Galápagos Islands: advice and costs

tl;dr:  We spent twelve days in the Galápagos for less than $US2000 per person including flights from mainland Ecuador – and about a quarter of that was my prodigious eating efforts, so you can definitely do it cheaper, especially if you’re not a glutton.  It’s not spare change, obviously, but it’s not as prohibitively expensive as you might guess.  And it’s worth every cent.

An AeroGal plane on the tarmac at Seymour Airport in the Galápagos

An AeroGal plane on the tarmac at Seymour Airport in the Galápagos

This one’s a nuts and bolts post for those of you potentially planning a trip to the Galápagos – now or sometime in the future;  if that’s not you, you might want to skip it.  It’s not exactly intriguing, and it’s not even funny, I’m afraid…  If you haven’t seen them, you might want to have a look at my posts about actually being in the Galápagos, instead:  one, two and three.  (If you haven’t read them yet, hopefully those posts might help you decide that yes, you do definitely want to plan a trip there, too.  Then you can come back and figure out how.)

So, if you are even vaguely interested in travelling to the Galápagos – even if you think it’s out of reach – then you might be titillated to discover that it’s possible on a more limited budget than you might expect.  It turns out that, while definitely awesome and impressive, the Galápagos doesn’t actually exist in a fairyland bubble of expensive perfection, and is just another destination much like many others.  One which can be travelled in all sorts of different ways, on all sorts of budgets.

To cruise, or not to cruise?

On the advice front, your biggest decision is whether to DIY like we did – staying in accommodation on the islands, in Puerto Ayora (on Santa Cruz), Puerto Villamil (on Isabela) and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (on San Cristóbal), and basing your activities from there, organising individual day trips and activities through agents and dive/snorkel shops on the islands – or to book yourself on a three-, five-, eight- or sixteen-day cruise.  (Or obviously you can also do some combination of the two, if you’ve got the time.)

Frigatebirds take to the air around a small cruise or day-trip boat at Isabela

Frigatebirds take to the air around a small cruise or day-trip boat at Isabela

The cruises are typically the more expensive way to do it, but not necessarily by a tonne, if you can get a good deal.  We ran into one guy who’d bought himself a spot on an upcoming eight-day cruise for $1300 – that was booked a few days in advance, while already in the Galápagos (so bear in mind that it didn’t include his flight costs).  Walking past travel agents in Puerto Ayora, we saw other signs promoting five-day cruises from as little as $550 (in the cheapest class, up to around $1100 for the luxury class).  Booking on the internet before getting here, or through a travel agent in your home country or in Quito, you could expect to pay twice those prices:  the last minute deals on the islands are definitely much cheaper.  That said, I’m told the best cruises all sell out months in advance, so the last minute option won’t actually be available for them anyway.  You can easily spend up to $5000 for good, luxury eight-day cruise booked well in advance before it sells out.  Expect the price tag for the good sixteen-day cruises to have five digits.

For the extra money you pay on a cruise, you get:

  • better food – from what I hear, the food on the cruise boats is generally fantastic
  • a guaranteed variety of sites and activities
  • someone else planning everything for you, with an itinerary that is bound to fit together neatly – no sitting around in Puerto Ayora all morning because your transfer from Isabela arrived at 8am but your follow-on to San Cristóbal doesn’t leave til 2pm
  • a guide for everything, even for those places where Park rules don’t specifically require that you have one
  • the ability to visit some places which just aren’t possible on a day trip:  for example, you can’t get to the island of Fernandina (off the west coast of Isabela) except as part of a cruise
A white-tipped Galápagos shark (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A white-tipped Galápagos shark (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

Having said that, if you’re on a cruise and it’s not a dive cruise, then you won’t be able to decide that you’d like to go scuba diving tomorrow, please.  Nor will you be able to plan the last few days of your trip specifically to maximise your chances of seeing the things that you happen not to have encountered in the earlier part of your trip.  That sort of thing may or may not matter to you – we were quite glad, for example, that we could decide in the last few days to snorkel on Santa Cruz in areas where there were likely to be marine iguanas actually swimming in the water, since we hadn’t seen any of them leave the land yet by day ten.

A marine iguana crosses the beach at the far end of Tortuga Bay

A marine iguana crosses the beach at the far end of Tortuga Bay

Here were the things we would have liked to do while we were in the islands but didn’t – these are things that potentially doing organised cruises of one form or another might have helped us tick off:

  • see, and ideally snorkel with, penguins (we saw only one, on the rocks at Las Tintoreras) – we could probably have managed to get this one done on a day trip, though, if we’d been able to get one out to Bartolomé in the last few days of our trip (the only day trips out there from Puerto Ayora for those few days were full by the time we tried to book)
  • scuba dive at Darwin and Wolf – these are reputed to be two of the best dive sites in the world, especially for seeing big marine life, but they’re a fair way to the north, and only reachable on a liveaboard dive cruise
  • do a night dive – this would actually have been easily possible to organise, but unfortunately we’re not qualified for night diving, and I probably don’t have enough general experience that it’s a good idea to do without the qualification
  • visit Fernandina – apparently this is one of the iconic sights of the Galápagos, with marine iguanas, boobies and various other wildlife as far as the eye can see, but it’s only accessible on a cruise – and to be honest, we saw all the wildlife elsewhere anyway, just not necessarily all in one such iconic spot
A random seascape as we returned from Los Tuneles on Isabela

It’s a bit hard to find an appropriate photo to represent the things we didn’t see, so here’s a random seascape, taken as we returned from Los Tuneles on Isabela

But then, here are the things we wanted to do that we did:

  • scuba dive with hammerhead sharks, Galápagos sharks, eagle rays, sea lions, turtles and more
  • snorkel with sharks, turtles, sea lions, marine iguanas, crayfish, pufferfish, surgeon fish, etc.
  • swim through the underwater lava tunnels on the southwest of Isabela
  • see blue-footed boobies, frigatebirds, pelicans, hawks, and other birds
  • see marine iguanas in the wild, including their nesting sites
  • play with crabs and marine iguanas up close and personal on the beach at Puerto Villamil
  • see giant tortoises “in the wild” on a reserve in the highlands of Santa Cruz, as well as seeing the breeding and research centres on Isabela and Santa Cruz
A giant tortoise in swampy water in Rancho Primicias, in the highlands of Santa Cruz

A giant tortoise in swampy water in Rancho Primicias, in the highlands of Santa Cruz

  • see the volcanos, and the volcanic wasteland, of Isabela
  • enjoy the beautiful beaches near Puerto Ayora and Puerto Villamil
  • see the sea lions all over Puerto Baquerizo Moreno
  • see the flamingos at the flamingo lake near Puerto Villamil
  • explore a few mangrove sites
  • see a reasonable variety of different islands (albeit that we were only on the big three populated ones)

So, y’know, I feel like we achieved a bit during our visit.  It felt worthwhile – especially for what we spent…

A hammerhead shark and a sea turtle (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A hammerhead shark and a sea turtle (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

For what it’s worth, if (when) I go back to the Galápagos, I think I’ll do a cruise – but largely that’s because it makes sense to do something different the second time around.  If I were doing it all over again for the first time, I’d probably do exactly the same again:  island-hopping and day trips.  So my advice for you if you haven’t been yet:  island-hop, like we did.

What we spent

All costs in $US, per person (I was travelling with Chris, so we were two people – maybe budget a little more on accommodation if you’re going solo, since a single room will probably be more than half a twin, and you might not be able to find hostel dorms all the time)

I didn’t keep exact track of what I spent on food and drinks, because, well, that seemed like a lot of boring effort for not a whole lot of return.  Also I was busy eating and ordering more tasty tasty food, not writing stuff down in a notebook.  But I know the price we paid for everything else, so…

  • grand total, excluding food and drinks:  $1420.60
  • grand total, including food and drinks:  somewhere between $1800 and $2000.
A gecko on the screen of an ATM on Santa Cruz

A gecko on the screen of an ATM on Santa Cruz

And the breakdown…

Getting there – total $560

  • return flight from Guayaquil to Baltra, $450  (note:  we bought our flights as part of a Lima-Galápagos-Costa Rica-Lima round trip, for about £400 each, but the Guayaquil-Galápagos round trip is pretty consistently priced from $450 to $500, so that’s what I’m counting)
  • mandatory tourist card (paid at Guayaquil airport, before checkin), $10
  • Galápagos National Park entry fee (paid on arrival to the Galápagos), $100

Accommodation – total $275

  • night one:  Puerto Ayora, Galápagos Best Home Stay (dorm bed in a hostel), $20
  • nights two to five:  Isabela, Rincón de George ($50/night for a twin room), $25/night, $100 total
  • nights six to eight:  San Cristóbal, Hostal Casa de Laura ($40/night for a twin room), $20/night, $75 total
  • nights nine to twelve:  Puerto Ayora, Galápagos Best Home Stay (dorm bed in a hostel), $20/night, $80 total

Transport – total $142.60

  • day one:  ferry (60c),  bus ($1.80) and taxi ($1) from the airport (on Baltra) to our hostel in Puerto Ayora, $3.40 total
  • day one:  transfer from Santa Cruz to Isabela, $30, plus 50c water taxi at Puerto Ayora and another $1 water taxi at Puerto Villamil, $31.50 total
  • day six:  transfer from Isabela to Santa Cruz ($30) and on to San Cristóbal ($30 – although I think it’s actually possible to get this for $25), with a water taxi at Puerto Villamil ($1) and two more at Puerto Ayora (50c each), $62 total
  • day nine:  transfer from San Cristóbal to Santa Cruz ($25), plus water taxi at Puerto Ayora (50c), $25.50 total
  • day nine:  water taxi to Finch Bay to walk to Las Grietas, by Puerto Ayora, 60c
  • day eleven:  taxi to Rancho Primicias to see tortoises and lava tunnels, $30 shared between two, so $15
  • day twelve:  water taxi to Finch Bay to snorkel there and walk to Las Grietas, by Puerto Ayora, 60c
  • day thirteen:  taxi ($1), bus ($1.90) and ferry (60c) from Puerto Ayora to the airport, $3.50 total
A sight from one of our day trips:  a fern manages to prosper in the volcanic dirt and rock of Volcán Chico, on Isabela

A sight from one of our day trips: a fern manages to prosper in the volcanic dirt and rock of Volcán Chico, on Isabela

Day tours and activities – total $443

  • day four:  morning tour to Sierra Negra Volcano and Volcano Chico (on Isabela), $35
  • day four:  afternoon tour and snorkelling at Las Tintoreras (Isabela), $30
  • day five:  full day snorkelling at Los Túneles (Isabela), $65
  • day eight:  scuba diving at Kicker Rock (off San Cristóbal) with Planet Ocean, $140
  • day ten:  scuba diving at Gordon Rocks (off Santa Cruz) with Eagleray Dives, $140
  • day eleven:  entry to Rancho Primicias, $3

While I decided against the monetary equivalent of calorie counting, I can tell you roughly what prices we encountered…

Mmmm, food.  A giant tortoise attacks lunch.

Mmmm, food. A giant tortoise attacks lunch.

Example food costs:

  • you can get a cheap eggs, toast and coffee breakfast at a number of places for $5-8
  • you can get a decent menú del día (set course menu of the day) lunch for $8-12
  • if you eat where the locals eat, you can easily get dinner for $10-15
  • eating out at a really nice restaurant like the fantastic La Garrapata in Puerto Ayora, you can easily spend $20-30 on an appetiser, main and drinks (hey, in Latin America that’s pretty damned expensive!) – but you’ll get a pretty decent amount of very good food for that
  • a large beer is $2.50-3 from a store – although when you buy it, it’ll be more, and they’ll give you some back when you bring back the empty bottles
  • a large beer is generally closer to $3 in a pub or restaurant

Based on how much cash I brought with me, how much I took out from the ATMs in the Galápagos, and how much I had left when I flew out, my best guess is that I spent around $500 on food and drinks over the twelve/thirteen days on the islands, so around $45 per day.  But I eat a lot (most times we went for breakfast, I’d order two of them, for example), and we certainly weren’t being careful to eat cheaply.  Most people (ie normal people) would spend a lot less than that, and it’s certainly easily possible to eat for $20 a day or less if you want to – especially if you cook for yourselves, obviously (our rooms on Puerto Ayora and on San Cristóbal both had cooking facilities that we were too lazy to bother using).

Miscellaneous other advice

A crab on volcanic rock on the shore, on Isabela somewhere

Miscellaneous other photo: a crab on volcanic rock on the shore, on Isabela somewhere

  • There are ATMs in Puerto Ayora and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.  Beware, though, that they don’t always work well for international cards, often telling you that there’s insufficient balance available or that you’ve exceeded your daily limit.  After trying five or more different machines, I eventually managed to get my UK-based Visa debit card to give me cash out of one of the ATMs in Puerto Ayora (the rightmost one by the supermarket down by the port, for what it’s worth) – but that same machine had spurned me earlier.  Chris had an easier time with his Mastercard debit card, but he didn’t have a perfect track record either.  My advice is to bring a bit more cash than you expect to need, on the assumption that you may have difficulty getting money out.  Don’t expect to use credit cards much, either – most places won’t accept them.
  • If you think you might be susceptible to seasickness, be aware that the boat transfers from island to island can be a little bouncy.  We saw a few people emptying their stomachs into plastic bags or over the side, and while it was funny for us, they didn’t seem to be enjoying the experience quite so much.  If you think you might have a problem:  don’t eat before getting on the boat, that’s just stupid;  sit up the back, where the boat doesn’t bounce so much;  watch the horizon;  probably get hold of some seasickness tablets.  This public service announcement brought to you by Captain Obvious.
  • Tap water on the islands is not drinkable.  In other places around the world where that’s the case, I’ll generally brush my teeth with it regardless, but drink bottled water.  WikiVoyage suggests that the water is too iffy even for that in Puerto Ayora.  (Galápagos Best Home Stay – where we stayed in Puerto Ayora – provides free drinking water in the rooms, for what it’s worth.)
  • A lot of the cheaper accommodation on the islands isn’t listed online on Hostelworld or HostelBookers.  Often, you can just roll up and book.  But we did see a goodly handful of people being turned away by our accommodation on San Cristóbal, and the despondent looks on their faces tended to indicate that it wasn’t the first place they’d tried.  It turned out we’d booked the last available room in the hotel/hostel when we’d rung the night before, via a very dodgy Skype connection from our accommodation on the previous island.  Even if you’re organising things last minute, calling the night before to organise stuff is probably not a bad move.
  • Don’t expect good internet access.  Even in the paid internet cafés, net access anywhere on the islands is excruciatingly slow and frustratingly unreliable.
A giant tortoise couple, err, ‘participating’ in the breeding program on Isabela

And let’s finish on a positive note – here’s how we can be confident that the Galápagos Islands will still have a giant tortoise population for many generations to come. Good work, boys and girls, good work.

Any questions?  Ask me in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to give you a useful answer!

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