The Galapagos Islands are home to some of 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 good news for wildlife lovers who want to get up close (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. Visiting the Galapagos on a budget isn’t easy but it’s not impossible either.
It was always a difficult decision for us whether to head to the Galápagos or not, purely from a financial perspective. Of course any one who enjoys travelling has it on their bucket list (or should do at least) but the reality is – it’s really freaking expensive. We’re on a year long trek around Central and South America so every penny counts and there’s a strict (ish) daily budget try and stick to. We have an activities fund for big ticket tours (Machu Pichu, San Blas cruise etc ), but the Galapagos outstrips them all in the finance factor – doing the initial sums made my wallet cry a little tear.
Luckily my girlfriend and partner in crime/ travel Liz, doesn’t let small things like lack of funds get in the way of planning an adventure and so we found ourselves booking cheap one way flights from mainland Ecuador to what many consider the most diverse natural habitat on planet earth. Ultimately we decided as we were travelling through Ecuador and were so close to the Galapagos we’d be fools to miss it.
Our aim was to try and do one of the most expensive holidays on earth on a backpackers budget. Here, I’ll try and detail how we got there cheaper than any flight you’ll 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.
Booking Flights – It seems obvious but most people go straight to Skyscanner, Webjet etc when they should 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 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 that turned out not to be true.
We opted to fly into Baltra Airport as do most people who head to the Galapagos. From there it’s a short transfer bus (free) 2 min ferry ($2) and a 30 min bus ride into Puerto Ayora ($2). During the longer bus ride you’ll get a first glimpse of the fabled Galapagos Giant Tortoises wandering alongside the road without a care in the world. Note that on the way back to the airport the last bus leaves Puerto Ayora at 9am so if you have a 5pm 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 as it seemed completely safe to do so.
Booking the cruise – We started looking at options as soon as we arrived in Ecuador. There’s countless agencies in Quito and Guayaquil, but we opted to go straight to the source and book when we got to the Galapagos. This meant we were genuinely last minute candidates and could hopefully bag the best bargains right there next to the docks from where the boats left. Don’t be fooled by the smooth tongued booking agents on the mainland who tell you they book direct with the boats as they’ll invariably be going through an agent in Puerto Ayora.
Arriving in Puerto Ayora we we struck by how many tour agencies there are lining the streets surrounding the port. All of them have big signs outside advertising Last Minute Cruises. There’s several standard 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 on we started diving in and out the 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.
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 lots more. It was then broken down into islands (there’s over 200 in the Galapagos, 5 main and many smaller rocky outcrops) and then the areas the animals inhabited – which is ideally where we wanted to go. It became clear very quickly that whatever cruise we went on we’d be seeing most if not all of the main species on the list. The only thing that would be particularly difficult was hammerhead sharks as these tend to be seen only by divers, and since we weren’t diving due to cost it was unlikely.
Our method was to head into an agency, inform them of our budget and let them present us with the options available. Most had had three or four boats leaving within the next 48 hours. We could have hopped on one that afternoon but weren’t keen as the boat looked a bit dilapidated and didn’t get the best reviews online. Most of the agencies we went to offered the same boats and itineraries. However it really does pay to shop around as we’d be in one place, hop next door and get 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 new 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 most of the species on our list.
Most of the boats include a daily snorkelling trip and you’ll need a wetsuit for the icy waters depending on what time of year you you go (November can be pretty freezing!).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 finalised the paperwork and left the office happy with our bargain last minute cruise!
Accommodation in Puerto Ayora.
We had two nights to kill in Santa Cruz before we set sail so needed some accommodation. There’s tons of budget hostels up and down the main strip but most still charge $50 USD for a private double with bathroom. We were wandering up the street with our bags when a local lady asked if we needed somewhere to sleep. She said she was the receptionist at good hostel with rooms for $25 and all mod cons included, so we decided to check it out. She was as good as her word and the place had a massive room, comfy bed, clean bathroom, free water, hot shower and wifi – a travellers heaven basically. It wasn’t the most swanky looking place but for $12.50 each you cant complain. It’s called Santa Cruz and is 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 into 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.
When we booked the boat we were told it was recently refurbished and had only done one Galapagos touring cruise before. We were assured that it was in top notch condition and would have all the mod cons as expected. The agency pictures looked good so we were happy with their recommendation. However we couldn’t find anything online about the boat or crew so were slightly apprehensive about what we’d find when we got there.
We needn’t of worried, the ‘Danubia Azul’ was a fine vessel. More than big enough for 10 passengers to spread out for five days. The teak deck shone and everything looked new. The 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 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 each day and discovering a new vista across various ocean or island landscapes was incredible.
Boat movements were mostly done at night while we were asleep. After breakfast we’d load onto the dingy and head out for our morning adventure. Usually it consisted of wildlife spotting on a nearby island followed by snorkelling. Every day was new and exciting. We might be playing with seal lions on a deserted beach one minute and snorkelling with sharks the next. There was never a dull moment. After a big day of activities we’d eat dinner together and have a few glasses of boxed red wine we’d snuck on board. Some people edited their GoPro 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. The cabins were more than comfortable, each with it’s own bathroom/shower and most importantly plenty of hot water.
A small 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.
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.
Overall it was a fantastic experience and I’m so pleased we splurged 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. Make sure you get a good camera with underwater capabilities if possible. A GoPro for the underwater shots is a good shout and ensures you have all the special and unique moments documented for years to come.
Our Trip at a glance:
Flights – Guayaquil – Baltra RTN – $290 – LAM and Galair – Booked via Cheapo Air and Despegar.
Cruise Danubia Azul – $780 including wetsuit hire and upgrade to matrimonial suite.
Itinerary – 5 day 5 nights – Isabella, Santiago, Baltra, Cristobel, Batolome and Santa Cruz.
Morning and afternoon activity. Snorkelling every day.
Accom in Puerto Ayora – Santa Cruz Hostel – $25 per night for double room (2 people). 3 nights.
Food on land – 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.
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