Galàpagos on a Budget
Swimming off the beach with turtles and sea lion pups, hanging out with 100 year old land tortoises or dodging penguin missiles shooting through the water; the Galàpagos is a wild aquarium and one of the most special places in the world, but for many travellers on a budget it is believed to be simply too expensive to visit.
But there is good news, the Galàpagos can be experienced in all its glory on a smallish budget! I visited for two weeks and could have spent less than $350 a week – if I wasn’t a diver, plus airfares ($250-400 return).
The three main islands have clean, basic accommodation for $10-15 per night per person and food for under $4 for a two course dinner. Ask for the meal of the day.
Most of the stunning marine creatures can be seen by swimming off the beaches near the towns.
The cheapest of the islands, in San Cristòbal sea lions and humans live side by side sharing the beach, boats, jetty and streets. You will literally be falling over these creatures as soon as you arrive at the main town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.
A short walk from town are the beaches of Playa Mann and Playa Punta Carola and, along with nearby Tijeretas, offer great locations to snorkelling with sea lion pups and turtles.
If the surf is not too big, Tongo Reef is home to hundreds of sea turtles and it is possible to snorkel there on a small swell. Alternatively you can watch the surfing turtles and sea lions from shore.
La Loberia beach can be reached by turning right after the airport along a paved road and left at the coast to find the slightly hidden beach. If you head right when you reach the coast and walk towards the rocks you will see hundreds of iguanas.
Tours are expensive here and I wouldn’t recommend paying for a Kicker Rock tour unless you intend to dive. Snorkelling is $95 for only one short snorkel on the rock, diving is $140 if you book with the agencies that run the boats. Here you will see sharks, turtles and perhaps hammerheads.
You can also take tours of San Cristòbal both by land or boat. Buses run on Sundays only to La Galàpaguera Tortoise Reserve where you can walk amongst the giant land tortoises. Admission is free.
The most expensive of the islands, it is still possible to find accommodation for as little as $15 per person a night in either home stays or a cheap hostel. If you cook for yourself, this island can be cheap. Dinner can be purchased for $4 at the market.
A short walk from town is a boardwalk that leads through to a lagoon with flamingos, ending at the tortoise reserve. The boardwalk starts at the Iguana Crossing Hotel, where, you can see iguanas crossing from the beach to the lagoon.
Snorkelling near the mangroves next to the port offers a chance to see stingrays, sea lions, penguins and turtles. Hiring a kayak is a great way to explore the bay.
Tours: The best day tour on the Galàpagos has to be Isabela’s Tunnels’ Tour where you are guaranteed to see penguins, turtles, stingrays, white tipped sharks, sea horses and more. This tour took us to see the coastal lava tunnels and to two snorkel sites. There were a few hair raising moment as our small boat travelled through a massive surf break to reach the protected tunnel. On our return we passed a group of giant manta rays. They were swimming at the surface and each had a wingspan of around four metres, simply beautiful. $80.
The Sierra Negra Volcano Hiking Tours took us to the edge of the world’s second largest volcano crater. The crater extends some 10km in diameter. The black alien-like landscape is impressive and former lava flows are carved into the crater. The volcano was most recently active in 2005. We also hiked to the nearby Chico Volcano where we felt heat being emitted from the vents. On a clear day you can see across Isabela and out to sea. $40.
The main island of the Galàpagos is home to probably the least attractive of the island town of Puerto Ayora. This is the location to book cruises, day tours and diving.
Sea lions can be found sleeping at the port in the evening.
Tortuga Bay is a short walk from town and has a surf beach and nearby lagoon where you can kayak and snorkel.
Las Grietas is a saltwater filled canyon which can be reached via a short taxi ride from the port and a walk to the swimming hole.
Charles Darwin Research Centre is a 20 minute walk from town and home to a tortoise breeding programme and iguanas. Admission is free. For more giant turtles, this time roaming in a field, head to Rancho Primicias in the highlands. You can hitch a ride or take a return cab for $10. Admission is $3.
Day tours are available to many of the islands around Santa Cruz.
Isla Bartolome offers the iconic volcano island photo and snorkelling with sharks, sea lions and penguins. From $150
North Seymour Island is home to some amazing bird life including nesting frigates with their large red balloon gullet on show, blue footed boobies and owls. And snorkelling includes the chance to see hammerhead sharks and sea lions. From $150
Santa Fe Island can be visited for snorkelling only, unless you are on a cruise. But here you will snorkel with very inquisitive sea lions. It is a lot of fun and a highlight of the trip. $90
Cruises range from $600 for a four day tourist class tour to $2000 for an eight day luxury class, if booked last minute, and leave from Santa Cruz. Galàpagos Mockingbird Tours booked our cruise, took our money and promptly sold it to someone else, ending our opportunity to take a cruise.
However, this was my second time to the Galàpagos and on my first trip I was lucky enough to take a cruise to the islands north of Santa Cruz. It was an amazing experience to sleep on the boat and wake up each morning, jump into the ocean and go swimming and snorkelling. Passengers on cruise boats, unlike day tours, are permitted by the park authorities to visit the islands on land and you also have the chance to reach islands that are further afield.
Travelling between islands
Public boats run to San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana from Santa Cruz for $30 each way. The swell is large and many people become sea sick. The seats at the back have less movement and looking at the horizon or sleeping helps to ease the sickness.
There are a number of dive agencies on the Galapagos and it is possible to dive for as little as $125 for a two tank dive with Galapagos People in Puerto Ayora. The best sites are Gordon Rocks, Daphne and North Seymour. I dived Gordon Rocks on the worst current in five years and as I had a cold, I could not equalise fast enough and had to abort the dive. During a short 20 minute dive, my group clung to rocks and watched as 30 or more hammerhead sharks along with a sea lion and turtles passed by. Hammerhead sharks can also be seen at North Seymour.
Daphne offers some beautiful diving without the current. Here, I saw a giant manta ray – a highlight of my diving career – turtles, sea lions, a massive school of sardines, white tipped sharks, stingrays and an octopus.
For two world class breaks, head to San Cristòbal. I surfed Tongo Reef and saw it at 4-5 foot and off shore for the entire time I was on the island, despite being the off season. The main surf season runs from December to April. Read more at Wave Hunters.
Hostel Gardner, Puerto Ayora, $15 for a dorm bed, shared kitchen and water.
Posada del Caminante, Isabela, $15 per person for a private room and shared kitchen.
Frigates House, San Cristobal, $25 for a self contained apartment, email@example.com
Airlines fly from Quito and Guayaquil on the mainland to the islands of Santa Cruz (Baltra) and San Cristòbal. The main town is a 10 minute walk from San Cristòbal Airport. From Baltra airport an airport provided bus travels to the dock where a boat ferries people over to Santa Cruz. From there it is a public bus or a taxi to Puerto Ayora. Buses only run at 8am returning to the airport. Taxis are $18. When booking with LAN check the quoted online price is for foreigners or you may end up paying considerably more when you check-in.
Park entrance: $100
Airport fee: $20
Accommodation: $10-15 per night per person
Food: $4 for the mean of the day. Or cook.
Snorkel and fin rental: $5 per day
Transport between islands: $30 each way
Day tours: $45-150
Cruises: $600-2000 for four or eight day tours.