The Galapagos Islands are known for their amazing and rare wildlife — definitely a bucket-list destination. But many people are intimidated by the trip: the Galapagos Islands seem so far, it’s expensive, you need a long time there to really enjoy it. While all of these things can be true, none of them have to be.
There are certainly a million things to see on the Galapagos’s 20 islands, and you could spend weeks exploring if you had the time and money, but since most of us don’t have either, here’s the trip made easy. Get a good taste of the archipelago and its wildlife in just a few days — and for not an extravagant amount of money — with these tips and trips.
1. Go in the off season.
Blue-footed boobies often do their mating dances in September, which is considered the off-season. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Though the Galapagos can be great year-round, many in the tourism industry consider April and May and September and October the low season. Low season is a great time to see the Galapagos for at least two reasons: fewer tourists and lower prices. The downside to going during low season is that it overlap with the rough season at sea, which usually runs from April or May through October. Something to consider if you’re taking a cruise.
2. Book a shorter, more affordable group trip.
Cruising can be an affordable and timely option. (Photo: Intrepid Travel)
One of the best options for saving time and money is to participate in a group trip. You can either do a cruise or a more land-based tour. (Cruises are great because a smaller boat is really the only way to reach some of the more remote islands.) While many of these trips are 10 days to three weeks or more, Intrepid Travel has cheaper, shorter trips to choose from, like its Galapagos on a Shoestring (a land-based, seven-day trip, starting at $920) and its Galapagos at a Glance/Southern Islands (a six-day catamaran cruise, starting at $1825). Prices do not include flights, but depending on what time of year you go (and which airline you choose), it could be less than $400 round trip to Quito (check out JetBlue, which has some of the more affordable prices) and $300 to continue on to Baltra in the Galapagos.
3. Create your own island-hopping tour with the best highlights.
The beauty of day tripping. (Photo: Leah Ginsberg)
If you’re not up for a cruise or a group trip, you can also see a lot and get a really good feel for the islands by staying on one of the inhabited islands and making day trips to the most interesting islands. We suggest staying on Santa Cruz. Here’s a breakdown of how to do the trip:
Day 1: Fly to Quito or Guayaquil, Ecuador. You’ll probably spend most of the day flying, but you may end up spending the night because most Galapagos flights are earlier in the day. So, if you have time, explore the city. Quito, the capital, sits more than 9,000 feet above sea level. There you can check out the Spanish colonial architecture and ride the gondola up the Pichincha volcano. If you need a nice, affordable place to stay, Hotel Café Cultura is quaint, and rates in the off-season start at less than $70 a night. To save some dough, eat like a local — typical snacks and street foods like cheese empanadas (sprinkled with sugar) and chifles (plantain chips) and tostados or choclos (Andean roasted corn similar to corn nuts) are delicious and totally affordable. In Guayaquil, go to Rio Guayas malecon and the barrio of Las Penas.
Day 2: If you’re leaving from Quito, it’s just a short flight to Guayaquil, and a short flight from Guayaquil to Baltra Island in the Galapagos (the flight will cost you about $300 to $400 depending on the time of year). From Baltra, it’s a quick ferry ride to Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz is a great place to stay: There are a variety of hostels and hotels, so you can do it on the cheaper side (as low as $25 a night) or pick an affordable but slight sweeter place (like Villa Laguna or Grand Hotel Lobo de Mar); at either of these locations, daily rates for rooms start at about $100).
One of Rancho El Manzanitto’s inhabitants. (Photo: Leah Ginsberg)
After you check in, it should still be early enough in the day to visit the famous giant land tortoises. The Galapagos Islands are one of two places on earth where you can see these creatures. Two popular places to see them are on Santa Cruz: One is the Charles Darwin Research Station, a sort of glorified zoo where you can learn about conservation and see hatchlings as well as adult tortoises. You can walk there, and entry is free. If you’re willing to spend more for a wilder experience, you can take a $50 round-trip (round-trip, including waiting time) to the highlands where you can visit a tortoise farm. There, the creatures roam freely, and sometimes outnumber the humans. There are many ranches, but locals say the farm with the most tortoises is Rancho El Manzanitto. There’s a $4 entrance fee, which includes borrowed rubber boots (it can be muddy, and there’s tortoise poop) and lemongrass tea.
Days 3, 4, and 5: Take day trips to the best islands for the greatest chance of spotting the bucket-list wildlife you’ve come to see. Because trips to the islands are highly regulated, there are a limited number of companies that run them, and you can go only to certain islands on certain days. A travel agent (try Intrepid) can help you with this, but some of the most popular boating companies are Altamar, Queen Karen, Española, and Santa Fe. Day trips generally run anywhere from $100 to $200 per person, but are full days and also include one to two meals and soft drinks (alcohol is extra). Depending on which island you’re visiting, the boat rides from Santa Cruz are anywhere from one and a half hours to three hours each way.
Day trips from Santa Cruz go to North Seymour (home of the blue-footed boobies, red-throated frigate birds, and land iguanas); Bartolome (where you’ll see Pinnacle Rock and with its mind-blowing views, and — if you’re lucky — swim with the cutest penguins you’ll ever see off nearby Isla Santiago), Santa Fe (sea lions galore) and South Plazas (catch sight of sea lion pups, iguanas, and colorful crabs). You can also get to San Cristobal (sea lions and frigate birds), as well as Floreana (home of the first “post office”).
A trip to Isabela is totally worth doing, but you’ll have to put up with a bumpy, two-hour public speedboat ride that costs $25 each way. There you’ll see Galapagos penguins, white-tipped sharks, flamingos, booby birds, seahorses, the Sierra Negra Volcano, and more.
Day 6: Use the early morning to see the marine iguanas or swim with (harmless) sharks. Squeeze in some shopping if you can, then head back to Quito the same way you came. You’ll want to spend another night there, so try to see whatever you missed on the way out.
Day 7: Head back home with amazing photos and memories!
4. Eat like a local.
This restaurant is a favorite among locals in Santa Cruz. (Photo: Leah Ginsberg)
Meals can get expensive since the cost of importing food to the Galapagos — like produce for restaurants and even regular groceries — pushes up prices. So for some of the best and least expensive food around, eat where the locals eat. On Santa Cruz, there are some great options: The fisherman’s market in Puerto Ayora is one of the best. Head there at the end of the day to watch the local sea lions and pelicans forage for scraps. The fisherman cook up whatever they didn’t sell and serve whole fish with tons of authentic sides for about $12 a person. Another good bet is a street called Kioskos where vendors have what feel like makeshift restaurants set up every night. Try William Esmerelda’s Delights, which specializes in a typical dish of the coastal region — seafood cooked in coconut milk with rice and beans — for about $10 to $12. If it’s a treat you’re looking for, go to Il Giardino for lattes or cappuccino and a delicious pastry for less than $10.
Follow Leah Ginsberg on Twitter and Instagram at @lginzy.
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