Galapagos is missed out of most backpacker itineraries due to the sheer expense at first glance, however it’s such a shame as Galapagos lies at the top of our highlights from our whole South America trip. So forget the expensive cruises and fear not as we’re here to bring you our full itinerary, budget and recommendations for exploring the Galápagos Islands all by yourself.
But first, you need to get there and this in itself can be a minefield but if you book far enough in advance you might just find yourself a bargain. We found the cheapest flights to be from the city of Guayaquil (also considering the airport is only a $5 journey from the city whereas Quito is a $25 journey!) to San Cristobal which we booked last minute for $200 return, per person. If we did it again, we would look at flying into San Cristobal and out of Baltra (or vice versa) to save on boat trips between islands and to make best use of our time. If you book a few weeks in advance it's possible to pick up the same flights for $150, so don't deliberate for too long like us! Guayaquil to San Cristobal is definitely the cheapest flights but if you are arriving to Ecuador through Quito it probably works out better to fly from there.
Before you set off on your journey to the Galapagos, there are a few things we recommend buying prior:
Snorkels - We picked ours up in Guayaquil for $8 each and used them every single day, saving on the $5 per day (minimum) rental. We didn’t use fins so that’s an optional extra.
Sun cream - Seriously, Ecuador is bang smack on the equator so the sun in the Galapagos is ruthless (and so is the price of sun cream 😉)
Water bottle - Firstly think of the environment and cut down on those plastic bottles but also, we didn’t pay for a single bottle of water in the Galapagos because all of the hostels we stayed in had a purified water machine to refill our bottles.
Before you head the Galapagos, there are a few things you should know:
Boat Transfers - The boat transfers only leave twice a day, at around 9am and 3pm. The transfers only go between Santa Cruz - San Cristobal and Santa Cruz - Isabela, there is no direct transfer between San Cristobal and Isabella. Be sure to book your tickets at least a day prior as they do sell out.
Environmental Fees - To enter the Galapagos you need to purchase a $20 entrance card that should be purchased prior to arrival in the airport. You also have to pay a $100 environmental fee which must be paid in cash.
Tours - Most things on the Galapagos can be done for free and without a guide, however there are one or two areas which can't be accessed without a tour guide, such as Las Tintoreras, which we recommend booking in person as it is usually cheaper.
OUR RECOMMENDED ITINERARY
Day 1: Arrive around lunchtime and walk the 1km into town to find your guesthouse (you can just turn up as there are so many not advertised online however for time saving, we booked prior at Hostel Gosen). Head straight to the famous sea lion breeding ground at La Loberia, we walked the 40 minute journey both ways to save money but you can also get a taxi. It’s safe to leave your belongings on the beach so head straight into the water to swim with so many sea lions and turtles. Walk further along the coast to spot marine iguanas basking on rocks and blue footed boobies resting on cliffs around sunset for some epic shots. Head home via the supermarket and cook your evening meal, Hostel Gosen has one of the best kitchens for this!
Day 2: Catch the 7am ferry to Santa Cruz arriving at 9am, book the ticket a day prior as they can sell out, the quoted price is $30 but you can usually get them down to $25. Find a guesthouse; there’s so many near the port all charging around $15 per person but be sure to shop around for one with a kitchen and a water cooler! Pack a picnic and head straight out to Tortuga Bay to try avoid the midday sun, the walk takes around 40 minutes and you’ll be rewarded with the beautiful Tortuga Playa which is unfortunately unsafe to swim in but the beach itself is magnificent and full of nesting pelicans and iguanas. Continue to the right and follow the beach to the end where you can snorkel amongst the mangrove in search of sharks. We found the water clarity here to be not so good and we only spotted one shark but it’s still a beautiful area and worth a half day trip! On return, head to the Charles Darwin centre (closes 5pm) which is free to enter and walk around the sanctuary to see the giant tortoises and see what amazing work they are doing to repopulate the dying species. There is a big supermarket located near the port which had some of the cheapest produce we found so take the opportunity to buy some supplies and cook in your hostel.
Day 3: Take a water taxi for $1 each and then a short walk to Las Grietas following the signs and bypassing the first beach in order to get there early to beat the crowds. Although we didn’t see much in the way of sealife, the water clarity here is amazing and the way the light filters into the underwater canyon is amazing. We recommend climbing over the rocks to reach the second and third pools for the full experience. You may find a few people jumping off the rocks into the deep pools below, join in the fun if you dare! Head half way back to the taxi dock and spend the rest of the day on Playa de Los Almemanes (German Beach) where you can snorkel with so many sharks and other beautiful sea life in perfect clarity. The beach and the water is incredible and we spent all afternoon in and out of the water. End the day with some of the must-try seafood in the Galapagos. For the best deals head to Los Kioskos in the evening when the street comes to life and check out the Menu del Dias, we got a meal of fish, rice, beans and chips for $5 each and it was fantastic for the price.
Day 4: We recommend spending most of your time on this island, a local favourite and most certainly ours! We stayed at Hotel Albemarle which made our stay on Isabela perfect. All hotels on Isabela are more upmarket so we recommend splashing out on this little piece of luxury during your stay and you won’t regret it! Take the 7am boat from Santa Cruz and walk the 1km towards town where you will find Hotel Albemarle right on the beachfront. After spending the past couple of days underwater it's probably time to spend some time on land and Isabela is the best island for spotting wildlife in its natural habitat. There are two amazing walks that begin right on the edge of town and we recommend doing both. One is a short 40 minute roundtrip along the boardwalk to the Tortoise breeding centre via the flamingo estuary. The other is a 3-4 hour walk to Wall of Tears which is truly remarkable and probably the best part of the Galapagos experience for us. Half an hour into the walk you reach the Camino del Tortuga and within minutes you will find yourself walking alongside giant tortoises and feeling like your in a David Attenborough documentary. We spent all afternoon watching and filming them from a respectable distance; it was absolutely incredible! There are other short diversions en route leading to attractions such as underwater cavern and a mangrove tunnel, but we didn't venture down to many of these. The finale is the Wall of Tears, built by prisoners extradited to Isabela to build an unnecessary wall as punishment, many of whom died in the process. Directly to the left of the wall is a staircase leading to the best viewpoint in the Galapagos where you can see the whole island, we recommend timing your walk to arrive here around sunset for the best views and shots. Both walks are completely free and only require a registration on entry.
Day 5: Concha Perla is considered by many as the best snorkelling on the Galapagos and it’s not hard to find out why. Head here in the morning before any of the tours arrive and happen upon sea turtles, sting rays and even mantas if your lucky. The only way to see penguins and the larger sharks is by taking a tour. Paddle to the penguins offer the best Las Tintoreras kayak and snorkel tour where you are sure to see penguins and sharks amongst other sealife with the help of the professional guides. It’s a must do and the only tour we recommend taking during your stay on the Galápagos Islands as we’ve mentioned how to encounter the rest of the wildlife without a tour. We recommend taking the tour at 2pm for low tide and better water quality, it costs $50 and the shop is located at the end of the main street on the right hand side just before the Iguana crossing or you can book directly on their website here.
Day 6/7: Depending on which island your return flight is from; spend the morning snorkelling again at Concha Perla and the beach next to it and then take the 3pm boat to Santa Cruz and then the 7am boat the next day to San Cristobal for your lunch time flight. Or, spend one more night on Isabela, making the most of one more night at Hotel Albemarle before taking the early morning boat back to Santa Cruz on day 8 for your lunch time flight back.
After flights the biggest cost is the environmental fees. It’s $100 on entry plus an additional $20 for your tourist card, you can get this in Quito or Guayaquil prior to arrival, but no need to worry if not as it can be purchased in a separate queue in the airport. Isabela Island charges an extra $10 for entry to the island. However these are all fees that we didn’t mind paying too much as they go towards a great cause of conservation and repopulation of wildlife.
The transfers between each island can also be quite pricey. Every ticket office will quote a price of $30 but we always managed to haggle them down to $25. You may need to try one or two ticket offices to get this price. Once you arrive at each island you have to take a small taxi boat to the port which costs between 50cents and $1 and is non negotiable.
Accommodation in the hostels is always around $15 per person per night but make sure it has a water cooler and kitchen before booking. However it’s the Galapagos and you are probably only going to go once so we recommend splashing out on Hotel Albemarle on Isabela for some luxury.
We cooked most of our meals and we recommend doing the same but saying that even the small supermarkets are expensive. Most local restaurants do a menu of the day for around $5 or a whole fish to share for $20.
Alcohol is expensive on the Galapagos so we didn’t drink very much but you can pick up a carton of reasonable red wine for $10. Soft serve ice creams can be picked up on most islands for $1 and are worth every penny in the heat.
Environmental fees: $130
Boats: $100 (4 x $25 per boat if you haggle)
Taxi boats: $5
Accommodation: $175 (Hostels $15 pppn & Hotel Albemarle $100 per night)
Tours: $50 (las tintoreras kayak and snorkel tour)
Equipment rental: 0
We deliberated for so long over whether or not to visit the Galapagos, mainly because we were concerned about the cost, but we can without question state that it was completely worth every penny and a decision we are so glad that we made. If you are in the same position, we wholeheartedly recommend that you go for it and you will not regret it. We hope that this blog has given a clear idea of everything involved with a self guided tour of the Galapagos and makes your decision easier, feel free to message us or comment with any unanswered questions.
With thanks to Hotel Albermarle and Paddle to the Penguins for their hospitality during our time on Isabela however all opinions are, as always, our own.