We purchased our flight to the Galapagos on a whim. We actually were not planning on going at all. You see, we’d read that the only people who travel to the Galapagos islands are middle aged, upper class foreigners on holiday. And this assumption is not entirely false. The young backpacker crowd is few and far between here, and there is good reason.
It’s expensive! Like, really expensive.
First, the flights to the Galapagos are not cheap. We paid more for these domestic flights than we did for our ticket from Minneapolis to Colombia.
Then, as if the expensive flight isn't enough, you have to shell out a $110 conservation fee before stepping foot outside the airport.
This is our story and highlights from our travels to the Galapagos Islands, but if your planning at trip of your own, check out our guide of How to Travel to the Galapagos Islands on a Budget.
Self Touring the Galapagos Islands
During our travels, though, we met several people who raved about the Galapagos and assured us we could stay on a budget while visiting one of the most unique ecosystems on the planet.
Many people choose to tour the islands on a cruise, but this mode of travel can be incredibly expensive. Most budget travelers, like us, base themselves on land in hotels and take day trips to sea to experience the wildlife.
During our week in the Galapagos, we visited the three main islands – Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal.
After staying at a dirty hotel our first night on the island of Santa Cruz – complete with a cranky owner, a humidifier in place of air conditioning, and one very large cockroach – we took an early morning ferry to the seldom visited island of Isabela.
The sleepy village of Puerto Villamil consists of just a couple sandy streets lining a beautiful white sand beach.
This would have been paradise if not for yet another icky hotel. The room did have air conditioning and an ocean view, but I woke up with a cockroach running over my face.
Needless to say, we left the next morning and it’s a good thing we did – we found the most incredible hostel just next door.
With a beach bar, hammocks, comfortable beds, the best breakfast we've had in ages, and a young Canadian manager who was incredibly helpful, we felt right at home. (We even listed this hostel as one of our favorites in all of South America. Read more here!)
Just as we were beginning to fall in love with the island of Isabela, we realized we had a problem…
Nobody had thought it necessary to tell us that there were no ATMs on the entire island. Our cash supply was dwindling, and we didn't have enough money to stay more nights. Luckily, the hostel manager let us send her money via PayPal for our room and a tour she organized for us. If she hadn't been so kind, we would have been out of luck.
Money was still tight though, so the rest of our time on Isabela we ate Ramen noodle cups, crackers and boxed wine. Lesson learned.
After three blissful days on Isabela, we took the two hour ferry ride back to Santa Cruz and found a much better hotel (this time without cockroaches, thank you very much).
1. Breakfast... yes, breakfast was a highlight
Our hostel had incredible made-to-order breakfast that changed daily and was served seaside. Absolute perfection.
2. Los Tuneles
These underwater tunnels formed by lava have created an oasis in which a multitude of species coexist.
We spent the majority of the day snorkeling and getting up close and personal with the famous sea life.
We swam with more sea turtles than we could count and also saw penguins, a pregnant male (yes, male) seahorse, starfish, lots of small manta rays and a giant one (at least 6 feet across!!!), and lots of sharks. (Plus, tons of tropical fishies, of course!)
Just before returning to the islands, we stopped at a small, uninhabited island to get a closer look at the blue footed boobies.
Though we applied sunscreen thoroughly and often, the Ecuadorian sun burnt our backs worse than we've ever experienced (it’s like we were on the equator or something!).
And yes Mom, long sleeve shirts were worn in all subsequent snorkeling endeavors.
Santa Cruz Highlights
1. Tortuga Bay
This remote beach is a 45-minute walk from town.
Through. The. Desert. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but the sun was beating down on our shoulders relentlessly, and the water in our bottle might as well have been hot tea.
But we were rewarded big time. We reached a long stretch of beach, and after walking a few minutes, we saw one of the most incredible sights – dozens of baby sea turtles scurrying into the ocean.
After about ten minutes, all the tiny turtles disappeared into the sea and we kept walking until we finally reached Tortuga Bay – by far the most beautiful and secluded beach we have seen on our trip so far.
One tiny problem.
As we were approaching the bay, we saw lots of small sand sharks swimming very close to shore. They are harmless to humans, but not to baby turtles…
We hope our tiny little friends made it into the open water safely!
Back to the beach though. White sand, shady mangrove trees, and cool turquoise waters was just what we needed after our long walk.
The best part is there were no vendors trying to sell anything like all the beaches we’d been at in Colombia. Just peace and quiet.
2. Las Grietas
This crevice in the earth forms a lake that is a gathering place for locals. Though narrow, this body of crystal clear water is 40 meters deep in some places, making it a perfect cliff jumping location for the daring.
Ben and I did jump… off a baby rock… maybe 10-feet high. It was nothing compared to the rocks the local boys were throwing themselves off, at nearly 50-feet above the water.
We decided being injured while traveling sounded pretty miserable, so we spectated for the most part.
3. Binford Street
This road closes down each afternoon and tables are set up for the evening. Fresh fish and lobster are set out for customers to choose, and tourists and locals alike gather for the outstanding food at reasonable prices.
We ate here on two occasions and ordered the same exact thing. Why change your order when you find something you love?!
Both times, we ordered Cazuela de Camarones - a casserole of mashed plantains, vegetables and shrimp, all baked in a stone dish and served with rice. One portion was more than enoiugh for the two of us.
Doesn't sound like much, but damn, it was good. I need to learn how to cook this dish.
4. Charles Darwin Turtle Center
5. Fish Market
San Cristobal Highlights
1. Swimming with Sea Lions
We took a day trip to the island of San Cristobal, famous for its colonies of sea lions. The highlight of the day was being able to swim with these playful creatures in their natural habitat. Ben and I, along with one other guy from our group, were the only people in the whole tour that chose to get in the water with the sea lions. I'm so glad we did, because it was by far the best part of the day. It was unreal how they weren't phased at all by humans. They swam right up next to us and danced around.