Visiting the Galapagos Islands on the Cheap
The Galapagos

Just over 180 years after Mr. Charles Darwin first put them on the map, the notion of visiting the Galapagos Islands on the cheap has become something of an oxymoron.

At least, that is, like us, you’re on any sort of extended holiday budget. That and/or haven’t flown in directly from Australia, Scandanavia, Bora Bora or anywhere else that’d make the average Trust Fund Kid blink twice.

No, we haven’t lasted ten months on the road without

keeping a fastidious eye on our online bank statements. with live aboard tours starting at a rock bottom, bare bones, camping at sea base price of $150-$200 US pp/per day and going all the way up to just less than the cost of a private charter of the Queen Mary II, it goes without saying we never even considered this option.
Mann Beach Traffic Jam

Especially as such multi-day tours are chopped by two full days. The first day being spent essentially in port covering various rules and regulations and the last day ending at 8 am.

Nothing like a little ‘bang’ for the buck.

Luckily, there’s a better way. A way that, while still far from cheap by much of South American standards, won’t see you sitting back on your couch at home years from now still second guessing your decision to forgo the chance to see what got ol’ Darwin so hot and bothered.
San Cristobal’s ‘Booming’ Surf

So, with the mantra of ‘Paradise isn’t Cheap’ playing on repeat, and factoring in we visited during peak season, here’s how we managed to tackle the Big Three (Isabela, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal) of the Galapagos Islands without having to sell any of Kaia’s vital organs.
Pulling into Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz

Other than your plane tickets, except for absolute peak holiday periods, don’t book anything ahead of time. Even though we were technically in the busy season, we had no trouble rocking up into town and knocking on doors and inquiring about accommodation availability and price. Though we’d heard $25 pp was the norm, the four of us never paid more than $60 for a more than sufficient room.

Go Land Based. Santa Cruz is the most central of the islands and, not surprisingly, the busiest
Santa Cruz commute

hub. If you’re determined to do many day tours, costs be damned, this is your island to base out of and negotiate your tours direct from the providers.

Knowing our touring would be minimal, we flew into San Cristobal, the archipelago’s easterly most island. From more than one Ecuadorean we’d been told San Cristobal was a happy medium between the ‘buzz’ of Santa Cruz and the sleepy stupor of Isla Isabela. And in hindsight, we definitely had to agree.
The Hot Walk to Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz

As such, we were more than content to use Santa Cruz as little more than a way station in getting between San Cristobal and Isabela during the two hour crossings between islands ($US30 pp, children under 12 get half price). A way station that would give us a total of 5-6 hours each way on the island.

Time to stash our gear, have a meal and take in the island’s Station Beach (on the Isla Isabela bound leg) and probably the island’s most scenic beach of Tortuga Bay (on the return trip to San Cristobal).

Tortuga Bay being reached via a sweltering 30 minute walk along paved trail through unique Galapagos cacti and scrub.

Also, a big bonus of San Cristobal is its airport which is literally close enough to walk into town (or
El Junco Lake

take a $1.50 taxi). This as opposed to Santa Cruz where the airport is located at the complete opposite end of the island from town’s business center on the tiny island of Baltra.

Choose your tours wisely. San Cristobal’s all day, Round the Island boat trip starts at $US150

pp. Maybe that’s not that much for a single individual but multiply that for a family of three or four and things start to add up…and quick. Still, with rays, turtles, reef, hammerhead and the crown jewel of them all, the Whale Shark, often on display, some would have a legitimate argument the price of admission is quite cheap.
Land Tortoise-Up close and personal

Decisions, decisions for some. A no-brainer for us.

On San Cristobal, we’d opt for the four hour overland tour. A relatively good value that takes you up and out Puerto Baquerizo and quickly into the immediately cooler highlands. Through the island’s original town of Progresso to El Junco Lake where a walk allows for impressive views of the island (in the shadow of the island’s massive power generating

windmills) before continuing down into a furnace like heat
Puerto Chino

where the “La Galapaguera” tortoise breeding center awaits. From there, the tour’s grand finale presents itself in the form of an incredibly scenic Puerto Chino. Perfect for an hour and a half swim before the B Line back to town.
On our Way!

On Isabela, due to strict regulations where solo kayaking excursions are prohibited, we’d splash out for a leisurely 3 hour guided paddling and snorkelling tour. A tour that allows great opportunity to see the Blue Footed Booby, the Galapagos Penguin, small reef sharks, marine iguanas and Green Sea Turtles.

Take advantage of the free activities. On San Cristobal,

this means either watching or partaking in some of the world class surf located within walking distance to downtown. That or enjoying swimming and interacting with sea lions on Mann Beach or the more secluded sands of Punta Carola.

On Santa Cruz, the freebie lists includes the aforementioned Station Beach and Tortuga Bay as well
On Isabela the tidal pools are free.

as the more remote Playa Garrapatero where a taxi ride is definitely required.

And on Isla Isabela where you’re welcomed to Puerto Villamil with an additional $US 10 pp user fee (to go along with the $US 120 park pp fees you’ve already paid between boarding your flight in Guayaquil and arriving into the islands) the list starts with a short trail to the swimming lagoon going by the name of Concha y Perla.

Go early before the tours pounce and you may catch a sight of the Galapagos penguin and green sea turtles while snorkelling.
Perfect hide out from the sun.

Or there’s the well maintained trail which starts just on the fringes of the sleepy town’s surfing beach of Playa Grande and winds its way through both scrub brush and flamingo harbouring mangroves. It’s a pleasant, leisurely stroll that culminates with a plethora of Land Tortoises at the island’s Arnoldo Tupiza Breeding Center, the only place in the world containing five different species of these Galapagos Island icons.

And last but not least, the final way we managed to enjoy
Isabela’s Puerto Villamil, not a paved road in sight.

visiting the Galapagos Islands on the cheap was by eating local. As in, avoiding the waterfront establishments serving anything and everything EXCEPT local fare.

A block or two back from the prime, beach front real estate is as good a place as any to start. Look for no less than a 3:1 locals to visitor ratio and you’re getting hot.

On our last night in the islands we’d find just such a place. This, after a final sunset that drew the curtains on a most memorable nine days.

The best beans, rice, chicken and patacones (a fried plantain, pancake concoction) we’d had to date. And all served in what was essentially the front yard of a house a long sniff from the town’s ritzier waterfront boardwalk area by a family that were as friendly as they were proud of the product they were putting in front of us.
Mann Beach Sunset

And all at only a little more than twice the price of what you’d pay back on coastal mainland Ecuador.

Which, there in the Galapagos, meant they were essentially giving the stuff away for free.


One Comment

  1. Beth Pancoe January 28, 2017 Reply

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