I have to believe there can’t be in the world, a traveler who doesn’t have the Galapagos Islands on his/her bucket list.
Maybe you’re one of them. And maaaybe, you haven’t visited these unique islands yet because you think that the only way to do it is through a cruise or Booking agency. Meaning, aside from needing a pile of money, you’ll have to depend 100% on a pre made itinerary.
Not too much of a bucket list trip now ey?
Well, if you’re a traveler looking for a different type of experience, you’ll find some good resources here so you can plan a trip to the Galapagos Islands quite simply on your own (yes it’s possible and yay for that!!)
First things first
One of the basic things you should know about The Galapagos Islands is that they are an archipelago of 13 main islands plus 6 smaller islands, and that they’re part of Ecuadorian territory. Although only 3 of the islands are inhabited, San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz and Isabela, you can access all the islands by boat and enjoy a wide range of diverse (and in some cases endemic) wildlife and plants all over the enchanted archipelago.
The local language in the Galapagos is Spanish and the local currency is the US dollar, just like in the rest of Ecuador.
There are only 2 ways you can get to the islands from anywhere in the world. Through Guayaquil or Quito, the 2 main cities in Ecuador. If you book a flight from outside of Ecuador, you’ll notice that there’ll be a layover in one of these 2 cities. If you’re quite flexible you may find cheaper flights if you book them separately (First get to Ecuador, and then book a separate flight to the islands).
The 2 landing points you have as options are Baltra airport and San Cristobal airport. If you leave from Quito you’ll reach the islands in about 2h10min, and in 1h47min if you leave from Guayaquil. Keep in mind that there is a 1hr difference between Galapagos and the rest of the country, so you’ll be 1hr behind when you land.
IMPORTANT INFO: The island where you decide to land will determine the itinerary that you’ll be able to build when you plan your Galapagos trip. Landing in San Cristobal will make moving around quite simple since the airport is very close to the main town, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. A taxi will get you there in about 5min for $1-$3 (no lie!)
Landing in Baltra takes a bit more planning and time, since you’ll need to transfer to it’s closest southern island, Santa Cruz, more specifically, to the main town Puerto Ayora. You can do this through a combination of buses + a ferry, or through a direct Taxi transfer (around $24).
The fine print (kinda’)
One of the things you may not know about visiting the Galapagos Islands is that there are a couple of fees you must pay in order to enter “the park”. The first one is to get a migratory card “tarjeta migratoria” which costs $20 for Ecuadorian Nationals or Foreigners. You can get one super fast directly at Guayaquil or Quito airport WITH CASH before checking in for your flight. (Look for the Galapagos travel booth)*The card breaks in 2 parts. One for entry and one for departure. Keep them with you until requested my Migratory Officers.
The second fee is the Galapagos Islands Entry Fee and the price will depend on your age + your nationality + your residence country. For Ecuadorian NON citizens over 12 y/o, the fee is $100. Kids between 2 and 12 pay $50. Babies up to 2 y/o (nationals or foreigners) don’t pay the fee. Ecuadorian nationals pay $6 for adults and $3 for kids 2-12. You can find the complete list of updated fees right here. This fee is paid upon arrival at your landing airport IN CASH.
Choosing where to stay
There is a variety of hotel, hostel and Airbnb options throughout the islands. It’ll be quite easy to choose a good fit based on your budget and your travel style. Out of the 3 inhabited islands, Santa Cruz is the most populated, so prices tend to be slightly higher in this island. Although you can vist the islands year-round, a lot of people prefer to vist them when the ocean is warmer (Dec-May). If you travel during this season, you can book your accommodation in advance to avoid high peak prices
*If you’re up for the adventure, you may be able to book A LOT cheaper accommodation once in the islands. You’ll notice that with some walking and asking around, you’ll find places that are not listed online.
This is the Airbnb we chose for our 7 day stay in San Cristobal which cost us approximately $87 a night at the time of this writing.
Planning what to do on the islands
One of my favorite things about having planned my own trip to the Galapagos Islands, was the fact that it was SO EASY to plan my activities day by day, once I was there. The first thing you’ll notice is that there is so much to do on the islands without moving much or booking any tours. In fact, there are so many things you can do for free like swimming with sea turtles, beachin’ with sea lions and enjoying all the wildlife around you.
Each island will have specific activities you can do. And if you ask me, all of them are quite unique and magical! Some of the activities I recommend you do in San Cristobal are: Watch more sea lions than you can imagine on your way and at Playa Mann, visit the home of the giant tortoises at La Galapaguera, snorkel at la Lobería and Tijeretas, and plan to visit El León Dormido (Kicker Rock) for a chance to swim with hammerhead sharks!
A couple of fun activities you can do in Santa Cruz are swimming at Las Grietas and hiking to Bahía Tortuga and although I haven’t visited Isabela yet, I’ve heard wanders about the hikes and animal sightings you can have there (Think volcanoes, blue footed boobies and flamingos).
Like I mentioned above, it is very simple to plan for most of these activities while you’re on the islands. You can literally decide on the spot where you’d like to go and take one of the frequent taxis to each place.
There are some activities that will need a bit more planning (say 1 or 2 days before), like visiting Kicker Rock, doing a boat tour around one of the islands or booking a “taxi tour” that’ll take you to a couple of stops in one day. Still, nothing that you should worry about before starting your Galapagos trip 😉 You’ll notice there are a ton of tour offices on each of the islands and booking directly thorugh them will cost you less than booking online. If you’re feeling brave, you may save some bucks by bargaining the price.
Moving between islands
If you’re planning on visiting the Galapagos islands for more than 5 days, (and if you don’t suffer from severe motion sickness), I suggest visiting more than one island. The most common -and cheapest- way to transfer between islands is by speedboat.
You can only move between San Cristobal and Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz and Isabela. There is no direct ferry between San Cristobal and Isabela so if you’re looking to visit both of these islands, you will need to stop at Santa Cruz. All rides between islands are approximately 2 hours long.
If you have 5 days or less, I strongly suggest staying either at San Cristobal or Santa Cruz so you can maximize your time there. I guarantee you, you’ll have plenty to see and do.
A couple of final things you should know about planning a trip to The Galapagos Islands
You’ll notice that when you plan a trip to the Galapagos Islands your budget will need to be higher than when you plan a trip to other areas of Ecuador but, there are some ways to stretch your money a little further. Good examples are, taking advantage of all the free activities and timing your lunch around “Almuerzo” time (12:30pm – 2pm), where you’ll find a full meal for about $6.
Another important thing that you should know is that, even though the animals in Galapagos are very used to human presence, you won’t be able to touch them or feed them. You’re actually forbidden to do it. Not only may they hurt you, but you can also affect them through your scent or any viruses/bacteria.
Lastly, be mindful of everything that you do while on the islands. Leave no trash and don’t remove anything from nature. No sand, no rocks, no shells. The Galapagos Islands are a true treasure and a protected area. With your help, we can make sure this paradise stays this way.
Do you have any questions about how to plan your very own trip to the Galapagos Islands?
I’d love to help you! Leave me your questions or comments below.
Are you planning a trip with kids? Head on to my Family Travel articles to get my best tips, guides and resources for Traveling with Kids.