“It’s clearly the cool thing to do here…”
Sherri’s voice carried quickly in the early morning Galapagos air; a mother walking her son to school looked back at us over her shoulder. Along the road, cars filled with diving gear and men in board shorts passed by.
“Everyone sits on the kerb outside closed up shops at 7 in the morning!”
We were waiting for our tour guide to arrive – the one we’d never met, who was about to take us off to San Cristobal island for a day of snorkelling. Except we just so happened to be an hour ahead of schedule.
Of course, if you’re cruising your way through the Galapagos then you probably don’t need to worry about missing the start of your tour. But for those of us on a budget, who choose to spend their visit day tripping to the islands, getting up on time is of the utmost importance.
You can even get up an hour ahead of schedule if you fancy. Or if you neglect to change your watches back an hour when your plane lands. After living in Ecuador for five months, I didn’t stop to think that the Galapagos could be in a different time zone to the mainland.
Back in time in the Galapagos…
But of course this isn’t mainland Ecuador – not at all. The hospital, dentists and at least twenty pharmacies are all clustered together on the main road; the sole purpose of the vast majority of shops is to sell boat tours; and there’s one long street with all the evening’s food options flanking either side, with tables jostling for space on the tarmac.
Most of all, there’s an overwhelming sense of safety and security. While Quito may be known as one of the most likely cities in South America to get pickpocketed, this small island couldn’t feel more different.
Because Puerto Ayora is an Ecuadorian city that has a great deal of wealth, due to the sealions lazing on the pier, the iguanas scuttling along the pavements and the herons swooping overhead.
And Santa Cruz island, located in the middle of an infamous archipelago, welcomes pretty much every Galapagos-bound visitor onto its shores.
There’s cheap, and then there’s budget
When I decided to volunteer in Ecuador I knew that the Galapagos islands were a must-see, but I didn’t want to spend a large part of my budget on an expensive cruise. So I decided to try out the cheaper, less practiced option: fly to the archipelago, stay on the main island of Santa Cruz and do day trips to the surrounding islands.
While this can start off as a good idea, it’s very easy for the money to start vanishing. We met people who were spending two weeks on Santa Cruz and taking day trips almost every day: when you add up the $70+ day trip price, plus nightly dinners and accommodation, it starts to look like an all-inclusive cruise would be more economical!
My friend Sherri and I were certain we could get the majority of the Galapagos experience without the huge price tag – but obviously that comes at a price of its own. We didn’t eat a huge amount and when we did it wasn’t fancy meals; we walked most of the time and we hungrily searched out every free activity we could. But it worked!
We managed to do it more than cheaply – each spending approximately $900 (or £600 of my own native currency) for a six day trip. Intrigued? Sceptical perhaps? Here’s how I did it…
The hard core Galapagos budget method: a breakdown
I don’t suggest this method for all and sundry; more for long-term backpackers happy to cut all possible corners, rather than families with only a few weeks holiday to travel Ecuador with. It’s also imperative to be relaxed about your trip, and to have enough free time to play with. We booked everything last minute, from flights to accommodation to day trips, as it’s the absolute best way to guarantee you’re getting a bargain.
Plus it’s pretty fun to barter in mediocre Spanish while remaining confident that you sound totally fluent.
Getting there/away: $430 flights (£274) plus $100 airport tax (£64)
There’s no doubt about it: getting to the Galapagos ain’t cheap. But the vast amount of visitors seem to come to Ecuador for these islands only – when it’s surely much more cost effective to combine a budget Galapagos trip with a few weeks in the rest of the country?
Because I’ve been living in Cuenca for the last five months it was no hassle to book the two hour internal flight to the Galapagos. And instead of flying from Quito, I flew from Guayaquil, my nearest airport, which cut my air fare pretty much in half. Finally, booking flights just two weeks before I wanted to be in the Galapagos meant I got a great deal: just $430 round trip (or £274 for us Brits).
The other major sting in transport prices is the requisite Galapagos entrance tax of $100 – unless you can prove you’re Ecuadorian national, when it’s $6. But I don’t recommend attempting the identity fraud method unless your passport looks suspiciously like an Ecuadorian one. The last thing you want is to be thrown back on the plane without having seen a single sea lion.
Local transport: $10 (£6.40)
Emerging from Baltra airport was a tad confusing. We weren’t met by a guide and whisked away, and there weren’t any visible directions for those not joining a cruise (presumably because not many people do it!) – but we worked it out soon enough.
The airline bus ride to the water is free, followed by a five minute $1 boat ride across to Santa Cruz island. After that you either wait patiently for a non-visible bus (timetable not strictly adhered to), or sight three other people in your eye-line and approach one of the many pick up truck drivers, waiting patiently in the parking lot, to be your taxi for the next 45 minutes. The journey cost us $12 split four ways, and making conversation resulted in good tips for what to do for free on the island.
There’s little need for transport in Puerto Ayora, as it’s small enough to walk everywhere. That said, heading to the various beaches on the island’s coast require the use of a water taxi to cross the bay – but at 60 cents a ride, it’s not exactly steep!
Accommodation: $15 a night (£9.50)
After 45 minutes of rudimentary Spanish while driving through the bizarrely sparse but bird-filled Santa Cruz, we were firm friends with our taxi driver. So when we mentioned we had no accommodation sorted, he dropped us in the centre of town near a cluster of hotels, and threw his arms around vaguely to ensure us that everywhere here would be fine.
The first place we walked into had decent enough private rooms with heavy duty fan and an ensuite for $15 each a night, and the smilingly rotund Miguel, the owner, rubbing his stomach in satisfaction that we wanted to stay there, sealed the deal for me.
Hostal Lirio del Mar was parallel to the main street of Avenida Baltra and only a few minutes walk to the harbour, which made it easy for us to come and go as we pleased. There are cheaper places to be found in town, but Lirio del Mar was more than suitable for what we needed.
Food: $90 for six days (£57)
This is where the budgeting really shows – and it’s much easier to do if you’ve only recently done the “I’m an impoverished student” lifestyle.
Avoiding the $5 or $6 ‘American Breakfast’ options on the harbour, we headed further into town and had a typical breakfast of bollon de queso and aji plus a coffee for $3. On trip days, we breakfasted on yoghurt and fruit purchased from the tienda next door and kept overnight in the hostel fridge. Being in a hot climate tends to make me less hungry anyway, so we usually just had a snack for lunch; an empanada from a street stall, some cookies or a bag of crisps.
Occasionally a doughnut from the supermarket if we were feeling particularly rebellious.
But dinner time on Santa Cruz is where a budgeter can really see the pay off. While there’s plenty of dining options for tourists, Puerto Ayora is fundamentally an Ecuadorian town – and Ecuadorians like to eat.
So every night, the main food street is littered with whiteboards advertising that evening’s ‘cena‘ offering; a soup, main dish of meat, rice and salad, and a glass of juice, all for the princely sum of $4. It also arrives on your table faster than any other order – perfect if you’re hungry.
Our hostal also had a kitchen, and while we never fully utilised its cooking capabilities, there was clearly an option to eat even cheaper than we already were. For supplies we headed the supermarket on the waterfront, where there was more than enough available to cook with, if we’d so fancied.
As there’s no potable water on the island we also picked up bottled water in bulk (four litres for a couple of dollars), and refilled little bottles each day.
Day trips: approx $70 – $100 per trip (£45 – £64)
Without a doubt, the bulk of your extra spending will be done on these trips: but the great thing is that you can chat, cajole and haggle with numerous tour agents in Puerto Ayora until you find a price and itinerary that suits you.
You’ve also got the freedom to decide when and where you want to go – so if you fancy a full day of snorkelling in the waters around San Cristobal, followed by a day off exploring Santa Cruz, and then a day on land at Isla Isabela, it’s perfectly doable.
If you fancy a longer stint at one specific island (ie 2 days/1 night or 3 days/2 nights) that’s also an option – just make sure you’re getting a good deal. All day tours should include transport to and from the island, plus a guide (specify that your guide gives his tour in English too if you don’t feel your Spanish is up to scratch) and lunch either on board the boat or on the island. Bear in mind that Isabela island incurs a $20 tax on arrival which is never normally included in the tour price – so you’ll have to pay it as an extra.
After six days, we felt like we’d talked to pretty much every agent – including Stalin, an enterprising young guy who constantly alternated between smiling, winking, and asking us out for beers, which we turned into an opportunity to successfully bargain for a discount.
Even though the same tour will often be sold by multiple agents in different shops, it’s ultimately up to said agent to choose the end price of the tour; what’s specified by the tour operator, plus the cut the agent makes. So spend enough time bartering and you can easily save $20.
Everything on Santa Cruz island is free, from the otherworldly rock chasm of Las Grietas to the Charles Darwin tortoise breeding centre to the stunning white sand beaches of Tortuga Bay. All you need are a couple of willing legs and a large dollop of suncream. We explored the island thoroughly over three days, spending our other two days on trips to other islands.
I’d also recommend heading to the Tourist Information office on Avenida Charles Darwin to pick up a free guide book with maps of all the main islands and highlights of each. This little book was indispensible for me and Sherri – not least because we both have a pretty terrible sense of direction!
Unexpected bonuses to being on a budget
While I couldn’t help being overwhelmed by the amount of nature and wildlife in the Galapagos, I’m more of a people person at heart. One of my favourite things to do when travelling is seek out the hidden elements of a place, to really feel like I’ve discovered something special – and through choosing to stay on Santa Cruz rather than onboard a boat in the water, we were able to see parts of the island that many people probably never experience.
Having the time to stumble across a hidden mosaic garden, for instance, and delighting in the detail the creators had clearly worked hard to achieve;
discovering the local graffiti and gorgeous colours that make Puerto Ayora a wonderfully bright and exciting place to wander through;
and spending hours at the fish market, watching the birds flutter excitedly over the latest catch –
while the sealions slumped under the tables and snored in total relaxation.
Budget versus bank breaking: which is best?
We spent a large portion of our time postulating about how our trip compared to a cruise. Although the benefits of cruising are more than evident, I still whole-heartedly believe that I had just as good an experience of the Galapagos when doing it cheaply. We visited three different islands, snorkelled with giant turtles, sea lions and sharks, sunbathed as much as we were physically able and ate a great deal of fresh fish.
Plus, by the end of six days spent on Santa Cruz, primarily in Puerto Ayora, we felt like we knew the place backwards. We’d discovered the best place for a local breakfast of bollon de queso and unholily delicious fresh homemade ahi; chatted with the friendliest tour operators; befriended the supermarket staff; rode with a variety of different water taxi drivers; and had sampled the majority of the evening cena plates on offer.
The Galapagos is an incredible place, but its not just about the animals, the weather and the landscapes. The people who live on these islands are incredibly warm and welcoming, and deserve equal recognition for why this destination is so favourably touted worldwide.
If you’re still considering opting for a Galapagos cruise instead of budgeting your time here, by all means do it – but perhaps tack a few more days onto the end of your trip, and take some time to explore Puerto Ayora too. Because for the ever-constant influx of tourists who experience Santa Cruz and the archipelago as their sole impression of Ecuador, there are few better places in which to form their opinion.
Have you ever budgeted like this on a ‘luxury’ destination? Do you think you could spend less in the Galapagos than I did? Let me know in the comments!
A bite sized budget guide
Round trip flights from Guayaquil: $430 | £274
Airport arrival tax: $100 | £64
Local transport: $10 | £6.40
Accommodation for six nights at $15 p/n: $90 | £57
Food: $90 | £57
Two day trips at approx $80 each: $160 | £102
Total: $880 | £560