For over forty years, I’ve always considered Galapagos as an unaffordable destination. I would usually find tour packages costing at least $ 4,000 for an 8 day stay on board a ship that hops around the islands. With so many tips shared online and careful planning the dream of seeing the giant tortoises & marine iguanas became a reality.
Here’s the story of my six-day adventure in Galapagos where I spent an average of $ 105/day (excluding airfares to & from Galapagos).
Getting to Ecuador
Galapagos is a group of islands in the Pacific that’s 1,000 km west off Ecuador. Its airports are found on the island of Baltra (GPS) and San Cristobal (SCY) and can be reached from Quito (UIO) which is Ecuador’s capital or Guayaquil (GYE). Filipinos with Philippine Passport do not require a visa to enter Ecuador.
My journey began in Manila (MNL) where I took a 13.5 hour flight via PAL to Los Angeles (LAX). I arrived past 7 pm and cut accommodation expenses I booked a flight to Guayaquil at 11:50 pm.
The next leg was from LAX to GYE via COPA Airlines, a Panamanian flag carrier. It was a five & a half hour flight to Panama (PTY) then another two hour flight to Guayaquil. I spent a night at Marco’s place (booked through aribnb at $25/night) in Guayaquil for some much needed rest. The place which was located in the center of the city was just a 10-minute drive from the airport, the taxi fare was $ 4.
Guayaquil to Galapagos
The next morning I left Marco’s place three hours ahead of my flight schedule. Before checking in my flight, passengers were required to get a Galapagos Transit Control Pass* which cost $ 20 and a luggage check to ensure that visitors do not carry organic materials that may ruin Galapagos’ eco-system.
The flight to Galapagos left at 10:40 am via LATAM Air, a Chilean Airline. The flight time was about two hours and at about 30 minutes before landing the flight crew opened all overhead bins and sprayed each with an organic disinfectant.
Seymour Airport, Baltra
Seymour is the world’s first green airport. It is powered by both solar & wind energy. Its interior was designed to optimize natural lighting and ventilation.
On landing, passengers disembarked on stairs and walked on the tarmac to enter the terminal. Once inside, we queued to pay the $ 100 entrance fee (half for children) and another set of luggage inspection followed before we finally stepped out of the terminal.
Once outside, buses were waiting to take passengers (free of charge) to the dock while private vans waited for passengers on tour packages. The bus ride usually takes about 10 minutes however we had to stop a couple of times for land iguanas to cross the road.
On the dock, small ferry boats waited to take us across Itabaca Channel to Santa Cruz Island. Our bags were loaded on the ferry’s roof and left once the capacity of the boat has been filled. A conductor moved around to collect the $ 1 fee for the 5 minute crossing.
Seymour to Puerto Ayora
Puerto Ayora is Galapagos’ biggest town. There are two ways of getting there for DIY’ers like myself – taxi or bus, both do not have air conditioning.
Taxi – there were quite a number of taxis waiting at the dock. These are white pick-up trucks which can accommodate up to four passengers. The fare is $ 25 and the drive usually takes about 45 minutes.
Bus – mini buses leave the dock every 30 minutes. It usually gets full easily because it only cost $ 0.40 per person to get to Puerto Ayora. Drive is a bit slower as it picks up & drops off passengers along the way. Do note that going back to Itabaca, there are only four trips in the morning that leaves at 07:00, 07:15, 07:30 & 07:45. The bus station is found outside Puerto Ayora.
The bus ride wasn’t bad at all despite being cramped & humid inside. I was able to chat with a some locals & travelers on the way to Puerto Ayora. Big luggages were stowed in the undercarriage.
The town of Puerto Ayora is located at the southern part of Santa Cruz Island. It is the entry point for most land based travelers. It offers a variety of accommodations & restaurants and you’ll find a lot of tour operators and souvenir shops. You can walk or bike to most of the town’s attractions.
What awed me most about this town is how nature & humans coexist. As you walk around, you’ll find seals & birds asking for food scraps at the fish market and despite a very busy port, the bays is teeming with marine life – you’ll find schools of sharks, rays & other species of marine life.
Accommodations and Dining
Puerto Ayora offers a good selection of accommodations to choose from. Backpackers on a tight budget like myself can find basic rooms with private bath for as low as $ 25 per night during low season. I stayed at the Gloria Galapagos located at 12 de Febrero Avenue. It came with free breakfast & drinking water was available at the lobby. The inn was a block away from Avenida Charles Darwin and pretty much at the center of the town.
Along Avenida Charles Darwin and Avenida Baltra you’ll find a variety of open-air cafes, restaurants and bars but food here are a bit more pricey. “Kioskos” that serve local cuisine along Binford offer a more budget friendly menu. In the evening, they close Binford for an open air dining experience.
Generally, food in Galapagos is way more expensive than at the mainland, an average meal is $ 8. Prepare to spend at least $ 25 should you prefer to dine at a more “fancy” place. To save up on food expenses, the Proinsular grocery with a cafeteria on the 2nd floor is found at the west end of Avenida Charles Darwin. Bread & pastries are baked daily.
In the late 90′ Ecuador’s currency, the sucre rapidly lost its value in the free market. So in March 2000, a law was passed replacing the sucre with the US dollars. While US dollar notes are being used the coin remains “local”.
Credit cards are not widely accepted in Puerto Ayora, cash remains king. So make sure you carry with you cash or an ATM card. There are two sets of ATM machines along Avenida Charles Darwin, one beside the grocery and the other at Banco Del Pacifico which is located at the other end (near the Fish Market). Do note that these ATMs accept cards with chip and be aware of the international transaction fees.
Things to do around Puerto Ayora (that’s FREE!)
Charles Darwin Research Station – a 10 minute walk (1 km) from the town center. Its best to visit this place first to learn about Galapagos natural environment. Highlights of the visit is the tortoise breeding farm where they keep the young tortoises until they are big & strong enough to survive in the wild. There are also several beaches in the area where you can snorkel, surf and see marine iguanas basking in the sun.
German Beach – if you want to spend time in tranquil waters then take a water taxi ($ 1) at the port to the other side of the bay. From there, it’s a five minute walk to the beach.
Tortuga Bay – a must visit place when in Santa Cruz. It’s 30 min walk (3 km) from the town center. The walk might be a bit taxing to some as there are steep ascents and most part of the trail are under the scorching equatorial sun. But the end of the trail will reward you with a long stretch of powdery white sand beach which leads to a tranquil cove where you can go snorkeling and swim with the marine animals.
Learn about local coffee farming & roasting at OMG Galapagos. The cafe normally roasts coffee on Tuesdays & Thursdays at 6 pm and everyone is welcome to watch & ask about the local coffee industry. Ok so its not exactly free coz I ended up buying a cup freshly roasted & brewed coffee for $ 3.
Quiet evening stroll when everyone is asleep – suffering from jet lag, I decided to walk around the town past midnight. While you might encounter a few tipsy travelers or locals, I felt completely safe walking around, stargazing and watching nature at the dock by myself.
There are many island hopping & dive tour operators to choose from in Puerto Ayora where you can simply walk-in & sign-up.
I wanted to see the penguins so Anthony of Gloria Galapagos suggested either Isla Isabela or Bartolome. I opted to go to the cheaper package, Isla Isabela at $ 120 which included the boat ride, a naturalist guide and lunch. We left Puerto Ayora at 8 am and the arrived in Puerto Villamil past 10 am. The tour included a visit to the flamingo lagoon, the tortoise farm, walking & snorkeling at Tintoreras where we saw blue-footed boogies, penguins, seals, sea turtles & sharks.
In total,I spent about $ 632 for the six-day stay in Galapagos. The variable here would be the cost of accommodations which is significantly more expensive during the peak season (December to January and June to September).
Tips & Reminders
- Learn common Spanish phrases. Despite being a tourist destination, many locals speak little English
- Always bring extra cash when traveling. ATMs are not always available outside the town
- Connect with other travelers so you can share some expenses such as taxi fare
- Buy our snacks & drinks at the grocery