The name alone excites vivid images of giant tortoises, sea lions and untouched nature. In addition, the islands are visited by only 200,000 people each year, making it a truly unique place to visit.
But dreaming about a vacation is not really my thing. So instead I went online and booked a plane ticket.
However I would soon find out that booking the plane ticket was the easy part.
Let me explain.
A couple of weeks before my trip I was chatting with my buddy Ed. We both agreed how damn difficult it was finding good Galapagos information online. Most guides recommend that you either buy a cruise or one of the Galapagos land tours. Strangely enough, not much information is available for us who wish to visit the Galapagos without a cruise. Can you really do the Galapagos on a budget?
Of course you can! We agreed to just wing it, and for the time being just book our Puerto Ayora accommodations. The rest we would figure out after we arrived.
Today looking back it turned out to be the right decision. The trip was a major success but there were some speed bumps along the way. The lack of information online made the trip planning difficult, and some things could have been done differently. Hence, to make it easier for future travelers, I have written down 10 things I wish I knew before my Galapagos trip.
In addition, I’ll share some of my favorite hotels and restaurants.
10 Things I Wish I Knew BEFORE Traveling To Galapagos Islands (Or Galapagos On A Budget)
1. You Can Visit The Galapagos Without A Cruise
I have to confess. All my life I had the wrong image about the Galapagos Islands. In my mind, Galapagos was just one huge national park where you couldn’t stay overnight. Basically you had to take a cruise to get there.
That image was obviously false. In fact, the Galapagos has a permanent population of 25,000 people, and four of the islands are inhabited: Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana. In particular three of them (Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isabel) have plenty of accommodation options.
And the islands have plenty of tour operators that can take you everywhere. Usually it’s enough to make a reservation the evening before (except for some popular places see 3 below). In addition, there are plenty of boats that transports people between the islands, plus taxis to get around.
In summary: Learn about the options available to you. Some folks want to do a cruise, while other wants to do one of the Galapagos land tours. We wanted to plan everything ourselves and decided that a Galapagos DIY island hopping trip was right for us.
2. Have A Rough Itinerary In Mind
If you don’t have a rough idea what you want to do, you’ll likely be overwhelmed after you arrived. There are tons of tours and activities, and it’s easy to get distracted and lose valuable time.
Below you’ll find our agenda which turned out to be pretty good. I was able to see and do everything I planned for.
- Day 1: Afternoon arrival at Baltra airport and then transfer to Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz.
- Day 2: Early morning departure to Isabela Island. Afternoon hiking and snorkeling in Las Tintoreras.
- Day 3: Snorkeling at Los Tuneles in the morning. Afternoon hike up the volcano.
- Day 4: Morning departure back to Santa Cruz. Afternoon snorkeling and hiking in Santa Cruz (Las Grietas, German beach etc).
- Day 5: This day we rented bicycles and biked to a giant tortoise sanctuary. In the evening we hiked to Tortuga Bay.
- Day 6: Second bike day. We biked to Darwin Research Center and to Playa El Garrapatero.
- Day 7: Snorkeling trip to Pinzon Island and to Daphne Island.
- Day 8: I left for the airport while my buddy Ed continued to San Cristobal Island.
In summary: I recommend to do a bit of research before your vacation. This will make your trip smoother and prevent you from being overwhelmed with all the options. If you’re lazy you can just pick ideas from my itinerary above.
3. Book The Popular Tours Well In Advance
During my week long trip I covered all the sights I wanted to see. I swam with sealions, hiked some pretty stunning volcanic landscapes and observed giant tortoises in their natural habitat.
However there was one thing I missed out on: Bartolomé Island.
And it was not for lack of trying. We spent considerable amount of time asking tour operators. Unfortunately we started too late and there was nothing available when we finally started looking. But my friend Ed, who stayed one more week, had the opportunity to visit Bartalome. What I heard it delivered big time.
In summary: Book the tours that you absolutely want to see as soon as possible.
4. Cash Is King
Here is something they won’t tell you. Galapagos is damn expensive. You’ll burn through cash a lot quicker than you anticipate. And to make matters worse, ATM machines are only readily available in Puerto Ayora and San Cristobal, and the few places that accept credit cards will smack you with an insane 22% fee!
For example, we vastly underestimated the amount of cash we needed on Isabela island. We spent more money than we had planned for buying tours and accommodation, and we were soon short on cash. With no ATM in sight.
Luckily we found a tour operator called Sea Lion Tours that only charged us a 12% credit card fee (contact info below). That would be outrageous in most other places, but here it was a bargain. Not only that, the sales lady was very flexible and could create an itinerary that exactly matched our needs. Something the other tour organizers could not.
In summary: You’ll spend more cash than you anticipate. That’s a fact. If you do end up in a cash strapped situation, look for tour operators or hotels that accept credit cards. Shop around for the lowest fees!
5. You Can Do A Lot Of Things On Your Own
This is another nugget they won’t tell you: A lot of stuff is free and can be visited without a guide. Especially on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal.
For example, after 3 days of snorkeling and hiking we were pretty exhausted. So we decided to sleep in the next day, rent bicycles and bike around Santa Cruz island. Among other things we visited a giant Tortoise sanctuary and a secluded beach with no visitors.
This was one of the highlights of my trip.
In summary: In addition to the organized tours, don’t forget the free, unguided trips. Some of them created the best memories from my Galapagos trip.
6. Accommodation logistics Is Important
As I mentioned earlier I ended up booking accommodation for the whole week in Puerto Ayora. This turned out to be both good and bad. It was great to have storage for my heavy suitcase when I visited the other islands. In addition, the room was not that expensive ($18/night). On the other hand, half the time I ended up paying for double accommodation.
In hindsight I could have done things differently. For example, I could have booked my first 2 nights in Puerto Ayora, do all the sights, and then moved on. Of course I had to haul around all my luggage.
Furthermore, I stayed too far away from the docks. A 20 minute walk to be exact. Since all the tours leave from the dock, plus all the restaurants are there too, it became tiresome to walk that distance several times per day. In hindsight I should have booked a place closer to the docks and the town center.
In summary: It may be a good idea to be a bit more flexible on your accommodation. Finding accommodations on the islands won’t be a problem. Even on the same day. In addition, book a place close the piers. That will save you a lot of time.
7. Watch Out For Shady Tour Operators
Most of the time we had great tour operators. Things were running smoothly and safety was never compromised.
But there was one instance that left a bad taste in my mouth. It also could have ended badly.
In Puerto Ayora we booked a half day hiking and snorkeling trip. Things looked good on paper but when we reached our first snorkeling spot things went south.
First, the boat didn’t have snorkeling fins. Second, there were no life jackets either. Third, the guide was more interested in flirting with one of the girls, leaving everyone to fend for themselves in the water. Fourth, when people started to get tired, the captain decided to circle the island, literally trapping everyone still in the water!
In the end everyone got out alive and well. But it could have ended badly.
To make matters worse, we didn’t have time to go German beach because the guide decided to swim off with the girl and not come back for a considerable amount of time.
In summary: Below is a photo of the shady tour operator. Stay Away!
8. Keep An Eye On The Weather Forecast
This is valid for most places, but if you’re spending a lot of money on a tour, a day of bad weather could ruin everything. Heavy rain could make the waters murky and spoiling an otherwise excellent snorkeling trip.
During my week long stay we had sunny weather 6 out of 7 days. But one day we had pouring rain. That was also the day of our bicycle trip.
In summary: Keep an eye on the weather forecast and plan accordingly. If the forecast says heavy rain it may not be great for snorkeling or other outdoor activities. Instead, a visit to Darwin research center or something else may be a better idea.
9. Internet Is Truly Horrible
I believe that going offline once in a while is a good thing. Being connected 24/7 causes a lot of stress, and when you’re on vacation, people should expect that you won’t respond quickly on messages or e-mails.
That being said, sometimes you need to do critical tasks such as bank transfers. Especially in a place like the Galapagos where you’ll burn through a lot of cash. Furthermore, I work 100% online and need to check in here and there.
So basic internet services is a necessity for me.
But let me tell you that Internet on the Galapagos absolutely sucked. Sometimes it was so slow that I couldn’t even check my e-mail, let alone transfer money. When I had something important to do, I had to wake up very early when the speed was slightly better. But still way below what is acceptable.
And this was not only at my hotel. This was a common theme everywhere.
In summary: Be aware of the Internet issue and plan for it. Finish all your work before your trip, and communicate to everyone that you’ll be offline during your stay. When you need to do critical tasks, wake up early.
10. Bring A Good Camera
While my cell phone camera is pretty good, I don’t feel the photos gives an honest impression of such an amazing place. I wish I had bring my Nikon DSLR, but sadly I don’t have room for it in my luggage. In addition, I have underwater photo equipment back home, which I also wish I’d bring.
In summary: Bring your best photo equipment. A cell phone camera will be a good backup but for some places you need good camera gear. Underwater photo equipment is not that critical. Many tour operators have GoPros and you can buy the photos for a small fee. I also saw many places that rent GoPros.
Bonus 1: Where To Stay on Galapagos Islands
For Santa Cruz, I recommend Hostal España, a 3 star hostel located right in the Puerto Ayora center, just a short walk to the docks. Hostal España has modern, clean private rooms and friendly staff. My friend Ed stayed here and he highly recommends it.
Isabela Island has limited accommodation options but we found a good hotel called El Paraiso de Isabela, just a short walk from the main street. El Paraiso de Isabela has clean rooms and friendly staff that also could assist with tour bookings. In addition, the top floor has a rooftop restaurant/bar with good views.
Finally, San Cristobal is the last of the three islands that you’re likely to spend time on. In my opinion, the best hotel on San Cristobal is Hotel Mar Azul. Hotel Mar Azul offers a good trade off between cost and quality, plus it’s conveniently located just 5 mins walk from the docks.
Bonus 2: Where To Eat on Galapagos Islands
Food options on the islands are limited and expensive. However, we found some good, affordable places that we kept coming back to. Here are a the best ones:
- In Puerto Ayora, Charles Binford Street (in between Avenida Baltra & Islas Plazas) has many good restaurants serving affordable lunches (Menu del Dia).
- A good breakfast/brunch place in Puerto Ayora is Galapagos Deli on Thomas de Berlanga Street. See image below for menu.
- A good dinner restaurant in Puerto Ayora is Tropic Bird, located at the corner of Charles Binford and Avenida Charles Darvin.
- On Isabela Island we had our dinners at La Casa Del Asado. See image below for directions.
- The Supermarket by the Puerto Ayora dock is selling good snacks that are a lifesaver on longer tours (especially the animal crackers!). In addition, the cafe on the upper level has 2 for 1 coffees on Mondays.
Did you like reading my guide how to do Galapagos without a cruise and Galapagos on a budget?
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