“A man who dares to waste an hour of time has not discovered the value of life”- Charles Darwin.
Follow in Darwin’s footsteps and embark on an adventure unlike any other to a place with untouched islands and undisturbed eco-systems… I’ve always wanted to explore the Galapagos Islands; there is something truly incredible about this rarely visited place and, in the future, I very much hope to head on out there.
This week, I chatted to Galapagos veteran Lisa Swenson and she filled me in on everything I needed to know to explore Galapagos on a backpacker budget…
I had always wanted to explore the Galapagos, with its confusing and utterly fascinating creatures – a land where a Godzilla like creature is a harmless vegetarian and tortoises grow to the size of a fully grown man; what’s not to be curious about? My husband and I decided to not get bogged down by the daunting tour prices and instead try and do Galapagos on a budget. And a pretty tight one at that. Here is a great travel guide to backpacking Galapagos on a budget…
Exploring Galapagos on a budget
Getting to the Galapagos Islands
We flew into Quito and bought our Park Pass for Galapagos, an essential, at the airport which cost us about $100 per person. Once we reached Baltra we had to taxi across the dry desert island to get to a water taxi that would then take us to Santa Cruz. Our ‘real’ journey to Galapagos had begun, and it did not seem like an easy one. The bus was cramped and people were squished together like canned sardines. The air was humid and stuffy and there wasn’t any air-conditioning – this certainly wasn’t any luxury tour but we didn’t care; we were heading somewhere amazing and would be seeing Galapagos on a budget. We were so thankful when we saw the ferry. But of course, we were once again jammed in with as many people as they could fit on the $2 water taxi. Finally, we could begin the last leg of our first journey and head on over to Santa Cruz.
Where to go while backpacking Galapagos on a Budget
Backpacking Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz was a destination in itself. We could have spent an entire week here seeing all that it had to offer – sandy beaches, colourful villas and ever smiling locals. Once we got to Puerto Ayora we realised it had everything we needed – restaurants, cheap places to stay, shops and even a couple of bars. The small island town was always busy with the locals walking or riding their bikes from home to work. The town was directly on the blue sapphire water with access to piers, beaches, and water taxis and this made it to the perfect place to arrange Galapagos day trip. The day trips ranged from $45 – $95 dollars for an all-day snorkelling and land excursion to Isla Daphne including lunch. There are a lot tourist excursion kiosks so make sure you shop around and bring your haggling A-game to get the best price.
Backpacking Isla Daphne
The boat ride out to the island was beautiful; the water was calm and crystal blue. Birds soared through the salty blue sky squawking overhead as we skirted over the water. The island jetted out of the waterm full of life. We spotted a ton of birds: frigates, boobies, and some stunning tropic birds…
While snorkelling we saw sea lions, a few eagle rays, sea turtles, and a white tipped shark. Although the cost of this excursion isn’t crazy cheap, it is well worth doing and is one of the better value trips whilst exploring Galapagos on a budget.
After the trip we ventured out on our own to the El Chato Tortoise Reserve to see some unique species of birds. We then cabbed to Rancho Primicias where the Galapagos tortoises grazed about throughout the free range property. We walked along the lush green trails weaving in and around ponds and trees and constantly spotting many giant tortoises. They were massive- much larger than the ones at the Darwin Center and El Chato.
Backpacking through the Lava Tunnel
The Lava Tunnels were very similar to many caves I had previously explored in the US but with one major difference; the tunnels are surrounded by hardened lava rock. We paid the taxi driver extra so we could see these tunnels and crawl through the narrow openings. The tunnels had a string of dim lights that helped us see our way.
The driver picked us up on the other side of the tunnels where a bucket of water awaited us to wash ourselves off after clambering through the admittedly mucky tunnel. We then went to see Los Gemelos – two huge sinkholes that look like gorges. We went on a short walk and guess what we saw…
Giant iguanas and flamboyant flamingos in the lagoons near the Darwin Station. Our first tryst with these super fascinating beings. What an incredible experience! It was at this point that we really felt that our budget Galapagos adventure was off to an amazing start… We were seeing the highlights of the islands, on the cheap, without the need for an expensive tour.
It was almost sunset by now. We were absolutely exhausted but so overwhelmed and happy at what we had seen today. Not bad for the first day of a budget trip yeah?
The following day we returned to the same kiosk we had gotten the day trip deal from. The salesman gave us a map of Isabela, marked out locations for us and told us that we could see much of the island on our own. We went ahead and bought the ferry ticket, loaded our backpacks in and left on a 2 hour journey to Isabela. Our search for accommodation took way longer than we anticipated. We found a nice private room with a private bath for $50 – expensive I know! You can find hostels in the area for as cheap as $8. You can also use Airbnb to book a place in advance so you don’t have to waste time hunting for a place once you get there. Use this Airbnb Coupon Code to get $35 off on the booking.
Backpacking Los Tunneles
We embarked on a day trip to the beautiful Los Tunneles, early next morning. There were lava bridges over the sapphire blue waters and tunnels under the water. In the shallow snorkelling area, the snorkelling guide pointed out a sea horse for us all to come over and see! This was my first sea horse sighting and I was so happy to see one in the wild. We saw shoals of parrot fish darting in and around prettily through the lava formations. I even spotted a squid, spotted eagle ray, sting rays, and a couple of sharks. This area is so fascinating to explore. The snorkelling experience was truly one of a kind because of the beautiful formations.
Backpacking Punta Tortuga
After returning to the island we had a few hours to kill before taking the long water taxi back to Santa Cruz so we explore the small mangrove cove close to the pier called, Punta Tortuga. We saw some colourful fish and a couple of rays but we weren’t very impressed so we ventured to the beach area on the other side of the docks. Best decision ever! We left our backpacks on the shore with the sunning sea lions standing guard, and dove right in. We swam off shore with the friendly sea lions and a ton of little penguins.
I was constantly tapping, poking, and grabbing my husband to show him the little torpedo of penguins diving through the mangroves chasing the shimmering fish. While swimming I felt what I thought was my husband grabbing my toes to point out some more sea life and turned around to look, I saw two wee little penguins nibbling at my toes! Such an endearing experience.
Backpacking the Other Islands
Galapagos has many other islands to see that offer more wildlife viewing on the land as well as in the ocean surrounding them. Many of the Islands are only accessible by long cruises. Wolf Island is one of those due to its distance from Santa Cruz. Many islands also only allow scuba divers so make sure you do a bit of research before venturing out & bring your hammock with you if you want to camp!
Top 10 animals to see in Galapagos
Galapagos is famous for its splendid wildlife. Most adventurers come here to get their fill of spotting beautiful creatures that aren’t found anywhere else. The most famous animal of all would be the giant land tortoise. The islands where they can be spotted are Santa Cruz, Isabella, and San Cristobal. Another famous reptile is the Galapagos Land Iguana which can be found on Isabella, Santa Cruz, Fernandina, Baltra, and North Seymour. Another rare beauty is the Marine Iguana, which can be spotted on all the islands as they travel through the ocean all over Galapagos.
In the ocean waters you might happen across a Manta Ray or as the locals called them the Diablo Ray or Devil Ray. We spotted two doing somersaults as we cruised on the deep blue sea. Some mantas were doing flips while eating so we caught sight of their white bellies. These rays are found in deep channels and in the Canal Bolivar. Hammerhead sharks and white tip sharks can also be spotted all over Galapagos. The famous and ultra vibrant Sally Lightfoot Crab is also easy to spot. We saw many of these rock hopping along the shoreline.
Galapagos is the most famous for the Darwin’s Finch, which can be spotted on Santa Cruz and Espanola. The Galapagos is also home to the Galapagos Flamingo which is one of the largest flamingos. They can be found in shallow lagoons in Isabella and Floreana. The Blue-footed booby is a popular favourite and is found all over the Islands, you can’t miss their bright blue feet! My favourite of bird by far were the inquisitive wee little penguins that swam all around the islands and dove in and out of the mangroves. A land so rich in wildlife, you will end up spotting most of these animals while backpacking Galapagos on a budget.
How much does it cost to backpack Galapagos on a budget
The main cost of going to Galapagos is the air fare. First you have to get to Quito (flights from the states are around $500 for a roundtrip) and then you have to make your way to Baltra, a $200 return flight from Quito. Of course, if you’re already in South America, you can travel overland from Colombia or Peru and enter Ecuador that way. Once you’ve made it to Baltra, you must pay a park entrance fee of $100 per adult and $50 per child. The rest of the trip was pretty budget friendly.
Food in Galapagos
The food in general was amazing and there was always plenty of yummy beer to go with it. Meals ranged from $3 a person to $15 a person. If you eat where the locals eat you can get a good wholesome dinner for just $5 a meal. If you plan to eat where the tourists do, you’ll end up spending around $10-$15. Our most expensive dinner was $15 for the two of us to share a pizza and drink cokes at a tourist restaurant. So, yeah a word of advice; eat local if you aim to backpack Galapagos on a budget.
Backpacker Accommodation in the Galapagos
You can find plenty of hostels with private rooms and shared rooms. They charge per person for rooms – starting from $8 for shared, going to about $15 a night for a private room. You can always rent out a nice Airbnb property instead. Use this coupon code to get a $35 discount.
Couchsurfing is another viable option in the Galapagos. CS is a great platform for backpackers who want to crash on a couch for free. I would advise you to do a thorough check on the host though. Read this post for more info on Couchsurfing.
There are plenty of budget hostels in The Galapagos, here are a few of the best…
|Galapagos Best Homestay
|A cozy little place situated in Santa Cruz with super friendly and helpful staff.
|Gloria- Galapagos Inn
|Situated in Puerto Ayora, it is at the heart of the city centre. You can explore quite a bit of the city if you stay here.
|Galapagos Island||Galapagos Native||Situated in Santa Cruz, is operated by a descendant of one of the first settlers of the island Santa Cruz native family. They provide excellent service and have an expert knowledgeable about the islands so make sure to ask them if you have any questions.
|Situated in Isabela Galápagos, it is a quaint, family owned and operated property just a few blocks from the centre of town. Enjoy a cultural immersion in a quiet part of town, with restaurants and the beach just steps away.
Staying in Touch while backpacking Galapagos on a budget
We did not have any service while we were in the Galapagos and we were fine with it. But if you absolutely must have reception, grab a local SIM card for about $5 and activate 3G on it. You can also use free WiFi that most hostels offer. Also, make sure you have a good Virtual Private Network for your cell; which basically prevents others from stealing your info while you’re using public Internet.
Feeling crushed by the extravagant pricing of cruises – from $6500 all the way to $14,000 for a ten day cruise, I was pleasantly surprised by how inexpensive they could be if you just rocked up and looked around a bit. A great tip for those wanting to backpack Galapagos on a budget – go for a last minute trip. Once you get to the island you can find specials and deals being offered everywhere for last minute trips. Day trips range from $40-$95 depending on where you want to go. Tour costs very much depend on what you want to do and see. For a week of adventuring, I would estimate spending between $400-$800 dollars on cruises to see all of the islands. That’s a total steal compared to the prices quoted online… If you want to see the Galapagos on a budget; just go and figure it out once you have arrived.
Top Tips For Broke Backpackers
Cook your own food: I often travel with a small gas cooker and cook a lot of my own meals whilst hitching and camping, I save a fortune this way – check out this post for a breakdown of the best tents to take backpacking.
Haggle: Haggle as much as you can. You can always get a better price for things especially for the cruises and day trips.
Keep it Local: Where possible drink the local beer, eat the local delicacies and for day trips and cruises, try to use local companies and guides. By using local companies you can haggle a bargain price that larger, international tour operators won’t offer. Plus supporting local businesses is awesome!
Pack your bible: Learn how to travel the world on $10 a day whilst you get your shit sorted, discover the secrets to longterm travel and build an online income. Check it out here.
Volunteer: If done properly, volunteering is an excellent way to cut down your costs on the road. I strongly recommend Workaway – you pay just $29 for the year and then have access to literally thousands of projects all around the world where you can help out in exchange for food and board.
Books to read
The Backpacker Bible – Learn how to ditch your desk and travel the world on just $10 a day whilst building a life of long-term travel with an online income. Shameless bit of self promo here but this book is basically my dissertation on backpacking, nine years of tips and tricks and your purchase helps keep the site going. If you’ve found the content on this site useful, the book is the next level up and you will learn a ton – if you don’t, I’ll give you your money back. Check it out here.
Lonely Planet Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands – This book is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you. Spot an iguana, swim with penguins, get out there and discover the heart of Galapagos islands.
Galapagos: The Islands That Changed the World – Both fragile and furious, the Galapagos is unlike any other place on earth. An odd confluence of four major currents and an insane assortment of unique wildlife. Find out why Darwin called the Galapagos a ‘world within itself’.
Galapagos: Islands Born of Fire – This book offers an unforgettable photographic tour of the Galapagos. Explore with the author the incredible diversity of wildlife and habitats of the most fascinating and exotically beautiful places in the world.
Huasipungo: The Villagers: a Novel – “The Villagers” is a story of the ruthless exploitation and extermination of an Indian village of Ecuador by its greedy landlord. An interesting read.
The Queen of Water – Virginia’s story will speak to anyone who has ever struggled to find his or her place in the world. It will make you laugh and cry, and ultimately, it will fill you with hope.
Galapagos Regained – The book centres on the fictional Chloe Bathurst, an unemployed Victorian actress who finds work on Charles Darwin’s estate, nurturing the strange birds, exotic lizards, and giant tortoises he brought back from his trip around the world. An interesting take on the theory of evolution.
Galápagos – A story of the character Kilgore Trout who watches and broods over his no-longer-human descendants who have made natural selection a matter of debased survivalism.
Beyond the Islands – A hilarious and troubling take that recreates the Galápagos Islands as the famous cradle of evolutionary theory and as an earthly paradise.
Check out this post for some more on the road reading inspiration.
Apps to download while backpacking Galapagos
Galapagos Islands Offline Map Travel Guide
You will end up exploring the islands mostly on foot or by boat. Because of the lack of connectivity you will need something that will go off-grid with you. The Galapagos Islands Offline Map Travel Guide app is your best bet. It is detailed and will help you save all the info offline. Perfect if you’re backpacking Galapagos on a budget and want to save money on transport.
Knowing the local language is always helpful. Download the uTalk Go app and you can practice phrases on the go. It will also make it easier for you to get better deals from the locals.
Backpacking Galapagos for Free!
If you want to to explore Galapagos long-term and experience living in this truly incredible country you could look at getting a job teaching english abroad. To find out more about TEFL courses and how you can teach English around the world, read this in-depth post on teaching english abroad.
Passionate about scuba diving? Get qualified as a Dive Master! With some of the best diving in the world, Galapagos islands offer a great opportunity to extend your stay with this skill. You get to dive in some of the most unique dive sites with incredible marine life.
A gear checklist we swear by! Make sure you check this out before heading off on a backpacking adventure…
Insurance for your Galapagos backpacking Adventure
Be sure to get travel insurance sorted before you head off to explore Galapagos on a budget, what with the strange creatures and multiple boating tours. I highly recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance.
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Hope this budget travel guide has inspired you to stop freaking out about expensive tours and get out there and explore Galapagos on a budget!
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About the Author: Lisa Swenson
Lisa Swenson is a third grade teacher at a local Arts Integration and Dual Emersion School in Georgia. Lisa enjoys adventuring outdoors with her family; Nathan, Stephanie, and Rebekah. She enjoys traveling to new places and exploring outdoors by hiking, kayaking, biking, camping, and photographing.