As mentioned in our trip summary article on the Galápagos Islands, a lot of backpackers skip the archipelago due to the expense of getting too and making the most out of the islands. Phill and I had agreed our bonus from our last year of work at the Big Cow would be dedicated to this adventure, and we don’t for a second regret spending it on a two week excursion !
While looking for advice on the Galapagos pre arrival, there were only really reviews of certain yachts on trip advisor forums by people not on backpacking budgets, and some general information online. Hopefully these wee pearls of wisdom from ourselves and friends before us may help anyone considering a voyage to Darwin’s paradise, and convince you it’s well worth the empty bank account at the end! The Galapagos is a place worth conserving, so spare a thought for the ecological efforts of any tour agencies you use. All the costs below are in USD which is the currency used in Ecuador, and give an insight into our total spend.
- Your bank account will hate you for pre booking. Most importantly DO NOT pre book a cruise before arriving at the islands. No matter how tempting, you will pay too much (I dabble in the project management realm by trade so will admit I emailed a couple of companies a week out just to gauge what prices could be, but didn’t book anything). There seemed to be more travel offices in Puerto Ayora than in Santa Cruz. Shop around, bargain at least a couple hundred on a last minute price and make sure they offer free snorkel gear and transfers. We paid $1350 for the last spots on an 8 day/7night cruise on Lonesome George (Solitario Jorge), couple of others paid $1250. The boats itinerary wasn’t as good so slightly cheaper than others as they didn’t have to pay for expensive island licences, but had the option to dive whilst onboard for an extra $80 per tank (which isn’t very good value compared to day trips, but was convenient while on our cruise). The 4 night/5 day people on our boat paid around $750. This same cruise is advertised as $3500-$4000…. so you can see why pre booking would rip your nighty knowing people on the same boat paid 60% of that !
- Arrive at the cheaper airport, ferry if need and put on your poker face. We flew into Baltra airport from mainland Ecuador, which is generally cheaper than San Cristobel. These flights cost $500 one way for two people booking a week in advance. You are meant to have a return flight booked and will be asked by the ministry of tourism in either Quito or Guayaquil. If booking a last minute cruise, this can be a bit of a pain with the insanely slow dial up Internet on the islands. As long as you are confident, just say you do as they won’t actually ask to see the flight details… To get to Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz, you have to take a free airport bus from Baltra, then a boat for $1 and another public bus for $2. All together allow 1.5 hours transit.
- Every sailor needs his nightcap. Take a bottle of booze onboard your cruise, as drinks are pretty steep. A bottle of cheap rum from the port was $12 or a slighter nicer one is $20. I also recommend taking some snacks as often the food wasn’t quite enough if you usually eat large main meals, and after snorkelling lots I was hungry (as we know I get really hangry so a stash of Oreos is key for the continuation of our happy relationship)
- Get your haggle on. Accomodation can easily be booked on arrival without reservation at the main ports. On Santa Cruz, we paid $30 a night for a double room with air con and private bathroom after a bit of haggling at Hotel Espana. In San Cristobel we stayed in a really nice dorm room at Hostel Jeimy for $20 a night with some friends. The double room here was $36, and they had a handy kitchen you could easily whip up breakie or dinner.
- Be prepared to feed the fish. All ferries between the major islands cost $30, all travel offices sell tickets the only difference is the actual boat age/state.. some making everyone more sea sick than others. There is generally an early morning or mid afternoon one. Try book half a day ahead as they do get full.
- Avoid a mutiny. A handy hint which paid off for us if you don’t want to travel with the nearly deads and newly weds is to book a mid range (tourist class) boat rather than a luxury class. This was a primary consideration for us thinking we’d have like minded and age travellers looking for budget last minute options. The snorkelling and land excursions will be identical, if not better with fewer people onboard. In saying that, the more lush boats catered better for families, you can get great last minute deals for those ones and you may not have the same boat engine issues as we had.
- Head out and about. While there are some amazing free sights to explore close by the towns, doing free trips only from the main centres you will not really “see” the Galapagos, so combine with some day tours if not doing a cruise. These are usually $80-160 depending if snorkelling, hiking or diving including gear and guides. North Seymour near Santa Cruz had great snorkelling (hammerheads, manta ray etc), and a cool wee island in between there and Baltra where you could swim with playful sea lions. In San Cristobel, we highly recommend Fan Dive Galapagos – Santiago is a champ and will have you sorted for any diving, snorkelling or the 360 tour and he really cares for the conservation of the wildlife. His is a dive master and naturalist guide, and his younger dive masters were super professional too. We paid $160 each for two dives, including 1 hour boat, all the gear, photos, dive master for just Phill and I, the most tasty lunch ever and a stop at a beautiful beach on the way back to chill out while his crew picked up any rubbish washed onto the beach
- Cash is king.There are ATM’s on Santa Cruz and San Cristobel (not Isabella) but they sometimes don’t work. We could get out $600 USD each transaction on our NZ debit card, but a British girl we met could only get $300 per day which is a pain if trying to get money out for a cruise with ATM fees. So if planning to do a cruise, consider getting out money at the airport on the mainland. Travel offices on the island will accept card but you’ll be charged ~10%!
- Get those eggs out of one basket love. Definitely spend at least one night on either of the main islands not visited by the cruise itinerary if doing one. You’ve already paid a heap for flights, so maximise the $ per day! We had already paid for 3 nights in Santa Cruz so only did a day trip to Isabella which we regretted. There is great snorkelling there to the right of the pier when you arrive, walk to the volcano and a cool bright pink beach bar where mojitos were served in coconuts.
- And of course the Kai. Lastly with food, it’s always more expensive than the mainland. There is a good bakery in the supermarket, and a great restaurant street in Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz). Here the menu del dia (soup and main dish with rice and salad) is $5 or a large main is $10 eg coconut fish, cerviche or garlic fish. Breakfasts are also $4 for typical dish, coffee and juice like patacones (small plantain 🍌 discs with egg, insanely filling) or bolon (plantain ball filled with cheese and/or pork meat). The salads are all good to eat here, our fav street vendor was called Sol & Luna (sun and moon) and we highly recommend their fresh pineapple juice! 🍍
And this goes without saying, but most of all respect the amazing wildlife you’ll met and enjoy the once in a life time experience!