I have seen and read many articles on ‘Galapagos on the cheap‘ or how to visit the islands on a tight budget.
Many of these articles and blogs have valuable tips and suggestions on how to save some dollars. However, most of them omit (accidentally or on purpose) some issues and factors involved.
Regardless of how you visit the Galapagos Islands (i.e., pre-booked package or independently) you are going to run into the following fixed costs:
1. ROUND TRIP GALAPAGOS AIRLINE TICKETS
All flights originate in Quito, make a stop over in Guayaquil and continue out to the Galapagos Islands. The same holds true for the return flight (i.e., Galapagos to Guayaquil, and then on to Quito). Flight rates vary depending on the time of year.
The rates are higher in HIGH SEASON, while lower in LOW SEASON. The two low seasons (May 1 to June 14 & September 15 to October 31) and two high seasons (November 1 to April 31 & June 15 to September 14).
The rates also vary depending on the flight route required: (1) FROM: Quito or Guayaquil; and (2) RETURN: Quito or Guayaquil. There are two basic tariffs: (1) Adults (anyone 12 years of age or older); and (2) Child (anyone under 12 years of age).
ROUTE: Quito – Galapagos – Quito
HIGH SEASON: ADULT $419 / CHILD $217
LOW SEASON: ADULT $363 / CHILD $189
ROUTE: Quito – Galapagos – Guayaquil
HIGH SEASON: ADULT $396 / CHILD $205
LOW SEASON: ADULT $346 / CHILD $180
ROUTE: Guayaquil – Galapagos – Quito
HIGH SEASON: ADULT $393 / CHILD $202
LOW SEASON: ADULT $343 / CHILD $177
ROUTE: Guayaquil – Galapagos – Guayaquil
HIGH SEASON: ADULT $369 / CHILD $190
LOW SEASON: ADULT $325 / CHILD $168
HIGH SEASON: November 1 to April 31 & June 15 to September 14
LOW SEASON: May 1 to June 14 & September 15 to October 31
NOTE 1: Rates are subject to change but valid at time of publication (October 2009)
NOTE 2: All Galapagos land-based & live aboard/cruise operators have priority on air space (they pre-block seats for their packages)
2. INGALA TOURIST CONTROL CARD
Anyone person visiting the Galapagos (Ecuadorian National and foreigners alike) must pay USD $10 per person for the INGALA Tourist Control Card. With many of pre-purchased packages (land-based or live aboard) this fee is included at the time of confirming your reservation; while some require that this fee be paid directly in the airport of departure (but passengers are pre-registered with INGALA).
3. GALAPAGOS NATIONAL PARK ENTRANCE FEE
Regardless of whether you travel to Galapagos independently or with a pre-booked package, all tourists are required to pay the Galapagos National Park entrance fee (in US cash only upon arrival in Galapagos). This fee is USD $100 per adult and USD $50 per child.
Now I turn to the two options on how to spend your time in the Islands …..
LIVE ABOARD/CRUISE vs. LAND-BASED
LIVE ABOARD: Most travelers go on a live aboard (cruise) that takes them to various islands, sailing at night and arriving in the morning at different visitation sites. The biggest advantage is that passengers are exposed to a wider variety of farther afield islands that generally have unique wildlife not commonly found on islands within day tour range. The cruise cost generally covers all expenses, such as all meals, water, tea, coffee, accommodation, bilingual naturalist guided visits, transfers in Galapagos (Galapagos airport to boat and visa versa), and snorkel equipment (on most boats). Extras are such items as alcoholic & extra beverages, tips/gratuities.
LAND-BASED: Land-based options involve setting up a base (or hotel) in one of the towns: (1) Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island (the most popularly chosen); (2) Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal Island; or Puerto Villamil, Isabela Island.
Regardless of how you arrange your trip, you need to keep in mind that the day you arrive in the Islands (i.e., the day you take your flight from Quito or Guayaquil to Galapagos) you will arrive roughly between 09h30 and 11h30 in Baltra (most flights) or San Cristobal (limited flights). By the time you get out of the airport and get into the nearest town (i.e., Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz Island) or Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (San Cristobal Islands), check into your hotel/hostal, it will be early afternoon. You therefore only have a partial afternoon the first day to roam around.
On the last day in Galapagos (i.e., the day your flight takes off from Galapagos and returns back to mainland Ecuador) you will need to check-in for your flight at least 60 minutes (ideally 90 minutes) prior to flight departure. Flights generally take off from Galapagos between 10h00 and 12h00. Taking into consideration the time to transit from the closest town (about 1 hr transit from Puerto Ayora in terms of flights from Baltra, and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno in terms of flights from San Cristobal), you will need to leave your hotel around breakfast time. Again, you can’t really consider this a day in Galapagos to enjoy anything … other than your breakfast!
HOTEL / ACCOMMODATION OPTIONS
In Puerto Ayora, Puerto Villamil & Puerto Baquerizo Moreno there are a selection of lodgings ranging in from USD $15 to $45 per night – although there are others that range from USD $50 to $150 the night. Budget options can tend to fill up during high demand periods (much like budget cruise options).
If you haven’t pre-arranged a hotel, you will need to budget time to hunt for a good bargain. Most of the hostels & hotels are located on the main street of Puerto Ayora (Ave Charles Darwin).
FOOD & RESTAURANTS
To cut down on expenses, it is more economical to purchase basic staples from the supermarket (although the selection is limited and the prices are higher than on mainland Ecuador. Restaurants in Galapagos can be fairly expensive (about double the average price of mainland Ecuador equivalent options).
TOURS & ACTIVITY OPTIONS
This is where some of the details tend to be omitted (accidentally or on purpose) when describing land-based day tours (or island hopping tours as they are also commonly refer to).
The most important facts to bare in mind are the following:
(1) You will spend more time traveling to/from the visitation sites (especially those by sea) than you would on live aboard/cruise options. It is a slight misconception that land-based tours are better for those that do not spending time or travel on boats.
(2) One also spends less time at the actual visitation site (compared to a live aboard) and usually only visit one site in a day (where as a live aboard generally has one site in the morning and one site in the afternoon).
(3) The quality of the naturalist guide (level of English & knowledge), and the safety & reliability of services provided.
(4) The most important fact is that one is very limited to the islands and/or sites within travel range for day tours (see map below)
Although it not impossible to cut corners and costs when traveling in Galapagos, you need to keep in mind that during peak periods (dates that are under high demand), the leg work required to find available good, budget options tends to get a bit harder to find.
If spending as little as possible is the main objective, it is possible – but requires time & investigation. If being exposed to a wide range of wildlife and islands, along with a quality naturalist guide to accompany you – then you need to be prepared to invest more into the trip.
The most important factor in cutting costs is ….. F L E X I B I L I T Y. This especially applies to your travel dates.