DIY Galapagos Islands Adventure
- DIY Galapagos Islands Adventure
- The Itinerary
- Santa Cruz
- Isla Isabela
- San Cristobal
- Leaving the Galapagos
- The Budget
- What would I have done differently to make this cheaper?
I sat on a bus, in the middle of a midwest winter, heading home from a work trip. Gazing out the window, watching the sunset, as I listened to a podcast about the Galapagos Islands. The podcast made it sound like it was so far away, filled with exotic wildlife and dangerous volcanoes that only the lucky few would ever have a chance to visit.
Fast forward three years, I began planning my travels. After deciding on Ecuador as my first stop, I realized the Galapagos was within reach! Turning to Google to see how I could make the Galapagos part of my itinerary, I arrived at one conclusion.
I can’t afford to go.
Even a last minute cruise was out of reach without a steady income. Inevitably, the Galapagos was placed on the back-burner as I continued making my plans.
One day, I noticed a friend from college posting her Galapagos adventures. I reached out to her and found out it’s actually possible to explore that Galapagos without a cruise!! Back to Google I went!
Not so surprisingly, many blogs and guidebooks only mention the possibility of DIY-ing it. After quite a bit of digging I found some reputable blogs describing their DIY trip! As it turns out, there are more people than you think traveling to the Galapagos without a massive budget. Once on the islands, I met many people on the islands who opted to not do a cruise and instead planned their own itinerary.
Of course, there are pros and cons to each approach to the Galapagos. For example, if you are a diver, then a live aboard cruise sounds like the way to go as it takes you to islands unreachable without a cruise. If you’re not, like me, you can still see plenty of wildlife with a snorkel and fins.
In total, I spent 9 nights, and 10 days in the Galapagos. I visited Santa Cruz, Isabela, and San Cristobal, in that order. Here’s how that travel looked
- Fly from Quito to Baltra (Santa Cruz)
- 3 nights, 3.5 days
- Ferry to Isla Isabela
- 2 nights, 2 days
- Ferry to Santa Cruz
- 1 night, .5 day
- Ferry to San Cristobal
- 3 nights, 3.5 days
- Fly from San Cristobal to Quito
- .5 day on San Cristobal prior to flight
I spent many days supremely confused by the airports, inter-island ferries, and other practical details, so if you’d like more succinct information about those items, you can check out that post here.
Puerto Ayora is the main town on Santa Cruz Island. It takes about an hour to get there from the Baltra airport. After exiting the airport, I took the third bus to the ferry (this is free). It is then a $1 taxi boat ride across the channel, which is about 10 minutes. From there, I opted for a taxi ($25) to take me directly to my hotel. Mainly because the bus wasn’t there and I am impatient!
I spent my three nights on Santa Cruz at Hotel Brisas del Pacifico. I wouldn’t exactly recommend this hotel as it was a bit away from the city center. However, it was clean, safe, and (I thought) less expensive. It cost $80 for three nights for a private room with a private bathroom. The hotel is located directly next to a market, which was a great place to pick up fresh fruit for the day on my walk into town.
I opted not to do any booked tours on Santa Cruz. There were two tours I wanted to do on Isabella and San Cristobal, so I allocated my funds to that! There are plenty of free (or inexpensive) things to do on Santa Cruz.
I spent the first day simply wandering Puerto Ayora. I would be lying if I didn’t tell you I was grumpy that first afternoon. It felt as though each street I walked down there was a tour company with their advertisements. So, if you’re looking for a last minute cruise once you’re on the island – you will have plenty of places to check! Overwhelmed by it all, I decided to get a bit away from the city centre, and meandered along Avenida Charles Darwin.
Along this street is the Galapagos fish market, where fisherman bring back their daily catch for cleaning. It’s quite the sight to see as pelicans hang around hoping to catch some scraps! Definitely worth watching the interactions here for a bit!
Charles Darwin Research Station
Eventually, I arrived at the Charles Darwin Research Station, passing a tiny beach, Playa de la Estacion, along the way. I dipped my toes in the water and got my first feel of the chilly waters. As I didn’t come prepared with sunscreen or a towel, I decided to continue up to the Research station, which is free to enter. It was here that I caught my first glimpse of the Giant Tortoises and land iguanas, with finches fluttering about everywhere.
The walk there took about 20-30 minutes and on the way back I found a small restaurant on Avenida Baltra, Bone, that has great smoothies and fantastic looking ice cream. I say fantastic looking, because I didn’t eat one. It’s just how I approached a guy sitting alone at a table next to me. He was eating a delicious looking milkshake that had a full ice cream bar on top of it.
We began chatting, I found out he was diving with his friend while on the islands. They’d been in the Galapagos for about three weeks at that point, mostly doing daily dives. I ended spent the rest of the evening wandering around town with them, getting ideas for how to spend my time on the islands. For dinner, they introduced me to Los Kioskos, which became my dinner spot the remainder of the time on Santa Cruz.
At night, one block of Charles Binford, from Avenida Baltra to Islas Plaza, becomes an open eatery. All of the restaurants along this block put tables in the street and serve inexpensive, yet delicious sea food. You can walk up and down this block, checking out menus that are written on white boards or handed to you by restaurant owners eager for your business. Pick one that looks good to you, relax, and enjoy the lively atmosphere of Los Kioskos.
The next morning I arose early to head to Tortuga Bay. I heard it was quite a long walk, so I stopped at Galapagos Deli for a hearty breakfast of eggs, toast, ham and cheese, juice, and hot chocolate. All of that for $7.95!
It is possible to take a taxi for $1.50 for the first portion of the walk, but the taxi can only take you so far. The bulk of the walk takes place beyond where the taxis can access. I decided to save my $1.50 for an ice cream on the walk back as a reward.
Heading south on Avenida Baltra from my Hotel, I turned right on Charles Binford – the same street as Los Kioskos with an ice cream shop on the corner. I followed this street until I came to a staircase and a sign for Tortuga Bay. There’s not much shade along this road, even at 10:00 in the morning. So, I was grateful that at the top of the stairs there’s a guard stand where I found ice cold water to refill as I registered.
This is when the walk really begins. There is a cobblestone path to follow and landscape that is out of this world. There are lava lizards scattering about, so watch your step! As I got closer, I started feeling the sea breeze and caught my first glimpse of those teal waters.
Stepping onto the expansive white sandy beach barefoot, was breathtaking. There was a red flag flying which meant it wasn’t safe to swim, so I headed to the left where it was empty for a quick dip to cool off from the walk. The water was a bit chilly, but so refreshing! I then walked the length of the beach, finding a great cove for snorkeling with plenty of iguanas sunbathing, swimming, or taking shade in the mangroves.
Be warned – to clear the salt water from their sinuses, iguanas “spit” – just another reason to maintain the 3 meter distance.
Beyond this grove the beach continues to another little cove that is great for snorkeling and has a bit more shade. Additionally, there are kayaks for rent so you can explore a bit further afield from the beach. I did not rent one as I didn’t have any cash on me, but they cost $20 for a few hours.
For your adventure to Tortuga Bay, make sure to bring along plenty of water, snacks, and sunscreen. The sun here is very strong, my Irish skin handled it well because I made sure to wear a rash guard and used my towel to cover up as needed.
After returning from Tortuga Bay, I decided to spend the afternoon snorkeling at Las Grietas. Las Grietas is a swimming hole in between high volcanic rocks. In order to get to here, I took an 80 cent water taxi ride from the pier to Finch Bay Hotel. Then, I followed the path passing some beautiful hotels, a few restaurants, and a tiny beach called Playa los Alemanas. Eventually, I came to salt flats where there is a little stand that sells snacks, beverages, and rents snorkels for $4. I picked up my snorkel here and continued along, marveling at the dramatic landscape.
The path became red dirt, a bit rocky, and was lined with vegetation I’ve never seen before. Upon arrival, I was surprised at how many people were already snorkeling. I found a spot to place my things and made my way to the steps to enter the chilly water. The rocks are pretty slippery, so bring sturdy sandals or shoes. Once in the water, I began my snorkel experience. I ended up seeing more people than fish. A fellow traveler recently told me that just behind this popular area, there is another snorkeling spot with less people. I wish I’d known when I was there! But now, you can check it out!
El Chato Tortoise Reserve
The next morning I decided to head to El Chato Tortoise Reserve. El Chato Tortoise Reserve is an excellent place to get acquainted with the beautiful giant tortoises in their natural environment. There are also lava tunnels to explore on this property.
El Chato is about a 30 minute drive from the town of Puerto Ayora. I opted to pay for a taxi, which cost $35 round trip, if you make a friend on the island, perhaps you could split the taxi fare. The other option for getting there is to rent a bike for the day which was $15. So if you’re looking to get a good workout in at the same time, this could be a good option for you! There is a $5 entrance fee to enter the reserve and they offer complimentary tea and coffee.
I started exploring these reserves with the lava tunnels. The first tunnel was completely dark and slightly scary to walk through. I definitely used my phone’s flashlight option to help me get through. The second tunnel has a bit more natural light, and the third tunnel is lit throughout. The lava rock formations are stunning and give an appreciation for how these islands were formed.
Emerging from the last tunnel, I followed the path to a small pond (or mud pit) surrounded by tortoises! They were everywhere along this path! Watching them stretch their necks out to eat is quite the sight! Paralleled only by watching one press himself up and walk across the path to a shadier spot.
The tortoises let me know with a hissing type noise if I was getting too close for their comfort. They don’t have good vision, but they sense vibrations. One time, I approached a bit too quickly, causing a tortoise to pull his head in, making another woooshing type noise! I spent about two hours here, finishing my visit with the complimentary tea.
When I returned to Puerto Ayora, I still had a full afternoon ahead of me. I decided to make the trek back to Tortuga Bay with hopes of catching my first sunset. The sun sets around 6:00pm daily – as it turns out – Tortuga Bay “employees” begin asking people to leave at 5:00pm. Therefore, I did not get to see the sunset over Tortuga Bay, or at all, as the sun set during my walk back.
I took the 6:30 am ferry from Santa Cruz to Isla Isabela. I only had one full day, and two half days, on Isabela Island, which, for me, was not enough. As soon as I stepped foot on the island I loved the vibe. I loved the dirt roads, the easily accessible sandy beaches with restaurants across the “street”, and the welcoming attitude of the locals. Since I had such a short amount of time, before I even went to my hostel, I booked my Los Tuneles tour. I’d been told by many people that this was a must, and I wanted to make sure I had a spot on the boat!
Then, I checked in to my hostel, Hotel Neptuno. Again, I wouldn’t recommend this hotel purely based on location. It’s on the edge of town. It cost my $100 for two nights for a private room with two beds and a private bathroom. I did not realize until it was too late, that I was paying for two people – it got lost in translation. I did not let it bother me as I was just happy to be somewhere that felt like an island. So, I wandered along the beach front looking for a place to eat and to figure out what to do with my afternoon.
Concha de Perla
That question was quickly answered by a local who recommended renting a snorkel for Concha de Perla. For $4 I rented a mask and snorkel from a shop for the day. Along the way I found a friend I’d seen while waiting for the inter-island ferry that morning, who decided to join me!
Concha de Perla is located right near the pier on the edge of town. It’s clearly marked and there’s a walkway dotted with sea lions that brings you to the snorkeling cove. There weren’t too many people there and those that were said they saw rays, turtles and sea lions. So we hopped in to see what we could find. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find the rays. But I saw plenty of new fish, chocolate chip starfish, iguanas swimming underwater. Finally, just as we were about to get out, a sea lion came swimming up underneath me and started playing in the water. For as clumsily as they move on land, they are incredibly graceful underwater.
After the snorkeling fun, we returned to the beach where I drank fresh coconut, and caught my first Galapagos sunset! It did not disappoint! We had dinner at one of the many restaurants – taking advantage of the set menu. Lots of food for the price here!
The big day finally arrived. I was going snorkeling at Los Tuneles. I booked the tour with a company called Rosedelco, it’s the first one I saw walking into town. This was hands down, the best snorkeling experience I’ve ever had. It cost $120; included a wetsuit, snorkel, fins, lunch, towel and hot tea!
The captain and guide were fantastic, making sure everyone got their photos! There were two locations for snorkeling. At the first, we saw four manta rays in the middle of the ocean, what seemed like hundreds of white tip sharks who gave us quite a show, at least a dozen sea turtles, two seahorses, along with a myriad of other fishies.
After, they take us to the second location to snorkel through the lava tunnels. Here, there is a chance to see more sea animals, but it really just provides a stunning view of the tunnels underwater. This is the final snorkel before walking on top of the lava tunnels to see Blue Footed Boobies.
This was my first sighting of the Blue Footed Boobies! The female had just laid two eggs and her mate was keeping close watch. A little further afield we saw a baby Boobie! I have so much more to say on this specific tour, check out my post dedicated to Los Tuneles. But long story short, Los Tuneles is worth the money.
Bike Ride Isabela Island
Returning from Los Tuneles on cloud 9, I quickly changed, paid $2.50 for a fresh coconut and set out for a bike ride with my new travel friend. We rented a bikes from Galapagos Bike and Surf for $4 per hour. The intention was to make it to the Wall of Tears (Muro de las Lagrimas) by sunset, which, unfortunately, did not happen. My friend wanted to see the Tortoise Breeding Center, Centro de Crianza, which was worth it to see the tiny tortoises and the different sizes they are at various ages.
I then wanted to see the flamingos, so we took another detour up a hill to see the flamingos. The flamingos are actually quite a distance down from the road, but seeing those gorgeous pink colors with the dramatic landscape behind them was stunning.
We then headed toward Muro de Las Lagrimas, which is about 5km from the edge of town. The first bit of the path is just off of the beach, so it is very sandy. I had no idea how hard it was to bike on sand and had difficulty changing gears. It took a bit longer than anticipated, as I had to get off the bike and walk a fair amount of the time. Once on paved roads, there are different points of interest along the way that are clearly marked. It’s a mostly uphill climb, be careful of Giant Tortoises along the sides of the road!
We made it to one viewpoint and decided that was far enough. We climbed up the steps to catch a panoramic view of the island. It was a great spot to relax, hydrate, and prepare for the bike ride back to town. The return trip back was much easier as it’s mostly downhill. As we approached the beach section of the trail, the sun was just beginning to set, stunningly behind the hills. Thankfully, we made it back to the shop just as they were closing up, for a total of $8.00 for the ride.
The final tour I did on Isabela was Los Tintoreras. I booked it with friends I met on the island, as it sounded like a good way to spend the morning, prior to returning to Santa Cruz. It cost $40 from a different tour company than I used for Los Tuneles. In all honesty, I should have saved that $40 and spent the morning relaxing on the beach with a coconut. The tour started with a 45 minute snorkel, where I saw less than at Concha de Perla.
We then took the boat to see penguins, which was the highlight as I hadn’t seen them yet. There were a handful on the rocks, with one fishing in the teal waters. After looking at the penguins from the boat, we disembarked on top of Islote Tintoreras which is home to a plethora of Iguanas.
We walked around this isla for about 30 minutes, catching a glimpse of white tip sharks resting in the water below and a ray swimming by. So, I suppose with the penguins and the ray, it wasn’t a total waste of money and still a fun way to spend the morning! I then hopped on my 2:30 pm ferry back to Santa Cruz for the night.
This time on Santa Cruz, I stayed at Hostal Gardner Galapagos in the city center for $20. It was a four bed dorm with a bathroom in the room. So, for $6 less than Hotel Brisas del Pacifico, I had to share a room, but it was in the city center and included breakfast.
The next morning, I took the 6:30 am ferry from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal arriving without any booked accommodations. I found a private room, with a private bath for $15/night one block away from the city center. Unfortunately, I can’t recall the name of the hostel, but it was just above a restaurant named Lucky’s. You can find Lucky’s recommended in the Lonely Planet Guidebook. I then met up with a friend who was just disembarking his live aboard cruise. We decided to split a taxi ($60 for the day) to take us to three different places on the island.
The first stop on our taxi tour was to the only freshwater lake on the islands, Laguna El Junco. It’s a brief 10 minute walk uphill to the crater of a volcano that is filled with freshwater. It was quite cloudy at the top limiting our visibility of the entire lagoon. However, overhead we could see the frigate birds using the freshwater to clean their feathers!
The next stop was the Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado, a tortoise breeding center. Here we followed a clearly marked path through some incredible landscape, hoping to find more giant tortoises. The breeding center is at the top of the hill where you can find young tortoises at different ages. The landscape here was much different than the other tortoise homes I visited on the islands. Their shells blended in quite well with the other rocks. At times the tortoises were right next to me, and I didn’t even see them! So keep your eyes open, you’ll find them!
The third and final stop on this tour was a small beach called Puerto Chino that was filled with sea lions, including little pups. Besides a couple with a child, we were the only other humans at this beach. The waves were calm and perfect for snorkeling, had we brought our snorkel gear! This is a great place to cool off, enjoy the quiet, and get a good giggle at the sea lions doing their thing!
The whole tour took about four hours and the taxi should wait for you. Our taxi driver left while we were exploring Galapaguera so we had to wait about 20 minutes for his return. So, I didn’t feel too guilty taking my time at Puerto Chino.
The main tour I wanted to do on San Cristobal was snorkel at Kicker Rock. I was told that the 360 tour was the best way to do this, as you also get to see more of the island. So, I signed up with Galapagos Eco Fishing as they included the snorkel, wetsuit, fins, as well as lunch and snacks for a fair price of $130. This was the longest tour I’d done, leaving at 7:30am and returning around 4pm.
The tour takes you to multiple white sandy beaches where you have the option to snorkel, swim, or simply relax. Additionally, there is open sea fishing at Punta Pitt. Unfortunately, our boat did not catch anything, but it sure was relaxing being on the water, watching turtles swim by and a variety of birds flying overhead.
The highlight of this tour was kicker rock, known by locals as Leon Dormido. I caught a great glimpse of Kicker Rock through Darwins Window from the bow of the boat. Above this I saw my first Nazca Boobies relaxing in the shade of the rocks. The boat took us around Kicker Rock and we hopped in just outside of the channel. The current is strong and moves you easily through the channel. Keep your eyes underwater for the opportunity to see galapagos sharks, sea lions, turtles, a myriad of fish, and quite possibly hammerheads! For more details on this tour, check out my 360 tour post, coming soon!
The boat met us on the other side of the channel. The captain greeted us with freshly sliced pineapple as we excitedly chatted about all we’d seen during the ride back.
Hike to Cerro Tijeretas
On our final morning we embarked on a hike to Cerro Tijeretas. We followed the main road beyond Playa de Oro and Playa Mann to the Centro de Interpretacion. This center has interesting information about the Galapagos, it’s development and the tourism impact.
Behind this center we followed the signs for Cerro Tijeretas, which provides a great view of the coastline and perhaps a cruise docked out at sea. Below Cerro Tijeretas is Tijeretas bay, where it is possible to snorkel, depending on the tide. I was quite nervous about getting in the water. It was a very rocky entrance, the waves were strong, and there were crabs everywhere! Crabs are my least favorite, they’re like water spiders! Anyway, after a bit of convincing, I got in the water. I’m so glad I did! It felt great to cool off after the hike.
Beyond Cerro Tijeretas are more beaches along a dirt path, which I’ve heard are beautiful and quiet. We opted not to continue on, as my friend had a ferry to catch. We returned back toward town, passing the Darwin statue along the way and eventually coming to Playa Punta Carola.
There were so many sea lions and their pups on this beach! It was so entertaining watching them swim and play in the water, or lounge in the sand. Playa Punta Carola was the best spot, for me, to snorkel with sea lions. It’s a bit rocky on entrance to the water, so take your time and be careful. I was so focused on the rocks and sea lions, I didn’t even notice my proximity to a sea turtle until he touched my leg with his!
Finally, it was time to bid farewell to my friend. I spent the remainder of my last day on the Galapagos relaxing on Playa Mann, under the shade of a tree. As the sun began to set, I followed a walkway to the left of the beach. Here, there is a lighthouse, and the perfect spot to catch my final Galapagos sunset.
Leaving the Galapagos
I departed the following afternoon from the San Cristobal airport to Quito. I opted for the 5 minute taxi ride for $2.00 from the Malecon to the airport. The check-in process at this tiny airport was straightforward. Once checked in, you wait outside security. Then they call your flight, allowing you through security. Since only one flight enters at a time, it’s incredibly smooth.
Over the 10 days and 9 nights I spent on the Galapagos Islands, I spent approximately $1650. I did not do a good job at keeping track of the tiny purchases (coconuts, ice cream, and beer). I also stopped tracking the amount I spent on food the third day, so I used what I spent on the first two days as average each day. However, on the tours lunch was included and many days I only ate twice, with snacks in between.
What would I have done differently to make this cheaper?
- Only book the arrival night at each accommodation, instead of committing for the entire time. This easily would’ve saved me $80
- Couch surf – a fellow traveler just told me she couch surfed on the Galapagos! I need to look into this.
- Hire a bike instead of a taxi. I could’ve saved money on the El Chato trip by hiring a bike. Considering I spent the afternoon at Tortuga Bay again – I had plenty of time to make the trek!
When I returned to the Community Hostel in Quito, I was met with many questions about my trip. And, over the past few weeks I’ve heard the same question of others who’ve gone to the Galapagos.
How did you afford it? I’d love to go, but it’s out of my budget.
The bottom line, with anything we do, it can be as expensive or inexpensive as you’d like. I knew that this would quite possibly be the only opportunity to visit this magical place. I decided to do as much as I could for free and splurge on some particular tours. The time and money would’ve been spent on something, why not a once in a lifetime experience.
I hope this inspires you to figure out a way to experience what you want with this life.
Fearless Travel Checklist
Don't stop before you start! I've compiled a major list of everything I needed to figure out before I quit my job to travel long term. And I want to share it with you. It can be done, one item at a time!