It was a no-brainer at first: We’re already in Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are in Ecuador, so let’s go to the Galapagos Islands. Anyone who’s been to the Galapagos will tell you that it’s a fantastic place to visit. The islands are home to exotic species that you won’t find anywhere else in the world, like the Galapagos penguin, marine iguana, giant tortoise, and all sorts of wacky plants and insects.
So why did we consider skipping it and possibly miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?
Because a week in the Galapagos was going to cost us four months of travel in South America.
About the Galapagos
The Galapagos Islands are a group of volcanic islands that straddle the equator about 1000 km west of mainland Ecuador. The best way to get to the islands is by plane.
The geographical isolation of the Galapagos archipelago has helped to preserve unique ecosystems that were once studied by Charles Darwin, the British naturalist and geologist who introduced the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. The Galapagos Islands were declared a national park in 1959 and a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007.
The natural wonders and wildlife-watching opportunities of the islands draw about 150,000 visitors each year. In addition to having fascinating volcanic landscapes and some of the most beautiful beaches in South America, the Galapagos Islands are home to interesting marine wildlife such as green sea turtles, sea lions, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, and, of course, the Galapagos penguin.
What makes the Galapagos such a desirable destination for tourists (and biologists) is that you can observe marine and land animals in their natural habitat at very close range. It’s like the animals haven’t evolved enough to fear humans so they aren’t particularly bothered by the tourist paparazzi.
Once we crossed into Ecuador, we started to meet other overlanders who had recently visited the Galapagos. I always asked them: “What did you think about it?”
“It was spectacular,” the Dutch lady said.
“I absolutely loved it!” the Swiss woman said.
“There’s nowhere else in the world like it,” the German guy said.
Most of these travellers toured the Galapagos Islands on an 8-day boat cruise, typically on an upper-class motor yacht or motor sailboat carrying max 16 passengers. These cruises normally include a private double cabin, three meals a day, a certified tour guide, snorkeling and/or kayaking equipment, and island-hopping itineraries that guarantee wildlife sightings.
According to the tour books and travel websites, the best way to explore the Galapagos is on a guided boat cruise. While you can do a self-guided land tour, you will inevitably miss out on seeing the spectacular scenery and wildlife that can only be accessed by boat.
Naturally, I started to research prices for these “not-to-be-missed” cruises.
Dollars and Sense
I almost choked when I saw the price quotes. Three reputable tour companies offered an average price of $3000 USD per person for an 8-day Galapagos cruise. That’s $6000 USD for both of us.
But that’s not all…
The $6000 USD didn’t include 12% national sales tax, booking fees, fuel surcharges, tips to the boat crew, or alcoholic drinks. These items added another $1000 USD, bringing the cruise cost up to $7000 USD.
But wait, there’s more…
The $7000 USD didn’t include flights to/from mainland Ecuador, Galapagos National Park Entry Fee, INGALA Transit Control Card (paid at the airport), secure parking for Lucky for a week, and taxi to and from the airport. These items added another $1500 USD, bringing the one-week trip cost to $8500 USD.
But that wasn’t the worst part…
The Canadian dollar was at an all-time low, with an exchange rate of 1.4 CAD to 1 USD. Our grand total was going to be almost $12,000 CAD!
That’s a spending rate of $1700 CAD per day.
Our daily travel budget is $100 CAD per day.
To break it down:
1-week Galapagos cruise = 4 months of van life
When I showed Gregor my Excel spreadsheet of carefully itemized and colour-coded trip costs, he simply said: “We’re not going.”
My heart sank. I knew that it would be foolish for us to spend that kind of money in one week, but I really wanted to see the penguins. There had to be another way to visit the islands.
My Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) took over and I became obsessed with getting us to the Galapagos for as cheap as possible.
I re-formulated my Excel spreadsheet to auto-calculate costs based on multiple scenarios:
What if we booked a cruise for 5 days instead of 8 days?
What if we cruised on a crappier, lower-class boat?
What if we waited for last minute deals on the crappiest boat?
What if we scrap the cruise and just backpacked on the islands?
What if we backpacked, slept in crappy dorm beds, ate only two meals a day, and didn’t drink any booze? (Gregor didn’t like this option at all)
To weigh out the options, I researched other travel blogs and asked my Facebook friends about their Galapagos experiences.
“Go with the best you can afford…What a WOW place, one of my top five!”
“The islands are magical…if you can manage it, just go!”
“I wish we had more time there…it was worth every penny!”
The most practical option was to scrap the cruise and backpack for one week in the Galapagos for about $3000 CAD (one month’s travel budget, instead of four). We hesitated because we still thought it was a lot of money.
It was my mom who finally convinced us to go. She’s retired and lives a quiet life in Winnipeg, Canada, with my dad. They both emigrated from the Philippines in the late 70’s to escape the Marcos dictatorship and spent most of their resources trying to provide a comfortable life for me and my three younger siblings.
My Mama told me: “If I were you, I would go. Right now, you’re healthy and you have the time. You can always make more money later, but you can’t take back time or guarantee your health.”
Try auto-calculating that from a spreadsheet! So we packed our backpacks and went to the Galapagos. We’re so glad we did!
Our Week in the Galapagos
DAY 1: Quito to Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz
We flew to the Galapagos Islands from the capital city of Quito with a stopover in Guayaquil.
I still had a bad sinus cold from our time in Otavalo and my ears felt like they were going to explode on every landing. Now I know why babies cry like that on planes.
When we arrived at the airport, we were surprised to see how barren and dry the land was.
Usually, people who book Galapagos cruise packages are picked up at the airport and whisked away to their ships. As backpackers, we had to get ourselves to Puerto Ayora, the main port of Isla Santa Cruz.
Getting to Puerto Ayora involves riding a shuttle bus to a canal, then crossing the canal by water taxi, then hopping on another bus to the town’s port.
Once we arrived at Puerto Ayora, we wandered through town with our backpacks in the blazing equatorial heat looking for a cheap but clean hotel. After about an hour of sweating in the streets, we found an air-conditioned room at Hotel España for $35 USD ($50 CAD).
After settling into the hotel, we went back into the blazing heat so that we could book a boat ride to Isla Isabela. There, we would be able to see the famous Galapagos penguin.
Puerto Ayora has tons of tour agencies offering all types of excursions throughout the islands. The first one we entered was called Blue Piqueros and Turtles Tortuguita, located across the street from our hotel.
They offered us a 3-day tour of Isla Isabela, including boat transportation, meals, hotel for 2 nights, and 4 excursions for $295 USD per person. After calculating the costs to book everything separately, we discovered that we were only going to pay $20 USD extra to have the agency organize everything for us. It was definitely worth paying the overhead to avoid wandering aimlessly in the oppressive heat in search of food, shelter, and penguins. So we booked it.
DAY 2: Puerto Villamil and Los Tuneles, Isla Isabella
At 6:30 am, we packed our backpacks, ate a hearty restaurant breakfast, and hopped onto a motor boat bound for Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabela.
We hadn’t even left port and we had already seen all these cool animals. It felt like we were really getting our money’s worth!
When the taxi dropped us off at our hotel, we were pleasantly surprised by the spacious and clean room that the tour agency booked for us.
We had about an hour to wash up before our first excursion: Los Tuneles. It’s a popular snorkeling and wildlife-watching tour through cactus-covered volcanic rock formations and collapsed lava tunnels.
We thought that the Los Tuneles tour was amazing – best snorkelling ever. We were humbled by the experience of swimming with giant sea turtles, elegant rays, and friendly sharks. They all came so close to us that we could touch them (it’s actually not allowed so we didn’t).
It was our first day on Isla Isabela and we were totally loving it.
DAY 3: Hiking Volcan Sierra Negra and Volcan Chico
Our second excursion on Isla Isabela was a 5-hour, 16-km return hike to two volcanic craters: Volcan Sierra Negra and Volcan Chico. To protect the fragile ecosystems surrounding the volcanoes, hikers must enter the park with a certified tour guide.
The latter part of the hike went through the eerie volcanic landscape that makes up the Volcan Chico crater complex. Gregor and I were fascinated by the lava fields and rock formations created by multiple episodes of volcanic activity.
DAY 4: Las Tintoreras and Laguna Salinas
We spent our last morning at Isla Isabela on another wildlife-watching and snorkeling tour called Las Tintoreras, on a tiny island just a 10-minute water taxi ride from Puerto Villamil.
During the snorkeling part of the tour, we got to swim with more sharks, rays, giant turtles, and marine iguanas. My favourite moment was when a green sea turtle swam up from its hiding place on the sea floor and headed straight for me. After checking me out, we did some synchronized swimming together.
After an awesome morning of snorkeling, Gregor relaxed at the hotel while I went on a short trip to Laguna Salinas, a salt-water lagoon that is home to Galapagos Flamingos (aka Caribbean Flamingos).
That afternoon, we donned our backpacks once again and took the boat back to Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz. Although we were sad to leave Isla Isabela, we were so happy that we spent such quality time there.
DAY 5: Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz
Exhausted from all the sun and snorkeling from the previous three days, we decided to hang around Puerto Ayora and do some sight-seeing around town.
The highlight of our day was an afternoon dip in a water-filled volcanic fissure called Las Grietas. We didn’t bring the GoPro because we thought it was just going to be an ordinary swimming hole. Not so.
With snorkeling gear on, we could see the steep walls of the fissure plunging into a stunning, deep-blue abyss. At the narrow end of the fissure, schools of iridescent giant fish weaved between all the unsuspecting tourists in the water. It was a pretty cool thing to see.
On the way back from Las Grietas, we stopped at a beach to relax a bit before heading back to the hotel.
It was another fantastic day on the Galapagos Islands!
DAY 6: Tortuga Bay and Dinner with New Friends
Tortuga Bay is a white-sand surfing beach that can only be reached by walking a 2.5 km paved trail from Puerto Ayora. We heard from other travellers that the walk to the beach is oppressively hot and there’s absolutely no shade once you get there.
To make the long walk worthwhile, we decided to bring rented boogie boards (instead of heavy surfboards) and carry only the essentials: water, snacks, and sunscreen. No cameras or cell phones. Hence, no pictures.
Tortuga Bay is actually one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve ever seen. The powdery white sand was so fine and clean, it felt like flour. The water was so clear, it reflected an other-worldly shade of turquoise blue. The waves were so consistent and perfect, it was the best boogie boarding ever.
The only downside of the morning was that Gregor sunburnt his face.
That evening we went out to dinner with Juan and Corina, who were introduced to us online by our friend Paula (OurBiggerPicture.com). Corina is originally from Germany and works for a tour agency. Juan is Ecuadorian and is taking a work sabbatical. They both live in Puerto Ayora and they gave us some insights about what it’s like to live in the Galapagos.
Juan and Corina told us that everything on the islands (including food and water) is at least twice as expensive as on mainland Ecuador and locals don’t get any discounts. Tourism puts a lot of stress on the environment, but it’s also the lifeblood for the residents so it’s tough to maintain a balance. Despite the trappings of a tourist economy, the Galapagos still retains the magic and laid-back vibe that drew them there in the first place.
DAY 7: Flight back to Quito
Our last day was actually a travel day back to Quito. We got up at 5:30 am to make it to the airport for our 8:30 flight.
Our week in the Galapagos Islands was awesome. It was so fun and worry-free that it felt like a real vacation. We may not have gone on a comfortable cruise, but we certainly didn’t feel like we were missing out. In the end, we spent $3,197.57 CAD on our 7-day trip.
It was worth every penny.