How To Visit The Galapagos Islands On A Budget

san cristobal While the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador are known for being extremely expensive, once you pay for the flight and $100 entrance fee, it is possible to explore this beautiful area on a budget. After going there myself, I discovered these tips for saving money in this ecologically unique destination.

Don’t Book Your Cruise In Advance

If you want to do a cruise, fly into Baltra Island and take a cheap bus to Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz. This is the port where most cruises leave from. You’ll be able to book a last minute cruise for half the original price. For example, two backpackers I went diving with told me about how an eight-day cruise that was originally almost $3000 cost them a mere $1,200. And, that’s only because they chose first class. You can also try booking a last minute cruise from Quito or Guayquil before you go, although Puerto Ayora is where you’ll find the best deals. Note: If traveling during high season, you may not get the exact dates you want.Skip The Cruise Altogether

While a cruise of the Galapagos Islands is a great experience, some people are operating on a budget, or may just want to spend more time on land. For me, there were certain things I wanted to do, like diving, swimming with sharks and sea lions, laying on white sand beaches, hiking and seeing giant tortoises. I was able to do all these things without the help of a cruise. For instance, many of the hikes and beaches were free and didn’t require a guide. Furthermore, diving with sharks and sea lions was $120, or $50 if you wanted to snorkel. And, a tour of the highlands of San Cristobal, including El Ceibo, a 300-year-old treehouse and bar, El Junco, a crater lake in a volcano, La Lobaria, a white beach littered with sea lions, Puerto Chino, a soft-sand beach with crystal-clear water and the Jacinto Gordillo Breeding Center of Giant Tortoises was $35 including lunch.

shark Travel During Shoulder Season

From April to June and from September to December it’s shoulder season for the Galapagos Islands. During this time, you’ll be able to book cruises for about 30 percent cheaper than you usually would. Just make sure to check that the activities you want to do will still be available. It’s also easier during this time to get the dates you want for the cruises last minute.

Take Day Trips From Puerto Ayora On Santa Cruz Island

In Puerto Ayora, the main hub of Santa Cruz, you’ll be able to book cheap day trips to other islands in the Galapagos for under $100. For example, a day excursion to Floreana will cost you $70.

Barter For Tours

While the agencies work together for certain tours, there are others where you’ll be able to get better deals from certain operators. For example, when looking to do a tour of the highlands in San Cristobal, one agency quoted me $50. I walked around the corner to a different agency, who offered me the same exact trip for $35 including lunch. Look around, and see who offers the best packages and deals.

volcanoTake Advantage Of Free Activities

Not every site in the Galapagos Islands has an entrance fee. For example, some free attractions on the islands include:

San Cristobal:

  • Playa Mann- One of the more popular beaches due to its central location, the waters are decently calm and there are many sea lions that play here.
  • Interpretation Center- An informational museum on the history and ecology of the Galapagos. There are also relaxing hiking trails onsite.
  • Las Tijeretas- This area provides an array of activities. First, there is an excellent lookout point at the top of the mountain. A cove below makes for a great snorkeling spot, to see turtles, sea lions and various birds. It is located within walking distance of the Interpretation Center.
  • El Junto- Here you’ll view a crater lake inside an active volcano. It’s fun to hike around the rim of the volcano and explore some of the forest trails.
  • La Loberia- About a 30 minute walk from town, this beach attracts many snorkelers and surfers, although the water can be a bit rough. The scenery is beautiful, though, and you’ll see numerous sea lions lounging on the shore.
  • Puerto Chino- Although a bit far out of town, this white sand beach offers calm, clear waters and the chance to see a lot of wild life and unique rock formations. Climb to the top of the big, black volcanic rock formation for aerial views of the clear water and marine life. When I was here, I actually witnessed a shark jumping out of the water.
  • Jacinto Gordillo Breeding Center of Giant Tortoises- Here you’ll see the giant tortoises that the Galapagos Islands are so famous for. You’ll also see baby tortoises, walk through an informational museum and possibly see the tortoises in the mating process.

seastar Santa Cruz

  • Darwin Research Center- An easy walk from the center of town, here you’ll find a giant tortoise and iguana breeding center.
  • Ship Ports At Night- Visit the ship ports at night for some shark viewing. The animals are attracted to the lights given off by the docks. You may have to wait a bit, but if you’re patient, there’s a good chance you’ll see some. When I was there I saw baby sharks, manta rays, sea lions and many tropical fish.
  • Bahia Tortuga- A white sand beach that’s home to crabs, marine iguanas and many different bird species. This is a popular beach for surfers due to the big waves.
  • El Chato Tortoise Reserve- Located in the highlands of the island, you’ll be able to observe giant tortoises and an array of bird life like Darwin Finches, Short-eared Owls, Vermillion Flycatchers and Paint-billed Crakes. Here, you’ll also have the option to visit El Chato Lagoon.
  • Garrapatero Beach- A popular swimming beach featuring flora and fauna like birds, poison apple trees, mangroves and marine iguanas. You can also camp here, with permission.
  • Hike to Media Luna Hill- Media Luna means “half moon” in English, and the hill is named after the shape of this ancient volcanic crater. It’s about a two-hour uphill hike from Bellavista.

seal Isabela

  • Volcan Sierra Negra- This picturesque hike will allow you to see great views of northern Isabela.
  • Laguna Salinas- This is a pristine spot where you can view wildlife, especially flamingos.
  • Wall of Tears- This historical site was created by prisoners who were forced to build this wall from 1945-1959. Thousands died during its construction, and the site is supposedly haunted by their ghosts. There’s also a really nice beach here with plentiful marine life.
  • National Park Tortoise Reserve- Here, you’ll be able to see a species of tortoise that isn’t found anywhere else in the world.
  • Laguna Concha Perla- This is a prime snorkel spot where there are manta rays, sea lions, fish, penguins, sea turtles and more.

Know The Flight Schedule

Only TAME, AeroGal and LAN fly to the Galapagos Islands, all going from Quito or Guayaquil. TAME is the cheapest of the airlines, but doesn’t fly everyday. Don’t even bother trying to call them or book online. It won’t work, and you’ll just get frustrated. Instead, email GT Tours at sales@gttours.com and ask them to help you make a reservation. Likewise, if you can fly from Quayaquil instead of Quito, the flight will be shorter and cheaper.

If you do decide to book your cruise in advance, check for agencies that give discounts with flights. For example, if you book a cruise on GalapagosIslands.com, you get free round-trip flights when booking an eight-day cruise on a luxury boat, and one free round-trip flight when booking a cruise for two people on an eight-day first class ship.

el ceibo Camping

Camping is your cheapest option for accommodation on the islands. You’ll just have to make sure you’re in a designated camping area. For example, on San Cristobal you can camp for $5 a night at El Ceibo, the area that’s home to the largest tree on the island. You can also camp at Puerto Chino with permission from the park. In Santa Cruz, it is possible to camp at Garrapetero Beach with permission from the owners. Basically, if it’s private land, just ask for permission.

Budget Hotels

While there are a lot of pricey hotels on the islands, it’s also possible to stay in comfortable budget hotels for a fraction of the price. On San Cristobal, I stayed at Leon Dormido, a clean accommodation located 10 steps from the water. I paid $25 a night for a single room with air conditioning, television, Wi-Fi, hot water and a comfortable bed. Other affordable hotels in the area include Hostal Casa de Laura, Mar de Azul, Hotel San Francisco and Casa de Nelly. In Santa Cruz, budget hotels include Casa Hospedaje Germania, Galapagos Best Home Stay, Los Pinguinos, El Castillo Galapagos and Hotel Verde Azul. On Isabela Island, check out The Jungle Hostal, Caleta Iguana and Brias del Mar.

turtle Participate In A Volunteer Project

If you’ve ever wanted to volunteer abroad, I can’t think of a better place than the Galapagos Islands. Here you’ll not only be helping the environment and immersing yourself in a unique ecosystem, you’ll also be saving money. Ecuador Eco Volunteer offers an affordable program based in Santa Cruz, helping get rid of invasive plant species and cleaning up beaches. Moreover, there are various WWOOFing projects on the islands, where you’ll be able to volunteer on an organic farm in exchange for room and board. If you’ve got a couple months to spare, the Charles Darwin Foundation accepts volunteers and helps them get discounted airfare and accommodation. For an excellent year-long program, check out World Teach, which costs $5,490 for the year for room, board, flights and park entrance fees. Volunteers will also receive a stipend to help offset the high cost of living in the Galapagos Islands.

Purchase Non-Organic Groceries Before You Arrive

A lot of food is imported to the Galapagos Islands, meaning groceries are more expensive there than in Quito or Guayaquil. Try to stock up on snacks and water before you go. Just know you won’t be able to enter the islands with organic produce.

Would You Sleep In A 300-Year-Old Ceibo Tree In The Galapagos Islands?

cave On San Cristobal in the Galapagos Islands, you can find a unique accommodation that is part treehouse, part underground cave. Known as El Ceibo, the property is located in the El Progreso neighborhood and features the largest tree on the entire island at 48 feet high. Moreover, at $20 a night, it’s also one of the best deals in town.

Ceibo is actually the name of a tree, and there are only three of the species on the island. While this particular tree is 300 years old, the cabins were added 22 years ago, with the bar and restaurant addition being only 15 years old. An overarching theme in the Galapagos Islands is ecotourism, and El Ceibo compliments this with the walls of the bar being made of thousands of recycled glass beer bottles. In the yard, you’ll find metal and stone statues, hammocks and tropical plants.

The treehouse accommodation has a surprisingly cozy atmosphere. There’s a small kitchen and bathroom, as well as a loft where the bed is. You can choose from an array of entry and exit methods, like a precarious swinging bridge and ladder, ropes or a fireman’s pole.

The cave is less comfortable, but surprisingly nice for being made at the bottom of a tree. You enter through the tree trunk and go down a steep ladder (shown above). The room has a bit of a musty feel, and the kiddie-sized toilet will make you laugh. The bed, however, is pretty comfortable. Likewise, some wall art and a vase of fake flowers help to add a kind of homey ambiance to the room.

The price is $20 per night to sleep in the treehouse or cave, or $5 to camp. If you’d like to just explore the property, the price is $1.

Photo of the Day (10.31.10)

Happy Halloween! Er, should I make that Happy Day of the Dead? Believe it or not, America isn’t the only country that likes to celebrate spooky holidays. In Mexico and some parts of Latin America, November 2nd is the chosen day to remember and celebrate the lives of deceased ancestors. Though one might think a holiday about death would be a somber affair, it’s usually not. Much like Halloween, family and friends get together to laugh, eat some good food and pay tribute to those who have passed. The jolly skeletons captured here by Flickr user borderfilms (Doug) in Chiapas, Mexico are a common Day of the Dead decorating theme.

Taken any great photos during your travels? Why not add them to the Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Into Zapatista territory: Exploring the Mexican state of Chiapas

If you haven’t heard of the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico, you’re not alone. An overnight bus ride away from major tourist hubs like Cancún and Mexico City, Chiapas might just be the country’s most diverse region– as well as its most underappreciated.

Visitors to Chiapas are rewarded with scores of things to see and do: from crocodile-spotting on a boat ride through a a gorgeous canyon, to strolling the cobblestone streets of the super-cool highland town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, to climbing the Mayan ruins at Palenque, some of Mexico’s most beautiful (yes, better than Chichen Itza).

Located right in the heart of Chiapas, the Spanish colonial town of San Cristóbal de las Casas (pop. 300,000) is rapidly becoming a big-time travel destination, and for good reason.

Although San Cristóbal is the headquarters for the well-known left-wing revolutionary group called the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (popularized and supported by, among others, the band Rage Against the Machine), outward signals of the group’s influence in the town are limited. The group’s initials in Spanish, the ubiquitous “EZLN”, are spray-painted all over town, and you’ll find countless vendors selling Zapatista-related memorabilia– take some time to dwell on that irony– with most items printed with the group’s famous logo of a red star on a black background.

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But San Cristóbal has overcome its tumultous past, including a brief Zapatista takeover in 1994 led by the (in)famous Subcomandante Marcos, to place itself firmly in the category of a bona fide travel destination. In fact, Matt Gross, the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler, recently praised the city in a dispatch writing, “San Cristóbal was a city that had me joyously roaming its streets from morning till night. In fact, these lanes, paved with hexagonal stones, may have been the most roamable I’ve seen.”

And when you’re done exploring the city’s churches and markets, San Cristóbal has no shortage of bars and cafes to keep you well-hydrated and in good spirits. Cafe-Bar Revolucion is recommended if you’re looking for scores of local hipsters shaking their money-makers to Cuban music. (And who isn’t?) The creatively-named Backpackers Hostel is highly recommended for its nightly campfire and daily excursions.

A final note about San Cristóbal: bring warm clothes. The town’s location in the highlands means it gets cold– not cool, not brisk, cold!– at night, and few hostels or hotels will have heat.

Speaking of heat, just four hours away from San Cristóbal is the steamy town of Palenque, famous for the awe-inspiring Mayan ruins located several miles away from the town proper. Though the town itself is run-of-the-mill, Palenque’s nearby ruins are anything but.

Surrounded by dense jungle, the ruins, which date back to at least the 600s, are some of Mexico’s most accessible and best-preserved. Within walking distance of the ruins is El Panchan, a popular collection of campgrounds and cabanas where many visitors to the ruins spend at least a couple nights.

If you’re looking for a daytrip from Palenque, hop in a colectivo (shared taxi) and head to the series of waterfalls known as Agua Azul. This place is breathtakingly beautiful (see photo below) and more fun to hang around than any theme park (except for you, Silver Dollar City!).

The town of San Juan Chamula, about six miles from San Cristóbal, also cries out for a day-trip. In its oft-visisted church, worshippers fuse ancient Mayan traditions with those of Christianity in a series of customs that must be seen to be believed. Pine needles are spread to cover the entire floor, hundreds of lit candles line the walls, and worshippers kneel on the ground while drinking Coca Cola in hopes of keeping evil spirits at bay. (You might want to read that sentence again.) Be sure to take a guide if you have any hopes of figuring out what’s going on.

For natural beauty and wildlife, head to the Cañon del Sumidero an hour away from San Cristóbal. Here you’ll take a boat ride on a river flanked by thousand-foot-high cliffs, all the while doing your best to avoid the crocodiles on the river’s banks and the vultures overhead. Avoid years of depression and regret by bringing your camera.

Zapatistas, ruins, crocodiles, waterfalls: Why don’t more adventure-seeking travelers look to Chiapas as an affordable, authentically Mexican destination?