The Galápagos on a budget: is it possible?
Like an adventure across Antarctica or a trip to an island paradise in French Polynesia, many see the Galápagos as an exclusive destination for those who have cash to splash.
The Galápagos is not cheap, and backpackers on a $500 / £375-a-month budget may wish to stop reading from here on in. But, might it be possible to visit on a reasonable, albeit not a shoestring, budget? If so, how cheap could it realistically be?
Let's find out.
The Galápagos Islands are a flight away from the Ecuadorian mainland, and most people fly into Baltra or San Cristóbal. Some of the flights from Quito involve a short layover in Guayaquil.
Skyscanner has a nifty 'Cheapest Month' search option, which revealed in June 2018 that the cheapest month to fly in the next twelve months would be September 2018. I could get a return flight to San Cristóbal from Guayaquil (travelling out on Saturday 1 and back either Saturday 8 or 15 September) for $200 / £150 with TAME (minus any additional fees that may be added). From Quito to San Cristóbal on the same dates, the price rises slightly to $240 / £177.
A further search from Quito showed direct return flights to Baltra for $290 / £217 (leaving on Sunday 2 and returning on Sunday 9 or 16 September). Flights are slightly cheaper from Guayaquil.
So, with some flexibility and advanced planning, it is possible to get your return flights for as low as $200 / £150.
Note: if you are considering a last minute cruise, and do not intend to overnight on any of the islands, you can skip this section.
The majority of Galápagos accommodation is on Santa Cruz, the inhabited island closest to Baltra airport, and San Cristóbal. Other inhabited islands include Isabela and Floreana, although accommodation is limited. All prices listed below are based on two people sharing a room.
Assuming we bought the cheap September flights discovered above, accommodation available in Santa Cruz over this period includes Hotel Carliza and Hostal Duncan at around $47 / £35 per night, and Hotel Galapagos Paradise at $65 / £50 per night.
On San Cristóbal, Casa de Jeimy, Casa de Celeste and Hostal Nathaly are all aroun $33 / £25 per night, with many other accommodation options sitting between $40 / £30 and $65 / £50 per night.
Should you end up making the trip to Isabela, Posada del Caminante and Hostal Cerro Azul are approximately $40 / £30 per night. Floreana only seems to have more upmarket accommodation, costing upwards of $135 / £100 per night.
It is possible to rent a room or an entire place on Airbnb, and having a kitchen may mean you save on some meals (although supermarket prices are, as you may expect, inflated on the Islands).
All in all, it's reasonable to expect to pay around $40 / £30 per night for your accommodation.
FOOD & DRINK
When dining out, Western prices should be expected, albeit at the lower end of the scale - there aren't many fine dining restaurants here. There are supermarkets and grocery stores on on San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz (and most likely on Isabela as well, however I don't remember seeing one) should you wish to cook your own meals. Most day trips include a lunchtime meal.
If you have a modest breakfast, a takeaway or roadside lunch and head out for dinner, a spend of $33 / £25 a day minimum would not be unreasonable.
Snorkelling with marine iguanas, witnessing the majesty of huge reptiles, and diving with hammerhead sharks – this is what the Galápagos is all about, and where the majority of your money will likely (read: should) be spent.
Fortunately, a lot of the Islands' flora and fauna can be seen at very little cost. Belching sea lions and basking iguanas relax on even the busiest stretches of tourist areas, and swimming with sea turtles off the shore costs as much as your snorkel hire.
If you are sleeping on an island, as opposed to taking a cruise (more on this below), you are likely to go on a few day trips. Prices tend to range from $100 - $200 / £75 - £150 depending on where you want to visit. Bartolomé Island and South Plaza Island are both popular choices. We saw last minute day trip offers to nearby islands for $150 – prices don't tend to budge much.
If you are a keen diver, expect to pay between $200 - $300 / £150 - £225, or higher, for a half-day including two dives.
I'd suggest setting aside a minimum of $400/ £300 for day trips.
Considering a cruise? Check out our guide on how to get the best last minute deal.
If you choose to get around the Islands by ferry, the price is around $30 / £22 per person per crossing. Short taxi rides in any of the main towns generally cost $2 / £1.50 per person. There are limited buses on the islands, but fairs generally sit at $3 / £2.25 per journey. Bicycle rental is common at accommodations or from a rental in the town centre – expect to pay around $10 / £7.50 per day. Set aside a $75 / £55 transport fund.
Matt and I spent an incredible 7 nights cruising the Western Islands of the Galápagos in May 2017. It was an unforgettable experience and the number one highlight of our six months backpacking.
On our cruise, we met three Australian women who had spent some time on San Cristóbal before joining our cruise for 3 nights. This is fairly common – many boats run an itinerary whereby they stop at one of the other inhabited islands over the 8-day period, allowing for an interchange of passengers who wish to do a shorter cruise. The women we met had managed to get a great deal by booking very last minute with a travel agent, as close as they could get to the port without negotiating with the Captain!
This option allows you the best of both worlds: the chance to stay on land and explore what your home base has to offer, as well as exploring further afield on board a vessel.
It’s important to look very carefully at the itinerary of the cruise (among other things), and to see whether it would be possible (and cheaper!) to follow the same itinerary by booking individual day trips instead. In general, cruises that visit the Southern Islands of Española and Floreana are generally better value than taking day trips to these islands, given the vast distances involved. That being said, even the cheapest, last minute cruises rarely go below $250 / £185 per night.
You can find out more about how much our cruise cost here.
ENTRANCE FEES & Extras
You will be required to pay a National Park entrance fee of $100 at your departure airport and an INGALA Transit Control Card at $20 on arrival. Unless your reeeeeeeeeeally budgeting, give yourself a buffer fund for emergencies, snacks and momentos, bringing your Extras to at least $200.
Your Estimated WEEKLY minimum spend
Flights - $200 / £150
Accommodation - $280 / £210
Food & Drink - $230 / £175
Activities - $400 / £300
Transport - $75 / £55
Entrance Fees & Extras - $200 / £150
TOTAL = $1385 / £1040
Make IT a fortnight...
...and add on a 4 night cruise to further-afield islands at $1000 / £750, and spend a final three nights on the islands...
TOTAL = $2386 / £1785