Visiting the Galápagos Islands was a bit of a pipe dream for us. We were so lucky we were able to make it happen on this trip, and just as lucky to have had the advice from others to tailor our trip: it’s no secret that the Galapagos are an expensive place to visit, so maximising what we could do with our backpacker budget was super important! Thanks to Jack, Nikita and Leah for their help in guiding us.
Planning the trip
The traditional method is to follow the footsteps of the then unpaid naturalist Charles Darwin, cruising around the archipelago. This allows for a leisurely experience in which you get to see the majority of the islands. However, aware that cruises require spending a significant amount of valuable time on the boat, we opted for a land-based, island-hopping option that meant we could use our mornings and evenings to fit in extra activities – we were only there for 5 nights and wanted to make the most of every one!
We booked our own return flights from Guayaquil for less than £200 each with Tame. The prices seem to stay fairly similar on this route for all dates. All flights go through Guayaquil so it makes sense to go from here,which was handy for us as we came from Mancora, just on the other side of the Peruvian border.
We booked with a company called Guiding Galapagos, thanks to a combination of good reviews and value. They started up as a one-man band providing tours to the University of Minnesota, who still use them for annual trips. They were well received, expanded, and the owner Yazmany is still a tour guide. In fact, he picked us up at the airport and took us to see Giant Tortoises on our first day!
The company basically book you onto various tours that leave from the different islands. We met a mixture of people who were doing a complete DIY trip and others like us who opted for the logistics of island cruising to be handled by a company.
We’ll note here that yes, you could book your flights and accommodation yourself and figure out the tours when you arrive on the islands. There are loads of tour operators lining the main streets of Puerto Ayora and if you’re there in low to mid season, you can get a last minute tour. But, this doesn’t necessarily work out cheaper. We asked some of the agencies along with people we met on our tours and we’d all paid pretty much the same. Added to that, a night in budget accommodation (double room, not a bunk) will cost at least $30 and you start seeing the cost rack up. We also found that ultimately, paying a little bit extra to a tour company meant we didn’t have to spend time planning the travel logistics which needless to say, can be confusing in the Galápagos. We were met at the airport and had someone from the company meet us when we left the boats at each island. They even paid the fare for the water taxi to our larger speedboat – all money that racks up if you have to pay it yourself. We were able to seriously maximise time spent exploring and experiencing the island because of this.
We spent our first afternoon exploring Puerto Ayora, the main town on Santa Cruz Island. Personally we really appreciated the free time to get to grips with our surroundings and immerse ourselves in the laid-back, creature filled atmosphere.
If you are going on a DIY budget, then make sure your accommodation has a kitchen. Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz has a medium size supermarket. The prices on Galápagos are insane! Our tour company provided breakfast and lunch so we filled up on those where possible, as restaurants were a case of finding the budget items…
What to expect
Animals everywhere: Sea-lions like dogs, lazing everywhere. Marine iguanas and giant tortoises probably alongside them! Seriously though, animals are everywhere. It’s important to stay the 2 metre distance though as ultimately, these are wild animals and it can be dangerous if young animals end up with your scent on them – their families might not accept them back into the pack.
Lots of snorkelling: Our tour company included wetsuits, snorkels, fins and waterproof bag for our whole trip. Again, we think we lucked out here as some companies charge extra for this. With ours, it was just normal for them to provide the gear. We also had the option of full length wetsuits which when you’re that close to the equator sun, you need! Ben got extremely burnt on an ill-advised snorkel without a wetsuit.
We went snorkelling 4 times on organised tours. The trips were probably 3-4 hours each, though we also had opportunities to snorkel elsewhere by ourselves. Sights include lava tunnels, schools of colourful fish, sea turtles, sharks (not dangerous!), seahorses, rays and the occasional playful sea lion.
Weather change: Be prepared for everything. We had 35 degree heat at 11am, overcast and humid and a day where it rained torrentially for hours. Fun fact, the Galapagos once had rain nonstop for 19 months. It was called The Destruction because it killed a lot of algae and affected the food chain for thousands of sea lions.
Education: we learned way more than we expected to, given we were mostly there for the wildlife. The Charles Darwin Research Centre in particular is incredibly informative on a range of issues: turtle breeding, climate change and the importance of sharks to tourism included. Our guides were, for the most part, knowledgable and able to provide a lot of context to each island and attraction. Who knew how valuable sharks were to tourism?
Is it worth it?
Visiting the Galápagos Islands is, first and foremost, incredibly expensive. From the premium flights (far more than equivalent flights within the rest of Ecuador), the $100 tourist entrance fee, the cost of a tour (often thousands of dollars) to the overpriced shops, it hurts you right in the wallet. It also has frustratingly changeable weather and can be tiring. Finally – there’s only so many animals you can see before you become desensitised to how strange it is.
Having said all that, it really is unique. We’re pretty well travelled now, and there is really no other place like it. Five nights was just about enough to fit in everything we wanted to do without breaking the bank (too much), and looking back we’re pretty pleased with the choices we made (except Ben’s failure to wear a wetsuit!).
Sea lions lounging at your feet and knocking you off benches (yes that happened to Ben), giant iguanas blocking your path, giant tortoises holding up traffic… it’s otherworldly and the moment you leave, you recognise just how lucky you were to be part of it.