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The Galapagos on a Backpacker’s Budget

Michael Catford

Adelaide SA, Australia

In 1835, the HMS Beagle dropped in on a chain of Islands off the coast of Ecuador. “You guys think these finches look weird?” muttered Charles Darwin, a young naturalist on board. “Yeah, a bit,” said the crew. And thus our understanding of the natural world changed forever.

Anyone who has ever watched a David Attenborough documentary will likely have the Galapagos Islands on their bucket list…until they start shopping. Cruises of the archipelago generally cost thousands of dollars, making it appear to be one of those natural wonders, like Everest and Antarctica, that’s only open to those with a heavy enough purse.

As an Attenborough freak, ‘the Galap’ has always been on my list. So when I found myself aimlessly wandering around South America a couple of years ago, I decided to attempt a visit. Unfortunately, my purse weighed a little less than one of those famous Galapagos finches. I had to figure out a way to do it on the cheap. And that I did.

It turns out that the Galapagos is perfectly accessible to those of modest means, as long as you have a couple of tricks up your sleeve. So here, for your reading pleasure, are the keys to seeing Mother Nature’s best work on a budget.

Book flights late, book flights local

Galápagos Islands, Ecuador.

The first challenge is to get there. The cheapest and most regular flights leave from the major Ecuadorian centres of Quito and Guayaquil, so you’re wise to depart from there. Return flights are commonly around US$500— not extortionate, but still pricey for what is only an hour’s flight each way.

The key to getting value for money is to book late and with a local travel agent. Ecuadorians get discount tickets, as low as half price, so if you buy through a local, they may be able to get you a far cheaper fare than anything you find on the internet. If you don’t have the flexibility to hang around for the next available flight, you may feel the need to go safe and expensive by pre-booking seats yourself.

As I was already in Ecuador and was blessed with plenty of flexibility, I booked my tickets with a local travel agent a week before the trip and got them for about 40% less than what I would’ve paid online.

Pro tip: TAME, Avianca, and LAN each have two flights daily to the Galapagos. Set up a price watch on SkyScanner in the months leading up to your trip to catch any deals.

Don’t pre-book anything

Anxious Annies and Cautious Craigs might feel a little hesitant about rolling up in a foreign land and sorting everything out there, but if you’re the sort of cat who values thriftiness over prudence, you’d be wise not to book ahead. You’ll get far better deals on tours, accommodation, and transport on the day of travel than you will in the weeks and months leading up to it, and speaking in person will allow you to haggle in bad Spanish, which is always fun (don’t fret—English is widespread).

As I landed late in the afternoon, I pre-booked the first night’s accommodation, which I got rather cheap through the travel agent who booked my flights. The rest, as I’ll soon explain, was perfectly easy to sort out.

Pro tip: If you, like me, are worried about finding a bed for the first night, book something in Puerto Ayora. I stayed at Galapagos Dreams.

Let the accommodation come to you

Galápagos Islands, Ecuador.

While the archipelago is made up of 21 islands, most tourists will split their time between the main three: Isla Santa Cruz, Isla San Cristobal and Isla Isabela, each of which has one main city/town. When your plane/boat/bus arrives at these towns, you’ll be swarmed by offers for beds, and if you’re not expecting the Ritz Carlton, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the value on offer.

A couple of years ago, the going rate during low season (any time outside of school holidays) was around US$20 to $30 a night, which got you a private room with a comfy bed and an en suite. The towns are small, so you can follow a spruiker to their hotel to check it out, then just wander back to the drop off point if you’re not happy with the state of affairs.

PRO TIP: Check out La Jungla on Isla Isabela for some cheap and cheerful accommodation.

Guide yourself on land

The Galapagos has free fun in spades. Seals, iguanas, and other wildlife cover the roads and sidewalks of the towns. You’ll literally need to step over them to get anywhere, so you can only imagine what the more remote areas have on offer. Grab your walking shoes or a bike and check out the following spots, none of which will cost you a cent.

Tortuga Bay, Isla Santa Cruz: Found just outside the archipelago’s biggest city, Tortuga Bay is home to the whitest sand this beach bum has seen in his life.

Playa del Amor, Isla Isabela: If you’ve come to the Galapagos to check out boobies, look no further. At Playa del Amor, I was treated to a stunning high diving performance, with a flock of birds attacking a school of fish en masse.

Playa Loberia, Isla San Cristobal: My favourite spot of the entire trip. A 30 minute walk or a 10 minute bike ride from Isla San Cristobal’s main town, Baquerizo Moreno, Playa Loberia is a rocky bay that is loaded with an amazing, almost intimidating amount of sea lions. But as soon as you get in the water, you’ll realise these are less wild beasts than they are adorable puppies of the sea.

Pro tip: Take your own snorkel. The other option is to hire one there for an exorbitant price. I personally guarantee you’ll use it every day.

Shop around for boats

Boat tours will be your greatest expense, but you’re in the Galapagos— treat yourself for goodness sake. Again, shopping around in person will allow you to find awesome deals, especially when you’re topping up a tour. Always go to two or three different operators before you commit to a trip; it could be that the last one you visit has a couple of spots left that they’re willing to do a deal on.

If you’ve only got enough dough for one tour, I’d make it Kicker Rock off Isla San Cristobal. This is a stunning rock formation, jutting imposingly from the Pacific Ocean, that played host to the most spectacular sight on my trip: a huge school of fish, balled up in water 10 metres deep, was being speared by Galapagos sharks from below and dive-bombed by blue-footed boobies from above. The whole thing felt like it was directed by Michael Bay. Unreal.

PRO TIP: Chalo Tours offer regular and awesome trips to Kicker Rock.

Leverage contacts

Galápagos Islands, Ecuador.

Because the Galapagos Islands are home to just 25,000 people, everyone seems to know everyone. If you’ve had a good tour or accommodation experience, ask the owner/operator if they know of anything on the next island over. More often than not, you’ll find they have a friend who can do you a deal. I got some great deals on accommodation from leveraging contacts, and found a few less official locals who were happy to give me tours of less official places for less official prices.

Pro tip: Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found hotel staff and boat drivers to be the best sources of info on my trip.

To wrap things up

Galápagos Islands, Ecuador.

A trip to the Galapagos needn’t be a case of stapling your wallet to a Frisbee and throwing it over a rainbow. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not cheap by backpacking standards, but it can be far cheaper than a quick browse on the internet would have you believe. Over the course of eight days, I spent less than US$1000 total and didn’t feel as though I missed out on anything.

It’s also the single most unique and incredible natural experience I’ve ever had. No African safari, Patagonian hike, or adventure in the Amazon compares. There’s no other place that managed to avoid outside influence–from both humans and the world at large–for so long. The result is a petri dish of wildlife that’s hard to describe in words.So I’ll stop writing and leave you with two words: just go.