“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…
Table of Contents
- Exploring Galapagos on a budget
- Getting to the Galapagos Islands
- Where to go while backpacking Galapagos on a Budget
- Top 10 animals to see in Galapagos
- How much does it cost to backpack Galapagos on a budget
- Food in Galapagos
- Backpacker Accommodation in the Galapagos
- Staying in Touch while backpacking Galapagos on a budget
- Galapagos Tours
- What to Pack for Galapagos
- Top Tips for Broke Backpackers in the Galapagos Islands
- Travel Resources
- Books to read
- Apps to download while backpacking Galapagos
- Backpacking Galapagos for Free!
- Scuba Dive the Galapagos on a Liveaboard Trip
- How to stay safe in Galapagos
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.
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…
|Location||Accommodation||Why Stay Here?!|
|Galapagos Island||Galapagos Best Homestay||A cozy little place situated in Santa Cruz with super friendly and helpful staff.|
|Galapagos Island||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.|
|Galapagos Island||Hostel Loja||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.
All of that said, sometimes it makes sense to book a tour in advance, especially if you are picky and limited on time, looking for an eco-tour, etc. You’ll find our guide to the best Galapagos tours here.
On every adventure, there are six things I never go traveling without:
1. Security Belt with Hidden Pocket: I never hit the road without my security belt. This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off. This is hands down the best way to hide your cash.
2.Travel Water Bottle: Always travel with a water bottle – it’ll save you money and reduce your plastic footprint on our planet. AR bottle are tough, lightweight and maintain the temperature of your beverage – so you can enjoy a cold red bull, or a hot coffee, no matter where you are. For every AR bottle sold, we donate 10% to PlasticOceans.org – an initiative to reduce plastic in our oceans!
3. Microfibre Towel: It’s always worth packing a proper towel. Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if need be.
4. Headtorch: I would never travel without a headtorch. Even if you only end up using it once, a decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must. Currently, I’m using the Petzl LED headlamp with red light (which insects can’t see).
5.Hammock: Taking a tent backpacking is not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy (chicks dig hammocks) and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere. Right now, I’m rocking an Active Roots parachute hammock – it’s light, colourful and tough.
6. Toiletry Bag: I always travel with a hanging toiletry bag as it’s a super efficient way to organise your bathroom stuff. Well worth having, whether you are hanging it from a tree whilst camping, or a hook in a wall, it helps to have quick access to all your stuff.
For plenty more inspiration on what to pack, check out my full backpacking packing list.
To keep your spending to an absolute minimum whilst traveling in the Galapagos and South America in general I recommend sticking to these basic rules of budget adventuring….
Camp: With plenty of gorgeous natural places to camp, the Galapagos is an excellent place to take a tent, though camping is highly restricted. There are still a few opportunities, however. Check out this post for a breakdown of the best tents to take backpacking.
Cook your own food: I took a small gas cooker with me to the Galapagos and cooked a few of my own meals as I could and saved some cash – check out this post for info on the best backpacking stoves.
Haggle: Haggle as much as you can. You can always get a better price for things especially while in local markets, though you might find that the locals won’t budge much on certain things.
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.
Pack a travel water bottle: save money (and the planet) every day! Stop buying bottled water! I may be repeating myself, but having your own water bottle is that important!
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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.
Backpacking Galapagos for Free!
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Whether you are keen to teach English online or looking to take your teaching game a step further by finding a job teaching English in a foreign country, getting your TEFL certificate is absolutely a step in the right direction.
Scuba Dive the Galapagos on a Liveaboard Trip
The waters surrounding the Galapagos Islands make up some of the best scuba diving opportunities to be had in all of South America. The marine life is so abundant due to the heavy ecological protections placed upon the island by the Ecuadorian government years ago.
Joining a Liveaboard trip in the Galapagos is a great way to experience both the islands and the underwater marvels of the sea surrounding them.
Going to the Galapagos is an expensive affair generally. Plus it can be difficult to move around the islands.
Liveaboard trips go to remote dive sites and parts of the islands otherwise inaccessible to foreigners (and other divers). Eat, sleep, and go diving, all from the comforts of an awesome boat…
Sounds pretty awesome right?
For more information, check out Liveaboard scuba diving trips in the Galapagos here.
Pick yourself up a backpacker security belt to keep your cash safe on the road.
Check out this post for plenty of ideas on ingenious ways to hide your money when travelling.
I strongly recommend travelling with a headlamp whilst in Galapagos (or anywhere really – every backpacker should have a good headtorch!) – check out my post for a breakdown of the best value headlamps to take backpacking.
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.
Find out why I recommend World Nomads, check out my World Nomads Insurance review.
Being a Responsible Backpacker in the Galapagos Islands
Reduce your plastic footprint: Perhaps the best thing you can do for our planet is to make sure you do NOT add to the plastic problem all over the world. Don’t buy one-use water bottles, the plastic ends up in landfill or in the ocean. Instead, pack a tough travel water bottle.
Go and watch A Plastic Ocean on Netflix – it’ll change how you view the plastic problem in the world; you need to understand what we are up against. If you think it doesn’t matter, get off my fucking site.
Don’t pick up single use plastic bags, you’re a backpacker – take your daypack if you need to go to the shop or run errands.
Bear in mind, that many animal products in countries you travel through will not be ethically farmed and won’t be of the highest quality. I’m a carnivore but when I’m on the road, I only eat chicken. Mass-farming of cows etc leads to the rainforest being cut down – which is obviously a huge problem.
Recently, my gear-venture, Active Roots has started to sell water bottles. For every Active Roots water bottle sold, we donate 10% to PlasticOceans.org – an awesome initiative aimed at educating people on the risk of single use plastic and helping to clean up our oceans. Help save the planet, whether you take an Active Roots bottle or not – TAKE RESPONSIBILITY for your plastic footprint, don’t be a dick.
Need more guidance? – Check out our post on how to be a responsible backpacker.
Backpacking South America and the Galapagos Islands can be one hell of a party at times. Take it from me, it can be easy to get carried away. It is important to keep in mind that you are an ambassador for your country, which is awesome. We can make a positive impact on people when we travel and get rid of any ugly stereotypes that may be associated with your country.
If you visit indigenous villages or small communities always ask before taking photos. The people who live in these villages are not exhibits in a museum. They are normal folks just living their lives. Always show them the complete respect that they deserve.
When buying a local craft, do not haggle so low that the price is unfair to the person who spent countless hours crafting it. Pay people what they are worth and contribute to the local economies as much as possible.
Avoid eating at fancy gringo-owned restaurants. I don’t care how badly you want that lasagne and red wine. You make a choice with every dollar you spend. Try to spend your money in places where the experience is mutually rewarding.
I know it can be hard, but do your best to use the least amount of plastic water bottles that you can. Refill the ones that you do buy! Use a Steripen. Refill at your hostel! There are plenty of ways to reduce plastic!!!
Backpacking South America or any region for that matter often illuminates some of the great socio-economic inequalities of the world. Never take it for granted that you are healthy and financially able to go traveling. Show the world around you some gratitude and help to make a positive impact on it. Most of all have the time of your life and spread the love!
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!
Want to learn how to travel the world on $10 a day? Check out the Broke Backpacker’s Bible for FREE!
Need More Inspiration?
- The Ultimate Backpacking Ecuador Travel Guide
- South America Travel Guide Itineraries
- Where to Stay in Quito: 5 Best Neighborhoods
- Galapagos Tours: Guide for a Galapagos Adventure
- Is Ecuador Safe?
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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 photoghoraphing.