Let’s get this out of the way. You can’t really travel the Galapagos on an extreme budget. Our daily budget for this trip is $50 a day, a very comfortable amount in nearly every city we have visited thus far. During our time on the Galapagos we went over budget by approximately an additional $60 a day after factoring in the flight and hotels. We knew that this would cut some time out of the length of our trip, but we decided it was worth it. When else will we be in Ecuador? I am happy with our decision not to take a cruise; the cheapest we could find were around $200 a day per person none of which included flights. When other travelers ask us about doing the islands without a cruise I tell them that we saw 80% of what I wanted to see. Sure, in the future I would love to return on a dive boat (dust off that PADI certification) but as a new member of the unemployed, this trip did the trick. That is not to say that traveling the Galapagos independently is for everyone. In fact many parts of our trip were giant money sucking pains. If you are considering the “cheap” route to the Galapagos, read these pros and cons. It might well be that all-inclusive is worth it after all.
The largest pro is the savings, naturally. The second is freedom of schedule. If you are on a boat you are at the mercy of the schedule. Heaven forbid you get super sick and miss out on your one chance to dive with hammerhead. If you are only on the Islands for a few days, this might not be as great of benefit; it’s more important to cram all you can into the time.
Snorkeling and the beaches are free. Eric and I took one day tour to Los Túneles, an interesting rock formation off the coast of Isla Isabela. Part of this trip was snorkeling and we did see a few unique animals – a spotted sea serpent and reef sharks- but it wasn’t worth the $110 a head we paid. All of the islands we stayed on had snorkeling coves within walking distance. The most memorable parts of the trips took place in these coves. As a snorkeling nut I can assure you, you don’t need to pay big fees to see wildlife. Just BYO-Mask to the islands, pack a lunch and spend all day in the clearest water you can imagine.
Attractions are free. The islands have little attractions scattered around the major towns. Each island had a Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre and mini-museums. These offer free admission and the chance to see some of the rarer land based wildlife like land iguanas. All are short walks from the town center.
You’ll see more wildlife. This one might be a little contentious but I would argue that we had more hours with animals then those trapped on an iguana-less cruise ship. The Galapagos Islands are an incredible place to immerse yourself in wildlife. Just a quick walk to a snorkeling cove would have you confront iguanas, frigate birds, flamingos, pelicans, sea lions and hermit crabs. The only animal I didn’t get a chance to see was the Galapagos penguin as they roost on Fernandina Island, only accessible by charted boat.
It’s still not cheap. At over double our daily budget, the Galapagos sure knows how to empty out your pockets. Take our first day on the island for example. We had to pay a $10 fee to get our bags checked in the Guayaquil airport before taking our $290 flight to the Baltra airport. After landing we had to pay a $100 National Park fee before hopping on the airport bus which took us to a short 5 minute ferry ride between Baltra and Santa Cruz. This ferry cost a dollar and took us to the shore were we had to pay $3 to ride bus into the city of Santa Cruz. We weren’t done yet as we had yet to travel to Isla Isabela including a $1 water taxi, a $25 ferry ride and another $1 water taxi with a $10 port fee. The our first day cost us $151 dollars in transportation fees before we dipped so much as a toe into the water.
Inter-island transportation. As you read above a $25 ferry takes passengers from island to island. Eric and I took four of these ferries to hop around the various island over the course of our trip. The problem is, they aren’t really ferries. In fact they are sport fishing boats with all of the seats removed so the drivers can cram as many people as possible downstairs. For two hours (or three if one of the motors is broken) with no view and no breeze these are vomit comet speed boats from hell. The coast guard has rules about life jackets, maximum number of passengers and mandatory bottles of water but these boardings are rare and only happened to us once. Instead I found myself jammed between a vomiting infant and a large shirtless man. Two hours had never felt so long.
Everything is expensive, especially food. I can not stress this enough – bring your own sunscreen. The UV rays ate through our SPF 45 like it was tanning oil causing Eric and I to snorkel in a sexy T-shirt and shorts combo for the rest of the trip. Additionally sunscreen is expensive, like $29 a bottle expensive. The Islands know they have a rich captive audience and price everything accordingly.
Food isn’t an exception of the rule. A roll, instant coffee and half a banana for $5, or a scoop of rice, strip of chicken and jello for $7 was the going rate for food on Isabela. These are the cheap options; Eric and I could have splurged for the $18 single serving pizza if we wished. We knew that we were already over budget, meaning our days looked like this; white bread roll with jam for breakfast, saltines and drinkable yogurt for lunch and an awful $6 set meal (potato soup, white rice with chicken and concentrate juice) for dinner. Our last night on the islands we splurged for a $20 fish split between the two of us. It was delightful but I had paid much less for equivalent meals in the states. I confess, I was envious of the cruise ships with their real meals with vegetables. A low point was paying $2 for a half kilo of carrots, pealing them with a spork and then calling it dinner. Backpacking!
Would I travel the Islands independently again? Absolutely, I still prefer it to a regimented cruise. Unless someone knows of a Scuba dive boat for $50 a day…anyone?
Galapagos Brand Water
Aqua / 0% / 0 IBUs
This regional specialty is an absolute must try if you are on the Island. No really, you MUST try it the water on the islands isn’t even safe to brush your teeth in and many islands must import all potable water. Try to find a guest house with refillable water. This will not only save you money but might also save your life in the oppressive equatorial heat.