Traveling to the Galapagos Islands on a Budget
The plane descends below the clouds. Our necks crane toward the window to catch a glimpse of the islands we had heard so much about in high school biology class. The Galapagos Islands. A set of unique landmasses with fascinating endemic creatures, unlike anything you can see elsewhere in the world. It’s November, so the land is dry. The cacti extend upward to impressive heights of 12–18ft. I’m a little surprised at how barren and desolate the landscape appears. However, I know that although the land may not look lush and vibrant, exciting creatures await, both on the ground and beneath the ocean waves.
Getting to the Galapagos Islands
Brandon and I fly into one of the several inhabited islands of the Galapagos, San Cristobal. Travelers also have the option to fly to Baltra, which is closest to the island named Santa Cruz. The only direct flights to the islands are from Ecuador’s capital, Quito, or Guayaquil. A mandatory transportation fee of $20 is owed before departure. Your bags are scanned before going through security to prevent prohibited items from entering the Galapagos Islands. Upon arrival, passengers’ bags will be examined a second time. This process is repeated each time one travels between islands, whether it be by ferry or plane. After learning about the damage done by invasive species, it quickly becomes apparent why the frequent searches are necessary to conserve the Galapagos Islands. Before you are allowed to leave the airport, you’ll pay a $100 fee to enter the national park. The fee is most likely one of the expenses that contribute to the Galapagos Islands' reputation of being expensive. I agree it is much more costly than the Ecuadorian mainland; however, there are ways to mitigate costs and make a visit to the Galapagos without draining your bank account. One may be surprised to learn that there are quite a few free activities on the Galapagos Islands. It all comes down to the experience you wish to have, where you are willing to cut corners, and what types of tours and things you want to see.
Visiting San Cristobal; Island of the Galapagos
Scuba Diving in the Galapagos Islands
Brandon and I knew that one of the things we did not want to miss out on during our week-long visit to the Galapagos was scuba diving. Although expensive, we knew that the incredible memory would outweigh the cost. We set our sites on Kicker Rock…a striking and monumental rock structure located an hour from the main port of San Cristobal. Divers can typically see hammerhead and Galapagos sharks, among other animals at this site. Our trip included two dives, a tour of a pristine beach on the far side of the island, lunch, and snacks. Although we were slightly disappointed that we returned that day without seeing any hammerhead sharks, the dive was incredible! At a depth of 40–60ft, we danced with sea lions and glided beside sea turtles as passing fish stopped to rest and grab a snack from their shells. Right before we surfaced, a giant school of fish encircled us, their scales shimmering from the sun’s rays that managed to pierce the ocean’s surface. We may not have seen the sharks we had hoped for, but what we did experience was just as impressive.
Even if you aren’t a certified diver, there is still a lot of fun to be had in the water surrounding the Galapagos Islands. Snorkeling is a great alternative to diving if you are low on funds or are not interested in scuba diving. I will warn you, the water is quite chilly; do not let the pictures of crystal blue water fool you! I saw more than a few people rent wet suits in addition to their mask and snorkel to be more comfortable. Although the waters are cold, it is recommended that you take the plunge in order to witness the enthralling sea life of the Galapagos Islands.
Brandon and I found that although many tours can be booked in advance, you can also purchase them once you’ve arrived on the islands. We booked our dive in advance since we knew it was something we did not want to miss out on. We probably ended up paying a bit more, but I slept better at night, knowing that our spots were reserved. If you wish to book in advance, do not be surprised if you are asked to pay via pay pal or some other means besides a credit card. After doing some research, this seems to be a typical request for most tour companies on the Galapagos Islands. They are trying to avoid additional credit card fees, which can be as high as 12%. In general, you should plan to pay for most things with cash on the islands. Some establishments do not accept cards, and again you probably want to avoid unwanted credit card fees.
Free Activities on San Cristobal
While visiting San Cristobal, there are several beaches where tourists can relax and take in the scenery at no cost. Following signs from the center of town will take you past a statue of Darwin and lead you to Playa Mann. You can grab a bite to eat and watch the sea lions resting nearby. Keep a safe distance, and do not touch the sea lions. Although they may come close to you or seem undisturbed by human presence, they are wild animals and need space and respect. The animals on the Galapagos roam freely and it is not uncommon to see creatures perching themselves on benches, restaurant chairs, and sunbathing on the sidewalk. It can be quite a comical sight.
Mirador Cerro Tijeretas and the Center of Interpretation
If you continue past Playa Mann, you can visit the Center of Interpretation. The Center is open to the public and free; they only ask that you register with the ranger at the door. Upon entering, you will be led past a chronological history of the Island. It is a great way to learn more about the Galapagos Islands and its past inhabitants without a guide. It is worth mentioning that although it is not necessary to visit with a guide, you can always opt to have one. Trip Advisor can assist with booking tours on pretty much any of the Islands. You also have the option to visit any of the local tour shops in town and book in person. It is always worthwhile to have someone along that is knowledgeable of the area, and the guides of the Galapagos are certainly that!
After you pass through the Center, the path will take you up sloping hills to several beautiful outlooks of the ocean. You can stop and rest at la Playa Punta Carola. Here you will see teams of sea lions basking in the sun and taking pleasure in the cool water. Brandon and I paused to snorkel at this beach and were delighted to spot several sea turtles through the murky water.
If you continue along the hike, you will encounter a large cove by the name of Muelle Tijeretas. Stony steps descend into brisk, clear water. Unlike at the beach, there are no waves to kick up sand and decrease visibility. The water was clear, and we welcomed the opportunity to snorkel among colorful fish, a sea turtle, and a sea lion. One of the most exciting things about the Galapagos Islands is that you have the chance to interact and view animals that you would otherwise only see at the aquarium or zoo. Countless times I have been mesmerized by the aquatic life at the aquarium; swimming in the same water as such majestic animals is a feeling unlike any other.
All in all, the hike to El Mirador Cerro Tijeretas will take around 45 minutes. Timing will fluctuate depending on how long you snorkel or swim and stop to take pictures. Even if you decide that the waters are too cold for swimming, the walk is delightful. You will undoubtedly come across countless lizards, frigate birds (otherwise known as tijeretas, which means scissors in Spanish) and sea lions.
Taxi to El Junco, La Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado and Puerto Chino
If you are spending a couple of days on San Cristobal, it is worthwhile to visit the highlands. You can visit three sites along this route. It is possible to rent a bicycle on the island, but I only recommend this if you are an avid cyclist. The road to the highlands is steep and not for the faint of heart. Vehicles cannot be rented on the island, so your only other option is to hire a taxi or take a tour. Through our hostel, we hired a driver for $40, who took us to the places listed below. The taxi should wait for you at each of the sites and drive you back to town. Again, you can visit these places without a guide, but you always have the option to do some research and book a tour in advance if you prefer. Brandon and I opted to go guideless; however, we hit the jackpot when we discovered that our taxi driver was previously a park ranger! He accompanied us to two of the three sites and acted as our unofficial guide. He was extremely knowledgeable of the plants, animals, and history of conservation. It was completely unexpected, but I relished the opportunity to ask him questions and acted as an interpreter between him and Brandon.
Stop #1: El Junco. The Only Source of Freshwater on the Galapagos Islands
El Junco is the only source of fresh water on the Galapagos Islands and is the remains of an ancient volcano crater. The crater is full of water which creates a picturesque lake. Often the lake is covered in clouds, casting a mystical fog which unfortunately also hides the beautiful view of the pacific ocean. We were lucky enough to arrive in the early morning just before the clouds descended and caught a quick glimpse of the beautiful countryside. It was interesting to experience both the fairytale-Esque fog surrounding the crater as well as the breathtaking views. As you gaze at the lake, you will see frigate birds or tijeretas as the locals call them for their scissor shaped tales. Visitors can choose to climb from the parking lot of El Junco to the crater and return to their cars or take an additional 25–30minutes to walk along the edge of the crater. Remember to bring sunscreen even if the weather is cloudy. You may not be able to see the sun, but it can certainly see you!
Stop #2: La Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado
The next stop on our route was the Galapaguera, where efforts have been made to increase the tortoise population on the island. After years of being killed for their meat and shells, the tortoise's numbers have been rising due to the conservation efforts of the sanctuary. You can walk along the path and freely encounter these ancient creatures whom the islands are named after. If you think these tortoises are giant, then you will also need to visit the tortoises on Santa Cruz, who are even larger!
The Santa Cruz tortoises have evolved longer necks due to the reality that the plants on the island grow to higher heights. In order to feed, they must have the ability to reach these taller plants. Evidence of Darwin’s discovery of evolution surrounds you at every turn! As you walk around the Center, you will see tortoises at every stage of life. The rangers closely monitor the females during the laying season. Once they lay their eggs, the rangers carefully dig out the eggs and place them in incubators where their chances of survival are greater. The tortoise eggs are incredibly vulnerable to cats and rats who are not native to the islands. The eggs, therefore, need protection from these invasive species. The tortoises on both islands are fed every other day, so it may be worth visiting on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday to try and catch them at feeding time!
Stop #3: Puerto Chino
Our last stop of the day was Puerto Chino. A beautiful, white sand beach that, you guessed it, also has sea lions. We spent about an hour at this beach swimming in the salty water, lounging near sea lions, and taking a short walk among the rocks, marveling at the lava lizards and birds swooping above us. It was the perfect way to end a half-day of exploring some of the fascinating things the highlands of San Cristobal have to offer.
Our Galapagos adventure also took us to the beautiful island of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is one of the three main islands of the Galapagos. Brandon and I chose to explore Santa Cruz and San Cristobal since our visit was only a week long. We felt that it was better to invest our short time in fewer places and avoid being rushed. Plus, we are not opposed to planning a second visit in the future! Although this island’s population is higher than San Cristobal, do not be dismayed! Brandon and I found the prices of food much cheaper than on San Cristobal, and there are many free activities you can do. Before arriving, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Ferry and water taxis between the Galapagos Islands
How do you get in between the islands of the Galapagos? The answer, by ferry. Although the name ferry calls to mind a large boat, the ferry’s that bring guests between the island’s seat only about 25 people. There small size and the massive waves that exist in the open sea make it a bumpy ride. When the captain of the boat passes out trash bags before leaving the bay, it does little to instill confidence in your ability to avoid seasickness. Luckily neither Brandon nor I experienced this during the trip; the same cannot be said for other passengers. I suggest investing in seasickness pills and take them to avoid an uncomfortable two-hour boat ride. The ferry runs twice a day, once at 7 am and again in the afternoon. Be sure to arrive 30 minutes before departure as all bags are inspected prior to leaving. Another critical thing to note is that when you arrive in Santa Cruz, you will be taken to the dock from the ferry by water taxi. Keep some extra change in your pocket, so you are prepared when the driver requests 50 cents from each passenger.
Free Activities on Santa Cruz
The first afternoon in Santa Cruz, Brandon, and I spent exploring the Darwin Center. It is free to enter and explore at your own pace; however, personalized tours are offered for $10 a person. Similar to La Galapaguera on San Cristobal, you will see Tortoises of every age. You will also see some guest tortoises from other islands as well. The Darwin Center has been working tirelessly to increase the tortoise population for quite some time and is therefore slightly larger than the one on San Cristobal. You can also learn about Lonesome George, the last of the tortoises from the island of Pinta. Unfortunately, his story is not a happy one. Although attempts were made to find him a mate of the same species, one was never found, and he passed in 2012. After walking around the Center, you can visit and walk to one of the nearby beaches. It was here that Brandon and I were impressed by the number of Marine Iguanas lounging in the sun.
Tortuga bay is another free must do while on Santa Cruz. The walk from the town will take you about 45 minutes. The trail is clearly marked and paved with stones. Remember to register at the ranger hut before starting along the path. The ranger can answer any remaining questions you have, and you can take this opportunity to use the bathroom before you start the trail. After walking for approximately 40 minutes, you will arrive at a beach that some may mistake for the bay. If you are daring, you can surf here, but keep in mind you will have to carry your surfboard for the duration of the trail as there is no place to rent on the beach. Currents are strong here, and it is forbidden to swim. If you continue along the beach, however, you will soon see the bay. Along the path, you may encounter marine iguanas making their way from the water to the shore. It truly is an intriguing image seeing these scaley creatures emerge from the waves.
Tortuga bay is nestled between beautiful mangrove trees. It is here that you can go for a swim, snorkel, lounge on the beach, or rent a kayak. They have both single boats that can be rented for $10 an hour and tandem boats that can be rented for $20 an hour. Although the currents along the beach are strong, the water is calm and peaceful in the bay, protected by the mangroves. As you gently paddle glance below the surface and you may be able to see the small white tip reef sharks which lurk beneath the surface and find safety in the roots of the trees. If you kayak to the middle of the bay, one can see turtles surfacing for air, making it obvious why the bay is called Tortuga Bay. Their tiny faces peer above the surface, looking around inquisitively. After a couple of busy days, Tortuga Bay was the perfect way to relax and enjoy the outdoors.
Our final day on the Galapagos islands, Brandon and I visited Las Grietas. Aside from scuba diving and snorkeling near Mirador Cerro Tijeretas, this was my favorite trip. Las Grietas is another area perfect for snorkeling if you don’t mind swimming in cool waters. Snorkel gear can be rented in town for around $3. Las Grietas is a short trip from the main village. Walk to the port and stand in line to catch a water taxi for 80 cents. Tell the driver you are going to Las Grietas, and they will know exactly where to take you. From the dock, it is a 20-minute walk to this captivating chasm. Similar to most hikes in the area, the way is marked and easy to follow. You will pass by salt pools as well as a tiny beach that you can choose to enjoy for a few moments before continuing on your way. The water at Las Grietas is brackish, meaning it is a mixture of salt and freshwater. Blue and yellow parrotfish, among others, can be found swimming in the enchanting pools locked between two rocky steep inclines. Although you cannot swim out the other side of the pool, those that have time and are keen to explore and clamber over rocks will be rewarded with the discovery of a second pool! If you are traveling during the busy season, this may be your way to escape the crowds and swim solely with the fishes.
Whether you have a week or a month, millions of dollars, or several hard-earned dollars (ok maybe more than several dollars…), the Galapagos Islands have much to offer visitors! Discover the delights of these ancient volcanic islands and see what Charles Darwin made such a fuss about.