“Aren’t they expensive!” exclaimed nearly everyone when I told them I was heading to the Galapagos Islands. And the reality was that yes they were, but being a resourceful and frugal backpacker, I was determined to do them on a budget.
The Galapagos are world-famous and although there are 61 islands, there are only 13 main islands with Isabela being the largest.
The islands are known for their rich ecosystems and an abundance of wildlife including sea lions, giant tortoises, flamingos, and albatross. Not to mention colonies of birds including the blue-footed boobies (yes that is their real name), birds with – yep you guessed it – blue feet. According to others I met who had seen them they look as though they have stepped in coloured paint.
Not here to explore the seas, I chose to only stay for 4 nights. My time (and also money) was limited, and not being one for diving, I planned to just explore the land.
Getting To The Galapagos
Apart from the flight costing me £340 return with TAME (Taking 2 hours from Guayacil), the most expensive part was what I had to pay before I even arrived. Before boarding you are made to pay $20 (you need to go to a different counter before you check in).
When you arrive in the Galapagos you pay $100 before exiting the airport. This is to pay for the national park and they tell you to hold onto your ticket. You can also fly from Quito but I believe the plane stops in Guayacil on the way.
You are not allowed to take on certain food. I took oats, sugar and coffee which was okay. My bags were scanned after I had paid the $20 and before I checked in.
Exploring San Cristobal
The majority of the island is only accessible with a tour guide which means you need to buy a tour at approx $130. This is on top of the national park fee you pay when you enter the islands. Just 10 minutes away on foot from my hostel were some walking trails which are accessible without a guide.
For someone who has a bad sense of direction these trails were so easy to follow! The way was signposted and there were only two routes you could take. I walked past sea lions, and lava lizards during my 1.5 hour hike which took me along the coast and inland.
Seeing the Wildlife
You can find pelicans at the marina or flying around and diving into the sea. These birds are just giant with a wingspan of 90 inches. The Brown Pelican is found throughout the Galapagos Islands. PRICE = Free.
You don’t have to go far to see a sea lion or two. Just 10 minutes from the promenade is Playa Mann, home to more sea lions than you can count. The sea lions are so tame and having humans around them doesn’t seem to phase them. You’ll see them lazing around the people sunbathing and occasionally a curious one will come up to you. PRICE = Free.
Just a 40 minute walk away from the town is Puerto Chino beach where Marine Iguanas can be found. These peculiar-looking lizards are only found on the Galapagos islands and were difficult to spot being camouflaged with the rocks. These are the world’s only marine lizards, named so because they have adapted to the rough seas. PRICE = Free.
The Giant Tortoise
The giant tortoise only exists in the Galapagos (under natural conditions). I visited the Tortoise Breeding Centre which was opened to ensure their survival. There are 11 different species of Galapagos Tortoises and apparently the island of San Cristobal once had more than 100,000 giant tortoises. All of the species are thought to have evolved from one common ancestor which arrived on the islands thousands of years ago. Now you’ll only find them in the northern part of the island (except if you come to the breeding centre of course). Giant tortoises can live past 100 years old. The most famous tortoise has to have been George, who after living to 100 years old died in the Galapagos in 2012.
How to get to the Breeding Centre – A taxi arranged through a tour operator costs $40. I took a taxi there and back for $20 (after negotiating the price). PRICE = Free to enter.
Things to Do in San Cristobal on a Budget
Hire a snorkel from one of the shops on the promenade for $5 and head to Playa Mann to snorkel with the sea lions. There is a gorgeous spot along the walking trail where you can see a cave with clear blue water which also looks like an enticing spot to snorkel. PRICE = $5.
Take your pick from which beach you prefer to sunbathe on amongst the sea lions. Warning though – they can be a bit smelly so keep your distance. PRICE = Free.
Drink the local coffee with a local
Did you know that the Galapagos has its own coffee? Neither did I until the neighbour popped his head into the guest house and offered me a freshly brewed cup for free. If you don’t get lucky with the neighbour (in terms of free coffee that is), I imagine you can buy it somewhere on the islands. PRICE = Unknown.
Go to the Marina
Watch the albatross at the marina as they dive in and catch the fish. There are plenty of benches here to chill on and you’ll find sea lions here too (they seem to get everywhere!) PRICE = Free.
Browse the souvenir shops at night. At dusk I would walk along the promenade past people sat in the cafes and look around the shops whilst listening to sea lions and birds in the background. PRICE = Free to browse.
You can also hire a bike or kayak too. PRICE = Unknown.
Just as anywhere, if you choose to eat in a restaurant or cafe with a view of the sea then you’ll be paying for the view. After my first meal on the promenade of fish and chips (I am British), I found a more local restaurant a few streets back from the sea called Restaurante Carmita. Instead of paying $9 for a meal as I had at the front, I paid $4 for soup and ceviche!
This soon became my regular and I went back each day for my two course lunch. The lady even began to greet me as “hola mi amiga,” (hello my friend). I also found a bakery which I used for my other meal each day. Sellers at Playa Mann sell barbecued chicken or bananas filled with cheese for $2.
Accommodation in Galapagos
You can find rooms as cheap as $25 per night on San Cristobal. There are a handful of posh hotels ranging up to as much as $280. I stayed at Hostel Terito which was amazing and the owner was waiting for me when I arrived to take me to his accommodation. I paid $25 for a double room with an en-suite and the owners were so nice that I checked back in for my last two nights.
Take cash with you as my accommodation didn’t have the facilities to pay by card (the currency here is US $).
Boats cost approx $35 and take 2.5 hours from San Cristobal for Santa Cruz at 7am or 3pm. They return back from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal at 7am or 2pm. (I recommend taking the morning ones which can be calmer). Santa Cruz seems to be the main hub for the boats so even if you visit another island it looks at though you have to come back through there.
Debating whether I should see more than one island, after finding out that the sea was choppy at this time of year and that it was recommended to take sea-sickness tablets, I opted not to. I was not a good sailor and didn’t want to put myself through any unnecessary nausea when everything I wanted to see was on this island.
Cruising in the Galapagos
During my walking tour around Quito, I had learned about the economy in Ecuador and how each dollar note cost them more to have it produced in China and shipped here than its actual value. This means that if you buy an all-inclusive cruise outside of Ecuador, the Ecuadorians don’t benefit. Only the cruise companies do. After finding this out, I would definitely recommend booking a cruise in Ecuador (if you can).
Are the islands really possible on a budget?
This really depends on what you want to do there. Not being one for diving or wanting to cruise around the islands then yes it is possible. You could save more money by booking your flight well in advance (use a price-alert with Skyscanner), cooking your own meals and finding someone to share a room with. I only stayed on one island so can only comment on my experience in San Cristobal but you could island hop and take the boat instead of taking a proper cruise which would be cheaper.
The islands take US Dollars so if you are looking for reliable foreign currency exchange services, Travelex.co.uk is an expert offering great value for your travel money.
My Galapagos Budget (for 4 nights)
- Return flight from Guayacil with TAME = $450
- Transfer = Free (The airport was only a 15 minute walk from the promenade and I got picked up for free through Hostel Terito)
- Accommodation – Hostal Terito = $100 for 4 nights (no breakfast)
- Food – Had my own oats and coffee. $7 a day = $35
- National Park Fees – $20 + $100 = $120
Total spend for 4 nights = $705 (£535)
Is San Cristobal a good island to visit?
In my opinion, yes. Galapagos Conservancy has a detailed guide to each of the islands to compare.
The nearby island of Isla Espanola is accessible on a day cruise but it will set you back $200. You can’t stay overnight here. The largest island, Isabela is quite baron and people mainly go there for the volcano and also the penguins. Santa Cruz is more touristy but it appears to have cheaper hostels than San Cristobal, where I stayed.
San Cristobal is said to have the most wildlife and I was more than happy on this island. Admittedly I didn’t get to see the blue-footed boobies but after swimming with a sea lion, seeing giant tortoises, iguanas and brown pelicans, I was as happy as a Marine Iguana basking in the Ecuadorian sun.
When to visit the Galapagos
I travelled here in August when the weather is cooler. They say there is never a bad time to visit the islands but if you head here between mid-June to September you will find yourself in high season and paying more. Although I was here in high season, San Cristobal wasn’t busy as I had presumed it would be for peak season.
Staying in Touch
There is Wifi on the island but it is incredibly slow so warn family that you may not be in touch. You do literally go back in time when you arrive in the Galapagos as the clock goes back an hour (it’s an hour behind mainland Ecuador).
Is the Galapagos Islands good for solos? I felt very safe on San Cristobal and the people seemed incredibly friendly until another solo female traveller told me that the guys were overly friendly because they want to hook up with tourists. Obviously this doesn’t apply to all of them and I didn't get this vibe from them on the island I stayed on. Let me know below if you experience anything different by commenting below.
My tip – I stayed in Guayacil for one night before the flight. I personally didn’t take to this city and was glad to only have stayed the one night. It is meant to be very sketchy and I had that feeling when I arrived. For those travelling solo I would recommend just transiting through (but this is my own opinion).
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