The Galapagos Archipelago, also known as Darwin's living laboratory, is home to an abundance of endemic land and marine wildlife. These isolated islands are home to some of the most unique species that evolved on their own throughout millions of years. This is part of the uniqueness that makes Galapagos a one of a kind place in the world to visit.
Even though the islands are on most people's bucket list, in many cases they stay like that, a bucket list item since people believe traveling to the Galapagos is not possible on a budget. But let me tell you, it is possible to enjoy the beauty of Galapagos with a moderate budget, and here I'm going to tell you how.
Get A Cheap Flight
No matter how you end up traveling around the islands, one thing is for sure; you will fly there from either Guayaquil or Quito in Ecuador. Guayaquil tends to have the cheapest flights with both airlines that serve Galapagos LAN.com and Tame.com.ec.
Expect to pay between $300 and $500 for a round trip ticket. If you're lucky, you can get them for as cheap as $250.
Once you arrive in Galapagos, there will be a National Park fee of $100, so be prepared to pay that as well.
Budget Options To Travel Around Galapagos
There are several ways in which you can enjoy Galapagos, and these range from a full "do it yourself" trip to the typical cruises.
Do It Yourself Trip
Your cheapest option will be to do a full "DIY" trip. This kind of trip will allow you to visit Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela, and Floreana Island. These are the four inhabited islands in the Galapagos; thus they have public transportation connecting them available on a daily basis. A speedboat transfer will cost you $30 each way, and it takes about two to three hours in duration, depending on the island and the ocean conditions.
Each of these four islands has several budget and free activities including: breeding centers where you can see giant tortoises and iguanas, lava tunnels you can explore on your own, natural pools in a stunning canyon, and tons of beaches where you can snorkel with marine turtles, sea lions, white tip sharks, and manta rays. Each island has its own unique history, and on some of them you can learn about it either in the breeding center or a small history museum.
There are also several hikes you can do to reach the rim of a volcano crater (on Isabela Island) or to reach gorgeous beaches like the ones in Tortuga Bay (Santa Cruz Island).
When it comes to budget accommodation, your best bet is to arrive at the town of Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz Island or Puerto Baquerizo Moreno in San Cristobal Island and, once there, walk around town to find the best deal. I did this with my friends, and we bargained a room for five people for $10 a night per person.
Of course, this is on the lower end of budget accommodation, but should you want more comfort, you can still find mid-range and luxury properties with the same technique. The only time I wouldn't recommend doing this is during the peak of high season or during holidays. In those cases, you should book well in advance.
There's a common misconception that you can't bring organic products and produce into Galapagos. That is incorrect for the most part. While there are restrictions, you can take some produce and snacks with you to save money on food. Take a look at this list that includes all the products allowed (green list), restricted (yellow list), and not allowed (red list).
Food in Galapagos is expensive since it has to be imported. Still, you can manage to eat out with a decent budget of $7+ per meal at street side restaurants or $12+ per plate at mid-range restaurants.
With this kind of trip, you could have an average from $35 to $85 per day per person, depending on your accommodation and food preference.
DIY with Day Trips
This style is the same as the previous one, but here you'll be adding a few day trips with tour companies to visit islands you can't go to on your own. Among these are Bartolome Island, which features the iconic landscape of Galapagos, North Seymour Island that is famous for its Blue Footed Boobies, Frigate birds, and other wildlife.
Day tours can be booked once you arrive in the islands, and in many cases you can negotiate for a lower price.
For day tours, expect to pay anywhere from $80 (if you bargain well) to $180, depending on the island you want to visit. Still, day tours can't reach all the islands in the Galapagos since many of them are quite far away, and that's where cruises come in handy.
Cruises are your best option to see some of the most pristine landscapes of the Galapagos and reach those islands only cruise ships are allowed to visit. Cruises are infamous for their high costs, but if you research properly, you can find a last minute cruise that is worth paying for (for a budget traveler). It is recommended to do an 8-day cruise since that timeframe will allow you to visit those islands not reachable by any other means. For a cruise of this length, expect to pay $1,300+ for a last-minute deal.
You can find last minute deals once you reach Galapagos by bargaining there, or by contacting tour companies via email or phone and asking for their last minute prices. On this Wikitravel page, there are a few cruise companies and tour operators listed based on their pricing category. Should you book ahead, the best last-minute prices are found between a month and three weeks prior to the departure date.
As you can see, there are many ways of experiencing the Galapagos on a budget, so I suggest you start researching and planning this once in a lifetime trip!
No matter where your adventures take you, make sure you have the right travel insurance coverage for the experience!