When we first began to investigate what Galapagos might cost us, we a) picked ourselves up off the floor and b) wrote it off as something that might happen after a substantial lottery win.
We were seeing prices between US$7,000 and $10,000 per person for 7 or 8 night live-aboard cruises, which meant $20,000 – $30,000 at our current depressing Canadian exchange rate – and that before airfare, park fees and a new bathing suit.
Then we discovered much to our surprise and delight that if we flew to Galapagos, stayed in hotels on the islands and planned our own land and sea tours, we could do it for a fraction of the cost. First of all, learning that some of the Galapagos islands were actually inhabited was a revelation. Then to discover that the islands revolve around tourism and therefore provide a wide range of choice in accommodation, restaurants, shopping, bike rentals, day tours, private guides was great news indeed.
We researched a great deal to narrow down the fine points between islands, tours, etc. and came up with 10 days as the amount of time we wanted to devote to the islands, based on budget and also based on the time we had allotted to other Ecuador destinations. In my opinion, 10 days is not long enough – I would have loved to have stayed a minimum of two weeks. We met a couple in Ecuador who had stayed on Galapagos for a month. It gave them enough time to relax and “waste time.”
Here’s the thing. Once you pay for your flights and your park admission and a handful of tours, your day-to-day costs are not inexpensive, but you’re already here. So why not extend your time by a few days and allow yourself the luxury of doing “nothing” one day but snorkelling or swimming. With sea turtles.
Galapagos in the winter is extremely hot and the sun, beating straight down on you at the equator, is extremely strong. It takes a lot of energy to be out and active every day and allowing yourself the luxury of a few “free” days really enhances the trip.
The following is our advice and best practices, based on travelling independently. I can’t speak to the experience of touring Galapagos by cruise, but we know at least two people who have travelled that way and loved it. The advantage that I keep hearing about is that with a cruise, you will see more islands and possibly more wildlife. You will avoid the longer day trips (with 6 hours of travel by bus and boat) to reach destinations.
Getting there: It is possible to stay on three islands – Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isabela. We flew from Guayaquil into Santa Cruz and flew out of San Cristobal back to Guayaquil. If you are coming to Galapagos directly from Canada or the U.S., chances are you will fly into Quito first, and will likely need at least one night in Quito to complete your travels. You can fly to Galapagos from Quito, with a stop first in Guayaquil; Guayaquil is the only direct flight.
It is recommended to fly onto one island and fly out of another. We suggest you fly to Santa Cruz first for the following reasons. You will land on a dot of an island called Baltra. From there you board a shuttle to the ferry and then hop on the ferry to cross a narrow channel over to Santa Cruz.
From there you board a bus for $3 or $4, or grab a taxi for $30. It is a 45-minute drive across the island to the town of Puerto Ayora. We suggest arriving on this island since the time frame is lengthy between airport and hotel; and it might not work well for a morning or early afternoon flight home.
The airport on San Cristobal is very close to town, (we were one km. away), so no worries about making an early flight.
The Islands: You can stay on three islands, but only Santa Cruz and San Cristobal are accessible by plane from Guayaquil. There is a small island-hop plane service between the three islands, but the ferries are far cheaper and are very efficient, with twice-daily service – you just need to book a day in advance.
Santa Cruz has the largest town, Puerto Ayora, with the most amenities and the greatest number of day tours. It is a great starting point as the Charles Darwin Foundation is there, which sets the tone. It has a busy waterfront, lots of restaurants and hotels, but can feel a bit buzzy and frantic at times.
San Cristobal is smaller, with a beautiful malecon and a more tranquil peaceful feeling to it. There are a number of beaches for snorkelling and swimming and it also has great sunsets.
Isabela Island is the largest in land mass, but the smallest in facilities. We didn’t make it there, but it would make sense to stay on the island for a couple of nights, then book a mini-cruise (2-3 nights) to travel the periphery of the island. Much of the island can only be seen by boat.
Other islands: there are a large number of uninhabited islands and several day boat tours go to them. They tend to be a couple of hours away from the bigger islands, so travel time can make for a long day. For example, we went to Bartolome Island, which involved almost 6 hours of travel, between the bus across island back, and the 2-hour boat trip.
Getting Around: Taxis (which are white pick-up trucks to handle the terrain) are ridiculously cheap on Santa Cruz ( US $1.50-$2.00) anywhere in town. They are slightly more on San Cristobal, but never more than US$5 to further-flung beaches.
We spoke to tourists who were more enterprising than us. They hired taxis for the day to take them all over the island. Prices ranged from US$40-$70, and the driver stayed with them the whole time as they toured lava tunnels, visited the giant tortoises, went snorkelling at a remote beach, or visited original coffee farms. That price was for the car and driver and a generous tip was a fraction of what a guided tour might cost. Many all-day tours can average about US$250-$275 per person. (That’s over CA$700 for two).
Tours: One of our students is from Galapagos, and we were in touch with him before our trip. He gave us a contact of a friend who is in the tourism business and she put together a package of five tours, plus our ferry tickets from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal for US$2100 ($3000 CA).
We really appreciated having the work done for us, as we were quite intimidated about landing in town with nothing planned and having to wade through the dozens of agencies to figure out the best tours.
We know now that if you are prepared to do a little advance research (know what you want to see), and you have a bit of time to Google agencies for reviews, it is well worth it to simply devote a couple of hours the first morning to checking out a few agencies to compare prices. Tours and prices are more or less the same, so it falls to ensuring what is included (snorkel gear, lunch, water, towels, snacks, etc.) and favourable reviews. MAKE SURE your tour boat is two level. That is critical for maximum enjoyment of the trip. On our last trip, we got an old one-level boat with inadequate seating. Two of our passengers were forced to sit outside in the full sun and they got badly burned.
Your time in the beginning will be well spent, as you will likely be able to negotiate a little, plan trips so that you don’t have two back-to-back long days (too much sun, too tiring), and it will work out well both financially and for the best appreciation of what you will be seeing.
The only proviso with this plan is that some trips may be fully booked for a couple of days, so you may need to juggle, but there is zero chance of missing out on anything – there are so many operators.
Accommodation: We booked a hotel on Santa Cruz that was a bit far from town, but it was new, our room was large and comfortable, a great breakfast was included and there was a pool. It was very quiet, and since taxis were just a couple of bucks, it was nothing to pop back and forth to town. It was $90CA.
We booked an Airbnb on San Cristobal, which was right in town, spotlessly clean, had rooftop laundry and just one block from an amazing bakery. Also $90CA.
Food & Drink: Galapagos has a reputation for being very expensive to eat out, but we didn’t find that to be the case. While it was not cheap, we were surprised to find that we could easily have great food (fresh seafood, fabulous hamburgers, wonderful salads, etc.) for North American prices. We went to good restaurants, as well as a few hole-in-the-walls, and dined out on ceviche, and fresh tuna, which are the local specialities.We had budgeted US$100 a day for food in Galapagos in anticipation of much higher prices, but we never came close to that; usually closer to US$50 or US$60. Of course, you can spend much more.
Galapagos is not the place for wine lovers – we saw bottles of red wine languishing in 90 degree heat in the front windows of small stores. We stuck to beer and in some cases, great local artisan beer, or else we drank the amazing fresh fruit juices that always make me promise that I will try and duplicate at home, but it’s impossible. That and finding great avocados – can’t be found.
Sunscreen and toiletries: These are quite expensive on Galapagos, so try and stock up before you arrive. Interestingly, although I packed 100 ml. toiletries as we had carry-on, we were never checked on any flights in Colombia or Ecuador. We even brought water on domestic flights.
Forget sunscreen that is under 60 spf – you will burn. We met a couple of people slathering on 100 spf. – you just don’t want to mess around with this sun.
Shoes: We did see people tackling the walks in flip-flops, but it is not wise. I took a terrific tumble on wet rocks the day I was wearing my Tevas – flat on my back and hit my head. I was fine but that could have been bad. Mainly we both wore our Keens ( or any similar sandal with a good tread) – they can get wet and they have a good grip on the spiky lava rock.
Hats & sunglasses: You go nowhere without both these items.
Wetsuits & rash guards: Most tour companies provide wetsuits if you want them. The water is so warm in the winter that I never felt the need, but a rash guard is a good idea, to help guard against the sun.
Camera gear: Obviously Galapagos is made for Go-Pros, but if you don’t have one, apparently the waterproof “envelopes” that you can slip your phone into and hang around your neck are indeed waterproof. In spite of assurances from seasoned travellers who use them without issue, it was hard for us to imagine how not even a trickle of water could slip in and wreck our phone. So…we have no underwater photos.
Look at this shot and imagine what is swimming beneath the surface. You’re going to want underwater photos, and you can buy the envelopes all over the islands for $10.
You’re Never Too Old
Although you might be too young. One of our guides told us that the minimum age she considers appropriate for Galapagos is eight years old. At that age, kids are old enough to understand what they’re seeing, they are strong walkers and swimmers and they are old enough to snorkel.
The photo below shows a bunch of us disembarking from our dinghy to explore Seymour Island. The couple leading the pack are in their mid-eighties. They walked with canes, just to steady themselves on such rugged terrain, but they were game and fully engaged. They chose not to snorkel. They had been to Galapagos years before, and were so happy to be back. Their next trip planned is to Kenya in June.
As in the rest of Ecuador, everything in Galapagos is in US dollars, which means Canadians will pay about 40% more for everything. There is no such thing as a cheap trip to Galapagos, but there is a way to go on a budget. We did our best to keep our costs down, and still take full advantage of the tours and the unbeatable experiences there.
Our final Tally is just under $7000 CAD for the entire Galapagos trip. This does not include the round trip airfare from Canada to Ecuador, since this trip was part of a longer journey – flying to Bogota and flying home from Santiago.
Typically, a round-trip for two to Galapagos from place of origin, done independently, would cost CAD$10,000 for two weeks.
CAD$15000 Airfare (Cuenca to Guayaguil to Galapagos; Galapagos to Guayaquil)
CAD $ 900 Accommodation (10 nights)
CAD $900 Food & Beverage
US $200 National Park Entrances ( US$100 x 2)
US $40 Tourist Transit Cards ( 2 x 20)
CAD $3000 Tours
Misc. (taxis, tips to tour guides, souvenirs, etc.)
10 thoughts on “Galapagos: Our Summary”
Wow! Ginny, you sure documented the trip well and the cost was good. Our actual was $13,983.00 for the two of us in 2009, That included cruise & flights, souveniers, meals, hotels and incidentals. June 12 – 23rd. I believe we were on the boat 8 or 9 nights & the rest hotels. It was nice to have everything done for us but good on you for doing the research and booking a lot yourself, It was my favorite trip and, as you know, we did many. I also did a crash over the rocks and had 2 medical doctors come to help me. One was a regular doctor from New York and the other a pathologist !!!! I told her I didn’t need that yet !!! I developed quite the rash from the sun and it was not extreme heat when we were there.
I think a cruise on a good boat would be an amazing experience. They were advertising last-minute deals in town, but that is taking quite the chance to go all the way there, and in the end not find anything satisfactory.
We’ll have to talk about it in person one of these days.
I love your summaries! You do a great job of breaking everything done in order to give a clear picture of what things cost! Also, you include helpful tips for prospective travellers. Thanks!
Thanks Heather – we have Stephen to thank for keeping track of everything. Much like calories in, it is so easy to underestimate dollars out!
Another great blog, and thanks for the cost breakdown. We missed going to the Galapagos when we were sailing in 1994 and was so looking forward to it but things happen and didn’t get there. Safe travels home and maybe we’ll see you this summer, hugs
I wonder if there is anyone who has actually gone to every place in the world that appeals to them. I think the list is too long for me, so at this point I am just so grateful for every trip we are able to make.
One of the last chats I had with my dad before he died was about travel. “I never made it to Petra,” he said.
We will make a point of seeing you this summer, Sharon – I’d love to catch up.
Comparing this to your previous blogs reminds me of that saying about swans: beautiful and serene up top, propelled by churning legs down below. A real insight into the amount of planning and preparation that you put into your trips, which we don’t get to see in your regular blogs, but which I’m guessing gives you a lot of pleasure as well!
I love planning trips! But right now we are flying a bit by the seat of our pants with Chile. Since we had originally planned to go to Peru and then switched plans a month before we left, we hadn’t done a really good job of preparing. So right now we are in the northern desert, preparing for the Lake District, where we will be next week. Still booking accommodation and figuring out what we want to see most.
Very helpful but honestly, now that we have read your blog and seen Stephen’s images, we feel like we’ve been there!
Stephen takes a few “art” shots – he loves playing around with light and angles, or he takes a lot of me (most of which are deleted due to my perception of them being unflattering light or angles), but I tend to have my camera out at all times. He probably has a better approach – he sees with his eyes first, and I lead with my camera. It takes a lot to inspire him to take a photo.
And, who knows – if you went, you might luck out and swim with the hammerheads.