We'd long dreamt of visiting the natural wonderland that is the Galápagos Islands, spending countless hours researching how to do it without selling our first unborn child. We had a loose plan and we were determined to spend 8 days there for less than $1000 each...and we did. This is how.
We had managed to find some cheap flights through TAME airlines, an Ecuadorian flight service. We booked one way wanting to keep our options open and this was our first fail.
At the airport we were told we couldn't board the flight without a return ticket so, much to our dismay, we had to fit the bill of a slightly higher priced ticket than the one we purchased to get there.
We flew into Baltra Airport on the north side of Santa Cruz and the view from the plane was incredible, with turquoise waters surrounding the islands. We had decided to leave our backpacks in Guayaquil on the mainland of Ecuador for the week to prevent the hassle of lugging them around on ferries and between Islands and this turned out to be a great idea after witnessing other people carrying their houses on their backs. It just didn't look quite as appealing as carrying a day pack.
Once we arrived in Santa Cruz, about an hour from the airport, we begun looking for the cheapest accommodation possible. We were told that throughout the Islands there were hostels offering beds for as low as $8 a night yet we had no luck in finding these and settled for $15 a night which was feasible.
The major draw card to the Galápagos for us was the wildlife, both land based and marine. Admittedly, the best way to see the marine animals is to take a tour which happened to be priced roughly in the 3 figure area per person. It also seemed impossible to see everything in one tour, and we were advised we would need to book two or three different ones to see everything on our list.
So being tight arsed we decided to do everything we possibly could for free or at a low cost and if we missed anything by the end of the week we could assess the budget, bite the bullet and do a tour.
And, as we found out, there are many free things to do on the Galápagos.
We visited the Charles Darwin research centre and saw the giant tortoises, birds and other animals as well as the information centre to learn about what Darwin was doing there.
We also took a trip to local and privately owned tortoise farm, El Chato, about 15km out of Santa Cruz as we thought it would be the only way to see multitudes of tortoises in the wild. There is no public transport route so the options were taxi or bike. The cost was roughly the same ($30) so we took a taxi. A bit steep but, we got to see many tortoises and also walk through some of the old lave tunnels in the area. If your into geology I'm sure this would be right up your alley.
And we visited Tortuga Bay, a beach about an hours walk out of town. I'm sure the water here would normally be crystal clear and still as a pond but, as fate would have it, we went on an overcast day. Still a nice walk and a quiet chilled out beach.
Back in town we frequented the local fish market to see what exotic catch they were selling that day and to watch the local sea lions beg for scraps. We also decided to splurge a bit and bought some fresh lobster. A half kilo whole lobster for ten bucks seemed quite reasonable and Krystelle ate the whole thing to herself! I'm not really into seafood.
Another great spot to visit on a budget is Las Grietas. We took a water ferry across the bay (USD 50c per person each way) and then hiked a short distance to a lava fissure filled with brackish water. It was super refreshing and a great way to cool off.
We also spent a casual morning walking around Laguna Las Ninfas. A small lagoon with wooden boardwalk that was wonderfully peaceful.
At night we discovered that the pier in Santa Cruz comes to life with black tipped sharks, turtles and sea lions attracted by the lights of the pier. Very cool find. The next day it was time to head to a new island.
Our original plan was to visit only two of the three inhabited islands in the Galápagos due to the exit and entry transport only existing on two of the three islands. This soon changed and we had the task of reorganising our departure day and place. So, the next island we went to was Isabel Island, the largest of the three but much quieter and less developed with the most free and easily accessible beaches.
There is a 6 km track that starts just outside of town and visits Los Humedales or the Wetlands, consisting of a number of mangrove plantations, lakes, ponds and further on mountains, lookouts and an impressive wall built from volcanic rock by prisoners that were incarcerated on the island in its early days of colonisation, giving it the nickname, Murro de las Lágrimas, or the Wall of Tears.
Again, we had the choice to rent bikes for $15 each or walk. So we spent the money on beer and walked the round trip of 15 kms more or less. People must have thought we were insane. We did see some unique wildlife however, on the walk and some random wild tortoises strolling around which we may not have seen if we were on bikes so we were winning in more way than one there.
The next day the sun came out strong which is a blue moon event for us whenever we are closer than 50km to the coast so we decided to rent snorkels and try our luck seeing some marine life. There is a small cove behind the boat port, Las Tintoreras, that had ranging depths all easily seen with a snorkel and mask. Unfortunately we only saw fish but there there were a lot of fish so not a total loss. The snorkelling didn't last too long either as the water felt like it could have been from somewhere in Alaska. Freezing!
We also visited Villamil Lagoon spotting more birds and even flamingos. If you continue along the boardwalk for roughly 1.2kms, you eventually come to the Arnaldo Tupiza Breeding Centre for tortoises. Admission is free and you get to see the tortoises at different stages in their very long lives.
As our plans had changed and we were now going to incorporate the third island San Cristobal upon receiving advice that it wasn't to be missed, we left Isabel with plans of a whole day on water taxis. The three islands are all accessible by boat but only at certain times of the day so this is where some prior planning would have gone a long way to help us.
We ferried back to Santa Cruz ( the middle island) and had a layover of about four hours until the next ferry to San Cristobal which was the only way to get from one to the other, but it allowed us to drop into the airline office and change our flight to leave from San Cristobal.
Again, we had to pay a little extra to cover the cost of the new flight but it would be worth it and less hassle than trying to return to Santa Cruz. We stopped for a typical meal before the boat at a very low cost them boarded to San Cristobal. We were even lucky enough to have a pod of dolphins follow our boat along the way.
As soon as we arrived on San Cristobal Island, we were glad we had made the choice to come here. The main part of town didn't seem as busy as Santa Cruz and in our opinion, it was much nicer to visit. We managed to find a room for $25 dollars a night right on the foreshore so we were set.
The next day we set off to visit the Interpretation Centre which offers an extensive history of the Galápagos Islands. We actually wished we had visited here first to learn about the history before going to the other islands.
Afterwards, we spent the day walking around the tracks behind the information centre, including up to Cerro Tijeretas, where we visited some secluded beaches and snorkelling coves where we saw manta rays, fish and many sea lions swimming and playing.
The next day, we visited La Loberia Beach which is where the sea lions used to live before the population moved to the beaches in town. Here we took a cliff walk around to some high coves to try our luck at spotting some bird life. What a stella idea that turned out to be as we managed to see almost every species of bird unique to the Islands in the one place.
We stayed there for a few hours and watched the hundreds of birds flying around and positioned ourselves in different places on top of the cove to get photos.
Successful day but, we still hadn't seen some of the marine life we'd hoped to experience. With one day left we took the plunge and booked a tour to Kicker rock to hopefully see the hammer head sharks and other marine life.
Krystelle was not so keen to go snorkelling, desiring for herself, a day of mani-pedis however, the tour guides were great at talking her into it and we both booked the tour.
The first stop on the tour was to a bank where the pelicans come to breed. We saw many pelicans in their nests tending to there eggs or chicks. Followed by a stop to a secluded beach only accessible by boat to learn about the importance of the mangrove trees on Galápagos before going for the first snorkel for the day. Here, we were thrilled to be able to swim with sea turtles, manta rays, puffer fish, marine iguanas and many other species of fish. Great start to the day.
Next we ate a small lunch on the boat and headed to Kicker rock some 10 kms offshore. The sea seemed quite aggressive and we were both a bit nervous about snorkelling here but our guide assured us we were safe. Once in the water swimming through the small narrow channel between the two rocks our guide began pointing out marine life.
No more than 5 metres below the surface the sea was alive with turtles, Galapagos sharks, millions of fish and eagle rays. I was in awe of everything below me and ignoring the fact the water was in the sub 10 degrees range. Krystelle stuck it out as long as she could but had to return to boat before she succumbed to hyperthermia with some other girls on the tour while me and the boys continued to snorkel for another half an hour.
After the tour we headed back to San Cristobal all excited and chatting about the things we all saw.
Being our last night on the Galapagos, we decided to treat ourselves, having achieved everything we wanted to do here, and go for an expensive cocktail (two for one of course!) and have a fancy dinner at the sushi restaurant.
The next morning we reluctantly packed our gear and headed to the airport and back to Guayaquil.
The whole experience on the Galapagos seemed somewhat magical as the things we saw and experienced have been like nothing else we have ever done and the decision to go there will be one we will never forget.
As for the budget we set, we came in incredibly close and the excess on our original plan was brought down to changing flights and staying one extra day which all in all wasn't the end of the world. We'd visit again in a heart beat.
Here is a breakdown of our Galapagos expenses (USD$), based on two people for 9 nights.
Want to see more pictures from our Galapagos adventure? Check out the albums on our facebook page; www.facebook.com/globalrunaways.
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