Explore Ecuador’s Wondrous Islands on a Budget

When my husband Mark said, “Let’s go to the Galapagos for your birthday,” I couldn’t help but laugh. The Galapagos Islands, after all, are one of the ecological treasures of the world—and have a price tag to match…or so I thought.

But when we used my 58th birthday as an excuse for a five-day, four-night trip there I found out otherwise. The bill? $1,037 for the two of us, including airfare.

Admittedly, living in Ecuador did give us some advantages when it came to visiting; our entry fee into the national park, for instance, was only $12, compared to non-residents who have to pay $100. But that should not put you off having the Galapagos on your bucket list. For, as we discovered, there are lots of great ways to ensure you have a wonderful trip without racking up huge vacation costs.

Here’s how you do it.

Make Your Own Travel Arrangements:

You can get some great group rates and package deals through travel agencies, but they usually start at $1,200 or more per person. The three airlines that fly to the Galapagos are AeroGal, LAN, and TAME. We chose to fly TAME because it was the least expensive of the three carriers.

If you’re coming from the States, it’s best not to book any tours until you get into Quito or Guayaquil. Or better yet, fly into Baltra (the main airport servicing the islands), get the $0.80 ferry to Santa Cruz (the central island and main port-of-call for tourists) and from there take a $1.80 bus ride into the town of Puerto Ayora. Here, you can secure your own cruise or day trips. There are always last-minute deals up for grabs.

The same goes for lodging. Book your first night before arriving on the island, and once you’re there, look around for last-minute deals.

Travel Off-Season:

There are two low seasons—April to May and September to October—which offer lower rates on cruises and flights. If you’re planning to take a cruise, travel off-season for the best rates. In Puerto Ayora, you can book cruises for half of what you would pay in Quito or Guayaquil. Here’s another secret: It’s always cheaper to fly out of Guayaquil than Quito, and it’s also a shorter flight (one hour and 45 minutes). Although TAME Airlines is the least expensive of
the three carriers, it doesn’t fly every day to the Galapagos, so you need to be flexible with your dates.

Forget the Cruise:

Our friend Chelsea booked a five-day cruise and didn’t even see the giant tortoises. What’s the point of going to the Galapagos if you can’t see giant tortoises? Depending on what cruise you book and what islands you visit, you may not be able to see everything on your wish list. Also, cruises can be rather regimented, meaning you have to be up at 7 a.m., off the boat with the tour guide after breakfast, and back to the boat for lunch. Then you get to start all over again in the afternoon. There are also hidden costs in cruising, including tipping the guides, which isn’t all that cheap. We saw everything we wanted to see (and more) by staying on Santa Cruz island and taking excursions with no tour guide needed.

Take Advantage of the Freebies:

One of the best things about the Galapagos (once you get there) is that you don’t always have to pay to enjoy the wonders all around you. One of our favorite afternoons was spent on the dock of the picturesque Solymar Hotel in Puerto Ayora. There we watched the blue-footed boobies dance, the sea lions sunbathing on a slab of cement, brown pelicans diving for food in the bay, and Darwin’s beloved finches resting on our hands while they waited for crumbs to drop from our sandwich. Cost: $0.

Just north of town is the Charles Darwin Research Station, where you can see the giant tortoises (the same giant tortoises you’re not guaranteed to see on some of those expensive cruises) and several types of highly endangered land iguanas. They have an active breeding program for giant tortoises, so you can see the developmental stages from babies up to four years of age. Afterwards you can cool off at the nearby Playa de Estacion, where we enjoyed snorkeling in the sapphire-blue waters. Once again, the lofty fee amounted to a grand total of $0.


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