How to Spend Two Weeks in the Galapagos for $1,100

Most people are under the impression that the Galapagos Islands have to be some kind of trip-of-a-lifetime thing that will cost a humongous amount of money. Before a chance meeting with another traveling couple who told us otherwise, we also thought it would be way out of our price range. Yes, you can blow a huge chunk of change on an 8-day cruise ($1,800, including round-trip flight from Guayaquil or Quito), but it is definitely possible to do the Galapagos for much cheaper, and stay longer.

At La Loberia, on San Cristobal island.

The most important thing to note, is that to STAY in the Galapagos is not markedly more expensive than staying in mainland Ecuador. A private, double room in a hostel on Santa Cruz ran us $11.50 per person, and a single dorm bed would be even cheaper. Our hostel had a kitchen, and although produce is quite a bit more expensive, staples such as pasta noodles, dried soups, flour, soy sauce, etc. cost only a fraction more than on the mainland, so cooking definitely helped our budget as well. Nevertheless, there are restaurants in Puerto Ayora and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (the largest towns in all of the islands) where you can get a $3 set lunch or a $4 set dinner.

Some islands, such as Isabela, are slightly more expensive since there is no large airport to shuttle in goods and as such is a bit more remote, but almost every hostel we visited there ran to about $15 per person.

The largest cost to contemplate is, of course, the airfare. June is the very beginning of the tourist season, so I would guess that our tickets were on the expensive side. Any trips to the archipelago outside of the tourist season is bound to be cheaper than our flights, which came in at $425 round trip, from Guayaquil to Santa Cruz island, and from San Cristobal island to Quito. (The different starting and ending cities ran us about $20 extra, but the different arrival and departure cities in the islands did not seem to affect prices.)

Once food/lodging and airfare are out of the way, you can begin to enjoy yourself with the rest of your budget!

There are many free activities on the islands, such as information centers, giant tortoise breeding centers, etc. Any good guidebook will outline all of these (and you can read about the activities that we did in our Galapagos posts). Beaches and lagoons in walking distance also have no entrance fees. So what are the things that cost money?

  1. Day trips to snorkeling or diving sites. These last from 3 to 8 hours, usually include snacks or lunch as well as snorkel equipment, and range in price from $45 upwards. Since Craig and I do not have diving certificates, I can’t really expound on the diving trips, except to say that I’ve heard they’re magical (swarms of hammerhead sharks, anyone?). Don’t forget to try and bargain prices down!
  2. Some worthy spots are quite far from towns and require either bicycle rentals (about $15/day) or hiring a pick-up taxi to drive you around. Craig and I hired a taxi to take us to three different spots on Santa Cruz island, spending about three hours total, and only paid $35.
  3. Snorkel equipment rental (for those beaches and bays that are free) cost $3 without fins and $5 with.
  4. Inter-island transport by boat cost $30 one-way. If planning on traveling to multiple islands, it’s possible to use that as leverage to bargain prices down to $25 per trip (which is what Craig and I managed to do).

And that’s it! Once you’ve paid the astronomical (not really) airfare out to the islands, you might as well spend as much time there as possible, seeing as so many activities and places are free, and room and board isn’t much higher than on the mainland. Obviously, this post is for other backpackers who are willing to stay in hostels and cook their own food most of the time. Those travelers who want nicer digs and to not have to worry about cooking or planning while on vacation, are obviously on a whole other budget level. Still, it’s not as if Craig and I were really roughing it. We always had our own room (half the time we had our own bathroom!), we ate out at least 5 times/week, and we treated ourselves to ice cream cones nearly every day.

Here is our budget, priced out per person:

  • Round-trip flight = $425
  • Galapagos National Park Entrance fee = $110
  • Room and board – $22.50/day x 14 days = $315
  • Three inter-island trips – $25 x 3 = $75
  • Two snorkel day trips (Santa Fe and Los Tuneles) $75 x 2 = $150
  • Six snorkel rentals (two without fins) = $26
  • Taxi ride (cost divided by 2 persons) = $17.50
  • Miscellaneous transport costs to/from airports = $3
    • TOTAL COST = $1,121.50

Not bad, eh? Craig and I are trying to do $1,000 or less per person per month, so to get back on budget, we did a two-week work exchange in the Andes. Even if we hadn’t planned the work exchange, I think the Galapagos would still have been worth the added costs. It’s unlike any other place in the world, after all, and, for us, there’s no point in traveling if you’re going to skip all the worthwhile sights. Even with some rainy days and cold seas, the Galapagos is definitely worthwhile!

Here is the link again to our individual posts during our stay on the archipelago, which have all the details about our doings and goings-on, including whether those activities were free or not (and there are lots and lots of pictures). If you stick to your guns and carefully plan everything (again, a traveler with a different budget might not want to put in that work), you might even be able to do everything for slightly cheaper. There are also opportunities to volunteer on the islands, which would drastically cut costs down and extend stays.

I hope this post is helpful to any other backpackers out there contemplating heading out there! I can’t emphasize enough what a wonderful experience the Galapagos islands were for us. If we had had more money, we could have done more trips and tours, but I’m not positive that we would have seen much more wildlife than we did. The archipelago is so chock full of exotic animals that you’re almost tripping over them. Luckily for us, costs were still relatively reasonable, even at the start of high season. So good luck to all you travelers, and may your trip be as amazing as ours was!

Advertisements

(A few more) Galapagos Photos

The Galapagos Islands were just too amazing and beautiful… here are a few more photos of our time there.

The National Geographic Endeavor – we must be somewhere nature-y

A lava lizard grabs some warmth from a marine iguana.

At Los Tuneles – super content because we swam with sea turtles!

An island road – Isabela

Sheena swims with a marine iguana – Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island

Sealions!!

Since we first stepped foot on the Galapagos, the sea-lions have been everywhere.  We have definitely started to take them for granted… but I must say, watching a young pup play in the surf is incredible.  You can actually feel their joy.

From La Loberia on San Cristobal, just where you expect to find a lot of lobos marinos.

Relaxing near shore.

Afternoon snuggle session.

Galapagos Part 4 – Saying Goodbye

We were sad to leave Isabela and the town of Puerto Villamil, mostly because of the amazingly delicious pan de chocolate that we found at a local bakery (well, the only bakery…). Isabela is worth visiting just to buy one of those buns!

An actually decent shot using my waterproof case (usually, it didn’t focus very well). This was at Concha de Perla, our last snorkeling site on Isabela island.

On our last day there, we went to the Centro de Crianza (free), another tortoise breeding center. We arrived right at feeding time, and so the air was filled with the sounds of a thousand giant tortoises, of varying ages, munching and munching on greens. It was a fun and fascinating center, not only for the tortoise, but for the little information center that told us why breeding centers were needed in the first place. In short, the introduced cattle, pets, and pests onto the island made it virtually impossible for the baby tortoises to survive to a size where they wouldn’t be threatened anymore, so the breeding centers allow them to reach that size to give them a fair chance in the wild that has so drastically changed since humans arrived.

Munch munch munch munch. Youngish ones competing for food. Notice that they have no qualms with climbing all over each other. Craig and I wondered if they ever fell on their backs, but we never saw one do it.

After a gut-wrenching 2 hours on a speedboat, we arrived on San Cristobal island, the second-most populated island of the archipelago, where we would be spending our last days in the Galapagos. The town itself reminded us a lot of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, but smaller and with a much nicer boardwalk. One kilometer outside of town, there’s a great little “Interpretation Center”, where they have displays and information on the history of the Galapagos, which is rather fascinating. There were many failed attempts at colonizing the islands, and in the early days, Floreana island was said to be cursed. In the 1930s, the Galapagos were international news because of this murder and sex scandal story. Who knew??

I had come down with a 24-hour bug, and even though I felt guilty about it, I spent most of our first day in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (what a mouthful!) in bed. Luckily, by the next day, I was feeling pretty chipper, and Craig and I ended up renting a kayak to explore the port a bit more. The first half of the trip was spent getting absolutely soaked and arguing about the usual things couples tend to argue about when trying to maneuver the same piece of equipment at the same time. The second half was spent being followed by a young sea lion, who swam under and around us, obviously delighted that we were trying to paddle with it. When our hour was up, and we ground up onto the beach, it actually followed us and stared at us while we dragged the kayak out, as if to say, “What, are we done? Why don’t you want to play with me anymore?” It was somewhat heartbreaking, but also a really wonderful experience.

Sea lions are called lobos marinos in Spanish, which we think is a much more apt name. They are much more dog-like than cat-like, to be honest.

All of the Galapagos islands seem to have sea lions on them… even tiny outcroppings of rock in the middle of the sea had one or two sea lions lazing about on them. But San Cristobal island seemed to have many many more than anywhere else. One day, I even saw one in a fountain on the boardwalk! They look extremely cute (especially the puppies!), but they can be massive and if you get to close, they’re not shy about making rude noises at you. It can be intimidating, to say the least… they’re obviously much more graceful in water, but those guys can move on land pretty fast if they wanted to!

Sea lions are everywhere in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.

On our very last day on the Gallops (as we ended up calling them), we walked to La Loberia, a beach about a mile outside of town. It was surrounded by rocky shores and cliffs, but faced a protected lagoon that was supposedly very good for snorkeling. Craig and I were very eager to see more sea turtles, which we had decided were our favorite marine sighting (besides perhaps that giant manta ray–but it’s one thing to see one of those from a boat, and another while snorkeling!), but we didn’t want to get our hopes up too high. We hadn’t been able to see any before or since our Los Tuneles tour, after all.

On the beach. The marks on our faces were from our snorkeling masks.

After watching two young sea lion pups playing with each other in what seemed like an elaborate, graceful dance, we finally got what we were hoping for. Not one, but three young sea turtles swam into view! That definitely doesn’t get old, let me tell you. Craig was ambitious enough to keep walking up the coast to a viewpoint, where he saw an immense number of them floating down below the cliffs. The sun came out and we had a great day at the beach. We both thought La Loberia was a definite must-visit for the Gallops, and of course, it was totally free!

All those dark spots were sea turtles off the rocky coast! If only we wouldn’t have been bashed to pieces in the surf, it would have been an amazing place to snorkel!

I watched this guy float along, with just his flippers and nose sticking out of the water, for about ten minutes. Those sea lions… so silly.

It was a great way to end our Galapagos Adventure. If we had had a little more money, we heard that Kicker Rock (León Dormido) would have been a great day trip, but alas, you just can’t do everything. Still, we saw and did so many things on our budget, that we’re quite pleased with our decision to go. I’ll never forget all of the awesome sights and experiences we had… I understand now why so many people say it’s a dream trip or vacation.

What’s worrying is how quickly the islands are changing due to the increased tourism, and whether or not it’s sustainable. If the Galapagos is one of your must-see destinations, then I would suggest going sooner, rather than later… you never know what kind of impact all of this development will have on the wildlife, and it really would be a true shame to miss any of it.

Our last sunset on the Galapagos.

(some) Birds of the Galapagos

We didn’t see all of them, which is fine because we aren’t really bird people… but it would have been cool to see the flightless cormorant.  I guess that will be next time.  In addition to these, we saw penguins, boobies, lots and lots of finches, and quite a few pelicans.

The Red-billed tropicbird in flight.

The Red-billed tropicbird with a young chick.

The Frigatebirds can be seen gliding above the coastline just about everywhere here. In Spanish they are called tijeretas, or scissor-tailed for the way their tail feathers open and close.

The Swallow-tailed Gull. These guys are nocturnal and hunt bioluminescent squid in the evenings – the reason for their huge eyes.

The Galapagos Heron, or Lava Heron.  This guy is endemic to the Galapagos Islands.

Galapagos Part 3 – Day-Tripping

The night before our first day trip to Isla Santa Fe, I could hardly sleep. Would my somewhat sketchy waterproof case work, or would my iPod Touch be ruined forever? Would we have good weather? Would we see sea turtles?! All these questions floated through my mind and I was so stressed out that I itched all over and couldn’t stop scratching myself.

The problem with not having any money, is that when you spend it, you tend to stress out about whether or not you’re just wasting it on an unworthy venture. “Are we spending $150 for nothing?!” I continually asked myself. Craig, on the other hand, had been stressing out before we booked the tour, but once everything was settled, he had the good sense to recognize that we would just have to make the most of what came.

Los Tuneles tour. Looks like a postcard.

A little outcropping a ways off the coast of Isabela, populated by sea lions and nazca boobies, as well as one blue-footed booby.

Wednesday dawned cloudy and grey, just as all days here in the Galapagos have, due to the garúa mists. Our guide was a young Galapagueño who immediately scolded Craig and I for not getting our diving certificates. “It’s just going to get more and more expensive in the future!” he insisted. Well… maybe someday… when we’re not hyperventilating over spending just $75 each, as opposed to $250 or more for dives. Give us a break, dude!

Our speedboat ride out to Santa Fe, which is a smallish, uninhabited island off the southeast coast of Santa Cruz, reminded me of why I hate speedboats. The smell of gasoline, the sickening feeling in your gut when the boat slams back down into the water, and the noise are all major deterrents. One German teenager on our tour turned green and hung over the side of the boat for most of the ride.

Craig giving the sign that he hadn’t frozen solid yet.

But Santa Fe was quite beautiful, and the waters clear. Craig and I hadn’t even thought of renting a wetsuit, so when we dropped in the water, it was a shock to the system. I think it was just at the temperature where we wouldn’t get hypothermia, but not much warmer than that. Such trivialities as body core temperature don’t weigh heavily on your mind when you’ve got playful sea lions swimming just inches from your face, though. We also saw some manta rays and sharks, but there’s not much that can top a sea lion… unless it’s a sea turtle!

Young sea lions playing around, showing off.

“Are we going to see sea turtles?” I asked the guide, who was not very forthcoming with information otherwise.

“Yesterday, we saw ten,” he replied. Well, okay then! Let’s go find them!

Our second snorkeling site that day was in a beautiful bay, but we didn’t see much of note underwater besides some more rays. Snorkeling in clear water with lots of fish around is still a wonderful experience. I like feeling like a mermaid.

As Craig and I were doggy-paddling off the coast, wondering if we should head back to the boat, a blue-footed booby suddenly dive-bombed about three feet from us with a noise like a torpedo. We hadn’t seen it coming, and it didn’t give off much of a splash, but it certainly spooked us. It took off again and slowly circled, and Craig and I readied ourselves for his next dive. It entered the water at such a speed that it went down to nearly 12 feet before snagging a fish, and left a trail very much like those you see in movies where bullets are being shot into the sea. We’d seen a booby quite up close once before as it stood on some rocks and it had looked extremely stupid, but Craig was so impressed by the dive that he said he’d changed his whole outlook on boobies at that moment. It was truly one of the highlights of the day.

Booby! Taking off. He looked much more majestic here than a second earlier when he was staring at us like he hadn’t known we were right there in the water when he dove.

When I heard that we were getting ceviche for lunch, my jaw nearly dropped off my face. Craig’s lips were blue, and my teeth were chattering, but we soon warmed up with our excellent lunch, and were ready to go for our third snorkeling site, where the guide was hopeful that we’d see sea turtles. Alas, we saw nothing of note, and soon turned homeward. Since the weather had never really improved, I felt a bit disappointed. For $75, I wanted perfection, but I suppose you can’t have everything, and really, it was a lot of fun despite nearly freezing (and we had that amazing lunch!).

It’s a terribly mercenary habit, this trying to wring enjoyment out of every last cent, but I’m not sure I can stop myself… After all, we’re only here once (probably), and how can you not feel cheated if the tour the day before saw ten sea turtles and you saw none?

Our next day trip was from Isabela island out to Los Tuneles, arch formations in lava rock off the southwest coast of the island. Having learned our lesson, we rented wetsuits, as did everyone else onboard. I think a good indication of whether or not to rent one is if your guide is wearing one.

Wet suits – a really good idea. (Yes, I have gotten VERY tan…)

This time, we were in a much smaller speedboat, and whether for that reason or for the sea being calmer, the ride out was a lot more enjoyable. We were cutting across the waves when suddenly, the driver cut the engine and shouted for us to look. Off the port side, an enormous manta ray could be seen just under the surface of the sea. It was at least 10 feet across and would lift the tips of its fins just out of the water, as if in a wave hello. Craig and I had no idea that manta rays could get so big (the captain said up to 8 meters!), so we were just completely floored.

“Que suerte!” the crew said. I felt like the day trip was already looking better than our last one.

Swarm of sun rays – quite a lot smaller than the giant manta ray.

We arrived at our first snorkel site, where lots of lava rocks protruded from the water and mangrove trees grew off the coast. The water was clear, and we saw a swarm of sun rays almost immediately. But the most magical moment was, of course, when they spotted a huge sea turtle and waved us over. I actually gasped into my snorkel tube when I first saw it… it must have been 4.5 feet in length, and absolutely enormous. Everybody crowded around and took photos with it, and we followed it for maybe about 10 minutes. I can still hardly believe how impressive it was, and how close it allowed us to get.

Finally! A sea turtle!!

Wooooooooow. If only we’d thought of buying an underwater camera before we came! The tour operators got some amazing shots on theirs.

A spotted eagle ray.

Luckily, we saw either two more sea turtles, or the same turtle twice again, and got back on the boat feeling fairly uplifted. Even the snorkel mask failures that Craig and I kept having couldn’t diminish the wonder of the sea turtle. I had built my expectations up incredibly high for our sea turtle experience, and it totally blew them all out of the water. It was that dream-like and magical.

Me with the sea turtle!!!! AHHHH!!!! What a crazy time.

Our next snorkel site had a fun little penguin swimming around, and I somehow got in the right position to be very close to it, and the site was even more beautiful than the last. Lots of lava rock formations and the sky was blue and sunny… perfect!

Little penguins! They’re so fat and clumsy on land, and so fat and graceful in the water.

Part of the Los Tuneles tour. Beautiful weather.

We didn’t have ceviche, but the crew was a lot friendlier, making jokes and really urging us to follow them to where we could see sea horses, rays, sharks, and whatever else they could find. They even asked if we wanted to drive the speed boat for a while. We came back to the dock and that time, I really did feel like we got our money’s worth. It’s a satisfactory way to end a tour, and they even gave us the pictures from their underwater camera for free (despite holding up quite admirably, my waterproof pouch doesn’t allow for amazing pictures)! All in all, Isabela has felt like one of the better islands to visit… even though room and board is more expensive, there’s lots more wildlife out and about, and the people just seem friendlier and as if they want you to have a really good time. You can’t ask for more than that, really, so I can probably stop stressing out now about having that perfect tour!

(Blue Footed) Boobies!!

The story goes that they were originally called bobo birds, or stupid birds (and believe me, they do look real stupid), and that boobies is simply an English approximation… After watching them dive for fish, I’m actually really impressed now.  And no one really knows why their feet are blue (there’s a red-footed one too).

A collective dive

Part of a mating dance