How to Visit the Galapagos on a Budget
The Galapagos Islands is a truly spectacular experience, which is unique to every person visiting. It is based just a short flight away from both Quito and Guayaquil on mainland Ecuador. To visit the Galapagos on a budget, it is best visited by land rather than a cruise. The main reason being the additional costs for on-board services and meals. We opted for a land tour and loved it; read on to plan your visit to the Galapagos on a budget.
Ecuador is a small country with some great activities to enjoy on the mainland too, so if you have time, we'd recommend a budget-friendly visit to the Amazon or for the adventurous, head to Banos, the adventure capital of South America!
Why Choose a Land Tour instead of a Cruise?
Whilst on the Island, we asked around about the differences between a land tour and a cruise. We discovered that whilst a cruise may have been the best option in years past; due to the volume of tourism today, some of the more unique places, once only accessible by cruise boat are now not able to be accessed by them at all. The Ecuadorian Government is continuously working on ways to conserve the beauty of the Islands and one of their tactics is to limit certain areas to small boats only.
We can’t vouch for everyone as we all like to travel in different ways but here at Cloud Walks, we love the adventure of finding our own way around. Trying out different accommodation, discovering new places to eat and doing things in our own time are all a part of the fun. So in all honesty, a cruise wouldn't be our ideal experience anyway but that's not to say you wouldn’t enjoy it, so check out all options to ensure you have your ideal trip for this bucket list adventure! Of course, if you are on a budget and enjoy going at your own pace too, read on and let us help you design your perfect Galapagos Island Adventure!
Stay with a local!
Our Galapagos by land experience was by far the most unique experience we’ve ever heard of. We had discovered the app Couch Surfing whilst travelling around South America, and Marlie decided to see if there were any hosts available in the Galapagos. It turns out there are plenty! We were accepted to stay for a week of our trip on Isabela Island with Galapagos natives; who knew that humans were born around the sea lions, iguanas and turtles?! We loved our stay here and stayed for 3-4 days so we had time to check out all three Islands. This was an amazing experience which gave us a much deeper insight into life on the Islands. It was a great start to our 10-day adventure so if you really want to save some dollar, Couchsurfing is definitely a fab way to do so.
There are three main Islands to visit on a land-based Galapagos trip; Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Christobel. These Islands are all accessible via a speed boat transfer which takes around 2-3 hours each way.
The only issue some may have with a land tour is the transfers to each island for those who suffer from severe motion sickness. We survived with a couple of Dramamine and sticking to the seats at the back of the boat but they are a bit rough! Dramamine is a drowsy motion sickness medication so we swayed with the boat and managed to doze off at times too. Don’t let this put you off though, we promise it was all worth it and as always, a funny experience to reminisce on too looking back!
Santa Cruz has the most infrastructure of the three Islands with San Christobel a close second. It is the best Island to stock up on snacks and food too, which makes it a great place to start and prepare for your adventure ahead! You’ll find small supermarkets on the other Islands too but they are more expensive and harder to find.
We would recommend bringing plenty of cash from the mainland but in an emergency, you will also find ATMs on Santa Cruz and San Christobal too.
The Ideal Route
We had return flights booked from Santa Cruz and opted to head straight to Isabella on arrival, returning to Santa Cruz later and continuing onto San Christobal. In hindsight, we should have avoided the round trip by flying back to Ecuador from San Christobal instead. This would have been the more cost-efficient and environmentally friendly route, which we’d highly recommend for you guys planning your trip now. Whichever way you choose, all three Islands have unique and spectacular experiences to enjoy.
When To Go
We went to the Galapagos in early June for 10 days. This time of year was good, as whilst it wasn’t sunbathing weather, it was still warm but over-cast to avoid burning in the open waters. We also learnt that during the hotter months the beaches really smell with all the wildlife basking out in the sun! This guide will help you decide when your ideal time of year to visit is.
Essentials Items to Make Your Trip Epic
- A GoPro or similar underwater camera - This is essential. We rushed to hire a GoPro from Santa Cruz after being without one on Isabela Island. There is an electronics shop near the dock at Santa Cruz or alternatively you may be able to hire one from Ecuador mainland too.
- Snorkel equipment - We hired all our equipment from the Islands we were on. All Islands including Isabela have plenty of rental shops to choose from to allow you to find the best price/fins to fit you perfectly!
- Sea shoes - We’d definitely recommend buying some sea shoes prior to arriving on the islands. They can be very inexpensive to buy and really make your experience that little bit more comfortable, especially as the volcanic grounds can be quite sharp.
There is an abundance of endemic wildlife on the Galapagos Islands. You’ll discover sea lions, Iguanas, colourful crabs and the infamous blue and red-footed boobies simply wandering around the Islands. The giant tortoises and sea turtles are more likely to be found on tours or in the sanctuaries around the Islands. Other animals we saw included manta rays, white-tipped sharks, sea horses, octopus, stingrays and plenty of tropical fish. If you choose to dive, you’ll also have the opportunity to see hammerhead sharks too!
Dependent on the time of year visited, it is possible to see whales migrating, mating seasons, hatching or sea lions giving birth. This guide gives a breakdown per month of wildlife viewing.
The Galapagos Island Tours and Excursions
There are plenty of different tours available to do from each of the Islands within the Galapagos archipelago. We found that our best tours were heavily reliant on how great the tour guide was and the animals which were around for us to see at the time.
Isabella Island was our favourite Island for tours. We reasoned that being the least populated island, there were more animals in the water to come close to. We also had incredible guides for both our tours there too!
The three tours we chose provided us with a good variety of water experiences, including shallow water snorkelling, kayaking and deep water snorkelling or diving dependent on your experience and preference.
How to Book Tours
We booked most of our tours whilst on the Islands. We enquired within all the local tour operators for the best additional incentives, such as free pictures and videos or lunch included in the tour. Most tours are all priced at around $130 USD, which didn't vary much between operators.
The Tours We Chose
Los Tuneles - Isabela Island
This excursion is a full day tour which heads off from Isabella Island at around 8 AM. The tunnels are an area of unique rock formations made from various lava flows which look like bridges from above the water. We also stopped at a pinnacle rock in the middle of the ocean, where you can see plenty of penguins and sometimes red and blue-footed boobies too.
Paddle to the Penguins - Isabela Island
This excursion was with our Couchsurfing hosts on the Island. The company was called ‘Paddle to the Penguins’ and they were the only tour to offer this unique experience. We got as close as you can get to the endemic Galapagos penguins!
The guides took us shallow water snorkelling which brought us up close to white-tipped sharks, small turtles and plenty of tropical fish too. This is a half-day tour which would team well with a visit to the nearby free snorkelling available at Concha de Perla lagoon.
360 Island Tour / Kicker Rock - San Cristobal
There are two main excursions offered from San Cristobal; The Kicker Rock Tour or the 360 island tour. We opted to do the 360 Island tour, whilst it was slightly more expensive, it meant we could visit the entire Island and see kicker rock too.
Kicker Rock as an individual tour, we’d recommend more for those who are diving, as it is deep water and is the place where you’re most likely to find hammerhead sharks. We enjoyed our short snorkel stop at Kicker Rock and managed to get very close to a small turtle coming up to breathe and a sea lion, which was a beautiful experience! Aside from this though, the visibility was quite short and we didn’t see as much marine life as we had from Isabela.
This is the Island with the most amount of free activities to enjoy. So much so, we opted to not take a tour from this island at all! This information guide gives a description of some of the Islands you can visit from Santa Cruz if you’re interested.
If we’d had more time and money, we may have explored Floreana and Santa Fe Islands from here; which we’ve heard are beautiful too!
Things To Do
Las Grietas is located just a short (and inexpensive) boat ride away from the main port in Santa Cruz.
Las Grietas is essentially a crack between two lava rock cliffs filled with pristine Azul blue water. As you jump in (or slowly slide in, depending on your cold water jumping abilities) you’ll find beautiful schools of fish swimming barely a meter away from you. We didn’t manage to do it ourselves but we were told that if you climbed over the rocks at the back, you’d find an underwater tunnel about a metre long, which leads to another pool with larger fish and turtles. At the time, we didn’t have any sea shoes which would have certainly made this task easier to do as the rocky terrain is hard on the feet (or fins!). We’d highly recommend investing in some before your trip.
How to get there:
To get tickets for the boat, head to the pier and you’ll find a ticket booth to the right. Speak to the guys there and they’ll get you on the next taxi boat out. The cost of the boat is cheap, less than $2 return and we’d recommend renting snorkel gear from Puerto Ayora beforehand, as the guy renting near Las Grietas doesn’t have many options and it’ll come at a higher cost.
After exiting the boat, you’ll find a small beach called Playa de Los Alemanes (Germans’ Beach) which is a nice stop to relax whilst waiting for the return taxi boat to the main port.
To find the trail to Las Grietas, you’ll see signs to the luxurious Finch Bay Hotel. Follow the rocky wall until you see a path veering off to the right-hand side and it is a further 15-minute walk over rocky terrain from here. You’ll walk through cacti forest and a salt lake, so we’d highly recommend wearing trainers for this part. Once you’ve arrived at Las Grietas, you’ll find a small shop selling some refreshments. Just past this, there are some wooden steps heading down to the water. Get yourself ready to enjoy a couple of hours of serenity!
A must-do activity during your time in the Galapagos is to witness the local Fisherman's market. Here you’ll see the fishermen coming in from their morning catch. Whilst they are cutting up the fish, the real entertainment is the sea lions and pelicans fighting it out for any scraps thrown their way! It is very entertaining and fun to watch. The earlier you’re there the better, but we saw wildlife here throughout the day.
How to get there:
You’ll find the market just off Charles Darwin Avenue, keep walking left from the main port along the bay.
Tortuga Bay is the most idyllic beach on Santa Cruz and is also a great place to enjoy snorkelling. You’ll also find plenty of the endemic marine iguanas here and we had our first sighting of a blue-footed booby here too! We’ve since learnt that June was the month to see the unique mating dance of blue-footed boobies. Sadly, we didn’t witness this ourselves, but be sure to keep an eye out if you go around this time!
How to get there:
It is accessible by walking along a paved path, lined with trees and Cacti from the main water taxi dock for an hour. Alternatively, a water taxi from Puerto Ayora will cost $10.50 USD each way. There are only a few boats to and from Tortuga Bay, so it is best to head to the port around 9 am if you want to enjoy a full day there.
Charles Darwin Research Centre
Another great free activity in Santa Cruz is the Charles Darwin Research Centre. Here you can learn about Charles Darwins' research and how scientists have continued his work. You will also get to see the famous Lonesome George.
This was a surreal moment for Marlie and me, as we’d learnt about him in school growing up! For those that don’t know, Lonesome George was the last of his kind of tortoise. Researchers tried very hard to get him to mate with another breed of Tortoise to keep his genetics alive but he just wouldn’t bite. To visit him, you have to head through two separate doors to ensure the temperature is kept to the exact degree to maintain his body. You’ll also be able to see a nursery of baby tortoises here and larger tortoises too. We witnessed two tortoises fighting here which we found pretty distressing!
How to get there:
The station is based just 20 minutes walk away from Puerto Ayora; on the way, you’ll pass plenty of the places mentioned here to entertain you. Mercado Artesanal, the fisherman’s market, the outdoor mosaic installation and plenty of souvenir shops and cafes are all en route.
Market Stalls / Mercado Artesanal
This is a cute little market area where you’ll find plenty of souvenirs to take home for your family and friends (and yourself, because you’ll want to remember this time too!).
Sarah bought a new rucksack with ‘The Galapagos’ written on it and we each bought a friendship bracelet too. We also enjoyed some homemade chocolates shaped like turtles! (Sadly they didn’t make it off the Islands...). Either way, you’ll be sure to find something you love here or in the nearby souvenir shops, so shop away!
Outdoor Mosaic Installation
This is a small art installation we came across by chance on our way back from the research centre. We can’t be sure of the name of it, so just look out for the beautiful colourful mosaic tiles. Head in to discover a small laneway of beautiful art and even a small chair made entirely of mosaic to sit down and get that unique Galapagos Insta shot!
The following two places are best visited on your way to or from the airport. You'll need a taxi from Puerto Ayora which will cost you around $40 return. Both locations are en route to the airport though, so it makes sense to add it into your journey rather than spending the money on an additional return taxi. If not, we were able to negotiate a good price ($30-35) with our driver for a return trip.
The lava tunnels are an interesting attraction to see and although a quick google search will have you pretty concerned for the safety of the tunnels, we enjoyed the adventure trekking through them and didn't feel concerned about our safety or ability to do so.
These tunnels were crafted through previous volcanic eruptions on the Island; the lava forced its way through the land making these insane volcanic rock tunnels. As you venture down some wooden steps, it leads you into a dimly lit tunnel full of volcanic rock boulders to navigate or clamber over. Near the end of the tunnel is a small hole, which you’ll have to slide through on your stomach to get through! Once through, you’ve made it! Congratulations! Now head back up the stairs to meet your taxi driver who should have kindly driven round to meet you.
Giant Tortoise Centre / El Chato Reserve
This giant tortoise sanctuary was incredible. It is an open-plan sanctuary, where you can get up close to these beautiful giant creatures. We enjoyed watching them bathe in the small pools and found their dinosaur-like noises highly amusing. The reserve costs $5 entry, which makes it one of the most expensive things you’ll do in Santa Cruz!
Places to Eat
As foodie enthusiasts, we love trying new foods, and sometimes, after travelling away from home for a few months, we enjoy finding some good home comforts too. Most of our best food finds were in Santa Cruz, so if you’re only treating yourself to a few meals out on your trip, save at least two for Santa Cruz.
Our Budget Breakfast Spot - La Regata
We loved this little spot for breakfast; it had a deal which included the daily juice, coffee, scrambled eggs and a small croissant for around $10. It is located right on the harbour too, so whether you’ve just arrived from a morning flight, waiting for your boat pick up or about to start a day trip around the Island (or all three like us), you’ll enjoy this spot. The wifi here was good for the Galapagos Islands too.
Night Market - Kiosko de Renato
This night market is the place to enjoy a meal during your time on Santa Cruz. The atmosphere is amazing, as the whole street transforms into an outdoor market. Charles Binford road is covered in simple tables with fish vendors on either side presenting lots of different fish to choose for your dinner. We were fascinated at the different fish species available and opted to share a small fish between us, which was cooked in foil with lots of flavourful spices and sauce. Whilst some dishes and fish can be costly, each vendor has special offers with competitive prices, so all budgets are catered for. It's great people-watching too, we enjoyed spotting the locals mixed in between heaps of tourists!
The Galapagos Deli
This is definitely the best cafe in town for those Western foods you may have been missing from home. We loved the fish and chips here on our first night in Santa Cruz, the fish was battered perfectly and the chips were hand-cut and made fresh with the tartare sauce too. It was so great, we treated ourselves to one of their delicious ice cream desserts and even got ourselves a deli sandwich for our big day out the next day.
Where to Stay
We enjoyed our stay at Hostel Salinas which we booked on the day we wanted to check-in. The location and price were great for us, it was just a few minutes walk to the centre of Santa Cruz and whilst the rooms were basic, we had our own en-suite, so it was pretty luxurious compared to our usual 16-bed hostel rooms!
This was our favourite Island in the Galapagos, as it was the most remote and untouched of the three main islands. We also had our best excursions from this little slice of paradise!
Isabela Island is very basic, so we would recommend having plenty of cash available as internet connections are very slow and there are no ATMs available on the Island. The meal options are basic but cheap and tasty and we enjoyed all the meals we had here. As mentioned above, buy any snacks and fresh food from San Christobal or Santa Cruz before entering Isabela Island.
Isabela Island is a very small island, which can be explored by foot for the most part. We opted to hire bikes and snorkels from a small shop on the island to discover some of the activities that were slightly further afield. Although, these could still be reached with a full day of hiking if you’re happy to do so.
Activities Around the Island
Concha de Perla - The Lagoon
The lagoon is just a short boardwalk from Puerto Villamil, through some mangroves and around many a sea lion. It was a great free snorkelling opportunity and it was fun discovering sealife yourself and working together with other families and visitors discovering marine life in the lagoon. We found a giant manta ray, stingrays and fish around the rocks. We’ve heard you can also see turtles here but sadly, we missed them!
Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre
We hired bikes and cycled from Puerto Villamil to Centro de Crianza to visit the Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre, also known as Arnaldo Tupiza.
This breeding centre included an information bay which explained the breeding cycle of tortoises, amongst other important information about the conservation of these special breeds. The best part was venturing around the centre, which was split into sections of tortoises at varying ages. The cutest was the babies that were all feeding on small chunks of lettuce. We can still remember the sounds of their little mouths chowing down now!
Flamingos Lake - Posada de flamengos
Near to the breeding centre, is a lake often filled with beautiful flamingos to check out.
The Wall of tears / El Muro de las Lágrimas
From 1945-1959, prisoners were forced to build this wall, stone by stone in isolation. It is a historical site now and sadly, it took the lives of thousands during its construction. Locals claim to hear the cries of those lost at the site today, a chilling claim which we personally didn’t hear, but maybe you’ll have a different experience!
Parroquia Cristo Salvador - The Galapagos Church
Here at Cloud Walks, we enjoy checking out churches we find around the world. This one was definitely up there as a favourite for us because the stained glass windows surrounding the church were not decorated with the usual Christian scenes but with the endemic animals of the Galapagos Islands!
Places to Eat
We discovered a small street of food restaurants offering various ’menu del dia’ or ‘menu of the day’ meal options. These generally include a starter, main and sometimes a dessert or drink.
This small strip of restaurants can be found on Antonio Gil with each place showing their menu options on an A-board outside, with some having more specialised menu options available too. We opted to stick to the budget option and tried a few of the restaurants down this strip, all of which we enjoyed so we're sure you'll be satisfied with your choice too.
The Island will be slightly more built-up now since we were there in 2018. There were many apartment and hotels being built at the time, which may now offer more upscale and pricier food options today.
Bar Atardecer (Sunset Bar)
We discovered this bar when cycling around the Island, but have since discovered it is the sunset bar on the Island! A perfect little spot with hammocks to relax in, offering plenty of different drink options to enjoy after a nice meal or like us, as a pit stop on your bike/hike adventure!
Where to Stay
We loved our Couchsurfing experience here and felt it gave us a truly unique experience. For this reason, we couldn’t tell you where to stay but a simple google search shows some reasonably priced accommodation options such as Posada del Caminante.
San Christóbal is a small island, which doesn't have many free activities but is still worth the visit. It is more social than the other islands with enough bars to do a bar crawl if that floats your boat! It is also a popular island for diving and exploring the popular Kicker Rock.
Activities Around the Island
The Interpretation Centre and the Charles Darwin Statue
San Christóbal is the first Island that Charles Darwin arrived on, so you’re able to take a walk down to the exact part of the bay where he first docked . and take photos with a huge statue of the man himself. The Interpretation Centre has plenty of interesting facts and information about the history and population of The Galapagos Islands over time.
We particularly enjoyed learning about how the tourism infrastructure works on the island and how money is distributed amongst the people; sadly not as effective as we'd like!
Places to Eat
The three streets between Herman Melville and Cobos (or the yellow area you see on Google Maps) is the main area with plenty of bars and restaurants to enjoy. Many of these bars and restaurants have verandas on the first floor overlooking the bay and are a great spot to people watch. There were so many restaurants and bars to choose from we couldn’t possibly recommend just a single one, but enjoy the adventure of choosing your own spot!
As San Christobal was nearing the end of our epic adventure, we treated ourselves to a special meal on our last day at Muyu Galapagos. This restaurant prides itself on growing many of its own ingredients and can be found along the bay overlooking the ocean. If you sit outside, you'll be able to see and hear all the nearby seal lions. It was a delicious meal and a great end to an incredible trip!
Where to Stay
There are some very inexpensive Airbnb options here, which would be perfect for those reading this blog and planning in advance. We stayed at Hostel Terito, this was a decent little homestay hotel, just a short walk away from the main port and the meetup point for our 360 Island tour too.
We had an adventure with our accommodation on San Christobal, our internet connection… or lack of, meant we could not confirm our Airbnb stay prior to our arrival on the Island - so we’d recommend organising this at least a few days in advance to avoid our mishap!
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