Nestled over 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are a dream vacation for many people around the world. But that is as much as it will ever be, a dream. The white sandy beaches and aqua blue waters come at a cost. Not only do the plane tickets to get there cost a fortune, once you get there tours are expensive as well. Unless you have an extra $15,000 lying around this trip seems out of reach.
There IS a way to travel to these exotic islands on a budget. I’m not making this up because I did it, and it was worth every penny. In order to make this dream a reality, you have to do things a little differently than your average tourist. The Islands are out of this world and here is how I got there without breaking the bank.
Getting to Your Dream Vacation:
Instead of taking part in a luxurious cruise that sails from island to island, I decided to fly directly there and stay in a hostel on the island Santa Cruz. While you can get to the Galapagos via plane from Quito, I found the cost was more in reach of my budget when departing from Guayaquil, and I was able to see more of Ecuador this way. So I added a week onto my trip visiting towns in between Quito and Guayaquil arriving in Guayaquil a day before by bus. Make sure you get to the airport with more than enough time before your flight because even though it is a national flight the security is extensive. Before you can enter the Galapagos, park rangers go through your belongings to ensure no invasive species can make it to the islands. Since the islands are so unique and pristine, the locals work hard to conserve and protect the environment by maintaining the ecosystems.
Arriving on Santa Cruz Island
Stepping off the two-hour plane ride is equivalent to stepping into an imaginary world. Iguanas are running around everywhere and cactus’ that I have never seen before are covering the ground. After a short bus ride, you take a ferry across the Itabaca Chanel and get a taste of the clear blue waters. From there you take a bus straight to town. It is possible to take a taxi directly to your hotel or hostel, but the best way to save money is through the local transport.
Activites that Do Not Break Your Budget:
There are many vacation options when you get to the islands. You can either stay in Santa Cruz or take a local ferry to any of the other islands. Make sure you look into which island you are going to (the Darwin and Wolfe islands take 16-hour boat rides to get to). I stayed on Santa Cruz for my whole vacation with the exception of day trips to other islands. This is a cheap alternative to explore the islands. You can set this up through the variety of tour companies in town. It is also possible to set up 4-day treks to the volcano on Isabela Island, which if I had more time I definitely would have done.There is an unending list of activities you can do when island hopping.
Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz
The town, Puerto Ayora, was a lot bigger than I had imagined which also meant a variety of hotels, hostels, and tour companies. The hotels and hostels right next to the pier were very fancier, but if you walk 5 blocks deeper into town you can find backpacker hostels and hotels. I enjoyed these more because you got to see behind the tourist parts of town. You stay where the locals live and see that Galapagos is more than just a tourist destination. I stayed at Galapagos Best Home Stay which was a little more expensive than what I had been paying on the mainland, but it was more affordable than a cruise or a luxury hotel. Anna, the lady who runs it is very nice and helpful with any tourist questions. She also provided clean drinking water, coffee, and every room has its own kitchen. Cooking was one of the best money savers I found during my stay on the Galapagos.
The pier is the center point of the town. Here is where you catch water taxis to the other islands. It is also where the sea lions take over. You will find them sleeping on benches or anywhere they can get cozy, but remember to keep your distance because this is their home, not yours. Around the pier, you can find any kind of tours you want. I found a snorkeling day tour at one of the local agencies, Discovery Galapagos. This was the best tour I have ever done in my life. It was quite expensive (100 USD), but I do not regret it at all. We left town at 6 am the next morning and snorkeled around Santa Cruz and then island hoped to Pizon Island where we snorkeled as well. We swam with sea turtles, sharks, and sea lions. To say it was a dream is an understatement. The guide was very knowledgeable of the animals in the area and motivated everyone to snorkel and explore the waters as much as possible. The tour included snacks, lunch, and water which is always a plus.
I also took a ferry to Isabela Island for a day. The ride was around two hours, but it was cool to see the other islands along the way. Once I got to the island there were tour companies set up trying to get people in for a day of snorkeling or trekking. There is snorkeling right next to the pier where the famous birds, Blue Footed Boobies, are normally spotted. Due to a horrendous sunburn, I was not up for doing anything in the sun. So I found a quiet, shady spot on the beach where I was able to relax and nap.
Relax on the Beach
For the rest of my stay back in Santa Cruz, I laid low on the beach. Tortuga Bay is just a short walk from town. Early in the morning, you can find sea turtles here; and there are always a ton of Darwin’s Finches flying around begging for some food. There is surfing at one end of the beach, but if you walk all the way around the other side you will find the bay. This is perfect for little kids, snorkeling, and just relaxing in the sun. Do not forget your sunscreen though, being so close to the Equator, the sun rays hit you harder and make it easier to get burnt, as I said earlier I got an unreal sunburn. There are many other tours to take on the islands if you have the time. For me, relaxing on the beach was nice enough.
The Galapagos is an amazing destination that everyone should see at least once in their life. The amount of environmental protection and conservation that takes place will make you believe there is hope in saving the world from global warming. The whole landscape is out of this world. And by doing the trip on my own, not through a tour company, I was able to see everything the tours see, but I did it on a budget.