The Galapagos Islands - How to Travel Independently
As soon as you arrive at the Galapagos Islands you are surrounded by wildlife; walk to a local beach and dozens of sea lions will join you for a swim, lizards and Iguana carry on about their business of digging sand or seeking shade, while you sit there – perhaps a few metres away, wondering how on earth such a place can be real – a place where wild, in some cases endangered animals and humans live so comfortably side-by-side.
Before I go into detail about independent and budget travel to the Galapagos, I think it's important to mention responsible travel.
Tourism to the Galapagos has more than quadrupled in the last 20 years (and the local population has doubled), meaning the islands have been hit with unprecedented amounts of human interference. With concerns about booming population and tourism, over fishing and the introduction of invasive species, the Islands were put on UNESCOs 'red list' in 2007.
Fortunately the government took action; the number of boats reduced and the population boom of Ecuadorians coming to live there to cash in on the tourism eased off, resulting in the warning being removed in 2010.
Measures continue to be put in place to control the population, tourism and the footprint that tourism leaves. By choosing to travel responsibly, travellers can mitigate damage and help protect the ecosystem. Tourism has had a massive impact on funding conservation efforts around the Islands and over 95% of the original biodiversity on the Islands has been maintained. For more information on sustainable travel to The Galapagos and conservation work currently underway, click here.
Realistically, the solution is not more or less tourism; the solution is better tourism. So if you plan to travel to The Galapagos you have to be responsible and abide by the park rules.
5 easy ways to travel more sustainably
Use reusable water bottles
Opt for reef safe sunscreen
Eat vegetarian. Over fishing and bringing in food from the mainland to cope with tourist demands has been an issue on the Islands.
Leave no trace
Wildlife and people - interactions
3% of the Islands are inhabited and open to tourism. Animals of course will settle where they want and are not shy of sharing (sea lions in particular). This is probably down to the proximity of food, however sea lions have been known to take a dip in the hotel pools and sun themselves on loungers. There are signs everywhere warning people to always keep a minimum of 2 metres distance from the animals. I was taking pictures of some Iguana in a car park when a security officer approached me asking if I could leave the area as there were too many Iguana, and my presence might upset them. So from my experience, the community make great efforts in safeguarding their environment.
The tour guides are all authorised by The Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) and are fantastic on expeditions to protected areas.
So you want to travel to the Galapagos independently and on a budget?
Totally do-able and I would highly recommend it. In my opinion, independent travel is arguably a more environmentally sound option.
We visited the Galapagos Islands as part of an organised tour. Worst mistake we ever made. For the price we paid for a 5-day tour, we could have stayed on the Islands for 2-weeks and travelled between them independently. Most people on the tour had no real concept of where they were and had no interest in the wildlife. They had just joined a tour they thought sounded exciting and had money to spend.
I couldn't help but wonder whether taking the option of luxury travel away would encourage more responsible tourism. Independent travel isn't as easy, so if you don't really care, would the trip be as appealing? Probably not.
How is it affordable?
Travelling to the Galapagos is no more expensive than travelling to a lot of places in Latin America. Flights to the Galapagos operate daily – there are no real restrictions on travel beyond the ordinary tourist visa you need when travelling to any country (1.e. 30 – 60 day stay) and flights selling out (you must also have a return ticket booked and have a confirmed reservation in an accommodation). It will probably be harder to catch a flight in high season (June to September). When I travelled there were 3 or 4 flights operating daily from 2 companies.
Independent travel to the Galapagos is more affordable, and you will see more as you will be able to stay for longer.
Most activities on the Islands are free: The Charles Darwin Research Centre, seeing giant land tortoises and sea lions, Blue-footed Boobies, penguins and sharks. Snorkelling (if you have your own gear) is free or about $10 to hire, and all other breeding and information centres are free. The $100 tax you pay at the airport covers all of this.
There are lots of hostel/hotels, shops, ATMs and plenty of restaurants/cafes/bars across the islands, catering for all budgets. Choose locally run accommodation and restaurants to ensure tourism dollars are going toward the local economy instead of large corporations.
When to Travel
Here is a good link I found that explains when is best to travel to the Galapagos: Best time to visit… I travelled in February – the weather was hot and mostly dry and there were fewer tourists.
Land vs Cruise
I travelled by land and took boats between Islands. A lot of people take the cruise option – here are some cruise facts that might make you change your mind:
If you book a cruise in advance you’ll be paying top dollar. Never ask fellow passengers what they paid – chances are it’ll be less than half of what you paid. Every agency on every Island sells last minute spaces on all the cruise ships at rock bottom prices.
Cruises are unnecessarily expensive – as are land-based tours. What you pay for these tours you will be much better off organising your own accommodation and travel between Islands – you’ll save literally hundreds of dollars. We worked out that we would have saved at least $1000 each had we travelled independently.
You never know who you are going to share a boat with, and once you’re on that boat there’s no getting off.
I compared my land-based trip with someone who had done a cruise trip. They wondered where on earth I had come across some of the tropical looking beaches I had stayed on. I believe, and the person who did the cruise agreed, that you see less on a cruise. The money you save from not going on a cruise you can use to book a tour independently to the same areas.
Land-based independent travel means you can travel for longer, spend more time with the animals, have the freedom to stay in places you like for longer and do whatever tours you want to do, whenever you choose to do them.
Restrictions and costs for getting to the Islands
Information based on 2015 travel. For updated information click here
You are prohibited from taking certain items onto the Islands, such as alcohol and the usual – food products, shells, anything that could be considered invasive. If you are staying in Quito before you fly, many hostels allow you to leave luggage with them in lock-up facilities.
Around $400 USD return from Quito airport
$25 for a visa which you pay for at the airport before boarding your flight
$100 for entry (paid at the Galapagos airport)
Concessions do apply for students and pensioners, so take your student ID with you!
Tip: Ask for your passport to be stamped when you land - it looks great!
Accommodation, travel and food budget
Taxi travel: Around $5 for 10 minute transfer. You’ll only need to take a taxi to and from the airport if you have heavy luggage with you, and on Santa Cruz Island you may want to split a taxi fare and visit the land tortoises who wander around about 15 minutes inland. Everything else is walking distance. In San Cristobal the town is only a few minutes drive away from the airport.
Boat transfers between Islands: $30 one way pp. average 2 hour journey time, 2 departures daily – am and pm.
Water taxis from boat transfers and to various locations: $1
Accommodation based on 2 sharing at a hostel $25 a night.
Food budget per day: $60 pp if you eat out for breakfast and dinner with alcohol.
I took 2 big tours totalling $180 – everything else I did was for free.
TRAVELLING THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS
San Cristobal Island
Hammerhead sharks and marine life
Things to See and Do for free
Every Island has a Visitor Information Centre. Make sure you stop here first and get a map of the Island and the town. You’ll find lots of information on what you can do – including all the free activities. Here are some of my favourites:
The Interpretation Center, containing an exhibition space explaining the Galapagos Islands’ history.
Frigate bird Hill and Darwin Bay / Cerro Tijeretas. From the Interpretation Center make your way along a 2-mile lava trail known as Cerro Tijeratas. From here you will see Frigate birds and views of the port and the north-western part of San Cristobal, including Kicker Rock. A statue of Charles Darwin’s stands, commemorating his arrival to the Galapagos on board the HMS Beagle in 1835. His observations and collections from this voyage contributed to the inception of his theory of evolution by natural selection.
Spend time with the Sea Lions. Just a 5-minute walk across from Darwin Bay is Playa Mann, a lovely spot for swimming. Dozens of sea lions choose this spot for swimming too. Be mindful of the sun and lack of shade on the beaches. Take a sun hat or umbrella for shade if you plan on spending much time here.
The sea lions are everywhere – on park benches, beaches, rocks, piers – everywhere!
Wander around by the pier at night and watch the sea lions getting ready for bed – it really is a wonderful spectacle.
San Cristobal Must Do Tours
Kicker Rock / Leon Dormido
Cost (February 2015): $100 – $150
Kicker Rock is a lava formation just off the coast of San Cristobal that over the years has split in two. Boat companies take groups of visitors every day to snorkel/dive between the split rock, where hundreds of Hammerhead Sharks as well as other sea creatures congregate.
Usually on this day tour you will moor up on 2 beautiful and protected beach areas for lunch (on the boat) and pass “Isla Lobos” (sea lion island) which is also a nesting site for Blue-footed Boobies. Footfall on the beaches is restricted to limited numbers at limited times, so we were on our own.
Ask around various agencies in town before committing to a tour as prices can differ. Also, speak to other people who have done the tour and ask which agency they used. A good guide makes a world of difference.
Try and book a few days in advance. Even in low season when I travelled the tour sold out quickly.
Other tours from San Cristobal
Kicker Rock is by far the most popular tour and so the agencies have started offering other tours. However, if you haven’t got money to burn, then Kicker Rock with lunch and 2 beaches is the best option. It’s most popular for a reason.
Don’t trust an agency if they tell you all the tours for Kicker Rock are sold out and are trying to persuade you onto a more expensive package, such as the 360 tour (which I was told was disappointing). Shop around other agencies or book onto another day.
Santa Cruz Island
Giant wild land tortoises
Charles Darwin Research Centre
Beautiful swimming spots
Things to See and Do On Santa Cruz Island for free
Las Grietas. Well, it’s almost free ($5 snorkel hire and $2 water taxi) – you don’t have to go as part of a tour, that’s for sure! Las Grietas is a landscape created by old lava fissures that have formed two huge walls, in between which is a large pool of water – GREAT for swimming. It’s very deep (like a cenote) and is very transparent. It’s just beautiful. The trek to this area is lovely as well – takes about 20 minutes to walk.
Visit the local morning fish market. Probably one of the funniest things I have ever seen – the fish market lies en route to the Charles Darwin Research Centre. All I will say is – take a camera!
Charles Darwin Research Centre
Interesting and important. We spent an hour walking around.
Visit Reserva El Chato and See Giant Land Tortoises in the Wild. This is technically a free activity but it will cost you to take transport there ($30 taxi ride). However, it’s utterly worth it for an afternoon/morning activity. Try and split the taxi fare with a few people. I’m not entirely sure if this is the same place I visited, as my group camped in this region as part of an organised tour but it’s in the same area. You really don’t need to stay the night though – it’s very close to town.
Ask at the local visitor centre for more information. Tours are not necessary, there are paths you can follow once there and the tortoises wander in and out amongst the tall grass right by the path. Just remember to observe the 2 metre distance rule.
Tortuga Bay. I didn’t visit so can’t comment but I heard the beach was very nice at sunset. Take plenty of sun protection, as with all the beaches on the Galapagos – it’s a bit of a sun trap.
Isabela is the largest of the Galapagos Islands, with 6 volcanoes, 5 of which are still active. It’s home to 95% of the Galapagos Penguin population and harbours 5 species of giant tortoise. It has some of the best snorkelling and diving spots of any of the Islands, and although it is the largest of the Islands it is the least built up, giving it more of a beach town vibe. There's a nice scattering of simple hostels, hotels, bars and restaurants so an easy, relaxed place to base yourself for a while.
Iguana and tortoises
Giant Sea Horses
Things to See and Do On Isabela Island for free
Centro de Crianza “Arnaldo Tupiza” – Tortoise Breeding Centre. Isabela Island is the one place in the world which holds 5 different species of giant tortoise. Learn about the process of breeding and how the population of these endangered reptiles is being recovered.
Los Humedales – The Wetlands. As you walk down towards the beach (Playa Grande) from the Centro de Crianza breeding centre, you will notice the landscape begin to change. There’s a nice path which takes you down to the beach via flamingo filled lagoons. It’s a good 25 minute leg stretch. Best timed with sunset.
The wetlands do extend for many miles toward a place called the Wall of Tears. Cycling through this area makes for a good day trip – but again, beware of the sun. Take a hat and a long-sleeved light shirt and wear sun block. The sun can be unforgiving.
Sunset on Playa Grande. This is a lovely stretch of beach with a fantastic sunset! Enjoy a 2-for-1 cocktail at the bar at the end of the beach. It’s a fun spot.
A great day out with the Iguanas. Find a shady spot with some palm trees on a beach just by the town Malecon. You’ll see hundreds of Iguana pottering about, digging sand pits and swimming in the sea. There are a few bars and cafes scattered around so this makes for a perfect day out!
Explore Volcanoes – Hike to Sierra Negra. I didn’t do this as I didn’t have much time and preferred to see the wildlife.
Isabela Must Do Tours
There are 2 tours you should definitely invest in whilst visiting The Galapagos. One I’ve covered in San Cristobal – Kicker Rock. Los Tuneles, off the coast of Isabela Island is another.
Los Tuneles is a series of rock formations including bridges and tunnels formed off the coast of Isabela when the hot magma from the volcanoes reached the island’s edge and flowed into the pacific waters.
The site is known as one of the best spots to snorkel in the Galapagos, owing to its aquarium like waters. It’s simply stunning! You snorkel with penguins, sea turtles, giant manta rays and sea horses and get within touching distance of sleeping white tip reef sharks.
You also get very close to the Blue-footed Boobies.
The tour cost a total of $80. Again – book this at least a few days in advance, especially if you’re travelling in peak season. Not to be missed!