Galapagos Tours for Backpackers: All You Need to Know
Ah, the much coveted Galapagos Islands. They’re on everyone’s bucket list, am I right?
The Galapagos Islands represents a milestone in scientific discovery. It’s where Charles Darwin found his finches and the inspiration to write (eventually) “On the Origins of Species”. It’s where you can sunbathe next to sea lions and watch archaic tortoises mate.
But, let’s face it, it isn’t really the epitome of a “budget destination”. In fact, it’s sad to say that most Ecuadorians themselves haven’t been to the Galapagos!
For those of you that want to see one of the planet’s natural wonders (before it’s too late), read on! The following blog is our take on the best way to plan Galapagos tours for backpackers like you TODAY (but perhaps, more realistically, in the next 6 months).
What’s so special about the Galapagos Islands?
What’s so special about the Galapagos Islands, you ask? What’s so special about the… I’m personally offended that you’ve asked this question.
Apart from its significance in modern theories of evolutionary biology, Galapagos is a special place because:
- Many of the animals have evolved in isolation of continental species and are, therefore, really special and endemic (you won’t find them anywhere else IN THE WORLD).
- Some of these animals (including some of the endemic ones) aren’t afraid of humans so they will literally sunbathe, nest and waddle happily next to you.
- The landscapes around these islands (including the underwater landscapes) are ASTOUNDING.
I personally love point 2 above, the most. It’s really one of the strongest selling points. I don’t understand why more tour companies don’t use this angle in their advertisements. E.g. “Bronze your boobies with the Boobies”. (There are, unfortunately, no nude beaches on the Galapagos Islands.)
Why visit the Galapagos TODAY.
While I’m fully aware you may not be able to the visit the Galapagos TODAY, you should feel a sense of urgency about visiting the Islands in the near future.
Some of you may have already guessed why. I’ll give you a couple of hints: Climate change + Islands. Search for “places to visit before they disappear” in Google and you’re guaranteed to find the Galapagos Islands.
According to the Galapagos Conservation Trust, climate change can have “devastating effects on the wildlife populations in Galapagos.” Many animal species on the Islands rely on the bounty of the sea for their survival, and as sea temperatures rise, marine life, including the all-essential algae and seaweed are beginning to dwindle.
The El Niño phenomenon, a destructive weather pattern, has been occurring with more frequency as the global temperature increases, leading to more rainfall on the Galapagos Islands. This, in turn, affects land-based animals like the Galapagos Tortoise, whose nests may be decimated due to rainfall.
Climate change and its effect on the Galapagos Islands isn’t breaking news. This has been going on for a while. However, and unfortunately, drastic changes are being observed by local biologists and even visitors. Declining numbers of penguins, fish populations, marine iguanas and sealions suggest a grim future for this paradisal place.
Why is it so expensive to visit the Galapagos?
Four main reasons:
- It’s a long way from anywhere
- There’s an entrance fee to the national park and provincial government fee
- The flights are expensive (for various reasons; among them, greed)
- Due to its remote location, protected areas and geography, food has to be flown or shipped in from the mainland, making it more expensive.
I don’t think people realize how far the Galapagos Islands are from the South American continent. It’s 1195 km (742.5 miles) away from Guayaquil, and takes 1.5 hours by plane.
So when you travel to Ecuador to visit the Galapagos Islands, you’re really traveling twice. Once to the Ecuadorian mainland, and once to the Islands. If you think in terms of flight costs, please consider this and add between $200-$400 to your transport budget, on top of your flight to Quito or Guayaquil.
Then there’s the park fee. The Galapagos Islands consists of two protected areas: The Galapagos National Park (around 97% of the total land mass) and the Galápagos Marine Reserve. The Galapagos National Park happens to be the only Ecuadorian national park to charge an entrance fee: $100 per person if you are non-Ecuadorian resident, which can be paid in cash upon arrival. Plus there’s a $20 “migratory control card” fee, which helps the local government to better control migration to these islands.
By the time you’ve landed in the Galapagos Islands, you’ve probably already spent between $300-$500, and that’s not counting accommodation, food, or activities.
Finally, since the Galapagos Islands are remote, there is only so much competition between hostels, tour companies, yachts etc. Those that exist have the luxury of charging hefty rates and access to the Islands and its activities quickly becomes rather exclusive.
So you’re interested in Galapagos tours for backpackers?
You probably skimmed through the estimated costs above and thought, “Hell no, the Galapagos Islands can wait…” but, believe it or not, this could be a more affordable vacation than you’re imagining. While you won’t be able to cut certain costs (entrance fees, flight from Guayaquil or Quito), in the following guide, we’ll give you some tips to minimize expenses.
Cheap flights to the Galapagos
When searching for flights for your backpacking trip through the Galapagos Islands, use Skyscanner.com. The advantage of this flight search engine is that it will only show you flights that are available to non-Ecuadorians. Otherwise you’ll come across an incredible price, get all excited, only to be disappointed when asked for your Ecuadorian ID number.
Also, in Skyscanner, use the “whole month” setting to view the cheapest dates.
There are 3 airlines that fly to the Galapagos: LATAM, TAME and Avianca. TAME and Avianca regularly compete for the lowest price, according to reviews, TAME tends to have more issues with delays and cancellations.
If you’re lucky, you can find flights to Baltra Island (GPS) for $180 one-way from Guayaquil and around $200 one-way from Quito. You can also fly into San Cristobal Airport (SCY) on San Cristobal Island, but flights tend to be a little pricier.
*Always open a private or incognito browser
When to book cheap flights to the Galapagos Islands
The tourist high season on the Galapagos Islands takes place during Christmas break and then between the months of June and early September. This means, as expected, there will be more tourists visiting and higher prices at hotels and on tours.
Galapagos weather and tours
The rainy season (which also the hot season) takes place between December and June and fewer visitors come around this time. The advantage is that it’ll feel a bit quieter on the Islands, the water will be warmer, and you can still expect to see a ton of wildlife.
The coldest month of the year is September, which is also the month with the least amount of touristic activity.
Exploring the Galapagos by land, backpacker-style
The reason a trip to the Galapagos is normally so expensive is because visitors think they’ll see the best of the Islands by boat and opt for a cruise package. These are all-inclusive, yes, but also VERY expensive. You can expect to pay from $800 to $3,000 for a 5-6 night cruise.
What many travelers don’t realize it that you can see many sights if you travel by land and do day tours. What you won’t have access to are some of the more distant islands, but you’ll be able to hop between Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela, and Floreana islands and between those four there is more than enough to see on a week-long trip.
This option will also save you heaps of dinero, and you can expect to spend around $600 – $1000 on your entire trip, including your flight from Guayaquil. It’s a wide range because you might decide to splurge on a special meal, or decide to go on that hammerhead shark SCUBA dive…
Always set some money aside for those moments, especially if you know you’re weak to FOMO and your personal mantra is YOLO. Once there, you’ll definitely feel like it’s worth the splurge.
Airbnbs and hostels on the Galapagos Islands
As with flights, always book your accommodations in advance! There are only so many affordable airbnbs and they’ll get snatched quickly.
While the average price for an Airbnb on the Islands is $82 per night, you can find options for as little as $16 per night! That’s a deal, and reviews said it was “sparkling clean”.
In fact, just out of curiosity I searched for Airbnbs on the four accessible islands charging up to $30 per night and found 21 on Isla Isabela, 44 on Santa Cruz, 35 on San Cristobal and, well, 1 on Isla Floreana.
Similarly, affordable hostels can be found on the islands from as little as $18 per night. The only island with no hostel options is Isla Floreana.
What about camping on the Galapagos Islands?
If you’re out to save money, camping is usually the way to go. However, on the Galapagos Islands, you’ll really only be able to camp around the populated towns on Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, and Isabela.
Since the majority of the Galapagos Islands are protected, camping is not allowed and you’re always expected to enter with a certified guide.
If you’re really set on camping, you’ll notice that there are only a few options on TripAdvisor. Some hostels may simply not advertise camping, but can be flexible if they have the space. We suggest you inquire directly about this option with various hostels along your route.
Dining like a backpacker on the Galapagos Islands
There are around 30,000 residents on the Galapagos Islands and they eat at regularly priced places for around $5 a meal. Always ask for the typical lunch menu “plato del día” instead of selecting a specific dish from the menu.
Unfortunately, if you have specific dietary restrictions, you might not find many appetizing dishes at the local spots. You can always try to convince the owners to prepare a plate of sides (lentils/menestra, rice/arroz, plantain/maduro, salad/ensalada).
When stopping through the islands, keep your eyes open for affordable looking cafeterias that also look clean. The last thing you’d want is to get food poisoning on this trip!
And, since you’ll likely be going on day tours which usually include lunch, you may only need to budget for breakfast and dinner during your trip. You can also get some snack food or lunch ingredients at the grocery stores in the port towns and, if your hostel or Airbnb offers access to a kitchen, you can cook your own food, which is a great money-saving option.
Affordable (or free) activities for backpackers on the Galapagos Islands
On the Galapagos Islands you’re literally surrounded by water and can find incredible places to snorkel at every stop. You don’t need a boat. You just need some snorkeling gear (can be rented or bring your own!) and possibly a taxi or ferry ride to get where you want to snorkel. San Cristobal is known for its snorkeling spots and make sure to also visit Las Grietas on Santa Cruz Island.
Birdwatching, nature photography and wildlife spotting –
If you love birds and can get your hands on a a pair of binoculars and a bird guide, you’re set! Because of the abundance of nature and wildlife here, you won’t want to forget your DSLR either.
Tortoise breeding centers –
Nearly every island has a tortoise breeding center. WHen you first arrive, take note of where they are located if you want to see some mating tortoises or their offspring.
Once you’ve rented a kayak ($20-40 per day), you can literally choose your own adventure. Combine this with some snorkeling gear and a tuna sandwich, and you’re killing it at backpacking through the Galapagos Islands.
It’s free and you can do it with the sea lions.
Strolling through town –
While a little less exciting than the other activities, this is a great way to get a feel of the Islands, find cheap food and make new friends. You can’t be underwater ALL day anyways.
There are a number a museums you can explore for free on the Galapagos Islands, like the San Cristobal Interpretation Center and the Charles Darwin Research Station/Tortoise Breeding Cener.
Another free activity you can do on every island, especially on San Cristobal. Ask at your Airbnb or hostel for recommended hiking routes on each island.
Free destinations for backpackers on the Galapagos Islands
Honestly, this section deserves a post of its own (stay tuned), but here’s a rundown of some of the best free places to visit for backpackers on the Galapagos. Seriously, why go on a cruise when you can do all of this for FREE?
Please note that each location has closing hours and plan your day accordingly.
Santa Cruz Island
Tortuga Bay (best beach ever), Los Alemanes beach, las Grietas (a deep chasm with good swimming), el Mirador de Los Túneles (lava tunnels), el Chato Tortoise Reserve, los Gemelos Volcano Craters, las Ninfas Lagoon, Garrapatero Beach, and the Charles Darwin Research Station.
Concha de Perla snorkeling hole, Puerto Villamil Beach, Sierra Negro, Wall of Tears (El Muro de las Lágrimas)
San Cristobal Island
Interpretation Center, Tijeretas Hill, Mann Beach, Baquerizo Beach, Punta Carola Beach, Frigate Bird Hill, la Lobería Beach
Post Office Bay, the lava tunnels, Cormorant Point, Cerro Alieri and Asilo de la Paz, and la Lobería
Travelling between Islands
To hop from island to island, you’ll need to use either the speed boats or ferries. These cost around $25-$35 each way. You can also book a ticket in advance on viator.com.
There are a number of ferry/speed boat schedules published online, like the one below. Schedules change frequently for all transport in Ecuador. Always arrive 45 minutes early and double check with your hostel/Airbnb upon arrival.
- From Santa Cruz to San Cristobal: Departure 07:00 AM / Arrival time 09:30 AM
- From Santa Cruz to San Cristobal: Departure 14:00 PM / Arrival time 16:30 PM
- From Santa Cruz to Isabela: Departure 07:00 AM / Arrival time 09:30 AM
- From Santa Cruz to Isabela: Departure 14:00 PM / Arrival time 16:30 PM
- From Isabela to Santa Cruz: Departure 06:00 AM / Arrival time 08:30 AM
- From Isabela to Santa Cruz: Departure 14:00 AM / Arrival time 16:30 AM
- From San Cristobal to Santa Cruz: Departure 07:00 AM / Arrival time 09:30 AM
- From San Cristobal to Santa Cruz: Departure 15:00 PM / Arrival time 17:30 AM
- From Santa Cruz to Isabela: Departure 06:00 AM / Arrival time 13:30 PM
- From Santa Cruz to San Cristobal: Departure 06:00 AM / Arrival time 13:30 PM
- From Isabela to Santa Cruz: Departure 05:30 AM / Arrival time 14:30 PM
- From San Cristobal to Santa Cruz: Departure 06:30 AM / Arrival time 14:30 PM
Make your Galapagos backpacking adventure a reality!
Hopefully, by now, you’ve realized that the Galapagos Islands are more accessible than you might think. It really depends on how flexible and resourceful you can be. By flying into Galapagos during low season, eating at the local joints, and asking the right questions (camping or ferry schedules), you can put your vacation costs quite remarkably.
Stay tuned for more specific information on the Galapagos Islands and if you have any questions about where to go and what to do, feel free to inquire with Wanderbus.