An ultimate guide to seeing Galapagos independently

Magda Biskup from Destination World provides a detailed guide on travelling the Galapagos independently for a lot less.

Galapagos is on many people’s list of places to see. But for budget travelers it’s often one of the places – like Antarctica or Seychelles – they never expect to visit, simply because it’s too pricey. The idea of seeing the amazing wildlife of the archipelago is very tempting, but very few backpackers can afford a boat trip.

However, not many people realise that it’s actually possible to see the Galapagos without paying big bucks for a cruise. I’ve done it and I am going to show you how to do it.

Seeing the Galapagos in the ideal world…

If I was to be completely honest, I would have to admit that a week-long cruise is probably the best option to see the archipelago – the nights are spent sailing and the days visiting different islands and snorkeling with sea lions. Awesome. But a quick tour of travel agencies or a simple internet search reveals that the cheapest possible option costs at least $500 for what’s advertised as a 4 days/3 nights trip. However, after a closer look you discover that the tour actually lasts 2.5 days and 3 nights, because most of the the first day is spent getting to Galapagos and the last day you fly back to the mainland the first thing in the morning. Of course those $500 do not include any flights or national park ticket (which you need another $450-$500 to pay for) or extras such as scuba diving. So you do the math and it seems like you are looking at spending about $1000 for cruising the Galapagos for just two days. I don’t know about you, but for me that’s a hell lot of money. And I don’t even want to mention the money you would have to pay for a longer cruises. They simply cost a small fortune.

Luckily there is another option.

What’s the difference?

The main difference between cruising the Galapagos and exploring the archipelago independently is that the former gives you the ability to visit more remote islands. But this is only if you go for a longer cruise, like 6 days or more. Those so called 4 days/3 night trips will only take you around the main island.

Having said that, you can still see LOTS on your own. The wildlife is everywhere and you will have plenty of opportunities to encounter giant turtles, iguanas, sea lions, sea turtles, sharks, rays, blue-footed boobys, flamingos, penguins and many more.

This is how you do it.

Getting to the Galapagos

As you get to Ecuador go to any travel agency in Quito or Guayaquil and buy your plane ticket. There are three airlines flying to Galapagos from the mainland – Tame, AeroGal and LAN Ecuador. It doesn’t really matter which one you choose, as they all have pretty much the same prices. The return flight costs between $350 and $420, depending on when you fly (there are low and high season prices) and where from (flights from Guayaquil cost $50 less than those from Quito). You shouldn’t have any trouble booking you flight just a few days prior to departure.

There are two airports in Galapagos – one on Baltra and the other one on San Cristobal. It is possible to fly to one of those locations and fly back from the other. Which is an options you should consider, as it can save you time and money.

Galapagos logistics

Santa Cruz Island is where most people start their Galapagos adventure – whether they go on a cruise or travel independently. Santa Cruz is a home to the biggest town in the archipelago – Puerto Ayora – and you will be surprised to know that it has got a population of 18,000. Puerto Ayora has got a few cheap hotels, where you can expect to pay between $15 and $25 for a double room, and quite a few travel agencies as well. They organize day trips to the surrounding islands like Floreana, Bartolome or Seymour. Expect to pay between $60 and $150 for a day trip, depending on where you want to go and which travel agency you pick (those listed in LP tend to be most expensive). Do shop around.

There are also a few dive centers in town organising day trips. Those scuba diving trips do cost a bit ($130-150 for two dives), but are so worth the money.

If you prefer free activities, there is a few things to choose from. Go to Charles Darwin Research Station to see giant turtles or walk to the beautiful Tortuga Beach, where you can meet sea iguanas and lots of birds. Both are amazing places and they cost nothing to visit. If you care to spend some dollars on a taxi, you could see the lava tunnels in the middle of the island, or wild giant turtles on one of the properties (ask the owner for permission). Just ask any taxi driver and he will take you there.

When you get bored with Santa Cruz you should consider taking a speed boat to Isabella. It’s the biggest island in the archipelago and one the cruise trips never visit, so there are a very few tourists over there. A few boats leave Puerto Ayora for Isabella every day at 2pm and they cost $30. Remember to take some sea sickness tablets, as the trip can be rough.

When you get to Isabella make sure you do two things – go snorkeling at the place called Las Tintoreras, where you can swim with rays, sea lions and sea turtles, see penguins and other birds as well as some sharks, and go for a horse trek to the crater of Sierra Negra volcano. The trek is not your typical Galapagos activity, but it is a great opportunity to learn a bit about archipelago’s natural history and see some stunning landscape.

If you are into surfing the town has got pretty amazing beach to explore.

After you get to know Isabella, you should head to San Cristobal island. To do so catch the morning boat to Santa Cruz and then 2pm boat from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal. It’s a lot of traveling, but definitely worth the effort. The local town is called Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and it’s archipelago’s capital. The place is dominated by sea lions occupying the the promenade and the local beach. Not something you get to see every day.

Make sure you go to stunning Lobreria beach, about 1km from town, which is inhabited by even more sea lions and a huge number of iguanas. You will probably be the only person there. And if you want to see the hammerhead sharks you can do it too. Just book a snorkeling or scuba diving trip to Kickers Rock and Lobo Island, and you will see tens of them.

These are just some things you can do on Santa Cruz, Isabella and San Cristobal. There is much more activities to choose from and how you spend your time there is up to you. But the fact is that it doesn’t have to cost a fortune to see those amazing islands. It surely costs a bit more that mainland Ecuador, but considering what you see, it’s money well spent.

Show me the money

Now that you’ve read it all, you probably want to know how much it costs. As I mentioned before, a budget 4 days/3 night cruise bought in the mainland Ecuador will cost around $1000, including flight and national park ticket.

And this is what I spent on the independent 10 days/9 nights Galapagos trip:

Return flight – $360 National Park entry – $100 Galapagos permit (issued at the Quito and Guayaquil airports) – $10 Accommodation (9 nights, shared double room with private bathroom) – $100 Transport between the islands – $90 Food – $100 Tours – $180 (I took four tours: day trip to Floreana – $65, snorkeling in Las Tintoreras – $20, horse trip to Sierra Negra – $45, snorkeling at Kickers Rock and Lobo Island – $50) Scuba diving at Gordon’s Rock – $130 Other (beer, souvenirs, taxis etc) – $50 Total: $1120 for 10 days

Final word about Galapagos boat trips

If you still really want to see Galapagos by being a part of a boat trip, here is my advice – do not book it from home and do not book it in the mainland Ecuador. Just fly to Galapagos and find a boat trip there. There usually are some last minute deals available is Puerto Ayora and those deals can save you lots of money. To do so however, you need to have flexibility and time, as it can take a few days to find what you want.

This is a guest post by Magda Biskup from Destination World. Magda has recently returned from a 20-month long career break trip and is currently based in Sydney, Australia.  

17 Comments

  • FearfulGirl

    January 26, 2011

    Great article, excellent advice! Stunning photos. I’ve heard a lot of great things about the Galapagos.

  • Rebecca

    January 26, 2011

    Wow, I didn’t think this was possible – thought I’d have to drop at least a couple of grand so thank you for sharing!

  • Erica

    January 26, 2011

    I really wish that even that could fit into our budget. I have wanted to see the Galapagos for so long – photography aside. It is a kid’s dream in regards to ecotourism.

  • WanderingTrader

    January 26, 2011

    Def bookmarking this Im heading to the Galapagos this year in April or so.. great post magda!

  • Abbie

    January 27, 2011

    I agree with WanderingTrader, will definitely bookmark this for when I eventually make it to the Galapagos!

  • joshywashington

    January 27, 2011

    The Galapagos have long been on my radar, such history and such an astounding array of wildlife. I have always wanted to see a blue footed booby!

  • Nick

    January 27, 2011

    The blue footed booby feet look bioluminescent

  • Galapagos Tortoise

    January 28, 2011

    I had a hard time surfing the internet and lucky I stumbled upon your blog. Just what I was looking for. Thanks!

  • manonthelam

    January 29, 2011

    What a great article! You covered everything. I especially like that you put the breakdown of costs in there. So many thing the Galapagos is beyond their reach, but you have shown that it can be done on a budget. Thank-you!

  • Tijmen

    January 30, 2011

    Never thought you could visit those Island for that money, was always under the impressions it was a lot more expensive. Great photos, love the contrast between the blue feet and the rest of the bird, look a bit weird though.

  • Agreed with that advice. Get there – then sort it out. Did a great boat trip for 5 days and another 5 days on the islands, just getting crazy (drunk with locals) back in 2003. I assume it more costly, now.

    Do it before it’s 5x the price and entrance only by limited-lottery.

    the candy trail … a nomad across the planet, since 1988

  • Pete

    February 2, 2011

    Anyone hear about these crazy speedboats ferries? Is that from the mainland to the islands or just between islands?

    Headed there in April and this is by far the best info I have found.

  • Magda @DestinationWorld

    February 2, 2011

    Hi Pete
    Maybe these are the boats between the islands that you mentioned. They indeed go fast and the trip can be rough, but can be done with the help of seasickness tablet. I usually get seasick, but I made those boat trips ok thanks to the tablets. There were however many people really sick on the boat.

  • Charlotte

    February 24, 2011

    Thank you so much for this article. I am heading to Galapagos this week and trying to work out how to do it without going on a cruise and avoiding being seasick… Excellent information

  • Helen

    February 9, 2013

    Does anyone have any recommendations regarding day trips if we were stopping on the Islands of Isabela and Santa Cruz. I’ve been told that I’d have to book them well in advance, is this the case?

  • Angela

    September 4, 2014

    How did you pay $10 for accomodation. Im doing the same however for 10 nights at a cheap hotel twin share its cost us in total about $350 in accomodation. thing your adding up there is incorrect. especially when you mentioned that “Puerto Ayora has got a few cheap hotels, where you can expect to pay between $15 and $25 for a double room” ???? I defintatly can not find accom that cheap and I have been researching lots of accom options please explain.

Leave A Response

* Denotes Required Field