Sunday, August 25, 2019

Galapagos Islands Two Ways Part I: By Land

When I decided to go to the Galapagos I was already in Peru (read more about my trip in the footer below this post). I had been thinking it would be nice to celebrate my 45th birthday somewhere special, but other than reading the pages of several guidebooks that I checked out from the local library and photographed before I left the U.S. last September, I had not done any serious research on the cost and logistics of visiting the islands. I contacted a few travel agencies based in Ecuador to get quotes on land versus cruise packages. I read every blog post written in the past two years about how to visit the Galapagos on a budget. I searched the Backpacking South America Facebook group for tips and recommendations from other travelers. I also found two extremely detailed and helpful Tripadvisor posts. When I was confident that I really could go to the islands for my birthday without spending thousands of dollars, I bought my flights. The date of purchase: June 11, 2019; the nine-month anniversary of my departure date from the U.S.
Arriving on San Cristobal Island
Based on everything I had read during my extensive research, I bought a flight from Guayaquil to San Cristobal and a return flight from Baltra to Guayaquil. You can also fly from Quito, but I planned to travel overland from south to north through Ecuador after visiting the islands and did not want to have to backtrack. Both of my flights were on Avianca which, for the days I chose to travel, offered the cheapest fare. You can also fly on LATAM or (at that time) Tame.

As my July 5 departure date neared, I continued to travel overland through northern Peru. In my spare time I made a checklist of all the things I needed to do before going to the islands as I had read that cellular service would be limited or nonexistent and that wifi was not particularly fast or reliable. I also created a Google Doc that would be available offline (although I ended up printing a copy as well for making notes on the go) where I compiled all of the information I had gathered from my research. I did not book anything in advance other than my flights and my first three nights at a hostel in Puerto Baquierizo Moreno, the main town on San Cristobal Island. My return flight was on July 24 so as to give myself plenty of time to see and do as much or as little as I wanted once I reached the islands.
My first on many beautiful Galapagos sunsets
While I could write pages upon pages about how much I love the Galapagos, the primary goal of this post is help you understand the pros and cons (and costs!) of visiting the islands independently versus taking a land-based group tour or a cruise. All of the information below is based on my personal experience as well as the research I did while I was in the islands. Prices are per person and include all taxes and fees unless otherwise noted. I have embedded links to other websites, blogs, travel agencies, etc. for easy access to more detailed information about a particular topic.

Transportation - Flights

As mentioned above, I purchased my flights only three weeks before my departure date from mainland Ecuador. Since I didn't have a specific date I needed to travel (other than wanting to celebrate my July 12 birthday somewhere on the islands) and I was already in Peru and could travel overland to Guayaquil, I did a flexible date search on each airline's website. Remember that I also wanted to fly into one island/airport and out of another, so I specifically searched for one-way tickets. FYI - I did check round-trip prices using only one island airport and Quito just to compare. I would not have saved any money either way, but it's definitely a good idea to check.

At the time of my search in mid-June for flights in early to mid-July, all three airlines were charging $100-200 one way from Guayaquil to San Cristobal in economy class. For the return in late July to early August, the average was closer to $200-300 (Baltra to Guayaquil). I chose the dates with the cheapest flights and paid $121 inbound and $202 outbound for a total of $323 round-trip on Avianca. Note that the prices included one checked bag up to 22 kg and one piece of hand luggage.
View of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal from my inbound flight
Since returning to mainland Ecuador, I have continued to check flight prices. For flexible dates in August, September and October, I can easily find flights for $100 each way.

One other unavoidable expense is the $20 Transit Control fee you will pay when you check in at the airport on the mainland. You receive a receipt in the form of a card which shows your dates of entry and exit (don't worry if the exit date is not correct) and states that you cannot earn money or stay in the Galapagos longer than 60 days in a given year. You must retain the duplicate of this card as you will have to present it when you check in for your return flight to the mainland (that's when the proper departure date will be recorded in their system).

Transportation - On or Between Islands

Once you are on the islands, you don't need to spend much money to get around. Most of the free sights are walking distance from the main towns on each of the inhabited islands. Depending on which airport you fly into or out of and where you are staying, you might need to take a taxi or public bus to get to your accommodation. My hostel on San Cristobal covered the cost of my taxi from the airport, which is actually walking distance from the main town.
La Loberia beach on San Cristobal is on the far side of the airport but still walking distance from town
To travel between islands you take a lancha (a speedboat that holds around 30 people). This is a fixed price of $30 but you can negotiate to $25 each for multiple ferry rides if you purchase your tickets in advance from one of the travel agencies on the islands. Note that there are also limited inter-island flights operated by Emetebe but expect to pay at least $150 one way.
Inside the lancha going from San Cristobal to Santa Cruz. Two hours on rough seas!

We all have different comfort levels. I am accustomed to sleeping in bunk beds in hostel dorms, with no air conditioning or heating, and shared bathrooms which often have no hot water and sometimes no toilet paper, in places that are not the nicest or the cleanest. I do read reviews thoroughly if I am booking accommodations in advance, and I always try to balance the price with the possibility of a decent night's sleep. While there are fewer dorm beds on the islands and almost no possibility of camping due to strict national park rules, there is still plenty of budget accommodation available.
It might be tempting to camp on the beach with the sea lions, but it's not allowed.
I ended up paying an average of $15 per night for a variety of shared and private rooms; some even included breakfast and all had communal kitchens so I could cook or refrigerate leftover food. I found that the best way to get the cheapest rate was to: 1) speak Spanish; 2) ask locals if they know someone with a room to rent; 3) deal directly with the owner and tell them you don't need a receipt; 4) pay in cash. You can also usually negotiate a slightly cheaper rate if you stay longer. Note that the average cost in well-reviewed budget accommodations is $25 per night and can easily exceed $70 per night at many places.

Food and Drink - DIY

As mentioned above, I usually stay in hostels with kitchens so I can occasionally cook my own meals, boil water for coffee or tea, or store items like yogurt (or beer!). Each of the main towns on San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela has a local market as well as a variety of grocery or convenience stores. In anticipation of prices being higher on the islands, I purchased a few staples on the mainland and put them in my checked luggage: wine, granola, peanut butter, energy bars, spaghetti sauce and pasta. Note that your luggage will be inspected before and after each flight and ferry ride; most fresh fruits, vegetables and meat products are prohibited to be transported from the mainland or between islands.
Supplies I purchased on the mainland. I saved more than 50% on about half of these items.
I went to the markets and multiple stores on each island to purchase items and/or check prices. On average, packaged goods were 50% more expensive than on the mainland. Fresh items, if purchased at the market and particularly if grown locally, were comparable in price. For beer, wine or liquor, it definitely pays to shop around as I found a wide range of prices for the exact same items. The difference between stores, even just a few blocks apart, was anywhere from 25-50%.

Food and Drink - Restaurants and Bars

I love to try the local or regional specialties and the Galapagos was no exception. However, after traveling throughout much of South America and spending a week in southern Ecuador before I flew to the islands, I had already tasted much of what was available. Eating out in the more tourist-oriented places on any of the islands will cost you an average of $5 for breakfast, $10 for lunch, and $15 for dinner. Some places have the same menu all day long; others have different prices according to the time of day. A large bottle of beer, glass of wine or cocktail is usually at least $5. Many places offer all day happy hour where you get three beers for the price of two, or two cocktails for $8.
This huge bowl of ceviche which came with rice and plantain chips cost $6.
I rarely eat at a "upscale" restaurants while traveling long-term unless I am celebrating something (my birthday!) or researching the craft beer scene. Instead I seek out the busiest local spots that are away from the main tourist streets or at/near the local market. In the Galapagos, you can eat from the "menu del dia" at one of these places for an average of $4. That includes a fresh juice, large bowl of soup, and a choice of entree. Occasionally it even comes with dessert! If you want to drink alcohol you can go to the market and buy a 330 ml bottle of the national lager beer (Pilsener or Club) for $1.25 ($2 for the larger bottles) and then take it to your hostel or sit on the beach or on the boardwalk.

As referenced above, I did splurge by going to a local brewery for dinner on my birthday. I had two pints of beer and a burger with fries. The total cost was $27.
Birthday burger and beer at Santa Cruz Brewery

One more unavoidable expense is the Galapagos National Park entry fee. This is currently $100 for adults and $50 for children under 12 years old. You must pay the entire amount in cash (U.S. dollars only) upon landing at the airport in the Galapagos. That means you must have sufficient cash with you when you leave the mainland.

Each of the three main islands has a variety of wonderful places you can visit for free just by walking from the center of town. There are beautiful beaches and snorkeling spots, hikes through the forest, volcanic craters, and land tortoise research centers. You can also take the local bus (on Santa Cruz), rent a bike, or hire a taxi (cheaper if shared with other travelers) to explore places a bit farther inland.
Snorkeling at Tijeretas Bay, San Cristobal with playful sea lions
I went everywhere I could possibly go on my own on foot on San Cristobal and Santa Cruz Islands. One day I rented a bicycle ($15) and loaded it in a taxi ($20) to go to Puerto Chino, a beautiful beach on the southeastern side of San Cristobal. From there I rode (and walked as a lot of it was uphill) 25 km back across the island, stopping at multiple places of interest along the way.
Bicycling across San Cristobal Island
You will also want to do a few guided tours by boat as these are the only way to visit the uninhabited islands and see some of the unique endemic wildlife or to get to places that are not accessible overland (other than on a cruise). Prices for day trips range from around $110 up to $250 per person depending on the destination and if you are snorkeling versus diving.
Waved albatross on Espanola Island, the only place in the world where they nest
I chose to do two full day snorkeling and hiking trips from San Cristobal. I booked both through Islanders Galapagos after I got to the islands. My Kicker Rock day trip cost $115 and my Isla Espanola day trip cost $180. Note that I got a discount for paying cash and for booking two trips with the same travel agency.
Kicker Rock, a popular snorkeling and diving spot, off the western coast of San Cristobal Island

As mentioned above, everything generally costs more on the islands and you will save money by coming prepared. Don't forget to bring items like sunscreen, wide-brim hat, swimsuit, beach towel, sandals, a refillable water bottle, etc. from home. You can rent snorkel gear (mask and snorkel) for about $5 per day. The price is higher if you also want fins and/or a wetsuit but it makes sense to bring your own if you have it (and if you're not traveling long-term like me). I bought a cheap snorkel set at a sporting goods store in Cuenca and then sold it to another traveler when I left the islands. My only other cost in this category was washing a load of laundry on Santa Cruz Island.
Preparing to snorkel at Kicker Rock. The water was very cold!
My Expenses

These are my total costs for 12 nights (13 days) on San Cristobal and Santa Cruz Islands. Note that I was actually on the islands a total of 19 nights (20 days) but the final week was spent on a cruise, which I will write about in detail for my next post.

Transportation - Flights $322 + $20 transit control fee
Transportation - On or Between Islands $52
Accommodation - $206
Food and Drink - DIY $78
Food and Drink - Restaurants and Bars $85
Sightseeing - $310 + $100 national park fee
Miscellaneous - $22

Total expense = $1,195 or an average of just under $100 per day.

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Hi! My name is Alethea. I am a 45-year-old female with a U.S. passport. I speak English, French, and Spanish. I am currently traveling through all of Central and South America solo. I travel on a budget, stay in dorm rooms in hostels, eat at the local markets, and walk or take public transportation everywhere. I have been traveling like this as often as possible for the past 25 years. As of today, I have been to all 50 U.S. states as well as 89 countries on six continents.


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