Planning a DIY Galapagos Vacation…
Organizing a trip to the Galapagos Islands makes planning a wedding seem easy. To vacation in the Galapagos you’ll probably need to take at least three flights to get there, navigate a few of bureaucratic hoops, learn a little Spanish, and potentially dip into your youngest child’s collage fund to cover the cost of this exotic adventure. These are just a few reasons why the majority of travelers heading to these remote islands opt to employ the expertise of either a land-based or cruise-based tour company. However, traveling to the Galapagos without a tour is very possible, and quite possibly an even better way to experience the islands.
Planning a Trip to the Galapagos Without a Tour
Getting to the Galapagos Islands
The quickest way to crush your dreams of vacationing in the Galapagos is to search for flights from your hometown to the Galapagos. The travel time can be upward of twenty hours and prices typically hover in the $1500-2000 range. Yikes. Fortunately there are a few ways you can reduce the cost of your plane ticket.
- Book your flight to Ecuador separately from your flight to the Galapagos. Typically your flight itinerary will have a long layover in either Quito or Guayaquil. Good deals on flights to Ecuador are fairly common so you might be able to save money by booking a flight to Ecuador, spending the night in a nearby hotel (better than trying to sleep on the floor of the airport for eight hours), and flying out the next morning to either Baltra or San Cristobal.
- Don’t automatically fly into Quito. Quito is a much more well-known and, to be perfectly honest, appealing city than Guayaquil. However, if you’re not planning on exploring mainland Ecuador you should compare the cost of flying into Quito vs. Guayaquil. Especially since it’s often cheaper to get a flight to the Galapagos from Guayaquil and many of the flights from Quito to the Galapagos make a stop in Guayaquil, thus wasting precious minutes of your vacation.
- Santa Cruz or San Cristobal? There are two islands that have flights from mainland Ecuador, San Cristobal and Santa Cruz.* Consider flying into Santa Cruz, spending a few days, then taking the ferry to San Cristobal. After you’ve had enough time hanging out with sea lions on San Cristobal take a flight back to Ecuador from San Cristobal. This is a great way to see more and spend less time on ferry boats!
- Be flexible with your dates. If possible fly midweek and try not to coincide with major holidays.
*The airport for Santa Cruz is actually on the adjacent island of Baltra. When searching for flights you will want to search for “Baltra”. After landing on Baltra it’s a quick, and easy, transfer via bus and water taxi to Santa Cruz.
Island Hopping Around the Galapagos
Getting between islands is pretty straightforward. Your options are either to take a “ferry” or a short flight. Whether you fly or or ferry you will have your bags inspected prior to departing and you will pay an island entry fee upon arrival. The island entry fee is different for each island but expect to pay between $5-$20 per person. This is an additional fee from the $100 you paid when you arrived at the airport on the Galapagos.
Taking the Ferry
Traveling by ferry is the most common and most affordable way to get between the islands. The ferry isn’t what you would expect a ferry to be, rather it is a small speedboat that fits approximately 20-30 passengers. Typically there are two departure times a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Expect to spend 2-3 hours bouncing through the waves.
Galapagos Ferry Tips+Info
- To prevent seasickness: take Dramamine and get a seat at the back of the boat. The back of the boat has better airflow and is less bumpy. Lot’s of locals know this secret so you might need to scramble to get a good seat.
- Prebook your tickets: don’t wait until the day you want to travel to buy your ferry tickets. Book online or ask your hotel to arrange your ferry transfer for you.
- Have change with you: you will take a one minute water taxi ride from the pier to the ferry. You will need to directly pay the water taxi driver anywhere from $1-2. It’s easiest if you have the exact amount.
- Getting from San Cristobal to Isabela is not easy: to get between San Cristobal and Isabela you have to first go to Santa Cruz and then take another ferry. This is basically an all day process.
Flying Between Islands
Flying between the islands isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. The planes are worn, it can be bumpy, and being crammed into a small 10-seater airplane with strangers is a claustrophobia inducing experience. But it’s faster than the ferry, particularly if you are trying to get between San Cristobal and Isabela.
Galapagos Inner Islands Flights Tips+Info
- Only one airline: Emetebe is the only airline offering flights between the Galapagos islands
- Limited options: there is only one or two departure times a day
- Book early: prices go up and there is a limited number of seats available
- Pack light: you are very limited on how much baggage you can bring. You will be charged per kilo for extra weight.
- Airport expectations: since the plane fits fewer passengers than a soccer team you won’t need to worry about long lines. Getting to the airport 45-60 minutes early is plenty of time to get checked in and have your baggage weighed/inspected.
Getting Around on the Galapagos
Getting around on the Galapagos is very easy and safe. When you’re visiting the Galapagos you won’t be renting a car, Rather you’ll be walking or biking to nearby attractions and utilizing taxi’s for going to further off places.
Taking Taxi’s in the Galapagos
Taxi’s are refreshingly affordable and accessible in the Galapagos. Taxi’s are typically white pick up trucks with seats in the cab for three or four passengers. Sometimes they’ll let people ride in the back.
- Cost: getting around town or to anyplace that’s within five minutes of town is typically around $3-5.
- Get help: Having your hotel call a taxi for you and give instructions to the driver is helpful. Especially if you don’t speak Spanish!
- A learning opportunity: all of our taxi drivers were really kind and were open to helping us practice our Spanish skills with simple conversations
- Belongings in the back: Normally people put their belongings in the back of the truck. If it looks like you might encounter rain you’ll want to cover them with a tarp or bring your stuff inside for the ride.
- Consider arranging a pick up time: if you’re being dropped off at a beach or trailhead you might want to arrange a pick up time with the driver. Otherwise you could end up needing to have a local help you call for a taxi when you’re sun-burnt and hungry from a day of snorkeling.
It is very likely that you will be taking at least one trip on a water taxi during your stay on the Galapagos. Water taxis are necessary for reaching the ferry boats and many of the snorkel/dive tour boats.
- Try to bring the exact amount: It is much easier if you have the exact amount. Typically a short trip on a water taxi costs between $1-5. Getting to surf spots or beaches can be a bit more.
- Does your tour include your water taxi fare?: Many tours don’t include the water taxi ride that is required for getting from the pier to the boat. Same for taking the ferry!
- Getting to beaches and surf spots: On San Cristobal you can take the water taxi to Tongo a popular surf break. On Santa Cruz taking a water taxi to Tortuga Bay, a stunning white sand beach, will save you from having to do a hot forty five minute walk.
Walking/Biking Around the Galapagos
The Galapagos islands are very pedestrian friendly. There are sidewalks, street lights, and bike lanes. Even walking around at night we felt very safe. The biggest safety concerns when walking in the Galapagos are stepping in sea lion poop or tripping on an uneven section of sidewalk.
- Lack of street signs: It can be hard to find street signs which makes finding certain stores and restaurants a little challenging. Fortunately the islands are small and locals are friendly, don’t be nervous about asking for directions!
- Bring bug repellent: Mosquitos can be bad, especially during the early evening.
- Footwear: Wear comfortable sandals for walking around town and sturdy sneakers if you’re going to be doing trails.
- Rent a bike: Bikes can be rented for around $3-5 an hour. This is a fun way to explore the area! Some taxis will even drive you with your bike to a certain location and you can bike your way back to town.
Riding the Bus on the Galapagos
Honestly with taxi’s being so cheap it didn’t make sense for our family to attempt to take the bus. However, most hotels will be able to help you figure out the bus schedule if you really want to get around for super cheap!
Day Tours on the Galapagos
You will want to, and need to, book at least a tours during your stay on the Galapagos. Many of the best activities and places require you to have a guide with you. This helps protect the wildlife from tourist mishaps and it also keeps popular attractions from getting overly crowded.
Tips for Booking Day Tours on the Galapagos
- Galapagos tours on a budget: You will pay more for your tour when you book ahead of time on line. For example a snorkeling tour to Tunnels on Isabela is listed as $145 per person. When we showed up at the office on the island and inquired about tour pricing we were able to get the tour for $100 per person. However, while booking tours last minute can save you money, you also run the risk of the tour being sold out. If there is a tour that is on your vacation bucket list you might want to consider pre-booking that and then shop around once you’re on the island for other activities.
- Find out what you actually need a tour for: Taking a day tour on the Galapagos is a lot of fun. You get to meet other travelers, the guides are fantastic and you’ll learn and see things that you wouldn’t have without a tour. Nonetheless, doing tours every day can get expensive and exhausting. Mix it up with a few non-tour days!
Things You Can Do Without A Tour on the Galapagos
Walk or bike to the Wall of Tears (Isabela Island)
Visit the Tortoise Reserve (Isabela Island)
Wander through wetlands/look for flamingos (Isabela Island)
Snorkel at Concha de Perla (Isabela Island)
Hike through the reserve (San Cristobal Island)
Snorkel at Tintoreras(San Cristobal Island)
Snorkel and hang with Sea Lions at La Loberia (San Cristobal Island)
Hike around El Junco (San Cristobal)
Visit Puerto Chino Beach (San Cristobal)
Chill at Tortuga Bay (Santa Cruz)
Check out the Charles Darwin Research Center (Santa Cruz)
Paperwork, Protocol, Fees, Etc. for the Galapagos
- Paperwork: There will be some lines and paperwork that you need to complete to visit the Galapagos. All of it can be done in the airport on the same day as your flight. The paperwork basically checks that you have a place to stay on the Galapagos (another way they regulate how many people are on the islands at any given time) and verifies that you aren’t bringing any invasive species, fresh produce, etc to the islands.
- Fees: With the paperwork comes the fees. Currently, you pay $20 on mainland Ecuador before you depart for the Galapagos and another $100 ($50 for kids) when you arrive in the Galapagos.
- Covid-19 Protocol: To visit Ecuador, including the Galapagos, you will be required to show that you have all your Covid-19 vaccinations or a negative PCR test that was taken with 72 hours. Our vaccination cards were checked several times throughout our journey to the Galapagos. I recommend having an electronic copy on your phone and a photocopy as well.
- USD Currency: Ecuador uses the American Dollar as it’s currency. If you’re traveling from the United States you will not need to exchange your money.
- Bring Plenty of Cash: Many of the smaller restaurants and hotels prefer or only accept cash on the Galapagos. Moreover, it’s common for a hefty credit card service fee to be added when using your credit card. Using cash is definitely better for everyone. However, it’s not unusual for the ATM to run out of cash. Bring plenty of cash!
Steps For Planning A Trip to the Galapagos
Hopefully after reading this article you feel confident and ready to plan a trip to the Galapagos! Still need a little more guidance? Here’s a checklist and timeline:
Purchase Plane Ticket to Ecuador (6-9 months before your trip)
Purchase Plane Tickets to Galapagos (4-6 months before your trip)
Flights Between Islands (If you’re flying between islands on the Galapagos purchase tickets 4-6 months before your trip)
Book Hotels (4-6 months before your trip/ after booking airfare to the islands)
Research Activities/things to do (1-2 months before your trip)
Book Day Tours. (Book any must-do day tours 1 month before your trip.)
Ferry Tickets (Book any ferry tickets 1 month before your trip)
Confirm Hotels (Send a quick email confirming your arrival time/reservation 1 month before your trip)
Gear Up( Buy any gear/ clothing items/ reef safe sunscreen etc 2-4 weeks before your trip)
The Bottom Line: It is very possible to travel without a tour to the Galapagos. With a sense of adventure, some internet research, and a few day tours, you’ll enjoy the trip of a lifetime for a fraction of a cost and without the unwanted 6am wake up call to get on the tour bus.