Soaking up sunshine and frolicking with sea lions in the Galápagos Islands seems like a far-off dream, doesn't it? But it doesn't have to be.
But I bet now you're wondering: "Isn't it expensive to travel to the Galápagos?"
YES. No question about it.
But lucky for you, we're going to share our best tips for traveling there on a budget because we believe it's a place that not only the rich should experience.
We'll even share exactly how much we spent, so you have an idea of what you're in for.
Though not as budget-friendly as many other South American destinations, visiting this stunning archipelago is definitely doable even if you're not related to Donald Trump... (and for your sake, we sure hope you aren't!)
While backpacking in South America, we had no intention of visiting the Galápagos. From everything I had read, I knew it was hella expensive, and that was enough to keep us away. We had a pretty tight budget to stick to, after all. But after countless travelers we met along the way recounted stories of this magical place, we finally convinced ourselves that since we were already in Ecuador, going to the Galápagos would never be cheaper.
We thought of it this way: Sure, in 10 years we will (hopefully) have more dough in our savings account, but it's highly likely that the ecological wonder will no longer be the same. The ecosystem on the islands is already being damaged in large part due to tourism.
Side note: When you do visit the Galápagos, please travel consciously. Don't litter (go the extra mile and pick up a few pieces of trash while you're there!), choose companies that treat the environment with respect, and don't harm the animals!
Once we realized that there's no better time to visit the Galápagos than the present, we bit the bullet and bought a last minute flight. We were fully aware that this excursion would break the budget we'd set for our 3-month trip, but we were determined to do our best of keeping our costs as low as possible. And we did a pretty good job of it!
So are you thinking of packing your bags?
Great! I promise this is a trip of a lifetime that you won't regret. There are so many things to do on the Galápagos Islands, and you will be talking about this experience for years to come.
And we're here to help you plan! We learned a lot along the way and are excited to share all we know about traveling to the Galápagos on a budget so you'll be able to maximize each dollar!
And this includes having the right travel gear. Our friends at Practical Wanderlust have a great Galapagos Islands packing list to get you ready for any adventure on the islands.
Okay, let's get started...
Come with a plan
I'm about to divulge all of our best tips for traveling the Galápagos on a budget, but first I'm going to get the bad news out of the way... Even if you follow these tips exactly, you will still spend a good chunk of money while visiting these islands. Yes, these tips will save you money (hopefully lots of it!), but it is still a very expensive place to travel. There's no way around it.
What you can do, though, is come with a solid budget plan. This way, you'll be prepared and will find it much more enjoyable than if you come with unrealistic expectations.
So let's talk numbers:
First things first: you'll need to book a flight. There are only a few airlines that fly to the Galápagos, and prices typically hover between $350 - $450 (round trip from mainland Ecuador) depending on how far in advance you book.
Tip # 1: The cheapest city to fly from is usually Guayaquil. And yes, this means you need to first account for the cost of getting to Ecuador.
Tip #2: If you can be flexible with your time, use Skyscanner's "whole month" function to find the cheapest dates to fly. (When selecting departure and return dates, click on "whole month" instead of a specific date.)
Once you have accounted for the cost of the flight, add $110 per person. This is a conservation fee that each visitor must pay before stepping foot out of the airport. No bargaining here!
Now, add to this the cost of getting from island to island via ferry – $30 each way, which adds up fast. So if you're like us and want to see the 3 main islands, you're looking at $120 per person just in ferry costs.
I know you're not going to want to hear this, but the cost of accommodation, food, and entertainment in the Galápagos is much more comparable to the United States than it is to the rest of Ecuador. Be prepared to spend at least 3 times what you would in the rest of the country.
If you already know that's going to break your budget, consider a cheaper alternative: visiting Isla de la Plata (also known as the "poor man's Galapagos").
1. Rethink the cruise
The absolute cheapest way to explore the Galápagos is by basing yourself on land. You can take day trips to the ocean and hop from island to island. If you are on a tight budget, this is definitely the way to go!
Another way of seeing the islands is on a cruise. Though I don’t have personal experience with seeing the islands this way, we met both travelers who had great experiences and terrible ones. If cruising seems more your style, there are a few things you'll want to consider.
Sure there are “budget cruises” advertised, but remember, you get what you pay for. Why come to one of the most spectacular places in the world, only to have your experience tainted by staying in a stuffy boat with subpar staff and sketchy food. There are some great medium-priced companies out there and there are some pros to traveling this way, but make for sure you're going with a quality, ethical company before you make a reservation.
Be sure to look at reviews and rankings for any cruise you take. We've done a little research for you and we really like Liveaboard.com. They have quality boats from all over the world in their network and can hook you up with the best trip in the Galapagos. They specialize in scuba diving trips so if you want to see this magical place underwater, look no further.
Remember that you can see everything you would on a boat, by basing yourself on the islands and taking day trips to sea. This way, even if you wind up staying in a bad hotel, you only need to sleep there. If you are on a cruise, you’re stuck.
2. Book accommodation in advance
We found that there were many luxury and mid-range options for accommodation, but inexpensive hotels were seriously lacking.
If you’re looking only for budget rooms, you will have a limited number of places you can stay. I will tell you, some of these budget places are absolutely disgusting. Think rude owners, rooms with stained sheets and rotting ceilings… oh, and waking up in the middle of the night with a cockroach scurrying across your face is not enjoyable either.
We stayed in two such places when we first arrived on the islands because we hadn’t done our research.
The good news for you is that you can avoid the duds. The bad news is that decent, inexpensive hotels book up quickly. Plus, the Internet in the Galápagos is terribly slow, so doing your research ahead of time really is a must.
Below is one hostel we recommend from personal experience:
Galapagos Best Homestay (Santa Cruz Island)
An all-around great place to stay, each room has a kitchenette and an unlimited supply of purified drinking water. This place is it is a bit out of the way – about a twenty-minute walk to the town center. Taxis on the island are cheap though, and it will only cost you $1 to get downtown if you really don’t want to walk.
Here's how we find other affordable accommodation on the Galapagos Islands.
3. Time your trip right
You may not always have control over the time of year you visit, but obviously peak season (June - September, and December - January) will cost more than off-season.
In addition to the time of year, consider how many days you will spend in the Galápagos. Visiting for a short amount of time does not always mean you will save money. Generally speaking, the longer you stay, the less you will actually spend per day.
It goes without being said that a month in the Galápagos will cost you a small fortune. You’ve got to find that sweet spot where you have enough days to travel slowly, but not so many that you spend unnecessary money.
We spent one week in the Galápagos, which was enough to see the three main islands. We did have to rush around a bit in our last couple of days though, costing us more money than we would have spent otherwise. In my opinion, 10 days would be ideal.
4. You need to search, but there is cheap food
While most tourists flock to the Italian pizzerias and Western joints, follow the locals for some cheap, Ecuadorian cuisine.
On Santa Cruz Island: At night, look no further than Binford Street for great people watching and even better food. The seafood looks delicious and is no doubt very fresh, but it is still expensive. Instead, sit at one of the many open-air restaurants and order the Cazuela de Camarones – a traditional “stew” of plantains, spices and shrimp. This $12 dish was delicious and more than enough for two of us to share.
On Isabela Island: Head outside the main drag to Restaurante el Tropical where the locals gather.
5. Buy (most of) your drinks at the supermarket
As with most of our travels, we bought our drinks at a market to avoid paying top dollar at bars.
There are countless restaurants that advertise “happy hours” that last nearly all day. Despite being discounted, the drinks are still not cheap. Too rich for our backpacking blood!
So grab a box of wine or a bottle of rum, head to the beach, and enjoy the sunset with class!
6. Choose your tours wisely
You could easily spend a month on the islands, taking a new excursion every day. But eventually they will start to blend together… and take a toll on your budget because they ain't cheap!
Do your research and pick a few tours that interest you and stick with those. Hiking, SCUBA diving, snorkeling, sunset cruise, sailing... pick your poison. Expect to splurge, but go in knowing that you can't do it all if you're trying to stay on budget.
Our top tour pick: If you are on Isabela Island, the Los Túneles tour is a must! At $95 per person, it is a splurge, yes, but totally worth it.
Tip: Ask the tour agency if they will give you a discount for booking multiple tours with them. Sometimes it pays off to be loyal to one company instead of booking each excursion through a different operator.
7. Bring cold, hard cash to Isabela Island
Although the Galápagos thrives on tourism, it is less developed as a whole than we were expecting. This was a pleasant surprise after having traveled to many places that have lost their luster due to a surplus of visitors.
The island of Isabela, with its sandy streets and lack of infrastructure, is seriously charming. It was my favorite place in the Galápagos, but there was one tiny – well, actually huge – problem.
There is not a single ATM on the island. And apart from one crazy expensive restaurant, no place on the island accepts credit cards.
So there we were, stuck on the island without any money. So there I am thinking, The only way I'm going to be able to eat is to shell out $25 per meal at this Western restaurant that also charges a 7% credit card fee. Holy sh*t... there goes all of my money!
And then there was the issue of getting off the island. Turns out we didn't even have enough cash on us for us for a ferry ticket back.
If it weren’t for the generosity of the manager at our hostel (and the wonders of PayPal), I don’t know how we would have gotten off the island. One of us may have had to stay. Which wouldn’t have been too bad, after all…
Don't get yourself in this situation. Learn from our mistake and bring plenty of US dollas to Islabela!
8. Take advantage of free activities
On Santa Cruz Island:
Las Grietas: More popular with locals than tourists, Las Grietas is a unique place to spend an afternoon. Observe teenagers jumping off the jagged cliffs into the crevice filled with crystal water below. Better yet, join in the fun and take the plunge yourself!
Tortuga Bay: It’s a bit of a walk to reach this secluded beach, but you’ll be glad you made the trip. Head out in the morning to avoid the scorching afternoon sun. If you’re lucky, you might even see baby sea turtles scurrying away from their nest and out to sea!
Fish Market: Watch as fishermen bring in their fresh catch to be fried up for a long line of hungry customers. A crowd of pelicans will likely be waiting for scraps to be thrown in their direction, making for a great photo opportunity. The nearby dock is usually crowded with local children pushing each other into the water, which is a sight in itself!
On Isabela Island:
Concha de Perla: This wooden boardwalk is home to many lazy sea lions getting their tan on! Be careful not to step on any of them as you make your way to the end of the boardwalk, where you will find a shallow bay. Put on a snorkel and fins, and swim with schools of fish, sea turtles, and manta rays.
Enjoy a sunset: Yes, the token “free sunset” tip. But seriously, the sunsets on Isabela are spectacular. They are made even better with some boxed wine. I’m classy, I know.
On San Cristobal Island:
Swimming with sea lions: Totally free! Just bring a snorkel and mask so you can see these friendly creatures up close. (Many hotels or tour agencies rent them out for $5.)
How much did we spend?
To give you an idea of what to expect, we spent $1,000 each for one week. This includes our flights, ferries, tours, accommodation, food and drinks. We did it just about the cheapest way possible, so expect to spend at least this much per person per week!