Galapagos is known to be one of the most expensive destinations in the world, and even the budget cruises often costs thousands of dollar. In addition, the flights to the islands usually costs approx. 500USD return (from Ecuador mainland), and to visit the islands fees of 120USD will apply. It is recommended to spend at least a week when you first visit the islands. I visited Galapagos as the last destination of my backpacking trip to Central and South America last year. I had pre-booked the flights a few months earlier, but I didn’t do any other planning before I arrived in Ecuador. Thus, I soon realized that I faced two challenges; First of all, I only had 4,5 days in Galapagos – much less time than what people recommend to explore the islands. Second, I didn’t want to pay the big bucks for a cruise, and going on a cruise is by far the way most people explore the islands. At the same time, I wanted to see as much wildlife as possible – who knows, will I ever go back to this destination, and if I do, will the wildlife still be the same? Here is how I managed to see and experience quite a lot in only 4,5 days, on a tight budget and without going on a cruise.
Arriving at Santa Cruz Island, I had booked a room for one night before arriving. The first thing I did was going around and talking to various travel agencies, asking how I could see as much as possible, for the lowest price, in four days. I was offered a 4d/3n cruise for 900USD (these ones cost approx. 1400USD when pre-booking online), but the itinerary of the cruise didn’t cover the places I wanted to see. I ended up booking three separate day tours to different islands, to the total of 410USD (bargained down from 460). The day tours all included snorkeling masks, fins, wet suit and lunch. I chose to spend my forth and last day at Santa Cruz Island as there are several nice and budget friendly things to do here. I stayed in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island the whole stay, and by walking around doing some “hotel shopping” the first day, I found a decent hotel offering us a triple room for 45USD/night – a much better offer than what I could find online. Overall, I ended up saving a lot of money on not pre-booking anything online in Galapagos. The hours I spent walking around checking out travel agencies and hotels were well worth the time!
Highlights: Giant tortoises, Marine Iguanas, the Fish Market, Darwin Research Station, “The kiosck” food market
Most visitors start their journey in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, as this is the closest town to Baltra Airport. Puerto Ayora is also the biggest town in Galapagos with its 15.000 inhabitants. As mentioned, we chose to have our base here the entire stay because of our limited time in Galapagos. Puerto Ayora is a tourist town with loads of options when it comes to restaurants and hotels. There are also quite a few places to see on the on Santa Cruz Island:
♥ Charles Darwin Research Station: You can learn about Galapagos’ wildlife in general at the research station, but the main reason for visiting is their breeding program for giant tortoises. You will learn about and see different species of tortoises, both babies and older ones. It’s even free to visit the center!
♥ Tortuga Bay: You have to walk for about 45 minutes to get here, but it’s absolutely worth it. The long, white beaches that meet you when coming out from the bushes are incredible. Walk along the beach against Tortuga Bay, and just before you hit the bay you will suddenly see loads of marine iguanas. The marine iguanas can only be found in Galapagos and it’s amazing how they come together to stay warm – it almost looks like they are cuddling! If you are visiting in the right season, you will most likely see turtles on the beach as well. We didn’t, but we rented a kayak for one hour (20USD) and saw loads of turtles swimming around in the bay. We also saw different fishes in the mangroves, so renting a kayak here is recommended. It’s free to visit the bay, but you have to register before entering.
♥ The farms in the highlands: If you want the see the giant tortoises if their natural habitat, you should visit either El Chato or Rancho Primicias. We went to Rancho Primicias and had the place all to ourselves. There were loads of giant tortoises everywhere and it was so cool to see them in their natural habitat! A taxi to the farms cost 40USD (including waiting for you while visiting the farm and then returning to Puerto Ayora), the entrance is 5USD and the tour including transport takes about 2-3 hours.
♥ Fish market: Visit the fish market around 4-5pm to see the huge tunas, lobsters and the other catches of the day. What makes it even more fun are the pelicans and sea lions hanging around begging for food!
♥ The pier: At night, you can see white-tip sharks and rays swimming around the pier. There are also several sleeping sea lions and hungry pelicans among the tourists on the bridge.
Bartolome and Sulyvan Beach
Highlights: Volcanic island and viewpoint, sea turtles, Galapagos penguin, lava lizard, sea lions, various birds
The tour: Picked up in Puerto Ayora at 6am and we were back at 6.30pm. The price was 150USD and included equipment, breakfast, lunch and snacks. We went with a company called Noril.
Details: Our first day trip went to Bartolome, a volcanic island without any animals (except the lava lizards). From the top of the island you will have the most incredible view, and the hike up is easy. In the bays around the island you can see sea lions playing, hordes of red crabs and pelicans and other birds flying just over your head.
After checking out Bartolome’s unique nature, we took the boat to Sulyvan Beach. On our way we saw the Galapagos Penguin, which is the third smallest penguin in the world. They were so cute when swimming around the boat! At Sulyvan Beach we went snorkeling and saw loads of colorful fishes as well as a couple of huge sea turtles. Swimming around watching the sea turtles must be one of the most peaceful things I’ve ever done!
North Seymour Island and Mosquera Islet
Highlights: Sea turtles, playing with sea lions, Blue-footed Booby, Frigatebird and land iguanas.
The tour: Picked up in Puerto Ayora at 8am and we were back by 5pm. The price was 150USD including equipment, snacks and lunch.
Details: Our second day tour was to Isla Seymour Norte, an island that is supposed to have the best wildlife in Galapagos (at least of the islands around Santa Cruz). We walked around the island with our guide for 1,5 hour and he told us about the animals and the vegetation on Seymour Norte. We saw loads of land iguanas, which are different from the marine iguanas that we saw in Santa Cruz, both when it comes to their appearance and behavior. In addition to reptiles, we saw many birds. The Blue-footed Booby is probably one of the more unique ones, as its appearance is rather strange. It is quite interesting how they get their blue feet. The more they eat, the more turquoise will the color get; thus, turquoise feet are a signal of the male being good hunters, so the ladies prefer these ones. Dark blue feet are a sign of not eating enough and thus these ones aren’t popular among the ladies! We also saw the Frigatebird. Frigatebird males blow up their chest in order to attract the ladies, which looks quite fun.
After visiting North Seymour Island, we went to tiny Mosquera Islet, which is more like a sandbank than an island. Here, we had a picturesque, white beach all to ourselves – we only had to share it with dozens of sea lions. The sea lions were playing in the shallow water and sunbathing on the beach all around us. The highlight of the day was to play with the sea lions in the water. We were snorkeling around, and suddenly a group of young sea lions came along and started swimming with us. It was so much fun! We also saw a few turtles and colorful fishes while snorkeling.
Highlights: White-tip and black-tip sharks, playing sea lions, dolphins, sea turtles and various fishes.
Quick facts about the trip: Pick-up at 8am and returned to Santa Cruz at 4pm. The price was 110USD including equipment and lunch.
Details: Our last day trip went to Pinzon Island, and the only purpose of the day was snorkeling. First, we stopped at La Fe, a bay near Santa Cruz halfway to Pinzon. Here we saw black-tip shark babies, a few turtles, stingrays, various fishes and a huge marbled ray! Arriving at Pinzon, we could already see the sea lions playing around us before we jumped in the water just to find two big white-tip sharks resting on the bottom. They soon woke up and started swimming around us. Surprisingly, the sea lions started playing with the sharks and mocking them – what a sight! After an hour or so in the water it was time for a drive to our next snorkeling spot, on the other side of Pinzon. On the way, we got company with a group of dolphins that jumped around the boat for quite a while. It was amazing and we hadn’t expected to see any dolphins here!
Where to eat in Santa Cruz:
Overall, the restaurants in Puerto Ayora disappointed me. The service level was quite low wherever we went. Considering all the delicious seafood available on the island, I was very disappointed by the lack of proper seafood restaurants in Puerto Ayora. But, I have a few recommendations: The Kioscks: Every night at around 6pm, restaurants pop up and place their tables in the street near the pier. Just ask people where to find The Kioscks and they will know. At The Kioscks you should eat grilled seafood – the lobster is delicious and reasonably priced (from 16USD and up). For proper restaurants, I recommend Il Giardino and La Garrapata.
Where to stay in Santa Cruz:
If you are staying more than one night in Santa Cruz, pre-book only the first night and find a good last minute deal when you have arrived. We ended up staying at White House, which is a decent guesthouse located a 10-minute walk from the main street. The Wi-Fi here was better than most other places on the island (considering being in Galapagos; the Wi-Fi sucks everywhere). We paid 45USD for a room with two single beds and one double bed. The tiny guesthouse has seven rooms and there is a kitchen available to all guests.
How to get to Galapagos
♥ The only way to get to Galapagos is to fly in from Quito or Guayaquil. The flights are expensive – the short trip costs about 500USD (return). We flew into Baltra Airport, near Galapagos’ biggest town, Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz Island.
♥ The process at the airport when going to Galapagos takes a lot of time. You need at least two hours at the airport, preferably three hours. The process goes as following: 1) Check-in at the automat and get your tickets, 2) Go to the “Galapagos Immigration” counter with your passport. Here you have to wait in the line for a while and pay a 20USD fee (bring cash). 3) Go through the Galapagos Bag Scan, where they check all your luggage. 4) Check in your luggage. 5) Go through the regular security control. All these check points have different lines and thus it takes forever!
♥ When you arrive in Galapagos, you have to wait in line again and pay a fee of 100USD.
♥ From Baltra Airport, you will first enter a shuttle bus to the pier, and then a small ferry (1USD) will take you to Santa Cruz Island. Here, you can either take a taxi (20-25USD) or a bus into Puerto Ayora. In total it takes 1-1,5 hour to get from the airport to Puerto Ayora.
What budget do you need for 4 days and 5 nights in Galapagos?
♥ Hotel: 45USD/night x 5 = 225USD (double room – 112,5 each person)
♥ Three island tours (incl. lunch): 410USD
♥ Visit to the turtle farm: 25USD
♥ Meals (5 dinners, 1 lunch): Approx. 120USD (you can get it much cheaper – we ate a lot of lobster…)
Our visit to Galapagos came at a total of 667,5USD each person for 4 days/5nights, in addition to the flight (500USD) and the island fee (120USD).
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