The second one is the Galapagos National Park entrance fee. This one costs $100, and you have to pay it upon arriving. Make sure to bring enough money with you as you have to pay in cash!
#4 Getting around Galapagos
To get around the archipelago, you will have to take ferries. All ferries go via Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. That means that if you want to get from San Cristobal to Isabela, or the other way around, you have to take a morning ferry to Santa Cruz and travel onwards with the afternoon ferry.
Most ferries go twice a day, once in the afternoon and once in the evening. The boat to Floreana is the only exception as it only leaves twice a week. Therefore, we recommend that you only visit Floreana if you have enough time in Galapagos.
While some agencies offer tickets online, there’s no need to buy your Galapagos ferry tickets before arriving at the islands. We recommend that you get them a day or two before your departure, down at the harbour. Also, keep in mind that if you need a water taxi to get to your ferry, you have to pay a small extra fee (50 cents to $1) for that.
If you’re prone to seasickness, consider taking medication with you. We took the morning ferry from San Cristobal to Santa Cruz and then, while waiting for the afternoon ferry to Isabela, stopped at a cafe. I had a giant milkshake, which I later regretted as I got terribly sick on the boat to Isabela. Don’t make the same mistake as me! Have a light meal before you leave, take your seasickness medication if necessary and grab a bag early enough if you need one. The captains have plenty on board.
While there are a lot of midrange hotels, it is hard to find budget options on the Galapagos Islands. It gets especially bad if you’re a single traveller and are looking for dorms.
Therefore, try to book as far in advance as possible. The longer you wait, the more rooms will be taken already. You will either have to pay more or have to settle for a place that is not as nice.
We found two of our accommodations on AirBNB, but you can also be lucky on various other hotel booking websites. We’ve even heard of travellers showing up and finding budget accommodation without a problem, but when we went, pretty much everything was booked out.
Also, keep in mind that you might have to show your booking before boarding the plane to Galapagos. Therefore, we do not recommend this approach.
Almost all accommodation offered on AirBNB are guesthouses. We stayed in two of them, and they were great. Then we booked a room in a hostel in Santa Cruz, and while it wasn’t the best accommodation I’ve ever had, it was at least cheap.
My friend and I always had twin rooms with a private bathroom and paid a total of 286,80$ for nine nights. That might seem a lot but keep in mind that we split the price between the two of us. In the end, we only paid 15,93$ per person per night. It’s more than what we ever paid on mainland Ecuador, but for a place as remote and touristy, it is still a fair price (and it’s downright laughable if I compare it to what Daniel and I paid on our weekend trip to Switzerland).
When comparing prices, keep in mind that services you might take for granted at home, like hot water and air conditioning, are not always included. Therefore, look out for these when making your booking. Also, wifi can be very slow on the islands. When we visited, the service was so unreliable that even my WhatsApp messages could take a few hours to get through. If fast internet is a must for you, then consider buying an Ecuadorian SIM card with data.
An excellent way to save money on food is to cook a few meals yourself. I know, it’s nice to go out and eat. But unfortunately, it is also costly. Two of our three accommodations had well-equipped kitchens, so we were able to cook most of our meals. Supermarkets are expensive on the islands but still cheaper than going out.
Keep in mind that, when going from one island to another, there are restrictions on which fresh produce you can take with you. Some fruit carry diseases that you don’t want to spread from one island to another! Processed products, like oil, salt, pasta or even sandwiches, are not a problem.
Look up hostel recipes that are simple and don’t use too much fresh produce. Since everything has to be shipped to Galapagos, vegetables and fruit are especially hard to come by. Pasta and rice dishes are good options, and potatoes were also readily available. The best idea is to look around the supermarkets and local markets and see what they have. And don’t be surprised if it’s hard to get something as simple as fresh tomatoes!
While staying on Santa Cruz, you also have the option of trying street food at the local market. Plus, there are stalls of cheap restaurants a bit further away from the waterfront, where you can go and eat various types of seafood. The other islands are less well-equipped when it comes to budget food options. Worst case, even if your guesthouse does not have a proper kitchen, you can always make sandwiches. We certainly did, and it helped us save a lot of money on lunch.
In total, I spent 90,08$ on food during the ten days I was there.
#7 Galapagos itinerary
With only four islands to choose from, it’s easy to plan your itinerary. Nevertheless, you need to keep a few things in mind. As already mentioned above, going from San Cristobal to Isabela will take a whole day since you need to stop in Santa Cruz. Therefore, if you only have one week or less, we recommend you stick to two islands.
1-week Galapagos itinerary
With only one week, you have just enough time to discover the best of Galapagos. Start in San Cristobal, where you can watch the sea lions laze around the harbour. During the next days, explore the island and take advantage of the free activities found here.
After three days, take a ferry to Santa Cruz where you will spend the remaining time. Here, you have a good chance of seeing marine iguanas. Santa Cruz is also perfect for swimming at Las Grietas or watching giant turtles at the Charles Darwin Research Centre.
Depending on the available flight options, you can quickly turn this itinerary around and start in Santa Cruz and end in San Cristobal. Just make sure to book a multi-stop flight so you can save money on ferry tickets.
10-14 days Galapagos itinerary
If you have more time, we recommend that you visit at least three islands. Start in San Cristobal and go for a free swim with sea lions. You should spend at least three days here to enjoy the island properly.
Next, head to Isabela. You will need to go via Santa Cruz, so you will spend the whole day travelling. But since you have enough time, this shouldn’t matter much. Plus, Isabela is beautiful and was my favourite island. Make sure to walk along the beach, where you can go for a swim and spend hours watching marine iguanas.Did you know that marine iguanas sneeze regularly to expel salt? So don’t be surprised if one of them sneezes at you while you try to take a picture. It’s nothing personal!
After a few days, it’s time to head back to Santa Cruz. Here, you can see giant turtles, swim at Las Grietas or enjoy watching the pelicans stealing fish at the market.
If you have two weeks or more, you can consider going to Floreana. As the ferries only leave twice a week, this requires smart planning. Depending on your schedule, you might be better off spending a few extra days on each of the bigger islands and enjoying them properly.
#8 Free activities on Galapagos
Enjoying free activities is probably the most important advice when it comes to travelling around the Galapagos Islands on a budget. While you can go on expensive tours, you can do a lot of things for free or on a budget. Here is some inspiration for each of the islands that won’t cost you any money at all. And don’t worry about missing out on anything. We saw lots of amazing and funny animals and only joined two tours on Isabela Island.
Swim with sea lions
It’s hard to decide which was my favourite thing to do on San Cristobal. I loved watching the sea lions lazing around town. But I enjoyed swimming with them even more.
If you want to get into the water with them, just go to La Loberia. Bring a towel and a swimsuit, and that’s all you need. Be mindful that sea lions are wild animals and therefore, you should always try to keep a distance of a few metres.
Search for frigate birds and blue-footed boobies
Have you ever seen a picture of a bird with a large red pouch underneath its neck? Those are frigate birds, and with a bit of luck, you can see them at Cerro Tijeretas. With even more luck, they will have a red pouch, which only shows during certain times of the year. But even then, the view from Cerro Tijeretas is worth a visit alone.
You also have a small chance of spotting blue-footed boobies here.
Watch sunset at Playa Punta Carola
Playa Punta Carola is the best place to see marine iguanas on San Cristobal. But you will also find sea lions and mangroves here, plus a beautiful view of the sunset.
If you want to learn more, check out our guide to the best things to do on San Cristobal.
Hike to Tortuga Bay
If you want to see an endless white beach full of marine iguanas, you should hike to Tortuga Bay. It only takes around an hour to get here. While the surf is too strong to go for a swim, you can keep walking to reach a tiny bay at the end of the beach. Bring your swimsuit and cool down here.
Visit the Santa Cruz Fish Market
The fish market is the perfect place to watch pelicans steal fish from local vendors. It’s also great if you want to buy fresh fish to cook in the evening. Just watch out that those birds don’t steal it from you!
Snorkel at Las Grietas
Strictly speaking, this activity isn’t completely free as you need to pay a water taxi to get here. The ride is cheap, though, and the water in this crack in between two cliffs is so clear and refreshing, that you need to come here.
Plus, you can see salty lagoons on your way, just another part of that strange landscape that makes up the Galapagos Islands.
If you want to know more, we have you covered in our article about Santa Cruz.
Enjoy the beach
The beach on Isabela feels endless, but no matter where you go, you will see at least one marine iguana. This is a great place to watch them hunt for food in the water, or just take some pictures while they rest on the beach. As mentioned above, they sneeze regularly to get rid of excess salt, so watch out and don’t get too close!
Hike to the Wall of Tears
It’s time for a history lesson! Did you know that the Galapagos Islands were once used as a prison colony? If you keep walking past the beach, you will eventually reach the Wall of Tears. This wall did not serve any purpose other than maintaining prisoners busy. Many of them died out here in the heat, forced to work without adequate water supplies.
Search for flamingos
If you’re lucky, you will see flamingos on your way to the Wall of Tears. We didn’t, but we know exactly where else to look for them. Take the wooden boardwalk to the Breeding Centre, and you will run into lots of flamingos here!
If you want to know what else to do, then take a look at our article about Isabela Island.
#9 Best Galapagos tours
When you arrive on Galapagos, you will see lots of tour operators with pretty pictures in their windows. It is tempting to go in and book all the tours. They promise to take you to beautiful places and show you fantastic wildlife, and surely that can’t be wrong?
I am sure that most of those tours are amazing. However, before booking any of them, look into whether you can have the same experience for free. Hiking to the Wall of Tears, for example? You don’t need a guide to go there. Just put on comfortable walking shoes, apply a lot of sunscreen and take enough water.
You also don’t need tours to see sea lions, marine iguanas or giant tortoises. All of those are easy to spot on Galapagos, even without a guide.
All nature reserves on the islands, on the other hand, can only be visited with a guide. If you want to climb to the top of a volcano on Isabela, for example, you have to go on a guided tour. That’s what we did. We spent the morning hiking to Sierra Negra volcano and then went on another half-day tour in the afternoon.
Both tours were worth it, in my opinion, since it was nice to see the volcano and we managed to spot blue-footed boobies in the afternoon.
However, we have had so many other amazing experiences that kept us busy that these were the only tours we went on. And we spent a long time planning which tours to take so we could make the best of our money. Tours are expensive. We recommend the two that we took, to the Sierra Negra volcano and to Las Tintoreras, but unless you have a lot of left-over money, we think you can skip the rest.
Also, if you’re interested in snorkelling, you don’t need to book a tour. On Isabela, you can rent snorkelling equipment and go to Concha de Perla. It is a lot cheaper than going with a guide, and you don’t have to worry about hitting those other people on your tour with your fins.
So do your research and then decide what you want to splurge on.
So how much does travel to Galapagos cost?
Here is a break down of what I paid in total in Galapagos. I already mentioned some of those costs before, but here you will get the complete overview.
Besides accommodation and transport (and flights, of course), my biggest expense was the entrance ticket to Galapagos. As already mentioned above, all visitors have to pay for this. Besides that, there is a $10 tax for all visitors to Isabela Island. Keep those costs in mind when coming here.
- Accommodation $143.40
- Transport $141.10
- Tickets $130.00
- Food $90.08
- Tours $80.00
- Drinks $6.00
- Souvenirs $4.50
In total, that makes $595.08 that I spent on Galapagos, so $59.51 for each day that I was there. On top of that, I spent another $431.11 on flights.
If you decide not to do any tours, you can cut another $80 from that budget. And the longer you stay, the cheaper it gets because the cost of transportation and entrance to the islands will be divided by more days. I think my budget is a realistic one that you can achieve when going here, and you might even be able to get it a little bit cheaper. Just remember that most great adventures on Galapagos are free.
Have you ever been to Galapagos? How much did you spend? Did you go island-hopping or did you go on a cruise? We would love to hear from you.
Also, check out our other resources about Ecuador that will help you plan your trip:
- Top Things to do in San Cristobal
- Top Things to do in Isabela
- Top Things to do in Santa Cruz
- Top Things to do in Ecuador
- Best food to eat in Ecuador
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