Visiting the Galápagos Islands is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for observing wildlife and it’s on everyone’s bucket list for a reason. The moment you first see animals endemic to the islands like blue-footed boobies and Galápagos penguins is simply incredible. You will fall in love with baby sea lions and have the chance to snorkel with sharks. The way the animals are unphased by human presence is something else. Learning about the evolution of each animal is so interesting and the guides give fascinating lessons along the way. Although the Galápagos Islands are pricey for a backpacking budget, it’s not out of this world expensive.
Despite what many think, visiting the Galápagos Islands doesn’t require a luxury cruise. The cost of 10 days in the Galápagos Islands is comparable to a month of backpacking in mainland Ecuador, but it’s money well spent.
The Galápagos Islands features on the best places to visit in South America. Check out the rest of the list!
How to Get There
There are direct flights from Quito and Guayaquil to both Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal islands. Give yourself extra time at the airport because you must buy a Galápagos transit card before checking your luggage.
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Which Islands to Visit
The three islands where you can spend the night without a cruise are Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, and Isabela. Santa Cruz is the commercial center of the islands and it has much less wildlife compared to the others. San Cristóbal is the sea lion island and it has the best beaches. Isabela is more relaxed, has a lot to see on the island, and cheap tours. The costs on Isabela are significantly lower than the rest of the Galápagos and it’s a crowd favorite.
The other islands can only be accessed by day tours. You need to have flexibility in your schedule because a tour to a specific island doesn’t necessarily depart every day. You can book tours before arriving in the Galápagos, but you’ll pay a premium of about 50%.
Related: The Best 1 Month Ecuador Itinerary
When to Visit
There are two distinct seasons in the Galápagos and June-December is the cold and dry season. This time of year is better for seeing marine life, but you’ll need to wear a wetsuit. I went snorkeling one day with an oversized wetsuit and it was so cold my hands turned purple. Daily highs are in the mid to upper 60s (˚F).
January-May is warmer, with highs of 75-85˚F, and it rains more. This time of year is better for seeing land animals and the islands are a lot greener. The lowest prices for visiting the Galápagos Islands are in September-October, but keep in mind these are the coldest months in the water.
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Transportation Between Islands
The “ferries”, which are 24-person speed boats, run twice daily, at 7 AM and 3 PM. The routes are Santa Cruz-San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz-Isabela. If you want to go from San Cristóbal to Isabela, you need to take a ferry to Santa Cruz and wait until the afternoon or the next morning to get to Isabela. The ferry rides are about 2 hours give or take.
The ticket price is $25, but some agencies sell them for $30. Buy your ferry tickets as soon as you know what time you want to depart the island because you don’t want to risk the ferry being sold out, which did happen to me. Ferries that are heading east tend to be a rockier ride, so I recommend taking Dramamine beforehand.
If you want to buy your ferry tickets before arriving on the islands, Bookaway is the place to do it!
How to Get from the Airport to the Town
If you fly into Santa Cruz you take a bus, a water taxi, and a second bus to arrive in the town. The total cost is $11 and the journey takes about 75 minutes. When departing the islands, be aware that the last bus from Puerto Ayora to the airport leaves at 8 AM. After 8 AM, you will need to take a taxi for $25. You can also fly in and out of San Cristóbal Island, whose airport is a short drive from the town.
Related: 10 Important Things to Know Before Visiting Ecuador
What to Do on Santa Cruz Island
Day tour to North Seymour – North Seymour is home to the famous blue-footed boobies, albatrosses, frigates with big red mating chests, sea lions, and iguanas. The tour includes a stop at Las Bachas beach, which wasn’t great for snorkeling but did have sea turtles. The price of the tour was $170.
Day tour to Bartolomé – This is the most picturesque island of the Galápagos and it has the famous shot of Pinnacle Rock surrounded by volcanic ash and beaches. You’ll hike 20 minutes to the viewpoint and if you’re lucky, you’ll see Galápagos penguins. In the afternoon, there’s snorkeling where you have the chance to swim with turtles and sea lions. This is one of the most expensive tours in the Galápagos and it costs $180.
Charles Darwin Research Station – A nice introduction to the islands where you can learn about the history, endangered & invasive species, and projects the scientists are working on. There’s a turtle reserve and small beaches nearby with iguanas, birds, and crabs. The entrance is $10 which includes a guided tour and you can expect to spend about 2 hours here.
El Chato Tortoise Reserve – Lots of giant turtles roam free here, unlike the research station where they are fenced in. The entrance is $10, which includes a short guided tour. You can take the bus there for $1 and a taxi back for $20. Another option is to rent a bike for $15. However, you’ll still want to take the bus there because it’s uphill, then ride the bike back.
Tortuga Bay – A peaceful white sand beach with iguanas, turtles, and sharks. The snorkeling isn’t great, but it’s amazing to see the turtles come to the surface. I recommend renting a kayak for the best experience. The bay is a 40-minute walk from town and the entrance is free.
Las Grietas – A small nature reserve with two natural pools for snorkeling. The water is very clear, but the only marine life is fish. It’s $10 for the entrance, which includes a guide who explains the flora of the lowlands.
Fishing Piers – This is where the local fish market takes place, but the real show is the sea lions. Sometimes they are asleep, but when they are up and moving it always draws a crowd.
Related: A Complete Guide to Hiking the Quilotoa Loop
Where to Eat on Santa Cruz
Andrea & Valerio – Delicious organic shawarma for only $5 to go along with nice views of the bay.
Kiosko de Renato – A street full of simple restaurants serving meals as cheap as $5.
Where to Stay on Santa Cruz
Thankfully, the Galápagos Islands do have accommodation for a backpacking budget. However, hostels are in short supply, so it’s best to book well in advance.
Lonesome George Ecolodge – A hostel with uniquely designed rooms and hammocks on the terrace. The staff is awesome and willing to talk about what life is like as an islander. They are very knowledgeable about what to do on the islands and will help organize tours.
What to Do on San Cristóbal Island
360 Tour – A snorkeling-focused tour that stops at various points around San Cristóbal with the last stop being the famous Kicker Rock. The first snorkeling stop is a lagoon near a beautiful white sand beach with sharks and turtles. You will also have the chance to spot blue-footed boobies here.
The snorkeling at Kicker Rock is intense. The water is cold and the currents are strong, but it’s an incredible experience even if you aren’t lucky enough to see lots of marine life. It’s possible to spot turtles, sea lions, hammerhead sharks (if you’re very lucky), eagle rays, and starfish.
I paid $150, but I only had one full day in San Cristóbal, so I had to book with an agency on another island and paid a $30 premium.
Playa Loberia – An awesome place to observe sea lions and go snorkeling. This was a highlight of my trip and you could easily spend half the day here. The water is clear and there are sea turtles as well. Plus, there’s a short trail to the left of the beach with marine iguanas and birds. The entrance is free and Playa Loberia is a 40-minute walk from town.
Visit the Highlands – I highly recommend this taxi tour to El Junco Lagoon, Galapaguera Turtle Reserve, and Puerto Chino for only $60. Puerto Chino was for me, the nicest beach in the Galápagos and there are a few sea lions that swim here.
At the turtle reserve, you will see baby and giant turtles roaming freely and it feels like you’re in Jurassic Park. Junco Lagoon is hit-or-miss depending on the visibility, but when there’s good weather it’s a nice place for a short hike and birdwatching. With 1 hour at each stop, this will take 4.5-5 hours.
Point Carola Beach – So many sea lions here! It’s a nice place to watch the sunset as well.
Related: The 10 Best Things to Do in Ecuador
Where to Eat on San Cristóbal
Restaurante Lucky – Serves a variety of tasty Ecuadorian meals for $5.
Hotel & Restaurant Miconia – Quality arepas and burritos with views of the bay.
Where to Stay on San Cristóbal
Hostal Cattleya – I really enjoyed my stay here. They have hammocks on the terrace, the dorms are spacious, and there’s free breakfast. The very friendly owners eat breakfast with the guests on the terrace and rent out snorkeling gear for cheap.
What to Do on Isabela Island
Los Túneles – Rightfully so, this is the most popular tour on the island. The variety of animals you see is outstanding and it only costs $90. There are blue-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, penguins, whitetip sharks, seahorses, eagle rays, sea turtles, and sea lions.
Concha de Perla – This is an awesome free snorkeling spot. I was able to see eagle rays, marine iguanas, turtles, sea lions, and starfish.
Las Tintoreras – I did not do this tour, but I met many people who did and loved it. Tintorera is Spanish for whitetip shark and that’s what this islet is full of. You can also see penguins and eagle rays. The tour is 3 hours long and costs $40.
Wall of Tears – Hike or bike along a path with turtles and iguanas to a viewpoint of the bay. The wall is a monument to the prisoners of a penal colony the island had in the 1950s. You get a perspective of how small the town of Puerto Villamil is from here and there are a couple of spots to swim on your way back to the town. This takes about 4-5 hours on foot.
Sierra Negra Volcano – A guided hike to the second biggest volcanic crater in the world for $30. It’s fascinating to see how the landscape and climate change in the Galápagos within a few kilometers. At the end of the hike, you’ll have wonderful views of Isla Fernandina.
Related: A Complete Guide to Baños de Santa Agua
Where to Eat on Isabela
Albita Grill – This is the best food I had in the Galápagos and at $5 per plate, it’s no surprise that it fills up every night.
Where to Stay on Isabela
Posada del Caminante – A simple hostel with really good prices, hot water, and free fruit all day. Leave it to the Galápagos Islands to have the only hostel I’ve encountered while backpacking with free laundry service.
Cost Breakdown for 10 Nights in the Galápagos
Round Trip Flight from Quito with 1 Checked Bag = $287
Transit Card = $20, buy at departing airport before checking luggage
Galápagos Entrance Fee = $100, pay on arrival at Galápagos Airport
Isabela Island Entrance Fee = $10
Zinc Oxide Sunscreen = $20, can buy at Sana Sana Pharmacy in Quito. Eco-friendly sunscreen is recommended for visiting the Galápagos Islands.
Snorkeling Mask = $15, can buy at Kao Sport Center in Quito or rent for $5/day on islands (included for tours)
Wetsuit Rental (2 days) = $10
Transportation to and from Baltra Airport = $22
Accommodation (10 nights) = $258
Ferries (4 rides plus port tax) = $110
Organized Tours (5) = $620
Other Activities = $82
Groceries = $25
Restaurants (10 meals) = $78
Total = $1657
Related: 12 Ways to Save Money on Travel Without Missing the Best Experiences
How Long to Stay
Everyone I met who only spent 5-6 days here regretted it and wished they gave themselves more time. A big chunk of the expenses is flights, entrance fees, and ferries, which don’t cost any more the longer you stay in the Galápagos. Below is an 8-night itinerary which I think is the minimum amount of time you need. With this itinerary, a budget of $1500 is a reasonable target for the incredible experience of backpacking in the Galápagos Islands.
Day 1: Arrive in Santa Cruz and spend the afternoon at Tortuga Bay.
Day 2: North Seymour Island Tour
Day 3: 7 AM ferry to San Cristóbal. Visit Playa Loberia and Point Carola.
Day 4: 360 Tour
Day 5: Highlands Taxi Tour, 3 PM ferry to Santa Cruz
Day 6: 7 AM ferry to Isabela. Snorkel at Las Tintoreras and bike to the Wall of Tears.
Day 7: Hike to Volcán Sierra Negra and snorkel at Concha de Perla.
Day 8: Los Túneles
Departure Day: 7 AM ferry to Santa Cruz, departing flight. If the 7 AM ferry doesn’t give you enough time to catch your flight, the Los Túneles tour finishes early enough to take the 3 PM ferry the day prior.
If you want to save time, look for flights that fly into Santa Cruz and out of San Cristóbal or vice versa. This will save you one ferry ride and free up your itinerary a bit.
Where to Next
Ecuador has so much to offer apart from the Galápagos Islands and the mainland prices are a lot friendlier for backpacking.
Quito – Ecuador’s charming capital has beautiful churches and the largest historic center in South America.
Otavalo – Visit the largest indigenous textile market in South America and enjoy one of the country’s best hikes.
Cuenca – The country’s prettiest city has delicious food and is the gateway to the beautiful Cajas National Park.
Baños – A scenic town with incredible landscapes, a biking adventure, waterfalls, and short hikes.
That wraps up the complete guide to backpacking in the Galápagos Islands! Visiting the Galápagos Islands was expensive and involved lots of planning, but it was undoubtedly one of the highlights of 8 months of backpacking in South America.