When it comes to bucket list destinations, it’s hard to top the Galapagos Islands. This archipelago of volcanic islands lies over 500 miles (around 900 km) off the coast of Ecuador. Thanks to their isolation, it’s a bit tricky visiting Galapagos on a budget. We managed to pull it off, though, and we want to tell you how!
An Intro to the Galapagos Islands
In total, there are 13 major islands and 6 smaller ones that make up the Galapagos. They’re famous for their incredible biodiversity, with many endemic species such as the giant tortoise and marine iguana.
It was the unusual animal life on these islands that inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution based on natural selection. Darwin remains an influential figure in the Galapagos Islands, and his name and image can be found all over the place.
Only four of the islands are actually inhabited – Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela, and Floreana. The main airport is located on the small island of Baltra and only personnel from the Ecuadorian Air Force and Navy stay there.
As of the 2010 census, the total population of the islands was around 25,000. Due to the increase in tourism, the population of the islands has grown rapidly. That being said, human population only takes up about 3% of the total land. The remaining 97% of land here is protected as the Galapagos National Park.
Most people live in coastal villages, with Puerto Aroya, Santa Cruz and its 12,000-some residents as the largest settlement.
Tourists can only arrive at the Galapagos Islands via one of two airports – the one on Baltra and another on San Cristobal. Both airports have direct flights to Guayaquil and Quito on mainland Ecuador.
There are only tourist facilities on the four inhabited islands, with Santa Cruz and San Cristobal offering the most options.
Now that you know a bit about the islands, let’s get this show on the road and figure out how you can visit Galapagos on a budget.
Can You Really Do Galapagos On a Budget?
When we set about planning our 7-month trip around South America, the first thing we did was make a wish list. Each of us wrote down our Top 10 things we wanted to do, and we then compared notes.
Not surprisingly, we had many of the same items. Machu Picchu, trekking in Patagonia, and Carnaval in Brazil were on both of our lists.
We knew it would be hard work, but we were confident we could cross all of those off the list.
One place we both really wanted to visit but thought we couldn’t afford to were the Galapagos Islands. Everything we ever read or heard about these islands in Ecuador led us to believe it was damn near impossible to do Galapagos on a budget.
First of all, you have to get to Ecuador!
Even from neighboring countries like Colombia and Peru, this can be time-consuming or very expensive. Then, there’s the whole issue of flying to these very remote islands.
Finally, you have to worry about how you get around the islands and where you stay.
A Cruise Isn’t the Only Option
Many tour operators will lead you to believe that the only way to visit the Galapagos Islands is on a cruise.
This simply isn’t true.
DIY travel to the Galapagos Islands has actually never been easier! We had basically given up hope on visiting when we finally found some good resources telling us the truth.
When we started planning for Ecuador, we figured we might as well look into visiting the islands.
After doing some proper research, we realized that we could actually pull off a trip to Galapagos on a budget. We were heading to Ecuador anyways so that obviously had a big effect.
That wasn’t all, though. We did a little bit of travel hacking to help us pull it off!
Read on to learn how we did it and how you can, too.
Travel Hacking Our Way to Galapagos
As I mentioned, traveling around South America can be very expensive.
Flights from Medellin, Colombia to Quito, Ecuador were around $350-400 per person, one way! No bueno!
Flights were also pretty pricey to get from the mainland to the islands, as well as from Ecuador down to Peru. It really didn’t seem like we could visit Galapagos on a budget.
In the past few years, we’ve scored several free flights thanks to strategic travel hacking.
Basically, one of us will sign up for a credit card with a high mileage bonus.
We then make sure to put all of our necessary expenses (and maybe some frivolous ones) on the card. This helps us quickly get the bonus, which we then cash in for free (or at least super cheap) flights.
Earning Miles with Credit Card Bonuses
Before our South America trip, we took turns signing up for the United Airlines card with Chase. By each meeting their minimum spend, we earned 60,000 miles total.
We cashed in 30,000 of them to book flights from Medellin to Quito and then Guayaquil to Lima.
That’s right – we booked a multi-city trip out of different airports on miles! All this for spending money we were going to spend anyways.
Based on flight prices, that saved us well over $1,000!
Of course, we still had the issue of getting to Galapagos on a budget. After we hit the bonus with United Airlines credit card, I also signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. This is probably the best card to get started travel hacking, and just a great overall card for travel. I still have it and find the $90 a year fee to be well worth it.
Thanks to the sign-up bonus for that card, I had 50,000 points. Believe it or not, that covered round-trip flights from Guayaquil to the Galapagos Islands. We flew into Santa Cruz and then out of San Cristobal, so we didn’t even have to backtrack at all.
In short, we got from Colombia to Ecuador, to the islands, and on to Peru all on miles.
I should mention that with Rachel’s earned miles from both cards, we flew round-trip from Chile to Brazil. We also booked one-way flights from Lima to New Orleans so we could get there for WrestleMania.
I still can’t believe we did all that just by signing up for a few credit cards!
In total, travel hacking saved us nearly $3,000 on flights!
Now that you know how we managed to get ourselves to Galapagos on a budget, let’s get on with the details about the cost of the trip. I’ll go into detail about transportation, accommodation, activities, and food & drink to show you our budget.
Transportation Cost in Galapagos
As I mentioned, we traveled to the Galapagos Islands as part of a bigger South America adventure. If you don’t have so much time on your hands and just need to get there, you’ll want to fly into either Quito or Guayaquil.
Your best bet is to book separate tickets – one round-trip ticket to Ecuador and another from the mainland to the islands. If you’re looking to book flights to Galapagos Islands, I recommend using a combination of Google Flights and Skyscanner.
Our total cost for transportation for six nights on the islands was $160.
Here’s a closer look at our costs for getting around Galapagos:
- $3 each to get the bus plus boat to Puerto Ayora from the airport
- $1.50 for short cab rides in town
- $30 each for the ferry from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal
- $30 total for a driver for half a day (another couple also paid $30)
- $60 for a driver for the day in San Cristobal
As you can see, we really didn’t have to spend a lot on transportation. In fact, there were a few days where we just walked everywhere or spent a whopping $1.50 on one cab at the end of the day.
If you plan to visit other islands, such as Isabela, you’ll obviously incur some higher transportation costs. There’s also no direct route between San Cristobal and Isabela, so you need to book an extra ticket to Santa Cruz to connect to the other ferry.
Figuring out which islands you’re going to visit and how to get between them is a big part of pulling off Galapagos on a budget.
Click here to check the times and prices for ferries.
Cost of Accommodation in the Galapagos
An important part of the trip is obviously figuring out where to stay in Galapagos. To be honest, we had no idea what to expect with regard to accommodation. I was a bit worried that we’d be stuck spending $100 a night or more for a hotel, or cramming into a dorm room (we’re too old for that).
Well, my friends, I’m happy to report that our total cost for six nights was only $252!
We spent three nights on Santa Cruz in the main town of Puerto Ayora to start our trip.
For our stay, we booked a room at a place called Patty’s Guesthouse. It’s pretty much on the edge of town, so it was a bit of a walk when we first arrived. We could have taken a cab, but we were trying really hard to pull off Galapagos on a budget!
We spent about $40 a night at Patty’s for our little studio apartment. Our stay included the use of bicycles, and they also have a small pool which is great for cooling off after a big adventure. We booked Patty’s House on Airbnb, but they’re also listed on Booking.
Click here to see their listing on Booking.
On San Cristobal, we booked another studio on Airbnb.
It’s called Casa Mabell and is in the main town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. This place was much more central and still only cost $45 a night. We found it to be a great value and really enjoyed our stay there.
Click here to check them out on Airbnb.
Overall, we were very happy with our accommodation. It was nice having a little kitchenette at each place to make coffee and breakfast. Both places had A/C and decent WiFi and we had our own bathroom.
Being able to get our own room on each island for less than $50 a night certainly helped us visit Galapagos on a budget.
Activities in Galapagos
Of course, one doesn’t travel all the way to the Galapagos Islands to sit in their room!
Even if you’re not on a cruise, there are plenty of things to do in the Galapagos. Even on a land-based trip, you can check out the visitor’s centers, chill on the beach, go for a hike, spot wildlife, and much more.
Galapagos on a Budget – Our Cost for Activities
In total, we spent $391 on various tours and DIY activities.
Here’s a look at where our money went in terms of activities on the islands:
- $3 to rent a snorkel
- $5 each for entrance to the Turtle Ranch
- $2 each to visit a cool tree house
- $35 each for a snorkeling and wildlife tour
- $150 each for the 360-degree tour of San Cristobal
As you can see, we did quite a few fun things on our Galapagos trip but didn’t break the bank. We really enjoyed just walking around both of the islands we visited and taking it all in.
You really don’t need to go far to see wildlife here! Sometimes the beaches are full of sea lions, and you’ll see plenty of marine iguanas sunbathing on rocks.
It really is amazing just how much wildlife you see here. Encountering so many fascinating creatures up close is a major highlight of a Galapagos trip.
Free and Cheap Things to Do in the Galapagos
One huge reason we were able to visit Galapagos on a budget is that there are lots of free or really cheap things to do. We found the visitor’s center on each island to be informative and worth a visit.
The Charles Darwin Research Station is on Santa Cruz and there’s an Interpretation Center on San Cristobal.
Both are free to visit (donations are accepted) and you can learn quite a bit about the islands. Plus, they make for a nice break from the heat.
It was well worth the small price of admission to visit the Turtle Ranch, where we got up close and personal with some giant tortoises.
Of course, we did our best not to disturb the tortoises and kept our distance when taking photos. I wish I could say the same for other tourists. We saw one group getting way too close to them and some people even touching them.
Don’t do that!
Another really cool (and free) thing to do is visit the Ceramic Garden in Puerto Ayora. It’s right off the main road a few blocks away from the visitor’s center and a fun place to snap some photos.
We always love looking for street art when we travel, and we found a bit of it in the Galapagos Islands as well.
Our favorite was the mural of the tree at OMG Coffee where it looks like the tree is growing out of the wall. How cool is that?
There are also some walking trails on each island that lead to viewpoints and beaches.
We really enjoyed these free activities, which certainly helped us visit Galapagos on a budget.
One afternoon on Santa Cruz, we caught a ride to the trailhead and walked to Tortuga Bay. It’s a pretty long walk, but it’s incredibly beautiful.
Eventually, we found a nice patch of shade at a remote beach and just chilled out for a few hours.
Over on San Cristobal, there’s a nice trail leaving the visitor’s center that goes up to a stunning viewpoint. We took the opportunity to hike up there to snap a photo with the statue of Darwin himself.
There also appears to be an excellent spot for snorkeling over here, but we didn’t come prepared with a mask so we just enjoyed the views from above.
Another fun and free thing to do is sit on the beach for sunset. After a big day of exploring and lots of walking around, it was nice to just plop our towel down in the sand, crack a beer, and relax for a while.
Best Galapagos Tours
As far as the tours go, we opted for a few half-day tours and one full-day tour. Here’s a closer look at each tour we took:
Half-Day Land-Based Tour on Santa Cruz
One day on Santa Cruz, we joined another couple from our guesthouse and split the cost of a driver for a few hours. First, he took us to visit a collapsed crater and then we walked through the lava tunnels.
From there, we visited the Turtle Ranch (Rancho Primicias) before finishing up at a stunning and secluded beach. It was a great way to spend half a day without spending too much money.
Half-Day Snorkeling and Wildlife Tour on Santa Cruz
The other tour involved a short boat trip. Although we just went around the bend from the main town, it felt like we were worlds apart. We saw so much wildlife on this tour!
It was our first sighting of blue-footed boobies and we saw plenty of sea lions and marine iguanas along the way.
After a short boat trip, we went for a nice scenic walk along a trail as our guide told us about the island and all its unique flora and fauna. It’s hard to put into words just how beautiful this place is, so here are some pictures instead!
Eventually, we arrived at Las Grietas for some swimming and snorkeling. This is basically a swimming hole in between two cliffs and it’s an awesome place to cool off for a bit.
Finally, we got to take a walk around the pink salt mines, which look sort of like martian landscapes.
Half-Day Tour by Hired Driver on San Cristobal
One day on San Cristobal, we made our own tour by just hiring a driver for the day. He took us up into the interior of the island for a day of exploration.
First up was a stop at a cool little treehouse, where they also had a tire swing and a little rope course.
Next was a trip to El Junco – a freshwater lake at an altitude of around 600 meters. We enjoyed a short stroll around the lake and a bit of birdwatching before moving on with the tour.
From there we headed to the Galapaguera – a tortoise hatchery and reserve. This one was a bit more enjoyable than the one on Santa Cruz as it wasn’t full of loud tour groups.
Finally, we got to spend some time on the postcard-worthy Puerto Chino beach.
Just look at this place!
360 Degree Boat Tour of San Cristobal
The biggest expense with regards to activities was our 360-degree tour of San Cristobal. We spent the entire day making a complete loop of the island with plenty of stops along the way.
First up, we did some snorkeling with turtles, black-tip reef sharks, and manta rays. That was pretty freaking cool!
Oh yeah, and on our walk over to the snorkeling spot we spotted some blue-footed boobies up close.
The next stop was a remote beach where our we got to relax for a while. Rachel used this opportunity to take a little cat nap in the sand while I walked around a bit and snapped some photos.
Our guides did a bit of fishing once we were back out at sea, and they actually caught a massive tuna! Speaking of tuna, we got to enjoy some grilled tuna steaks with rice and salad for lunch.
Finally, we visited Kicker Rock for a bit of snorkeling. It was a cloudy day in November and the water was frigid, so we all had to wear wet suits. Even with one on, I was shivering like crazy. What can I say… I’m a skinny dude. At least I spotted a huge turtle in the water before I had to get out!
One reason we pulled off Galapagos on a budget is that we didn’t do any diving. We got certified in Thailand several years ago, but Rachel always gets ear infections and gets very claustrophobic in the water. I’ve taken a hiatus from diving as well, since I already spend enough money looking at Phish…
Food & Drink
In between all those adventures, you have to feed yourself! Thankfully you can eat pretty well and still visit Galapagos on a budget.
In total, we spent $117 on food and drink.
Here’s a closer look at our budget for eating and drinking in the Galapagos Islands:
- $3 for a jug of water
- $5 each for lunch in a local restaurant
- $6.50 total for drinks at the brewery
- $12 total for coffee and ice cream
- $13 total for breakfast food and beer for our fridge
- $33 total for a nice dinner of lobster and tuna
- $35 total for burgers, fries and drinks
For six nights in one of the most incredible places on Earth, I’d say our budget for food & drink was quite low!
By buying yogurt, granola, fruit, and coffee to keep in the room, we barely spent any money on having breakfast. One day we bought the breakfast at our guesthouse, but even that was only $5 each.
By finding local restaurants to eat the menu del dia (menu of the day) for lunch, you can have a filling meal for just $5. These usually come with soup, a piece of fish or meat, rice, salad, and drink. This was our go-to for the afternoons where we weren’t out on a tour.
As you can see, even our biggest splurges on dinner weren’t too outlandish. We went out for a nice seafood dinner in Santa Cruz and it was just over $30 total!
The night market in Puerto Ayora is the place to go for cheap and tasty local food. We enjoyed it so much the first night that we went back again and tried another place.
Even when we went out for some comfort food and got burgers and fries, we spent under $40 total!
It’s possible to spend a lot more on food, especially if you mostly eat in the restaurants geared towards tourists on the main drag. By finding the local joints and preparing at least one meal at home, you can definitely visit Galapagos on a budget.
As far as drinks, we bought a huge jug of water for just $3 that got us through our trip in Santa Cruz. We carried our Nalgene bottles around like good hippies so as to not use a bunch of plastic. One time we had to cave in and buy a bottle of water during a long hike.
We mostly made coffee in our room, but we went out for cappuccino and ice cream once and only spent $12 total.
If you know us at all, you know we like to go out from time to time and enjoy a cheeky adult beverage or two. You don’t go to the Galapagos Islands to party, though. We bought a few beers on each island to keep in our fridge from local shops. These were usually $2-4 each, with the more expensive ones being large craft beers.
There’s actually a craft brewery in Santa Cruz, so we obviously checked that out. Their beers were delicious and very reasonably priced.
Here are some of our favorite places we ate and drank on the islands, including TripAdvisor links where available:
- Hostel Sir Francis Drake: Nice cheap restaurant attached
- Santa Cruz Night Market: We ate at Sol y Luna
- OMG! Coffee: Great place for a coffee and/or ice cream
- Santa Cruz Brewery: Local craft beer!
- Cri’s Burger: They have some really amazing burgers here!
- Rincon de Sebas: Cheap and delicious empanadas
- Barracuda: Good local restaurant with menu del dia
- “Chicken Man”: Sorry, I can’t find a name or link for this one… it was a place making roast chickens
You can always buy fresh seafood from the local market in Santa Cruz and cook at home if you have a kitchen. We never did this but we enjoyed going down to the market and watching the vendors trying to deal with the pesky pelicans.
In total, our miscellaneous expenses totaled $260.
You need to buy an entrance ticket for the Galapagos Islands, which costs $100 per person. There’s also a $20 fee for a Transit Control Card, which helps them keep track of who’s coming and going on the islands.
The only other expense we put under this category were the awesome t-shirts we bought on our last day. We really didn’t want to add anything to our bags as we had a long way to go on our trip, but we just had to buy these…
Total Cost for Our Galapagos Trip
Here’s a look at the total cost of our trip to the Galapagos Islands:
In case you’re wondering where the snazzy graphics came from, we use an app called Trail Wallet to track our expenses. It’s a fantastic app and we love it so much that we actually use it all the time to keep track of our budget, not just when we’re traveling.
We set what we thought was a modest budget of $1,500 for our week-long trip. As you can see, we succeeded at visiting Galapagos on a budget. As a matter of fact, we were under budget! It’s a pretty great feeling knowing we visited such an amazing place and did so without breaking the bank.
Note that this does not include the cost of flights to and from Ecuador. As I mentioned, we traveled to Ecuador from Colombia and then headed to Peru afterwards. We cashed in credit card points for those flights as well as the domestic flights to the islands.
Just for reference, a quick search on Google Flights turns up round-trip flights from either Quito or Guayaquil to either of the Galapagos airports for anywhere from $250-350 per person.
Our Tips for Visiting Galapagos on a Budget
After reading all of that and seeing all our awesome photos, I’m sure you’re ready to book your own trip of a lifetime to the Galapagos Islands.
In summary, here are our tips for visiting Galapagos on a budget:
- Do some travel hacking to earn airline miles to help get you to Ecuador/the islands.
- Skip out on a cruise, or be flexible enough to book one last-minute on the mainland.
- Fly in to one airport and out of the other to avoid backtracking.
- Sign up for Airbnb through our link to get a deal on your first booking.
- Take advantage of all the free/cheap things to do.
- Stick to local restaurants, especially for lunch to get the menu del dia.
- Hire a driver and make your own tour and try to make new friends to split the cost.
- Bring a snorkel, water shoes, underwater camera – these things are expensive here!
- Skip the touristy bars and just have a beer on the beach at sunset.
By following these tips, you can definitely visit the Galapagos Islands without breaking the bank. We really didn’t think we would be able to cross them off our list, but we did! And if we can do it, so can you!
Overall, we’re very happy with the way our Galapagos trip turned out. Of course, we wish we could have spent some more time there. If we could change anything, we would have added a few extra days in order to visit Isabela. That’s where the penguins are and Rachel is really bummed we didn’t get to see them. Maybe next time!
If you have any questions about visiting the Galapagos Islands, please leave a comment below and let us know! If you’ve been and have some great recommendations of your own, we’d love to hear those as well!
2 thoughts on “Galapagos On a Budget: How to Visit Without Breaking the Bank”
Great tips, cant wait to use some of them!!! But lets be honest there can never be enough Phish ever 😀
Definitely never enough Phish! When are you heading to Galapagos? You’ll have to keep in touch and let us know how your trip is. Hopefully, your trip is not short! Are you catching any shows this summer?