How To Visit the Galapagos Independently
A common myth is that the only way to see the Galapagos islands is to take an expensive cruise. But you absolutely can visit the Galapagos independently and on a budget! In fact, there’s a massive range of sights and activities that are completely free!
My partner and I spent a week in the Galapagos islands, during which we soaked up all that this incredible part of the world has to offer. And we did it all independently and on a tight budget. Here’s how…
How to Visit the Galapagos Independently
The biggest draw for many people to the Galapagos is the wildlife. But what many people don’t realise is that this wildlife doesn’t just exist in some secret far-flung corners- every inch of the islands is swarming with animals! You can see it all when you visit the Galapagos independently.
A short stroll from each town will take you to beautiful beaches or through stunning volcanic landscapes, where you’ll encounter marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, penguins, and so much more. You can snorkel with sea lions, giant turtles, manta rays, and reef sharks while paying no more than the rental fee for your snorkel. And there is no charge for the breeding centres where you can view giant tortoises and iguanas.
Even the towns themselves are littered with sea lions and pelicans, and a stroll along the pier will take in all sorts of marine wildlife.
For details on the free activities on each island, see “Independent Travel On Each Island” below.
Though there are plenty of free activities to keep you busy in the Galapagos, day tours offer the chance to explore some more out-of-reach destinations. We splurged on one day trip to Kicker Rock, which cost us $100 per person, and we also hired a taxi on Santa Cruz for a few hours to take in some of the less accessible sights, which cost us $35 total.
If you decide to take a day trip, be sure to check first whether or not you can do the trip independently. There were many occasions where we took a cheap water taxi, or simply walked to a beach, only to have a tour group show up minutes later (all of whom had paid some serious dollar for the privilege!).
There are no shortages of tour operators throughout the towns on each island, so shop around (but be prepared, you probably won’t be able to bargain more than 10% off the price). Be warned that prices are rising all the time- a day trip to Kicker Rock costs $100 now, but last year it was only $80, and the year before just $50.
The only way to enter and exit the Galapagos is to fly from mainland Ecuador. And I’m going to rip this bandaid off now- it ain’t cheap. Return flights cost between $300 and $500, and are usually slightly cheaper from Guayaquil than from Quito. While you can fly into one island and out of another, this will bump up the costs, and the cheapest route is usually in and out of Isla Baltra (a tiny island that connects to Santa Cruz).
The three airlines that fly to the islands are Tame, LAN, and Avianca. The best deals on flights can be found by using comparison websites such as Skyscanner, Orbitz, and CheapOair.
Another unavoidable cost whether you visit the Galapagos independently or by tour is the entrance fee. This is currently $100, though rumour has it this is set to double in coming years. You must also pay a $20 fee when departing from mainland Ecuador for the Galapagos.
If you visit the Galapagos independently, you’ll probably stick to the three main islands of Santa Cruz, Isabela, and San Cristobal. The other islands are accessible only by cruise or a day tour.
The best way to travel between the islands is by ferry (unless you want to spring for an expensive flight!). Ferries depart Santa Cruz for both Isabela and San Cristobal at 2pm, and return to Santa Cruz at 6 or 7 am. There is no direct ferry between Isabela and San Cristobal. Each journey takes between two and four hours, depending on the weather.
Each ferry costs $30, plus a small charge for the water taxi from the port to the ferry, and there is a $5 fee to use the port at Isabela. Tickets can be bought from one of the many travel agents throughout the towns, and they do sell out so it’s best to get them a day in advance.
Taxis take visitors to various points around the islands, but are surprisingly expensive. Be prepared to bargain, and bear in mind that there are plenty of beaches and activities that are walking distance from the towns (we only took one taxi journey during our time in the Galapagos).
Everything costs twice the price in the Galapagos than it does in mainland Ecuador. If this sounds pricey, it’s worth remembering that mainland Ecuador is incredibly cheap!
We had no problem finding a private room for two for $30, which we usually managed to bargain down to $25. The guesthouses were always clean and pleasant, and had self-catering kitchens. We only came across a couple of dorms, which cost $15 per bed per night. Book ahead in the high season.
Supermarkets are surprisingly expensive, though we did manage to make a meal of vegetables and rice for just a few dollars.
There are plenty of restaurants in each town offering a cheap almuerzo (set lunch) for around $5-6. You can also find plenty of meals such as pizza, burritos, and burgers for $10-12. The nicer restaurants served fish and other meals for $20-30. Alcoholic drinks were far more expensive than on the mainland, at around $6-10 each, so we had a fairly dry week!
Independent Travel On Each Island:
During our time in the Galapagos, we visited the three main islands, and had an incredible time on each! We saw so many animals, relaxed on heavenly beaches, snorkelled with amazing sea life, and did most of it for free! Here’s what we did on each island:
The Final Costs:
Our overall expenses (all prices are in US$, and are per person based on two people sharing, all prices correct as of March 2016):
Flights: $400 with Tame, booked through CheapOair
Entrance: $120 (see “entrance fee” above)
Ferries: $120 (four ferries at $30 each: from Santa Cruz to Isabella and back, and from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal and back)
Taxi tour on Santa Cruz: $20 each (click here for details)
Day trip from San Cristobal: $100 each (click here for details)
Living expenses: $50 per day (including airport transfers, water taxis, accommodation, food, drinks, and snorkel rental).
Total cost of one week in the Galapagos: $970 (£680)
Yes, it was a massive chunk out of our budget, but given that the cruises can cost $1,000- $10,000 for just four days, and even the land based tours cost over $2,000 for a week (and none of these tours include the flights from Ecuador), to visit the Galapagos independently is clearly the cheapest option by far. And I cannot stress this enough- it was so, so worth it!
If this figure seems a little high, it is possible to visit just one or two islands, and to not take any day trips. For example, if we had only gone to Santa Cruz and Isabella, and not done the day tour from San Cristobal, it would have knocked $60 off for the ferries, and another $100 for the day tour, bringing our total down to just $810 (Though the day tour was amazing- I regret nothing!).
For more tips on how to visit the Galapagos independently, click here!