You may inevitably drive yourself crazy trying to come up with the best itinerary for the Galapagos. It is a “bucket list” destination for many people so the pressure to create the perfect itinerary is strong and the options at first google search seem pretty endless. There is the debate about doing an independent trip to be more cost effective or going on a luxurious cruise. There are dozens of tour operators that have all different types of boats that follow a handful of different routes. It’s enough to make even the seasoned of travelers go mad trying to figure out if you’ve invested in the best trip. I’ve put together a quick guide to the Galapagos Islands my way, why it worked for me and things to consider when planning your own island excursion.
How do I get there?!
So, there are a few ways to get to the Galapagos. I opted for a flight from Lima since I was already in Peru up to Guayaquil. Guayaquil is a port town southwest of the capital. Quito is the capital city but Guayaquil is actually the most populated city. There isn’t much to do there so if you are flying out of Guayaquil over Quito, I’d only stay a day or two if you have the time, otherwise it’s an easy city to skip over to get to your final destination. I found flights from Guayaquil to Galapagos were cheaper and faster than out of Quito but if you are coming from an International destination you may not have the flexibility with flights and flying from Quito is just as convenient. If I had a limited amount of time and could spend a couple of days in one of the two cities, I would choose flying out of Quito.
There are 2 main airports to choose from when looking for flights to the Galapagos, Baltra (Santa Cruz) and San Cristobal. I flew into Baltra because of cost and then I planned to fly out of San Cristobal. The tour I took did the same thing, and to be honest I didn’t have a flight out of the Galapagos when I arrived (there is conflicting information but I have read that they may ask you to show proof of a departure flight when obtaining your Transit Control Card (TCT).
Baltra Island has nothing else on it except the airport so flying in there you have a little bit more of an adventure ahead of you to get to Santa Cruz Island and ultimately Puerto Ayora, the main town. Baltra is the world’s first green airport, so although it is small, it was one of the nicest airports I had seen in South America. Once you collect your bags, the first thing you do is get on a shuttle that will take you to the ferry docks. This is complimentary service so you don’t have to purchase a ticket. There is a quick water taxi/ferry that will take you across the channel.
Once you are on Santa Cruz Island, there will be several options to get into town waiting for you at the shore. Private taxis will try and convince you to take a ride, they can be pricey but are the fastest way into town. If you have already booked accommodation for a fee they may arrange a shuttle or transportation service for you. As for the San Cristobal Airport, you could essentially walk there from town so a quick taxi ride or local bus is really easy to navigate.
What does it cost to enter the Galapagos?
There are a few fees in order to enter the islands that you should be prepared to pay at the airport upon departure and then on arrival. Essentially the islands are one large National Park so there is an entrance fee that you’ll pay on arrival $100 USD for adults and $50 USD for children under 12. There is also the $20 TCT, or tourist card I had mentioned above. The entrance fee is good for 60 days on the islands and for most countries you need a 90 day visa for the country of Ecuador.
PRIOR to checking into your flight there will be a well marked area for baggage check to Galapagos as well as a counter for the purchase of your TCT. You need to do this before you check in, as all bags get inspected prior to going on the plane. Once you land in the Galapagos you’ll go through a security line where you will pay your entrance fee. You’ll also get a stamp added to your passport, which is a fun souvenir for all you ink collectors!
I weighed the pros and cons of either taking the cruise or doing a self guided trip to the islands and decided for a cruise in the end.
Here is the best kept secret about booking a cruise IF you have some flexibility with time while in Ecuador. You will be at least 50% more if you book ahead online. For some people, the planning and knowing that you have a spot secured and your itinerary set up ahead is worth the extra cost.
With some leeway in your itinerary you can book with an agent on the island, in Quito or Guayaquil. I opted for booking when I arrived in Puerto Ayora with the knowledge that I could fill a last minute slot on a luxury cruise for half the price than those who booked online in advance. The boats would rather have someone fill the empty spaces than go out without full capacity so that is to the advantage of the last minute booker. My spot on the luxury cruise for 8 days would have been over $5,000 but since I booked less than 72 hours before the trip I reserved a space for less than a third of the cost. You will have to be a little less picky about the route you take but in my mind it was worth it. I booked my cruise with Moonrise Travel, they are located right on the main strip in Puerto Ayora not far from the fish market.
What if you can’t rely on a last minute booking? Because vacation time is limited, just showing up on the island with the hope to of booking a trip may not be feasible. What are the types of tours? There are different levels of ships that will range in comfort, staff and amenities. Obviously, with the more you pay, you’ll have nicer lodging, well educated guides & staff, and good quality food.
Tourist Superior Class
Tourist OR Economy Class
Our boat slept 16 people, we had private bathrooms, AC, a jacuzzi on the sun deck, several seating areas on the boat to lounge while sailing. The crew spoke English well, they were knowledgeable and professional. We had a walking tour, snorkeling or kayaking at least once a day and our guide was able to answer any questions we had about species, the island eco system or Ecuador, in general, with ease.
You can choose anywhere from day trips to multi day cruises, I was happy with our itinerary and I felt like 8 days was plenty of time to see some of the islands and experience life at sea. A girl on our boat was spending over 20 days on our boat, doing 3 different loops. I personally think more than two weeks may be too long but that is the beauty of different tours, you can design the trip you want.
Going it Alone
The other option, which is more budget or backpacker friendly would be to land on Santa Cruz or San Cristobal and then do day trips, taking a ferry and just staying on land. Will you get to see most of the same wildlife as the cruisers? Yes and No. You will for sure see plenty of wildlife and nature, but there are some birds or marine life that are endemic to specific islands. Along with the limited wildlife, you will also be around more people since you’ll be confined to touring and staying on the inhabited islands. I went with the idea that I would choose this option and then realized quickly that to make the most of my island time I would need to find a reasonably priced live aboard trip.
Where should I go?
There are 20 islands that make up the Galapagos however only 4 are inhabited. Some are not accessible and others you can only visit by boat, so take all of that into consideration when planning if you are going to book a cruise or not. In the end, I’m happy I chose the cruise because we visited parts of the archipelago that the ferries won’t visit. If you are concerned with cost only then you can easily go Galapagos on a budget by doing it solo and on land. There are ways to not spend a fortune but still take a chartered boat to make sure you really get to see the best part of the islands.
How long should I stay?
You will probably find conflicting information about how long you should stay in the Galapagos, and in all honesty, that will be your personal preference. I opted to spend over a week there, a few days exploring some of the small towns and then a 7 day cruise. As a guide to the Galapagos, I would encourage you to take the extra time before or after your excursions and not to rush the trip. This is such a special collection of islands, you’ll want to spend as much time here as you can! That being said, much like seeing tons of temples in Thailand or countless Cathedrals in Europe, there is a slight repetition of what you will encounter. If you think that a two week cruise will get old after the first few days seeing sea turtle after sea turtle then maybe you may want to think about shortening your cruise and spending some time in Puerta Ayora or San Cristobal to break up the potential wildlife monotony. I personally never tire of wildlife or learning about interesting landscapes & eco systems so for me the week long cruise was the perfect amount of time.
Guide to the Galapagos Island Travel Tips
A guide to the Galapagos isn’t complete without a couple of quick island travel hacks! Here are a few things I’d recommend knowing before you arrive so once you touch down you can enjoy yourself on this once in a lifetime trip without any hassle.
Cash vs Credit
A lot of places only take cash so be ready to spend your money first before relying on your plastic. Bring cash or be prepared to take out small amounts daily. There are only a couple of ATM’s on the island, and there is a $500 USD limit per day. My tour was cash only payment so I had to make daily runs to the bank in order to remit my payment. I’m not a big fan of carrying around large sums of money so if I had to redo it, I would have taken out my maximum allowed by my bank ($1000) at the airport ATM and then if I needed extra relied on the cash point on the island if I needed it.
I wouldn’t count on getting reliable internet service while in the Galapagos. I had an Ecuadorian SIM card and once we left shore by boat my service quickly cut out. There were limited restaurants that had wifi access and the ones that did were not very quick. If you need a fast connection in a pinch I would recommend the internet cafe on the main drag in San Cristobal OR in Puerto Ayora the place I went to do work every day was the Galapagos Deli (the internet is adequate which for there, that means “fast”). Be prepared to unplug and just witness some amazing scenery and wildlife.
The islands have everything shipped there (obviously) so it is not the cheapest place in South America by a long shot. That being said, I felt like I got what I paid for during my time in the Galapagos. Aside from our delicious meals on the boat, I found several delicious restaurants. In Puerto Ayora the Galapagos Deli was a regular spot for me, they have good food and relatively fast wifi. For a quick, reasonably priced meal I had a slice at Pizza Eat. Really hungry? The portion sizes at Isla Grill are generous and the seafood is tasty and fresh. As for San Cristobal, I found cheaper food options, Muana Cafe, Rosita for Ecuadorian food or Cris for burgers.
The Galapagos Islands are a year round location. Being near the equator means the weather is most often favorable and there is always breeding seasons, whale watching or turtle hatching to be viewed at different times of the year. December to May there may be a little bit of rainfall but it is minimal. I visited in May and the weather was gorgeous, sunny and not too hot. June to November has a tendency to be a bit cooler, however throughout the year you will find a myriad of wildlife so truly any time is a good time to visit.