Updated February 21st, 2019.
The Ultimate Backpacker Guide to ‘Land-Hopping’ the Galapagos!
The Galapagos may not spring to mind as a backpackers’ destination but with a little planning, they can provide a unique experience that will be remembered forever!
The first thing that people tend to say when I tell them that I visited the Galapagos is “wasn’t it super expensive?”, and don’t get me wrong, compared to Thailand or Bolivia, for example, it can be, but with budget hostels available and dining at local eateries or self-catering, costs can be kept down!
With this once in a lifetime experience at your fingertips as you backpack through Ecuador – is it really something you want to miss out on?
How to do the Galapagos on a Budget!
Land Hopping VS A Galapagos Cruise
When you consider that the basic costs of travelling the Galapagos Islands are usually double the price that they are on mainland Ecuador, you start to understand why budget backpackers freak out! This doesn’t mean that a trip to the Galapagos isn’t possible for those of us on a budget though.
Here’s the secret – The best way to see the Galapagos without spending a fortune is by land-hopping.
Whilst it is possible to see the islands on a cruise, these are super expensive (think $500 US+ per day!) and they just don’t afford the flexibility that backpackers adore. In order to work out your budget and just how much this trip is going to cost, it is important to do your research.
Luckily for you, this guide will tell you everything you need to know to visit these islands on a backpacker budget!
When is the best time to visit the Galapagos Islands?
The good news is that there is no bad time to visit the Galapagos Islands! The islands are a year-round destination and when you choose to go will have more to do with which wildlife you want to see! (Expect temperatures to hover between 20-30 degrees Celsius year round.)
There are two main high seasons, December to January and June till August.
During these two high seasons, the water will be warmer and there is better visibility for snorkelling and diving. Owing to demand, prices tend to be higher during these months so there is less opportunity to bargain for tours and accommodation.
If you don’t mind the occasional shower (short sharp and refreshing) the warm season stretches from January to May and the weather is still warm (25-30 deg C) even though the skies are cloudier. During this time, you may be able to get cheaper prices for hotels and tours.
Luckily, no matter what season you visit in, you are guaranteed to see lots of unique wildlife!
How to get to the Galapagos Islands
Currently, there are two airports that serve the mainland in the Galapagos: Baltra airport in Santa Cruz and San Cristobal airport. Expect flights to cost between $380 US – $640 US for a round trip from Quito or Guayaquil depending on the season.
The flights from Guayaquil take 1.5 Hours and from Quito 3.5 hours, this is due to the fact that most of the aeroplanes flying from Quito go via Guayaquil anyway. Airlines include LAN, Tame, Aerogal and Avianca.
Top Tip: While the city of Guayaquil is often overlooked as simply a stopover on the way to the Galapagos Islands, hang around a few days and you’ll soon discover that this underrated destination has a lot to offer the traveller! For more info, check out our Guayaquil Travel Guide.
Mandatory costs of a Trip to The Galapagos
Let’s start with the unavoidable costs incurred during a trip to the Galapagos Islands.
Flights to Galapagos
Of course, the first thing that you must consider is your airfare. Try to be flexible with your arrival and departure dates when looking at flights and be aware that it is possible to fly into one island and fly out of another. (There are two airports that serve the Galapagos Islands: Baltra airport in Santa Cruz and San Cristobal airport. Use a flight-comparison website like Skyscanner to compare flights.
Transit Control Card
Upon arrival in your departure airport, you will be required to purchase a Transit Control Card (TCC). These are $20US per person and can only be paid for in cash. The purpose of this card is so that the Ecuadorian government can assess the volume of tourists visiting the archipelago. When obtaining your TCC, you may be asked whether you have valid health insurance and a return flight ticket. Be aware that you may need to provide proof of this.
Accommodation Arranged in Advance
Owing to new entry requirements introduced in 2018, it is now mandatory to be able to prove you have either a cruise or accommodation arranged for the duration of your stay. However, from my own experience and from talking to others, it seems that this is rarely enforced. During my Galapagos trip, I booked a hostel for the first night only and had no problems.
$100 US National Park Fees
Upon arrival in the Galapagos, you will be required to pay $100US per person in cash to the National Park. This money goes towards conservation and facilities on the islands. There is no ATM in the airport so make sure you have enough money on you!
$10 US Fee to Visit Isla Isabela
If you choose to visit Isla Isabela during your trip to the Galapagos Islands, you will also be required to pay a $10 US entrance fee at the dock. Again, payment is by cash only and there are no ATM’s on the island.
10 Cost-Saving Tips for Backpackers Visiting The Galapagos!
1. Be flexible with your flight dates
If you are using Skyscanner to search for flights, select the ‘whole month’ section to see when the best deals are.
2. Choose accommodation which provides breakfast
This can certainly save you a few dollars if you are up in the morning which you will be if you want to make the most out of your time of the islands! Many hostels and hotels are beginning to offer breakfast inclusive of the room price. While it may be basic, having breakfast provided means you’re already set up for the day when you have to leave early for a tour!
3. Have big lunches and set courses
Whilst food on the Galapagos is much more expensive than mainland Ecuador, there are places where you can eat for cheap. Look out for signs that advertise ‘almuerzos’ (lunches with two courses and juice) and ‘menu del dia’ (menu of the day). These will generally cost between $5US-$10US per person. Los Kioskos is a budget-friendly street to eat seafood in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz.
4. Haggle for tours and accommodation (low season)
I visited the Galapagos in low season which has several advantages. As it is a less popular time to visit the islands, demand for tours and accommodation is lower. Companies are very keen to fill spaces if possible and this means that you can negotiate for better deals. Tim and I saved $40 on one tour because they wanted to fill spaces. Remember, if you don’t ask, you don’t get!
5. Bring lots of cash
ATM machines are only available on the islands of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. While it is possible to pay for items on card in some places, there are very steep charges (sometimes as much as 12% of the total)! Cash is more convenient in the Galapagos and also gives you an edge when haggling for tours.
6. Book hostels in advance during High Season
Budget hostels fill up thick and fast in the high season. On the islands with larger populations (especially Santa Cruz) you’ll find somewhere, but on the smaller islands, you might find yourself left with only more expensive options.
7. Take a gamble on finding cheap accommodation on arrival – Low Season Only
Not all of the cheapest accommodation is advertised online. If you are a risk-taking traveller who is visiting the islands in low season, you could always look for accommodation on your arrival. Despite what you may have been told, there are plenty of places that offer rooms for just $15 US per person, it is just about finding them. Keep reading for our top picks of the best places to stay on each island below!
8. Rent a bicycle over catching a taxi
If you are looking to explore outside of the main towns, rent a bike instead of taking a taxi. It is surprising how much money you can save by doing this. A taxi to El Chato and Los Gemelos on Santa Cruz is charged at $50US for a round trip which includes the taxi driver waiting for you while you see the attractions. To hire a bike for the entire day costs just $15US, a big difference!
If you’re looking at the distances and feeling overwhelmed, there is also the option to take public transport for part of the journey and then bike the rest. The public buses on Santa Cruz have bike racks affixed to them so you can always mix and match!
9. Tour agencies rarely run tours themselves
In order to run a tour in the Galapagos Islands, you must have a permit issued from the National Park. However, only certain people are given these permits and those individuals are not allowed to sell the tours. It is an effort by the government to spread the profits from tourism fairly across the islands.
Only registered tour agencies are allowed to sell trips so guides and operators will work with multiple agencies in order to fill their spaces. The result of this means that you can purchase a tour for $120US from one company and end up on the same trip as people who only paid $100US to a different agency.
To confuse things even more, some tour guides also own their own tour agencies which enable them to get around this rule. Generally speaking, even these companies still partner with other agencies to fill spaces.
10. Catch a bus to the airport or walk if possible
From San Cristobal airport, it is only a fifteen-minute walk into the town. If you are heading to or from Baltra airport, catch a bus instead of taking a taxi. Buses leave the main terminal in Puerto Ayora every half hour from 6.30-8.30 and pick up directly outside of the airport. The cost of a bus to the airport is $5US per person, a taxi will set you back $25 US.
The Galapagos Islands You Can Visit Independently
The main islands that you can get to independently are:
- Isla Santa Cruz
- Isla Isabela
- Isla San Cristobal
- Isla Floreana.
Flights arrive at either Baltra Airport in Santa Cruz or San Cristobal Airport on San Cristobal Island.
Once you’re there, travelling between islands is easy and relatively cheap. However, you will have to return back and to Isla Santa Cruz as there are no routes in-between all of the islands.
Island to island takes around two hours but be warned: the seas can get a little rough. If you’re prone to motion sickness stick to the back of the boat. Keep your eyes open and you may see dolphins jumping as you move between islands!
While there is plenty to keep you occupied on the main islands, many travellers will also want to spend some time in Puerta Ayora, Santa Cruz where you can organize trips to other islands which range from days out snorkelling to longer cruises around the northernmost sights.
Below, we’ll go through the highlights of each island one by one and the best places to stay on each island…
Note: All places marked with * require a snorkel. Whilst you can hire a snorkel from the local town, it may be worth buying one before you arrive. The quality of the rental equipment on the islands is varied and purchasing one yourself could save you money in the long run.
Isla Santa Cruz – Galapagos
The Best Things to Do in Isla Santa Cruz
Tortuga Bay – Free* or $20 US for one-hour kayak hire
Tortuga Bay is split into two different beaches: The first beach that you will reach is Playa Brava where the waters are rough and swimming is prohibited. At low tide, the beach is inhabited by ghost crabs which will run into their burrows and watch you nervously. The pea-sized balls of sand you will see everywhere are formed as they filter food from the surface of the grains.
At the second beach named Playa Mansa, the water is calm and it is possible to swim, snorkel or rent a kayak to explore. There’s a handy tree line at the back providing shade to those who are feeling a bit sun-drenched.
The bay is bordered by mangroves and it is possible to see baby black tipped reef sharks, giant sea turtles and manta rays. Be warned, the majority of the bigger wildlife is located towards the back and sides of the bay, making it a very long way to swim. With this in mind, it is better to hire a kayak if you want to see animals such as sharks. In high season it is possible to rent a stand-up paddleboard to tour the bay which gives an even better view of the marine life.
Getting to Tortuga Bay: There are two ways of getting to Tortuga Bay; a water taxi from the dock or an hour and a half walk from Puerto Ayora. The first part of the walk is a short distance through town then a long paved pathway leads to the first beach. Take water and suncream.
El Chato – Giant Tortoise Reserve – $5 US per person
This Giant Tortoise Reserve has a modest entry fee which is well worth the opportunity to see these gentle giants roaming free in their natural habitat. As these tortoises are wild, they are more wary of humans so give them some space. If you get too close, you’ll be able to hear the hiss as they quickly pull their heads into their shells.
Lava Tunnels – $3.50 US per person
This activity is great to combine with a visit to El Chato as the tunnels are only a 10 km downhill bike ride apart. These impressive lava tunnels are actually the second longest in the whole of South America. Remember to bring sturdy shoes and a flashlight as the string lights can be unreliable. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to have your photo taken from under a huge tortoise shell before starting your tunnel exploration either!
Charles Darwin Research Centre – Free (donation based)
This research centre is a great place to find out more about the conservation work done by the Charles Darwin Foundation. Discover the evidence that led to the founding of the theory of evolution and learn about current conservation projects on the islands.
At the back of the centre, there is an area dedicated to the breeding of Giant Land Tortoises. It is also possible to see the famous Lonesome George there, where he has been preserved.
Las Grietas (Free)*
To access this water-filled crevice, hail a water taxi from the main pier and ask them to take you to Playa de Los Alemanes. The trip will cost $0.40US per person for a one-way trip. From there, you can follow the signs to Las Grietas. Whilst it is a pleasant snorkelling spot, I would advise getting there early as it gets crowded quickly!
Where to stay in Santa Cruz, Galapagos
Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz, the largest population centre of the Galapagos provides plenty of choices. However, if you are looking for budget options, we recommend the following places…
Hostal El Paraiso – Puerto Ayora
Offering beds from just $15 US per person, Hostal El Paraiso is a great choice for the backpacker on a tight budget. Upon arrival, a map of the island is provided which details free activities you can do independent of a guide. The rooms and communal areas are spacious and clean. Only a short walk from Los Kioskos.
Hostal Gardner – Puerto Ayora
This budget hotel is located just back from Avenue Charles Darwin, the main street in town and is an easy base for exploring the island or investigating your onward travel options. All rooms come with air conditioning and WiFi in communal areas and the cost is just $20 US per night.
La K Leta Guesthouse – Puerto Ayora – TOP PICK!
If you’re looking to make your trip to Santa Cruz a special one, there is no better place to stay than La K Leta Guesthouse and Apartments. The owner, Yogo, is hugely knowledgeable and passionate about the islands and is always on hand to give some great tips about getting off the beaten tourist track.
And the best thing? Staying at La K Leta doesn’t just give you a bed for the night but there is actually the option to rent an entire apartment with breakfast included. This is a great option for couples or even a handful of travellers looking to split the cost for a bit more luxury. A double room starts at $65 US per night and an apartment is from $85 US. Read our full review of La K Leta Guesthouse here.
Isla Isabela – Galapagos
The Best Things to Do in Isla Isabela
Sierra Negra and Volcán Chico – $30 US-$50 US per person depending on the season
Sierra Nega volcano cannot be explored independently as it is an area that requires you to be accompanied by a licensed guide. Tours can be organised from all over the island and vary in price. Be prepared for a long hike as the total trail distance is an exhausting 16 km.
During a visit to Sierra Negra, you should expect to see the second largest caldera in the world, clocking in at a whopping 10 km wide! The tour culminates with the opportunity to walk on lava flows at Volcán Chico. Bring decent footwear, a rain jacket and a jumper as the weather changes quickly.
Los Tuneles – $130 US-$160 US per person depending on the season
Tipped as one of the best day tours the Galapagos offers, don’t miss out on the opportunity to snorkel through collapsed lava tunnels. During this trip, you will get the opportunity to see a whole variety of sharks, seahorses, giant sea turtles and hundreds of other types of marine creatures. This tour fills up quick so bear in mind that you may need to book it a couple of days in advance.
The Wall of Tears – Free if walked, $2.50 US – $4 per hour bike rental
There is a pleasant cycle path with numerous attractions culminating in the Wall of Tears. This wall was constructed by prisoners of the Isabela Penitentiary Colony. Many people suffered great abuse at this prison camp and eventually died here. The wall has been left standing in their memory.
Concha de Perla – Free*
This is a fantastic snorkelling spot, just a few minutes walk from the Island’s main pier. Sea lions, turtles, manta rays and a range of fish frequent the area and the water is clear meaning it’s a great place to swim or snorkel. Prepare for very cold water upon getting in and as always, remember to pack your suncream!
If you don’t feel like getting wet, why not just grab a coffee and watch the wildlife go by. Marine iguanas, sea lions and plentiful birdlife including penguins make these great places to kick back for an hour or two.
Where to stay in Isla Isabela, Galapagos
Hostal Insular – Puerto Villamil
This traveller favourite is located near to the main street which makes it a convenient location for exploring the island. The staff are very friendly and knowledgeable, providing information regarding free attractions and also giving guests the opportunity to book tours at the front desk. The rooms are cleaned daily and showers come with hot water. A single room begins at $24 US per night.
Hotel Neptuno – Puerto Villamil
This hotel is clean and quiet which is everything you need to relax on Isla Isabela. Providing a small but functional kitchen, guests can choose to cook at the accommodation which will help keep costs down. Located just one block back from the beach, it is easy to walk to the islands main attractions. A twin room starts at $36 US per night.
Posada del Caminante – Puerto Villamil
There are two Posada del Caminante just around the corner from each other. For $20 USD per person, the rooms are basic but spacious and some have a small gas hob for self-caterers (or those who just want a coffee in the morning). The owner, Lauro, can arrange anything from maps to directions and excursions, the downside is it is a bit out of the way, being a ten-minute walk from the beach where other slightly pricier options can be found.
San Cristobal – Galapagos
The Best Things to Do in Isla San Cristobal
Kicker Rock – $130 US-$160 US per person depending on the season
This popular tour combines a snorkelling or SCUBA diving experience at Kicker Rock with a visit to a secluded beach. The beach varies depending on the day as the National Park has to assess visitor numbers and give permission.
The main appeal of swimming at Kicker Rock is the chance to see Hammerhead Sharks, a prospect that entices travellers in droves! As well as Hammerheads, you’ll also come across plentiful fish, turtles and some huge rays.
The dive option includes the chance to travel through a shoal of fish that literally blocks out the sun. The guides will tell you this is where surprises can happen and if you’re truly lucky, a passing whale shark may stop to say hello. Book in advance if possible as this popular tour fills up quick!
La Loberia – Free*
This beautiful beach is a great place for spotting sea lions, especially the cute pups! It is around a 30-minute walk to the beach from the main town and the area is well signed. At the bottom of the road, there is a small shack where you can rent snorkel gear.
Cerro Tijeretas – Free
A statue of Darwin stands on Cerro Tijeretas (Frigate bird hill) marking the place his craft first landed. The hike up to the Tijeretas viewpoint can be exhausting on a hot day but well worth the effort. To get there, you walk from town passing through an information centre with its own giant tortoise.
Take in the scenery of the beautiful ocean below and the swooping Frigatebirds which nest nearby. Below this viewpoint is a bay where it is possible to snorkel, although it is initially quite rocky so watch out for crabs!
This lovely snorkelling spot is frequented by playful sea lions and sea turtles come to graze by the underwater rocks and catch forty winks on the sea floor. It’s quiet and easy going making it a scenic spot to catch up on some guidebook reading or just be out of town for a bit.
Playa Mann – Free
Whilst this beach can get a little crowded, it makes for a convenient spot to relax close to the centre of town. There are shaded areas for those trying to avoid the glare of the Galapagos sun but also plenty of exposed parts where you can sunbathe. A decent spot for snorkelling and swimming, you may just find you have to share the waves with the resident sea lions.
Where to stay in Isla San Cristobal, Galapagos
Casa de Luis – Puerto Baquerizo Moreno
This budget option clocks in at $15 US per person. The rooms are basic but comfortable and include an ensuite. Showers are hot and the WIFI is the best that we could find on the island. Located just off the main street, it is a great spot from which to explore the restaurants and tour agencies while also being close to the pier.
Casa de Jeimy – Puerto Baquerizo Moreno
This large hostel is located in the centre of town. The staff are particularly knowledgeable about the attractions on the island and are keen to help you get the most out of your trip. This hostel is suited to solo travellers who rate the terrace as a place to socialise. WIFI and drinking water is included. A single room starts at $27US per night.
Casa de Laura – Puerto Baquerizo Moreno
Casa de Laura is a clean and tidy budget option (from $20 US) with nice, bright rooms. The air conditioning and use of a fridge are worth their weight in gold. There are hammocks for you to chill out on or the malecon (seafront) is a 5-minute walk with large numbers of sea lions!
Isla Floreana – Galapagos
The Best Things to Do in Floreana
Punta Cormorant – Free*
A birdwatchers paradise, it is possible to see different kinds of Boobys (blue-footed ones too), Flamingos, Frigates and Warblers at the lagoon there. This area also doubles up as a great snorkel spot as large rays and turtles often frequent the area.
Post Office Bay – Free
Perhaps Floreana’s most well-known spot, Post Office Bay is famous for its old makeshift postal system. Seamen would leave letters to family in the handmade post box on the bay in the hopes that someone who was passing would deliver them. It is estimated that Post Office Bay dates back at least as far as 1813 when it was first mentioned in ‘Journal of a Cruise’ by Captain David Porter. Today’s visitors can still leave letters and postcards in the Post Office and are encouraged to search for letters they may be able to deliver.
Devil’s Crown – Free*
Another great snorkelling spot for seeing a diverse array of marine life. According to hearsay and reviews, it is possible to snorkel with Hammerhead sharks here. It is located close to the coast of Punta Cormorant, so it is possible to make both visits in one day.
Where to stay in Floreana, Galapagos
This hostel is run by the daughter of the late Margret Wittmer, who was one of the island’s first residents. The history associated with this family makes the hostel a great choice if you are looking to find out more about Floreana in the early days. Wittmer’s book is sold at the hostel and it is possible to purchase signed copies there. The rooms are basic but clean and breakfast is included. A single room is from $30US per night.
How to travel between the Galapagos Islands
The easiest and cheapest way to travel between the islands is to get a speed ferry. Tickets for these can be purchased from most tour agencies or the main pier on the day of travel. It is possible to journey to all of the inhabited islands by speed ferry (Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana) however, you will need to depart from Santa Cruz to visit the other islands as there are no through routes.
There are ferries that leave in the morning (usually around 7 am) and ferries that leave in the afternoon (usually around 3 pm). These go every day to Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal. Ferries to Floreana are less frequent and will go only in the morning on the chosen day. The availability of ferries to Floreana is impacted by season so make sure to check what days they will depart.
When waiting for your ferry on the pier, listen out for your boat to be called. You will need to board a water taxi which costs between $0.50US – $1US per person to arrive at the boat. They rarely have any change so carry coins for this transaction.
Ferry tickets cost $30US per person and a journey from one island to the next takes around two hours in good weather. Definitely make sure you take a seasickness pill and ask to sit at the back if boats make you queasy. You will need a rain jacket handy or you will get very wet.
What are the must-bring items for a trip to the Galapagos?
- Sandals/flip flops
- Walking shoes/boots
- Sun protection
- Lip balm with a high SPF
- Rainproof jacket
- Seasickness pills
- Insect repellent
Where to next?
Guayaquil: All flights to the Galapagos Islands go via Guayaquil, so it is a good excuse to see a bit of the city. Whilst Guayaquil has struggled with a bad reputation as a stopover city in the past, recent regeneration projects have made this an attractive place to visit in its own right.
Quito: Book your return flight to Quito for the opportunity to explore the capital’s colonial architecture and stunning viewpoints. Located higher than any other capital in the world, Quito is a great place to build your altitude resistance before moving down to Latacunga and tackling the Cotopaxi Volcano!
Montañita: If you’re already getting beach withdrawal on your flight home, head to coastal party destination Montañita. Here you can continue to laze on the beach and even take a day trip out to ‘Isla la Plata’ dubbed the poor man’s Galapagos. The experience doesn’t have to end just yet!