Inside: The complete guide to a land-based visit to the Galapagos Islands on a budget. Where to stay and how to travel between islands.
It has long been a dream of mine to visit the Galapagos Islands. But the logistics just never panned out on previous Round-the -World trips (and believe me, I tried everything!)
So while planning this summer’s 30-day trip around Central America, I couldn’t resist a slight detour farther south. This is the year I will finally check the Galapagos Islands off my Bucket List!
And when my good friend and regular travel buddy, Shannon, decided to join me, we set out to find the most affordable way to visit the islands.
We quickly discover that the luxurious Galapagos cruises (the most common way to visit the islands) are well out of our month-long travel budget. They also seem a bit too regimented for our relaxed travel style.
Can you stay on the Galapagos Islands?
That was the big question. Without the benefit of a cruise ship, can we explore more than just the main island of Santa Cruz?
Diligent research revealed that four of the inhabited Galapagos islands do offer hotel options: Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela, and Floreana. And speed boats are available to transfer between islands.
But with only a week to explore, we decide to focus on just three islands for our land-based Galapagos trip.
The Galapagos trip plan?
Two nights on the main island of Santa Cruz, two on the largest island of Isabella, and finally 3 nights on the island of San Cristobal.
But first, a little history…
The Galapagos Archipelago consists of 24 islands (12 main and 12 minor), though only 5 are inhabited.
Discovered by accident in 1535 by the Bishop of Panama when he veered off course on the way to Peru, the Galapagos Islands first appeared on a map some 35 years later as the “island of the tortoises.”
For almost 300 years after their discovery, the Galapagos mostly served as a safe harbor to a succession of pirates, whalers, and sealers. The islands were a resource for fresh water and food for the sailors who caught thousands of giant tortoises and stored them in their cargo holds.
Because the tortoises could survive for up to a year on the ships, they provided a long-lasting food source.
The arrival of Charles Darwin
In 1832, Ecuador officially claimed the Galapagos. And just three years later a British naval vessel brought Charles Darwin to the islands.
Darwin spent 5 weeks collecting specimens to provide evidence for his theory of evolution which was published decades later. Though he ultimately turns out to be the islands’ most famous visitor, by today’s conservation standards he would surely be run off the islands.
Not just for riding tortoises, but for using them as a food source.
While some of the islands were declared wildlife sanctuaries as early as 1934, 97% of the archipelago was officially designated as a national park in 1959.
Not long after, organized tourism to the area began in earnest.
First Up, Santa Cruz
After a brief 2-hour flight from Guayaquil, we touched down on the island of Baltra, the main airport in the Galapagos, which is just across a channel from Santa Cruz.
Upon arrival, all visitors must pay the mandatory $100 Galapagos National Park fee at the airport. You cannot leave the Galapagos airport without doing this and the fee must be paid in cash with US dollars.
How to Get from the Galapagos Airport on Baltra to Puerto Ayora
Since the airport is on its own island (Baltra), it takes a little work to get to the main town of Puerto Ayora. Of course, if you come to the islands for a cruise, they pick you up.
From Baltra, take any one of the free airline shuttles for the 10-minute ride to the Itabaca Canal.
From there, a ferry takes you across the canal to the island of Santa Cruz for $.80.
Once on Santa Cruz, it’s a 45-minute drive across the island to Puerto Ayora (which can be done by taxi for about $15 or by public bus for $1.80 – we chose the bus).
After all that, it takes us about two hours from the time we step off the plane until we arrive in the main town of Puerto Ayora.
The perfect budget hotel find in Puerto Ayora
Upon arrival in town, it takes another 15 minutes to get our bearings and find our hotel for the first two nights, the Galapagos Suites Bed & Breakfast.
We found the hotel on Trip Advisor and it really lived up to the reviews.
The room is lovely – clean, spacious, and modern. And the woman and her mother who run the hotel are just terrific. We drop our bags and head back out to grab some lunch and check out the shops.
Though the sun is shining when we land, the weather has definitely taken a turn for the worse. It starts raining heavily as we walk back into town. We seek shelter and then lunch and round out the afternoon with some shopping.
That night we grab dinner at a popular restaurant called The Rock and hope that the weather will improve tomorrow.
The Charles Darwin Research Station
But we’re too excited to explore the island to stay inside any longer. So after breakfast, we hike up the road to the Charles Darwin Research Station and Foundation Headquarters.
A must for any visitor to Santa Cruz, the Charles Darwin Foundation is the best place to learn about the research and conservation efforts going on here in the Galapagos. The foundation is home to a giant tortoise breeding center, a land iguana breeding center, and the Van Straelen Visitors Center.
The giant tortoise breeding center houses baby tortoises from every island until they are mature enough to survive in the wild. Once they reach an age where their carapaces have completely hardened to protect them, they are re-introduced into their island of origin.
We walk the tortoise corrals and notice they are separated by island and year of birth. And each is marked with a number on its back.
While the conservation program is considered a success, the foundation suffered a blow recently when the last survivor of the Pinta Island variety passed. Despite many efforts with genetically similar females, Lonesome George, as he was known, never reproduced. So his death marked the extinction of the species.
We walk the remaining tortoise corrals and the iguana breeding center and then stroll back into town for lunch. While we’re there, we book our ferry tickets to Isabela for tomorrow.
Dinner in Puerto Ayora
For dinner, we grab a water taxi across the bay. We’re excited to try out Puerto Ayora’s best restaurant, Angermeyer Point. It turns out to be a delicious and very reasonably priced meal.
Since Puerto Ayora pretty much shuts down by 9:00pm, after dinner we head back to the hotel for the night.
The next morning we awake bright and early to sunshine for the first time in 3 days!!!
We saved our last stop on Santa Cruz for better weather and this morning we finally have it. After a quick breakfast, we start the hike over to Tortuga Bay, the island’s best beach and another terrific place for spotting wildlife.
From town, it’s about 2 miles along a well-maintained trail. Surrounded by forest and Opuntia Cactus (large tree-like cactus native to the Galapagos), the trail leads directly to the enormous white sandy beach known as Tortuga Bay.
Galapagos hazard – iguana roadblock
We walk another mile down the beach past giant crashing waves before coming to another trail that is lousy with iguanas.
In fact, at one point on the trail, there are dozens of them napping on top of each other and completely blocking our path. Our only choices are to gingerly step over them or turn back.
Just as I’m arguing the case for turning back, a few other tourists show up on the other side of the iguana blockade. They wrestle with the same dilemma and then choose to step carefully across them.
Since the iguanas don’t seem fazed and no one was harmed in their iguana crossing, we go for it.
Blue Footed Boobies – the Galapagos Rock Star
And I’m glad we did because we are immediately rewarded for our iguana bravery with our first blue-footed booby sighting!
The boobies are pretty much the rock-stars of the Galapagos. Practically every item in each gift shop prominently features those baby blue feet.
It’s all in good fun, though. There are more than a few tourists walking around this town wearing an “I Love Boobies” shirt featuring the islands’ dashing blue-footed mascot.
So thrilled by our booby discovery, we hardly notice that the rain has returned. So much for sunshine! We start the long trail back into town for some lunch before our 2:00pm ferry to Isabela.
The Inter-Island “Ferry” Experience
Before I move on to our next island, I should share a few words about the “ferry” service between islands.
We decided to try our land-based Galapagos itinerary when we discovered online there were regular, affordable ferries connecting the major islands.
First, the good news.
Yes, it’s possible to travel between the major islands (Santa Cruz, Isabela, San Cristobal) by ferry for just $25.
Now, for the reality of the transit.
The first thing we learn is that “ferry” is really a loose term. There is no actual ferry boat. The boats used to transport people between islands are really just fishing boats that can carry about 20 people each.
For our 2:00pm ferry to Isabella, there are two boats making the trip (the number of boats used depends on demand). In Puerto Ayora, the docks are so busy that the boats can’t come up to them which necessitates the use of a water taxi to get to them.
Then everyone and their luggage are loaded into the boat. Finally, life vests are handed out for the two-hour jarringly rough ride to Isabela. The whole two hours is a constant pounding with people bouncing up out of their seats, a bit like a maritime game of whack-a-mole.
The ride is so rough that usually, a few people get sick (Shannon and I don’t, but the girl sitting a few people down from me does. Fortunately, they have tiny plastic barf bags available if you need them. Charming.
The largest island in the Galapagos Archipelago, Isabela is also the only one intersected by the equator.
When we finally arrive at the dock in Isabela, we are happy to see someone from the hotel waiting for us. Our hotel on Isabela isn’t really a hotel but just a simple family-run beach house called the Cormorant Beach House.
It’s a short ride into town and we’re pleasantly surprised when we arrive at our room.
The Cormorant has just four rooms, (two downstairs and two upstairs). We get one of the upstairs rooms which has a spacious deck connecting the two upper rooms. The deck has gorgeous views of the beach below and the sound of the surf outside our windows is completely hypnotic.
(2021 Update: This hotel has since been completely renovated and is now larger and more modern, but still occupies the same perfect beachfront location.)
The room is small but comfortable (all you can ask for $73/night on the beach) and we are just so happy to be off the boat. We have a glass of wine on our new deck and then walk down the street to the sleepy town of Puerto Villamil for dinner.
The next morning the sun makes an appearance again for only the second time since we arrived. Hooray!
Exploring Puerto Villamil
Excited, we head out early to explore the surrounding areas of Puerto Villamil.
The original plan is to book a day trip up to one of the many volcanoes on the island. However, we change our minds after speaking with another American on the dock yesterday.
She’d just come from Isabela and said volcano trails were muddy and slick from all the rain the past few days. Everyone who hiked it yesterday said it was terrible.
Time to pivot!
Luckily, there are plenty of areas around the main town easily reachable on foot so that’s how we decide to spend our day.
The beachfront town of Puerto Villamil is backed by a lagoon with flamingos and marine iguanas. A boardwalk allows access through the lagoon and leads to the island’s giant tortoise breeding center (all the main islands have one).
We spend some quality time watching the flamingos. And then again roll the dice by gingerly stepping over iguanas blocking our path on the boardwalk. Then we head over to the tortoise center.
It turns out to be even better than the Darwin Foundation on Santa Cruz. They have tons more tortoises and even a helpful staff member to explain the process to us. The Darwin facility is completely self-guided so we weren’t always sure what we were looking at.
Next, we walk back into town to inquire about our ferry options for getting to San Cristobal tomorrow.
The challenges of inter-island travel
We already know there is a daily 6:00am boat from Isabela to Santa Cruz and then another 2:00pm boat from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal. This leaves you with a 6-hour layover in Puerto Ayora.
But we figure there has to be an easier way, right? So we waited until we arrived on Isabella to see if there are any other options.
Turns out, there aren’t. Mildly defeated, we book the two boats for tomorrow.
Swimming with sea lions
That afternoon we walk back down near the main dock because I’m sure I saw sea lions hanging out on the beach near where we’d arrive yesterday. In fact, there are several of them lounging around. On the beach, on the boardwalk, in a fishing boat. Pretty much wherever they feel like it!
This, it seems, is the primary job of a sea lion…lounging about.
From there we follow another boardwalk trail through a mangrove forest and come out on a dock. In the water below there are several more sea lions swimming around and playing. You can just hop right off the dock and swim with them…amazing!
Yes folks, there’s plenty of wildlife hanging out right here in town on Isabela.
The late afternoon brings more rain, so after a late lunch, we head back to the room. We spend the rest of the afternoon on the deck overlooking our own beautiful beach. It’s an early night since we’ll be getting up at 5:00am for our boat back to Santa Cruz.
Last Stop, San Cristobal!
After a full day in transit between Isabela and Cristobal (including a 6-hour layover in Puerto Ayora) we are thrilled to finally arrive on the island of San Cristobal.
And if we thought we saw a lot of wildlife on the first two islands, we hit the sea lion jackpot on San Cristobal.
The main town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is famous for the countless number of sea lions lounging everywhere around town. They’re sleeping on benches, on playgrounds, waddling down streets.
You name it, there’s a sea lion sleeping on or near it.
Exhausted by our two boat transfers, we’re happy we chose a hotel right in front of the main dock so it’s just a short walk.
We booked a hotel called Casa Blanca and like the other two Galapagos hotels, it turns out to be terrific. In fact, it’s my favorite of the three, just for the view of the harbor alone. Our room is lovely and has a great terrace (and again, only $70/night).
Exploring San Cristobal
With only two full days left in the islands, Shannon and I decide it’s time to spend some money on full-day excursions. Just to be sure we haven’t missed anything.
We wander in and out of a few excursion offices comparing prices and options. Ultimately, we decide to book consecutive day trips with an outfit called Galapagos Fishing Adventures.
On Cristobal, there are basically two major excursions. The first is a snorkeling trip out to Kicker Rock. And the second is a day trip through the island’s interior up to the El Junco Lagoon, the only freshwater lake in the Galapagos.
We decide to do the Kicker Rock trip tomorrow and the lagoon trip on our last day.
Snorkeling Kicker Rock
The next morning, it’s off to the dock. We board our boat with about 6 other people for the trip out to Kicker Rock.
Our first stop is Isla Lobos for some shallow water snorkeling. There, we see a sea lion and a couple of sea turtles and rays before heading out to the main attraction. The water here around Kicker Rock is much deeper and darker. And our guide enthusiastically assures us we’ll see plenty of sharks here (oh, goody!).
For some reason, we get in the water anyway.
Part of the fun of snorkeling Kicker Rock is going through the narrow crevice between the two giant rock formations. A ton of sea life surrounds the rocks. We spot dozens of sea turtles, lots of colorful fish, and – circling below – the aforementioned black-tip and hammerhead sharks.
(Sidebar: I truly can’t believe I have knowingly gotten in the water with sharks twice in the past two months.)
Next, we head over to a beach called Puerto Grande to anchor for lunch. After lunch, we walk the beach and do a little bird watching. Then we head back to Kicker Rock for an afternoon snorkel before returning to town.
Since it’s only 4:00pm, we walk over to a beach we spotted from the water that looks close to town. It turns out to be Mann Beach and it’s home to a sea lion colony as well as a variety of human beachgoers.
Part of the wonder of the Galapagos is how easily the animals co-exist with humans. There’s no fear at all. Honestly, they barely seem to notice us aside from a mild curiosity. Being able to get so close to the animals without spooking them is a truly unique experience.
Later that night, we learn that sleeping at night in Puerto Baquirzo Moreno is interesting if you have a room near the water. The sea lions pretty much talk to each other all night.
They sound a bit like donkeys braying and it’s kind of comical to think that these are the kinds of things that keep you up at night in the Galapagos Islands.
The next morning we awake to a gorgeous rainbow over the harbor out our balcony. Unfortunately, our tour the second day isn’t nearly as good as the first. It’s a rainy morning in the highlands (where the lagoon is located) and the conditions are too muddy for us to make the hike up.
Instead, we first visited Cristobal’s turtle breeding center. It’s awesome, but it’s also the third one we’ve seen at this point, so not exactly groundbreaking.
La Loberia Beach
Next, we hike up to a lookout point before we’re dropped off at La Loberia beach for the afternoon.
Since there are only four of us in the group and La Loberia is home to a large sea lion colony, this is my favorite part of the day.
The four of us have the whole beautiful beach to ourselves. The water is a little too rough to snorkel. But I manage to get in near the shoreline long enough to take some underwater video of all of the sea lions and sea turtles swimming around.
That evening we head back to town for our last meal on the islands.
Wrapping up the Galapagos Islands on a Budget
Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed our stay in the Galapagos Islands.
Especially the three days we spent on San Cristobal. It’s much more like what I pictured a Galapagos island to be. We took a chance by visiting the islands during the summer low (i.e. rainy) season but I think it paid off.
The hotel rates were extremely reasonable compared to the exorbitant rates on the cruise ships. And though we did get a lot of overcast days, we had a few sunny ones as well. And the temperatures were very mild.
And yes, it was fairly cheap to get between islands with the local ferries. But no, those inter-island crossings aren’t for everyone.
We definitely did miss out on a few places on the islands that only the cruise ships are allowed to visit. For example, Punta Pitt on Cristobal. But, truly, I still feel like I had a terrific land-based Galapagos experience at a fraction of the price of a cruise ship.
The Bottom Line: If you’re looking to see the Galapagos Islands on a budget, this is a great way to do it!
Lessons learned in the Galapagos
To wrap things up, I thought I’d share a few things I learned during my week in the Galapagos Islands:
– Sea lions nap like it’s their job
– If someone names their hotel “Iguana Crossing” it’s not just a cute name for a hotel, it’s a warning sign
– Harbor front hotels are also known as “sea-lion-adjacent”
– The sea lions below your window will chat to each other all night sounding something akin to Chewbacca clearing a hairball
– For every perfectly maintained hiking trail there’s an equally organized lounging pack of iguanas busy setting up a roadblock
– It is proper (and even encouraged) zodiac etiquette to point and enthusiastically shout, “Nice boobies!”
– Don’t be surprised when the sea lion occupying the park bench looks up at you as if you’re the one who doesn’t belong here (he’s right)
And that’s it from the Galapagos! For anyone considering a visit, it gets an enthusiastic thumbs-up from this globetrotter.
And while I have no doubt the cruises are fantastic, don’t be afraid to strike out on your own and try a land-based trip. Just be sure to give yourself plenty of time (7 nights would be a minimum) to see as much as you can.
Next stop, Quito!