The Galapagos Islands are home to the most interesting and diverse species of plants and animals known to man. Due their remote location, they’ve evolved blissfully untouched by human interaction. This is awesome news for wildlife lovers who want to get up close and personal (most animals are completely unfazed by our presence) and makes it one of the top destinations to see unique flora and fauna on the planet.
However, the unfortunate reality for backpackers is – it’s really freaking expensive.
We’re on a year-long trek so every penny counts and there’s a strict (ish) daily budget try and stick to. We have an activities fund but the Galapagos outstrips them all in the finance factor – doing the initial sums made our collective wallet shed a little tear.
However, after a little deliberation, we found ourselves booking cheap one-way flights from mainland Ecuador. Ultimately we decided as we were traveling through Ecuador and were so close to the Galapagos we’d be damn fools to miss it. Our aim was to try and do one of the most expensive holidays on earth on a backpackers budget. In the end, we managed to get there cheaper than any flight available find on Skyscanner, found private accommodation (no dorms) for 12.50 USD per night and got a first class cabin on an amazing cruise ship for well under the going rate. Here’s how we did it…
Booking Flights to the Galapagos
It seems obvious but most people go straight to Skyscanner, Webjet etc. when it actually pays to go to the Spanish-language equivalent. We saved at least 100 bucks by booking with Cheapo Air on the way there and Despegar for the return. Sure they’re in Spanish and you may need to use Google translate but there are big savings to be made. Also, we booked a single flight and waited until we’d booked our cruise in the Galápagos before booking our return. This gave us the flexibility to choose the cruise and when we came back with no restrictions. We had heard it was more expensive this way but the opposite turned out to be true.
Tip #1: Book using Spanish flight search engines!
We flew into Baltra Airport as do most people who head to the Galapagos. From there it’s a short transfer bus (free), 2-minute ferry ride($2) and a 30-minute bus ride into Puerto Ayora ($2). During the longer bus ride, you’ll get your first incredible glimpse of the fabled Galapagos Giant Tortoises wandering docilely alongside the road without a care in the world.
Insider Tip: Note that on the way back to the airport the last bus leaves Puerto Ayora at 9 AM so if you have a 5 PM flight back to the mainland, (as we did) you’ll need to get a taxi for the hefty sum of $30. We combined our return with a visit to the El Chapo tortoise sanctuary which is on the way to/from the airport which was well worth it. You could also try and hitch hike if you wish – we saw others doing this and seemed completely safe to do so.
Booking the Cruise to the Galapagos
We started looking at options as soon as we arrived in Ecuador. There are countless agencies in Quito and Guayaquil, but in the end, we opted to go straight to the source and book when we got to the Galapagos Islands. This meant we were genuinely last-minute candidates and could bag the best bargains right next to the docks from where the boats left. After arriving in Puerto Ayora, we were struck by how many tour agencies there was lining the streets surrounding the port. All of them have big signs outside advertising Last Minute Cruises. There are several standards of cruise boat class: Economic, Tourist, Tourist Superior, First Class, and Luxury – we were told that anything less than first class was to be avoided, however, the prices for anything above Tourist Superior were sky high. With our backpacks still strapped on we started diving in and out the various agencies trying to score the best deal we could. We had a budget of around $800 USD and wanted to get as much time on board the ship and as many islands in as we could for that price.
Tip #2: Book Your Cruise Last Minute Directly in Puerto Ayora for Last Minute Cheap Deals
Before leaving the mainland I’d compiled a loose list of all the main species of wildlife we’d like to see. This included sea lions, fur seals, marine iguanas, sharks, blue footed boobies, magnificent frigate birds and more. The only thing that would be particularly difficult was hammerhead sharks as these tend to be seen only by divers during Galapagos liveaboards, and since we weren’t diving due to cost, it was unlikely.
It really does pay to shop around as we’d be in one agency, hop next door and be offered the same package for $200 less. In the end, we found a 5 day, 5 night cruise on the 10 passenger Danubia Azul, a newly refurbished boat leaving that Sunday for $780. This took in Islands: Isabella, Santiago, Baltra, Cristobel, Batolome, and Santa Cruz. It covered both the lush eastern side and the rockier volcanic western side which is rare as most boats with less than a week tend to stick to either one or the other. It also meant that we’d be able to see pretty much everything on our list.
Tip #3: Shop and Canvas Around! You Will Often Find Similar Deals Two Stores Down For $200 Cheaper!
Most of the boats include a daily snorkeling trip and you’ll need a wetsuit for the icy waters depending on what time of year you go (November can be fffreezing!) Try and get this thrown in as part of your boat package and you’ll save an additional $25. As a last request, before we signed up and paid our deposits, we also asked if it would be possible to have a cabin upstairs with windows. This was a bit cheeky as we knew it was more expensive but they agreed if we’d sign up there and then. We finalized the paperwork and left the office happy with our bargain last minute cruise! Although the trip was pricey for our meager budget, we knew a trip to this UNESCO World Heritage Site was going to be unforgettable so we just couldn’t pass up the chance!
Related: If this is really out of your budget, you can go to Isla de la Plata: The Poor Man’s Galapagos
Accommodation in Puerto Ayora
There are tons of budget hostels up and down the main strip but most still charge $50 USD for a private double with bathroom. We found one just off the beaten track for $25 USD easily enough by asking a few of the tour shops for recommendations. We had a massive room, comfy bed, clean bathroom, free drinking water, hot shower and decent wifi – a travelers heaven basically. It wasn’t the most swanky looking place but for $12.50 each, we were more than happy. It’s called Santa Cruz and is just north up the main road from the port. You’ll find it on the Google/MapsMe app easily enough.
Food in Puerto Ayora
If you’re looking for good cheap food options, get yourself along to Bordados El Alquimista, a small side street lined with basic but good restaurants that spill out onto the road after dark. Look for the menu del dia (menu of the day) where you can pick up a hearty soup and main (various options available) for $4. If you’re feeling flush, some of the freshest lobster in the world passes through here every day. You can get a small one for $15 or pick up a monster for $25.
Tip #4: Stick to Eating the Menu del Dia Which is the Cheapest (and Heartiest) Meal Available.
The ‘Danubia Azul’ was a fine vessel. More than big enough for 10 passengers to spread out for five days. The teak deck shone bright and everything looked new. The attentive crew greeted us warmly and showed us around our home for the next week. Two huge decks for lounging, a massive dining table where we’d take our meals and ample seating at the back for spotting sea life as we cut fast through the ocean waves.
As mentioned we’d negotiated a cabin up top and were shown to the matrimonial suite. Our expectations were blown away, it was gigantic with 180-degree panoramic windows looking out across the ocean. Opening our curtains wide each day and discovering a new vista across changing ocean or island landscapes was a total massive bonus.
Our Experience in the Galapagos Cruise
Boat movements were mostly done at night while we were asleep which sometimes made things a bit rocky. After a big cooked breakfast, we’d load onto the large dingy and head out for our morning adventure. Usually, it consisted of wildlife spotting on a nearby island followed by snorkeling. Every day was fresh and exciting. We might be playing with seal lions on a deserted white sand beach, and within one minute, we were snorkeling with sharks and manta rays around a bright coral reef. There was never a dull moment. After a big day of activities, we’d eat dinner together and have a few glasses of the red wine which we’d snuck on board. Some people edited their Go Pro footage from the day while others played cards or watched the abundance of bright stars come to life on the top deck.
The food was plentiful and good. Three hearty meals a day and snacks provided after each activity. There were hot showers on the back of the boat which were a godsend after emerging from the freezing cold waters. Cabins were more than comfortable, each with its own bathroom/shower and most importantly plenty of hot water. A small word of warning, everyone suffered from a little seasickness over the week, some more than others. Even if you don’t usually get ill I’d pack a few Dramamine tablets just in case.
Tip #5 Bring Sea Sickness Medicines. You Can Thank Me Later.
Ten people turned out to be the perfect number of passengers. Everyone in the group was chilled, fun and lasting friendships were made. Any more and I feel it would have been a little too much. Also be aware that many boats with 16+ passengers are too big to visit some of the more remote island locations due to their environmental impact. Smaller is better in this case.
Our Galapagos Budget Itinerary & Expenses
Guayaquil – Baltra RTN – $290 – LAM and Galair (Booked via Cheapo Air and Despegar)
Cruise (5 day, 5 nights)
Danubia Azul – $780 (including wetsuit hire and upgrade to matrimonial suite)
Visited: Included morning and afternoon activity & snorkeling every day
- Santa Cruz
Accommodations & Meals in Puerto Ayora
Santa Cruz Hostel $25 per night for double room (2 people for 3 nights)
Menu Del Dia on the main strip $4 per day. Lunch from the supermarket/bakery $2.
Tips for the crew & guide $50
Total Spend for our entire trip
$1300 USD approx per person (included non-dorm accommodation and the odd splurges on red wine, etc.)
Overall it was a totally unreal experience and I’m pleased we splurged a little over our budget on the trip. Especially as my initial thoughts were to skip the Galapagos altogether. It was easily one of the best things we’ve done so far on our South American adventure and we’ll take away tons of great memories of our time aboard. As well as a good camera, bringing a Go Pro for underwater shots is a good shout and ensures you’ll capture all the special and unique moments you’re bound to have.
A version of this article appears on the author’s personal blog. Follow his adventures: Twenty Two Kilos
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