Galapagos is one of the most astounding, unique, tangibly abundant places I’ve ever been. The trip from the airport to Puerto Ayora gives a glimpse of what to expect from the Galapagos archipelago: long rocky stretches sprouting with fantastic cactus and scraggy scrub and pristine blue waters dotted with tiny black islands of volcanic rock.

There’s a quick water taxi between Baltra and Santa Cruz. The following 45 minute bus trip is steamy and crowded, but we have all the windows down and the driver stops at the request of some overdressed Argentinian tourists who lean out the left to take pictures of the blue bay. They laugh at themselves along with everyone else.

Within an hour of arriving I’ve joined forces with two more new arrivals and we’re wandering agency to agency trying to uncover the best way to see the islands and still be able to afford food. Every second store is fronted by whiteboards advertising last minute deals on day trips and island cruises. Every agent assures us the boat he has available is the best vessel, to the most interesting place. And that it’s available at a fantastic price. And that the other agencies are not to be trusted. They all play the game. I’m somewhat overwhelmed and take an empanada break.

Eventually we settle on a three day trip to Isabela in the west and a four day cruise to the islands surrounding Santa Cruz. It comes at half the price we’d have paid online, and the concept of a boat trip has me squeaking my way to dinner. We eat in the buzzing street of los kioskos, a string of cheaper eateries in a pedestrian street boasting ridiculous long menus of typical Ecuadorian dishes, hamburgers, pizza, and tex-mex, and go to bed early for a 7am start.

Read on for my hot hot tips for the budget-conscious explorer.

11 tips for Galapagos on a budget (2017)

1|  Decide if this is the right time. Yep, my foremost tip if you’re doing a long South America trip on a super tight budget: don’t go to the Galapagos islands yet. Or save it ’til last so you know you can afford it after everywhere else. Because once you’re in the Galapagos, it’s all or nothing. You can’t go there and skimp on experiences — if you’re not ready to pay for ferries and snorkelling trips and guided volcano hikes, keep saving and come back another time. Yes, you can do it cheaper than many do but it’s easy to spend a month’s mainland Ecuador budget in a week (trust me — I did it) if you want to explore more than Santa Cruz’s tourist shops and overpriced pizza joints. I spent US$1200 (excluding flights + SCUBA) in 11 days, being careful with money but not super tight. But this is an incredible place you might only visit once. Do it right!

2|  Don’t book cruises/day trips in advance. So you’ve decided to go. Now don’t plan a thing! The best way to see Galapagos beyond the townships is by boat. Especially in the low season (April – May, August – September) you’re sure to quickly find a cruise or a series of day trips at half the price if you hit the agencies in town on arrival. I came in early June and found trips easily. If you’re time rich and money poor, this is the way to go. Remember your trip might not start right away, so if you’re really limited on time, this option might not suit you so well.

3|   Don’t book accommodation in advance. You’re likely to be able to find plenty of empty beds in Puerto Ayora at a better price than online, especially in the lower seasons. Much of the cheap(er) accommodation doesn’t appear on hostel booking sites. My two buds who booked online paid US$25 for their beds, where I paid $20 on the spot for the same room. On our second night we found a three bed private room for $10 each by ducking into a few different places and smiling sweetly. Of course marching around town with packs on is a hassle, but if you’re looking to cut corners so you can afford more snorkelling and hiking, this is a good place to start.

4|   Arrive during the weekend — Saturday or Sunday — as many of the last minute cruises will start with the new week.

5|  Go in a team. Sometimes you can negotiate an even cheaper price per head for more than one or two people. Buddy up before you hit the agencies with some folks looking to do a similar trip. I made two friends on the airport transfer bus with this in mind, and ended up spending my entire trip with them. This is also helpful if your cheap last minute cruise happens to be on a boat otherwise occupied by people who only speak Russian, and you don’t. Not likely, but possible.

6|   Visit the inhabited islands alone. Don’t bother with an organised trip to Isabela or San Cristobel from Santa Cruz — take a ferry over to either (US$60 return) and talk to agencies on the islands about half-day and day trips. You’re likely to lose out with package deals by having too many different levels of agency involved and being sent to the same restaurant for every meal, which, frankly, is enough to turn me off. It’s only marginally more convenient to have everything organised in a tour, and costs more than it’s worth.

7|   Cook in-house or eat at at local places and take a ‘menu del dia’, normally with soup, main, juice, and sometimes dessert at a set price. If you’ve been on the mainland you’ll be well acquainted with this format! If you’re eating out but pinched, avoid the promenades along the shorefront and look for somewhere more local. Otherwise, chuck together a pasta or assemble a supermarket sandwich and take it down to the harbour. Fresh produce can be a little pricey, but not in the realms of restaurant meals.

8|   Ask what’s included when booking trips and tours on the cheap, and what extra costs are involved. Our trip to Isabela didn’t include the water taxis (US$1.50 each way) or island entrance (US$10) and on one activity we were expected to walk back to the hotel or find our own taxi. It’s not much, but when you’re paying for convenience it can be frustrating. We also paid for fins on one snorkel trip (US$3) and wet suits on another (US$5). But with a little experience and a little haggling, we got our agency to provide a free wetsuit for the next trip. Go in strong and ask for specifics (fins and wetsuit as well as mask and snorkel, all taxis and transfers, etc.), you’ll come out better off. If you mention it before you pay, you’ll might get fins or a wetsuit on loan for free.

9|   Don’t miss the bus back to the airport. This seems obvious, but the bus from Puerto Ayora back to Baltra airport is a bit of a mission. On the way in, the bus is waiting after the ferry, but on the way out you’ll have to catch a taxi for a few dollars to the bus terminal, then take the bus. Go early — the last bus is around 7am, and after this it’s a US$25 taxi or a day’s walk. Ask your accommodation or a local about the bus before your flight day so you don’t get stuck!

10|  Take a break from la fiesta. Yes, I did say that. Sad but true: the drinks are too pricey here to party like on the mainland. And there’s nothing out-of-this-world going on anyway, party wise. Besides, you’re likely to be starting early on trips and tours, so I’d recommend this as a place to give your liver and your wallet a break.

11|  Check out volunteering opportunities. While I didn’t do this myself, several of my friends have spent time on Galapagos cheaply by volunteering with environmental organisations. This will be a different type of trip, as you’ll likely be on one island for a while, but is an amazing way to spend more time in this paradise without breaking the bank! And you can always travel around more after you’ve wrapped up the volunteering. If I ever go back, this is how I’ll be doing it!


Bonus general Galapagos tips:

1|   Book flexible flights.
You might not want to leave. I recommend Tame for flexibility. If you book your two flights separately (not as a return), you won’t even pay a change fee for changing your return date in the Santa Cruz office. And the change fee isn’t too much anyway. On Friday I went to the Tame office in Puerto Ayora and asked to change my flight from the following Monday to the following Thursday. Ten minutes later it was done, and I wasn’t a cent poorer. Of course, you may have to pay a difference in flight price, but it’s unlikely to be much, as Tame doesn’t really raise their Galapagos flight prices.

2|    Organise your dive days in advance. If, like me, you love to dive, it would be a shame to miss out here. Although it’s way more expensive than any place I’ve dived before, I don’t regret it. But if, like me, you’re a bit of a whimsical, last minute planner type, try to at least get your dive planned in advance here. Research your dives, as many sites offer vastly different things, then check which company offers that site, and on which day. Many companies go to a different site every day, so you may miss your preference if you’re not organised (another one learned from experience). Remember not to fly too close to dives.

3|   Make sure your hiking boots and gear are clean when you arrive. And don’t take organic material. Quarantine is taken very seriously here, as introduced species can cause serious problems for these unique ecosystems protected by a thousand kilometres of Pacific Ocean.

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