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.

Swimming With Sharks And Sea Lions In The Galapagos Islands

sharks “Don’t freak out, but there are two huge hammerhead sharks right below us.”

My guide Jens’ attempt at having me “not freak out” over the two carnivorous beasts that are 10 feet away from my juicy calves only leads me to begin shrieking and jumping on his back. Soon, though, the sharks are gone, and nobody has been eaten.

“Sharks prefer sea lions and fish to people,” Jens explains. “They’ll only go for you if they’re confused.”

Thankfully, those two hammerheads seemed very understanding.

I am on the Galapagos Island of San Cristobal, taking a snorkeling tour of Isla Lobos, León Dormido/Kicker Rock and Puerto Grande. With its clear waters, white sand beaches, unique flora and fauna and playful sea lions, it’s hard to believe there could be a better paradise than this.

Our first stop is Isla Lobos. The site features a small but pristine island, and a protected channel known for its plethora of sea lions. Here, the visibility is amazing, as you could see every fish, sea turtle and sea iguana very clearly – almost too clearly.

“Do you see how those fish all come together and disperse with a lot of white things?” asks Jens. “That’s sperm. They’re making rock and roll.”sea lion I laugh, turning to tap my friend on the shoulder to tell her, just as she performs a very acrobatic flip out of the water. That’s when I realize it isn’t my friend, but a baby sea lion trying to play a game with me. Two minutes later, three of its friends join in. On land, blue-footed boobies, pelicans and frigatebirds abound. It’s amazing to look at the whole picture at once, as the marine and bird life seem to dance together on one stage.

Our next stop is Kicker Rock, a massive rock formation rising 500 feet out of the water and taking on the appearance of a león dormido, or sleeping lion. It’s also the site of my shark encounter. The guide tells me that sometimes there are almost 100 sharks, so only encountering six for the day isn’t a lot. As I’m used to encountering zero, I beg to differ. However, the Galapagos sharks, blacktip sharks, white tip sharks and hammerheads that reside near Kicker Rock, while large in size, are virtually harmless to humans.

That knowledge does nothing, however, to keep my blood from running cold every time one comes within 10 feet of me. Once we leave Kicker Rock, however, I realize how lucky I am to have had such a unique experience. And, along with the sharks, the Chocolate Chip starfish, sea turtles and an array of tropical fish and colorful corals remind me I’m in one of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse places in the world.

sea turtle For lunch we make a stop at the serene beach of Puerto Grande. The food is great, a huge helping of rice with tender chunks of beef. Once we’ve digested a bit, the group descends into the warm, clear water and makes our way to the beach for a short informational hike. The beach is covered in hermit crabs, diverse pieces of shell and perfect white sand. Apparently, the sand gets its color from the chunks of white coral that lay upon the beach.

We make one more stop at Kicker Rock for a bit more snorkeling and diving – and more shark encounters – before heading back home. As I lay on the bow of the boat, bathing in the last of the day’s sunlight, I hear a loud splash in front of me. Looking up, a breaching whale jumps out of the water, and I slowly watch its tail sink back below. This place really is unlike any other on Earth.

If visiting the Galapagos Islands and interested in doing this tour, it was given by Dive Surf Club, although you can book through any agency as the whole island works together. The guides are hysterical, fun and have a lot of knowledge. It’s $50 to snorkel and $120 to dive, including naturalist guides, dive instructors, snacks, drinks and lunch.

[images via Barry Peters, NCBrian, Dive Surf Club]

Snorkeling in the Galapagos

Snorkeling allows those of us who either can’t afford or are too scared to SCUBA dive to still experience the wonders of the ocean. That said, often the most awe-inspiring aquatic sites are hidden deep below the surface and hidden to those of us who don’t have an oxygen tank strapped to our backs. Thankfully, if you find yourself in the Galapagos Islands, the animals of the sea come looking for you. That makes it one of the most satisfying and rewarding places to snorkel.

I visited the islands a few months ago and strapped a ContourGPS HD video camera to my snorkel mask for a week of exploration. Every single time I entered the water, I swam with a creature that I’d only previously encountered at aquariums. Notice that I said “swam with.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that the sea lions frolicked with us, the penguins teased us and the sharks shared some close encounters with us. Unlike any other place that I have been, snorkeling in the Galapagos is very much an interactive wildlife experience and you don’t need to be a professional cameraperson to capture the action.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games with animals in the Galapagos. I learned a few things in the water. Did you know that penguins poop while swimming? It’s like a public pool over there!

Video of the Day: Galapagos animals can dance

Us Gadling writers don’t usually use this space for self-promotion (mostly because our editors get mad at us when we do). But, well, this is the Video of the Day post and I made a travel video today. It just feels right to share it with you. I was in the Galapagos a couple of months ago and was blown away by the animals there. They know no fear, so you can get amazingly close to them (without you can’t touch them, of course) and witness their natural behaviors. It turns out that they have a fantastic sense of rhythm. I just assume that they evolved that way.

Anyways, it’s a Galapagos Dance Party and everyone’s invited.

Visit Oregon to see them capturing and killing sea lions

People like sea lions. But they must like salmon more. And because sea lions feast on threatened salmon in Oregon, they were given a death sentence on Tuesday.

Traps, pyrotechnics and beanbags shot at sea lions have failed to deter the annual springtime feast of threatened salmon at a Columbia River Dam, so federal authorities ordered some of them to be “removed,” according to AP.

The National Marine Fisheries Service authorized Oregon and Washington officials to first attempt to catch the sea lions that arrive at the base of the Bonneville Dam and hold them 48 hours to see whether an aquarium, zoo or similar facility will take them. Otherwise, they could be euthanized, along with those that avoid trapping.

I realize that the sea lion population has soared. They numbered about 1,000 in the 1930s, when they were hunted and used, among other purposes, for dog food. They are thought to number about 240,000 today. But still, they seem way too cute to be killed.