Planning a DIY Galapagos Islands Vacation – Tips to Keep in Mind

Published by Guest Blogger. Last Updated on March 8, 2022.

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A trip to the Galapagos sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime experience and not only for the unique wildlife encounters you would have. The Galapagos Islands are also mistakenly considered one of the most expensive destinations to travel to and therefore a trip reserved only to the privileged ones.

In this post, I will show you that nothing is further from the truth. Although the largest is your budget the more tours you can join and the more luxurious your trip can be, it’s also possible to enjoy the Galapagos Islands with limited financial resources.

I have been to the Galapagos for three weeks and I spent a week on each of the main islands without breaking the bank. Read on to see how I did it and what are the most interesting thing to do.

The Galapagos Islands are a Once in a Lifetime Experience

Bartolome Island in the Galapagos

The Galápagos Islands are located about 966 kilometers (600 miles) off of the Ecuadorian coast and are part of Ecuador.

Although you can count about thirteen major islands and many smaller islands and rocks, only four of them are inhabited while a few others can be visited by tour or cruises.

The largest island is Isabela, then Santa Cruz, San Cristobal followed by the tiny Floreana.

The busiest island with the most modern infrastructures is Santa Cruz (which also includes the smaller Baltra where the airport is located).

The Galapagos islands are mainly famous for their varied ecosystem and the number of endemic species of flora and fauna.

For this reason, this region of the world has been under the radar of scientists over the years although the more famous is the British naturalist Charles Darwin who went to the Galápagos in 1835, on a ship called the HMS Beagle, which is now the name of a tourist cruise vessel built in the old fashion style.

It was his in-depth studies on the islands' wildlife that inspired his world-famous theory of the evolution of the species.

Nowadays the Galapagos islands have been proclaimed Marine Reserve and UNESCO heritage site with the purpose to preserve the natural environment with strict rules and controlled tourism. In fact, in order to reduce the inevitable impact of the human presence on the natural world, there can be only so many tours and cruises.

Therefore if you happen to travel in the high season make sure you book your tours in advance.

Traveling to Galapagos Islands – Practical tips

Puerto Ayora at Night

How to get to the Galapagos Islands

Traveling to the Galapagos islands is easier than it seems. You must fly to Ecuador's mainland first.

Domestic flights leave regularly from the Capital City Quito and Guayaquil to Santa Cruz (Baltra) and San Cristobal islands. The only two airlines that are now flying to the Galapagos Islands are Avianca and Latam.

The average price is around 400 USD return.

The best way is always to book in advance and compare prices between the two airlines.

Also to keep in mind when you book:

  • The lowest fare that you find on the airline website is usually exclusive to locals. Make sure you check that before booking.
  • Even if you book a cruise you still need to reach the Galapagos islands by air. There is no other option. However some cruises include the flights in the package.
  • You need to have a return ticket to enter the Galapagos islands

Necessary Documents to Enter the Galapagos Islands

Although I always suggest you check on the local sites before booking for any updated information, here is a general list of documents you need in order to get to the Galapagos islands

  • a +6-month-valid passport
  • 20 USD to purchase the TCT card ( you will buy it in Quito or Guayaquil airport before the check-in) (cash)
  • 100 USD tax to pay at your arrival (cash)
  • Travel insurance
  • Flight and hotels confirmation
  • Also make sure you check your visa requirement for entering Ecuador which depends on the country you are coming from.

About covid related requirements, at the moment a vaccine passport and covid test are both required, but I suggest you check with the authority website before booking and before traveling in case of any changes.

Also to keep in mind, you are allowed to stay in Ecuador for no longer than 3 months (with possible extension upon request) and only 60 days in the Galapagos (per year).

How to Move Around the Galapagos Islands

If you decide not to join a Galapagos cruise you can easily hop from island to island by boat. All the islands are interconnected but you will always need to get to Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz) in order to get to another island. Sometimes you can find a direct ferry from San Cristobal to Isabela Island but they are less frequent.

You can buy your ferry ticket from any local travel agent.

If you wish to fly between islands you can always check EMETEBE, a local airline for about $200 per person each way.

Free Things to Do in the Galapagos Islands

Tortuga Bay in the Galapagos

Didn’t I tell you that you can travel to the Galapagos Islands without breaking the bank? So here is a list of the most incredible free things to do on the three main Galapagos Islands to help you plan your Galapagos Itinerary.

Free Things to Do on Santa Cruz Island

Walk to Tortuga Bay beach

Tortuga bay is a spectacular bay located within a walking distance from Puerto Ayora. You will walk along a path among trees and colorful birds for about 1 km and you will get to two spectacular beaches. The first one is mainly for surfers, the second beach on the right is in a protected bay suitable for any kind of swimmers. You will enjoy observing marine iguanas, red crabs, and many kinds of birds, including the funny blue-footed boobies fishing in the ocean. You can rent kayaks and go snorkeling.

If you stay until closing time (5 pm) you may see baby sharks swimming by the shore as well.

Snorkel at Las Grietas and Enjoy Playa Alemanes

To get to Las Grietas actually implies a couple of dollars spent for the boat to get you there from the Marina. It’s in fact located right opposite Puerto Ayora Marina on the right side of the bay, but you can only access by boat.

You can bask in the sun on Playa Alemanes but not before swimming in the crystal clear cooling waters of Las Grietas, a natural pool and home to colorful fishes. It’s indeed an unmissable experience and it’s free.

The Conservancy at the Charles Darwin Research

Giant Turtle in the Galapagos

On the opposite side from Playa Alemane, you can reach the Charles Darwin Research Foundation, at a walking distance from the marina. There you can learn about the conservation projects and see some of the endemic giant tortoises and iguana species kept under observation for preservation purposes.

Right before reaching the foundation, you can check out a couple of free beaches populated by the ugly and omnipresent marine iguanas.

Watch the Baby Sharks from the Pier

When the night comes, there is not much entertainment in Santa Cruz, besides trying some of the delicious fish restaurants on the street.
When you finish your delicious meal, make sure you head to the pier and look down in the water. You will see many baby sharks swimming around.

Mind not to step on a sea lion that may be carelessly sleeping on your way.

Bask in the Sun at El Garrapatero Beach

Iguana on the Beach

This is actually a little costly as you will need to hire a taxi to take you there and bring you back. It was around 40 USD return at the time I went.

Make sure you agree with the driver on the price and a specific time to pick you up. Not all phone companies are working there so it’s difficult to communicate with the driver from the beach.

El Garrapatero is a spectacular wide public beach where you can also snorkel or rent a kayak to explore the surroundings, or just relax while enjoying the wild landscape. There is no restaurant or facilities. So you should bring water and food but make sure you take your trash with you when you leave.

Relax in the Laguna de Las Ninfeas

Laguna de las Ninfeas is a tranquil lagoon surrounded by different types of mangroves located right downtown, free to visit. You can walk around it on the interpretative trail along the boardwalk or just sit on one of the platforms and enjoy the silence while looking for any water creature passing by.

Free things to do on San Cristobal Island

Familiarize with the Funny Sea Lions

Baby Sea lion

San Cristobal Island is where I have seen the largest sea lion population in Galapagos Islands. They are everywhere along the coastline and if you happen to be there in December you will see the adorable baby sea lions running towards you curious to check you out.

Although you will be very tempted, make sure you don’t touch them because it is prohibited by the law for their safety.

In fact, it seems that if a human touches them, they lose their natural odor and their mum doesn’t recognize them anymore. She will stop feeding them and they will starve to death unless another mum who has lost her baby may adopt the orphan. Ah! The miracles of Nature!

Bask in the Sun at Playa Mann

Playa Mann is the closest beach that you can find to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal main town. It’s at a walkable distance from the center and it makes a great stop for sunbathing and snorkeling. There is also a restaurant right on the beach, and of course, sea lions basking in the sun.

Visit the Interpretation Center

If you continue your walk from Playa Mann in the same direction you will end up at the interpretation center where you can get acquainted with San Cristobal's history, and its main fauna and flora species.

Visit Playa Punta Carola (the Best Sunset Spot)

Sunset on Punta Carola

If you continue on the trail from the interpretation center you will get to the best beach in San Cristobal, Playa Punta Carola, where you will want to spend your afternoon until the sun goes down right in front of you for a spectacular orange ski.

Here as well, you will be surrounded by hundreds of sea lions but they won’t bother you. They are funny to observe. Watch out for the macho alpha, though, and make sure you don’t get too close. They have territory issues!

Snorkel at Las Tijeretas and Hike to Cerro Tijeretas

At a few minutes' walk from Playa Punta Carola you will find Las Tijeretas, the most incredible snorkeling point in San Cristobal. Make sure you bring your own snorkeling equipment including fins so you will be able to swim around without running out of energy, especially if you find currents. You will swim with sealions, other incredible marine creatures.

You can also hike to the lookout above this bay for incredible views including a colony of frigates that nest right there. If you see some of them inflating their red neck it means it’s mating season and they are basically showing off to attract the female.

Free Things to do on Isabela Island

Red Crab in the Galapagos

Isabela is the least constructed island, wifi is crap and if you are staying in an apartment it’s difficult to find decent grocery shopping. However, the island abounds with wildlife and natural attractions and there are plenty of restaurants and affordable hotels.

Snorkeling at Concha de Perla

Right close to the Marina, where your ferry arrives, you will find the entrance to Concha Perla, a natural pool surrounded by mangroves where you can snorkel. The path there may be populated by sea lions and iguanas, which is an experience in itself.

You may be lucky to see dolphins passing by as well.

Bike to the Muro the Las Lagrimas (or Walk)

I would suggest you should rent a bike to get all the way to the Muro de las Lagrimas, I believe the only historical site in the Galapagos. From there you can also take a short hike to a cliff and get to a spectacular lookout where you have an incredible view of Isabela Island coastline. You can stop by some beaches along the way. You may see tortoise and iguanas as well.

Walk on the boardwalk to the Tortoise Breeding Center and watch the beautiful Flamingo along the way

From Puerto Villamil you can walk to the Tortoise Breeding Center dedicated to helping the species of giant turtles to continue their lineage. On the way there you will walk along a boardwalk on a lagoon where you will spot some gracious pink Flamingoes hanging out and looking for food. They stay at a very close distance and just like any other animal in the Galapagos they are not scared by the human presence. Just make sure you respect the environment and keep silent.

The Best Tours to Join on the Galapagos Islands

Kicker Rock in the Galapagos

As you can see there are so many things that you can do on the Galapagos Islands without spending a dime or just a few. However, if you want to take your trip to a different level here are some incredible boat tours that you should consider.

Each tour costs around 200 USD per person or a little more and it covers the entire day exploring remote islands or beaches with lunch and breakfast included. All the tours in the Galapagos islands offer first-class services. Considering where you are and the overall service they are not that expensive.

Bartolome’ Island (from Santa Cruz)

You may have seen Bartolome island in all the promotional pictures of the Galapagos. The one that you are seeing in the above photo.
The tour includes a short hike to the lookout point for spectacular views and the iconic shot and a snorkel trip on the other side of the island where you may have the chance to see penguins among all the exciting marine life.

The trip itself is worth taking though, because you may encounter schools of dolphins and hammer sharks along the way.

Espanola Island (From San Cristobal)

Going to Espanola island is like going back to the Jurassic era, or that’s how I remember it.

It’s also a deserted uninhabited island where you will have the privilege to see the giant Albatros at a close distance and if you are there in November/ December you will see the baby Albatros as well. Indeed an emotional encounter. But also the elegant Nasca boobies (in the picture) and the Galapagos mockingbird that I haven’t seen on other islands. And of course hundreds of Marine iguana and red crabs on the beach.

360° Around San Cristobal Island

If you love snorkeling this tour is for you. The boat will take you around the islands stopping in spectacular snorkeling spots where you will also see sharks at a very close distance. Then you will be taken onto a pristine isolated beach where you have time to explore around and see more wildlife and again another snorkeling around the famous Kicker Rock where you will be snorkeling with sea turtles, sharks and if you are lucky, hammer sharks.

Dive Kicker Rock (From San Cristobal island)

If you are a diver even at a beginner level I would suggest you should go on a dive by kicker rock as you are almost likely to find hammer sharks among other incredible aquatic creatures. It is an expensive dive but considering that’s a one-in-a-lifetime experience it’s worth the financial efforts.

As you can see the Galapagos island is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime destination that you want to include in your bucket list, if you love exploring a natural environment that is still relatively untouched and preserved, the Galapagos Islands will blow you away.

Isabella from Boundless Roads
Isabella is a relentless nomad who travels for the sake of traveling and photographing places but would always go back to her beloved Mexico, her second home for the past 15 years. In Boundless Roads she aims to inspire other solo women travelers to live their best travel adventures. She’s also the founder of Lets Travel to Mexico. When she’s not writing she’s out in the field, looking for a new Cenote to photograph or flying her drone.

All images were provided courtesy of Boundless Roads.

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