The Galapagos Islands: Tour or Budget DIY

The Galapagos Islands have to be one of the most famous and unique sets of islands in the world. Most famous thanks to Charles Darwin who used the unique species he found on the islands as proof for his theory of evolution by natural selection. We’ve all seen the Attenborough documentaries and dreamed of seeing some of the peculiarly evolved animals. Blue footed birds, lizards that can dive into the ocean and who can forget the islands name sake, the Giant Tortoise.

Giant Tortoise on Isla Isabella in the Galapagos Islands

What I liked best about the Galapagos was the animals reaction to humans, or lack thereof. There was never any mammal predators on the islands so the wildlife simply never evolved to evade mammal predators. This means you can get very close to the action without affecting the animals’ behaviour. I even got to watch over two penguins mating. I don’t know what was more surprising, penguin sex or the fact that there are penguins on the equator!

The Galapagos are on many peoples bucket list but many budget travellers are put off by the suspected high price. Yes, if you are thinking of going on a cruise then you will have to break the bank. However you can ‘DIY’ so to speak for a fraction of the price which will still give you the opportunity to island hop and see a large collection of the endemic species.

So why miss it out? We only live once and if you really want to go there, then go for it. As Mark Twain said ‘twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did’.

Friendly Sealion in the Galapagos Islands

How to get to the Galapagos

The Galapagos are a part of Ecuador and are located 1000 km from the mainland. Best reached by plane with flights leaving from Quito and Guayaquil to Isla de San Cristobal and Isla Baltra (which is located just off the main island of Santa Cruz). Avianca flies Quito (UIO) to Baltra (GPS) direct. Otherwise all other flights by Avianca and other flight carriers, LATAM and Tame, fly via Guayaquil (GYE) to either Baltra or San Cristobal (SCE). We recommend using Momondo or Skyscanner to find the best flight deals and compare prices. As a general rule, we found LATAM to usually be the priciest. The stop off in Guayaquil is just to pick up extra passengers so you will not need to leave the plane. All flights from Guayaquil to the Galapagos are direct and usually take around two hours.

Which route you choose is completely down to your itinerary. But do sit down and work out your plans before you book. Which islands you want to see, the cost of accommodation and food, the cost of day tours, what your plans are once you get back on the mainland. If you plan to island hop then it is a good idea to fly into one of the islands and fly out of a different one to save yourself a return taxi boat fare. Most flights are flexible tickets which gives you the option to extend your stay if you wish.

At the Airport

When travelling to the Galapagos, the airport experience is a little different. There is a dedicated desk in Quito Airport where you present your boarding passes and passports along with proof of departure once you have checked in for your flight. At this point, you will be required to pay $10 US per person transit fee for entry into the Galapagos. This helps the authorities monitor and limit the number of tourists they get to the islands each year. There is then a separate baggage screening process and a declaration that you will have to fill out. You are not permitted to take any of the following into the Galapagos and this is what they are screening for:

  • Live animals
  • Plants
  • Seeds

Once on the plane, further precautionary measures are taken in order to reduce/prevent the introduction of non-native species to the Galapagos’ ecosystem.They spray the cabin with insecticide to get rid of any stowaway bugs.

When you arrive at the Galapagos, you will need to pay your entry to the islands. The price is $100 US for people aged 12+ who are non-residents of Ecuador.

How Long Should You Spend in the Galapagos

How long is a piece of string? No time is right but I would advise taking about two weeks; more if you have the time and money. However, two weeks should give you enough time to hop between the islands, see plenty of wildlife and just relax too. It is one of the more laid back places in South America, A mood most notably set by the wildlife.

It's tough being a sealion in the Galapagos!

Cruise the Galapagos Islands or Do It Yourself?

This is the most common question we were asked about the Galapagos and honestly there is no correct answer. Both options have their pros and cons. It all depends on time, budget and what you’re looking to see. I can tell you that we done both ourselves and we were happy with the outcome of both options. Whichever you choose you will be happy with that decision because you will still see many things. We highly recommend doing both if you can spare the time and have a healthy enough budget, It’s nice to get the best of both worlds sometimes.

The majority of the distant islands are only allowed to be visited by cruises while others do not even allow any visitors to set foot on them at all. Some islands like Darwin and Wolf require a minimum 2 week tour; which, for example may be a live aboard dive boat. Each island holds it’s own unique landscape which comes with it’s own unique set of wildlife. Usually endemic to that specific island. So a good starting point when planning whether you want to DIY or take a cruise would be deciding which places and wildlife you want to see as not all cruises have the same itinerary. For example, blue footed boobies frequent most areas of the Galapagos; with hotspots being in the Northwestern cost of Isabella and the Northeastern coast of Fernandina, Whereas the magnificent frigate bird is more likely to be seen on North Seymour, Floreana, San Cristobal and Genovesa. Giant tortoises can be spotted inland on Santa Cruise and Isabella and the Galapagos fur seal is likely to be in the northern and western areas of the islands; especially during breeding season.

Blue Footed Booby

A cruise around the Galapagos will cost a lot; especially if you’re on a backpacker budget, Tours start at around $1000 USD for a 5 day cruise. If the price of a tour is an absolute no go for you and you want to do it yourself then you can only get access to Isla De San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela. But even once you’re on these islands there are still areas prohibited to visitors by land. You can also take a ferry to Isla Floreana but ferry schedules are pretty much non existent so a lot of time would be needed to make sure you can return back to one of the main islands.

A Tour of the Galapagos

Like I said choosing a cruise means you get to see some of the most remote islands. There are many cruise options from 3 days right up to 14 days. Costing anything from $500 US to several thousands. Booking in advance means that you will likely be paying around $3000 US, even for the most basic of tours/cabins. If you have the time then wait until you arrive at Isla Santa Cruz. Even try to factor a few days into your trip dedicated to shopping for tours. This is where you will find the cheapest prices for a last minute cruise as it is were the majority of them leave from. You will pay a lot more by booking a tour on the main land. Even if it is last minute, There are many tour agencies, some more reputable than others but across the board prices are all roughly the same; different companies even sell the same tour so its worth seeing if you can get the name of the boat you will be on. If one agencies’ price for the same cruise seems a bit too good to be true then most likely it is. Personally, we thought our boat was very clean. The food was great and our tour guide was very knowledgeable. If you are curious to know, the boat was called the Millenium. We’re not trying to plug it, it’s just some useful information if you’re planning on booking a cruise yourself. Sea conditions can be extremely rough on the cruise, so make sure you don’t forget sea sick tablets! A day usually consists of several meals balanced between 3 activities per day with your guide. Either snorkelling, hiking or taking a zodiac cruise to the harder to reach spots.

Millenium boat - one of the cruises for the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos on your own

There are several journeys per day by taxi boat between the three main islands as mentioned above. Costing between $25 to $30 depending on the island. Agencies also offer day tours such as snorkelling trips, diving and bicycle rental which may be a good option if you wish to go a bit further afield without spending too much. It is an easy day trip by yourself to the highlands if Santa Cruise to see the famous Giant Tortoise. My best advice would be to rent a snorkel for the time you’re there as there are many great snorkelling spots accessible straight from the beach on each of the three main islands. Don’t worry there will still be no shortage of sea lions, iguanas, tortoise and sea turtles if you choose to do it yourself.

Marine Iguanas on Santa CruzEvery island has a variety of shops and cafe’s for food as well as plenty of accommodation options. If you prefer to cook for yourself, which we did, head down to the local markets and chat with some fisherman for their catch of the day. We found Puerto Ayora to be the easiest place to cook for ourselves. You can pick up a huge tuna steak for $4 a kilo and lobster for $3 a kilo. There’s also heaps of fresh fruit and vegetables as well as eggs in the local markets/ green grocers which is less than a km from the centre of Puerto Ayora. We will discuss the food options more in each individual post we do about the islands.

Have You Made a Decision?

I hope this has helped a little in making your choice or at least convinced you to head to the Galapagos, even if you are a backpacker. If you’re an animal lover then trust me, you will not be disappointed. In the Galapagos you don’t just see 1 sea turtle, you see five, ten, even fifteen at a time. There’s not just one marine iguana chilling on a rock, there are hundreds. We will be posting several more in depth guides to the Galapagos and it’s island over the coming weeks so stay tuned and subscribe to get a notification email when it is live. In the meantime, if you have any general questions about the Galapagos or about whether or not you want to take a cruise, leave us a comment below and we will help you out as best as we can.

Jamie Richardson

2 Responses to “The Galapagos Islands: Tour or Budget DIY

  • Hello! Thank you so much for this post, it was really helpful! I will only be in the Galapagos for 4 days (I know its not much, but I couldn’t extend my trip any more) and recently decided to try to do the DIY option because of my tight schedule. Which island of the 3 would you recommend I stay on? If you had a specific accommodation recommendation I would also appreciate that. Thank you!

    • Hey there Sophie. Any time is better than no tine at all. Are you flying into Baltra or San Cristobal? I would say if you’re flying into Baltra stick with Puerto Ayora as your base as you can go snorkelling diving etc from there. You can go inland to see the giant Tortoise and the Charles Darwin Research Centre. You could maybe even do one night over in Isabella as we were particularly fond of swimming in Concha de Perla. If you are staying in Puerto Ayora I would definitely recommend staying in Hostal Descansa del Petrel the lady there is so lovely and the rooms and clean and freshly painted there is a small kitchen area on the roof which you can see the ocean from and is great for cooking your evening meal as the sun sets. Hope this helps. Feel free to ask us any more questions.

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