Backpacking Galapagos: How to visit Galapagos on a budget

Imagine a place where the ocean is full of sea turtles, rays and tropical fish, the forests are home to 100-year-old giant tortoises, and the shores are covered with colonies of sea lions and marine iguanas. These are the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, a remote volcanic archipelago abundant with species that are found nowhere else in the world. It’s the ultimate paradise for nature lovers and a place that will make you feel like you’re a part of a David Attenborough documentary. 

Many people dream of visiting these enchanting islands but never make this trip happen since Galapagos is perceived to be an extremely expensive travel destination. However, this is not entirely true. We spent two weeks backpacking Galapagos and found that it’s certainly possible to explore these islands on a budget without missing out on many of the incredible experiences Galapagos has to offer. 

In this article, you’ll find everything you need to know for backpacking Galapagos on a budget.

P.S. You might find it useful to also read my article on all the free and cheap things to do in the Galapagos Islands as well as my guide on the 10 best beaches in the Galapagos.

Two people posing with a giant Galapagos tortoise in El Chato reserve on Santa Cruz island
A giant tortoise at El Chato reserve

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How to get to Galapagos Islands?

Getting to Galapagos is quite straightforward. First, you need to fly to mainland Ecuador and then take another flight either from Quito or Guayaquil. The prices for a round trip start at 200 USD and the flight takes a bit less than two hours.

Keep in mind that there are two airports on the Galapagos Islands – one on Santa Cruz Island and the other one on San Cristobal Island. If you plan to visit both of these islands (which you should), I recommend flying into one of the airports and out from the other one, unless it significantly increases the cost of your flights. This way, you won’t have to waste time and money on going back to the same airport where you arrived.

A marine iguana, one of the most common animals you'll see when backpacking Galapagos
A marine iguana taking a nap

Backpacking Galapagos on a budget

The best way to visit Galapagos on a budget is to do land based tours and free activities instead of taking a cruise. Many articles tell you that taking a Galapagos cruise is the only ‘real’ way to see the islands but that’s simply not true. I’m sure the cruises are awesome but that doesn’t mean that you won’t have amazing experiences if you do a land based trip. 

We spent two weeks backpacking Galapagos without taking a cruise, and our days were filled with constant excitement and the most epic adventures in the nature. 

From relaxing on gorgeous white-sand beaches and snorkeling with exotic marine life to hiking through cactus fields and having up-close animal encounters on land, there are lots of things to do in the Galapagos Islands which cost very little or nothing at all. More on that below.

We also did two rather pricy day tours on a boat (Bartolome Island and Kicker Rock) and while they were lovely, our most precious memories from the Galapagos Islands were actually made during the activities that cost us nothing. This convinced me that it is definitely possible to explore Galapagos as a backpacker on a tight budget and still have a wonderful time.

A sea turtle swimming in turquoise water, an animal you can easily spot even when you're backpacking Galapagos on a budget
A sea turtle at Muelle Tijeretas

Which islands to visit when backpacking Galapagos on a budget?

Out of all the islands in the Galapagos archipelago, only four are inhabited. These islands are Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana. The latter only has a tiny population of 150 people and fewer things to do. Therefore, in this article, I’ll focus on the three other islands which offer affordable accommodation options, beautiful places to visit and various Galapagos day tours. 

When you’re backpacking Galapagos, I recommend visiting at least two of the inhabited islands. My favorites were San Cristobal and Santa Cruz.

And if you want to splurge a little to see some of the uninhabited islands or more remote parts of Galapagos, there are plenty of daily boat tours departing from Santa Cruz or San Cristobal.

A girl sitting on white sand in Puerto Chino beach, one of the best beaches in  the Galapagos Islands
The beautiful Puerto Chino beach

How much does a backpacking trip to Galapagos Islands cost?

  • Flights: As I already mentioned above, flights from mainland Ecuador to the Galapagos Islands start at 200 USD for a round trip. We bought our flights just a few weeks before our departure and paid 207 USD per person for our round trip from Guayaquil to Santa Cruz and back including luggage.
  • Entry fees: Before getting on your Galapagos flight, you’ll have to pay 20 USD for a Transit Control Card at the airport in Quito or Guayaquil. Once you arrive at the airport on the Galapagos Islands, you’ll need to pay a 100 USD Galapagos National Park entrance fee in cash (50 USD for kids and visitors from Mercosur countries), which goes towards the conservation of flora and fauna, and supporting the local communities.
A sea lion standing on a staircase on Isabela island, Galapagos
A sea lion guarding the entrance to Concha de Perla
  • Transport: If you fly into Santa Cruz, getting to the island’s main town Puerto Ayora costs 10 USD by public transport and about 25 USD by taxi. The taxi will of course be cheaper if you’ll find others to share the ride with. 

    To travel between the three main islands, you can take a ferry for 30-35 USD per person (note that there’s no ferry connection between Isabela and San Cristobal). We took this ferry four times but for instance, if you only choose to visit San Cristobal and Santa Cruz, and fly into one of the islands and out from the other, you’ll only have to take this ferry once.

    If you want to rent a bike to get around, the price is 10-20 USD per day.
  • Food: You can find restaurants offering a meal for as little as 5 USD, and some of them even have a full menu consisting of a soup, main course, small dessert and a juice for this price! These are the places where the locals eat and they’re typically a few blocks away from the touristy areas. We had several of those 5 dollar meals while backpacking Galapagos on a budget and they kept us full for a long time.
  • Accommodation: In the main towns, there are lots of cheap Galapagos Islands hostels perfect for backpackers. Prices start from 19 USD per night for a shared room or a very simple private room. More on that below.
  • Tours: This cost depends entirely on which tours you want to take and whether you even want to take any at all. Some tours cost as little as 10 USD per person and go all the way up to hundreds of dollars for a day trip on a boat.

Total Galapagos Islands trip cost

We spent two weeks on Galapagos Islands and spent 1400 USD per person including the flights from and to mainland Ecuador. However, we didn’t stay in the cheapest hostels, we ate in restaurants every day, took the inter-island ferry four times and took two quite expensive boat tours (260 USD in total per person), so you can DEFINITELY do it cheaper if you want to!

A blue-footed booby standing on a lava rock, one of the coolest animals to see when you're backpacking Galapagos
A blue-footed booby – one of the most famous Galapagos animals

Free or cheap Galapagos land based tours and activities

Although getting to the islands is quite pricey, the good news is that once you’re there, you’ll find lots of free or affordable tours and activities that won’t break your bank.

Santa Cruz Island offers probably the largest range of free/cheap things to do when you’re backpacking Galapagos. The three must-see places are Tortuga Bay beach, El Chato Giant Tortoise Reserve and Las Grietas natural pool. Consider also visiting La Estacion beach, El Garrapatero beach and Charles Darwin Research Station or taking a Bay Tour.

There’s also plenty of affordable things to do in San Cristobal. Snorkel at Muelle Tijeretas, learn about the history of Galapagos in the Interpretation Centre and visit all the amazing beaches, such as Puerto Chino, La Loberia, Playa Mann and Playa Punta Carola.

On Isabela Island, go snorkeling at Concha de Perla, bike to the Wall of Tears and relax on La Playita beach.

Make sure to read my article on all the cheap/free things to do in the Galapagos Islands for more tips!

A girl looking at a black marine iguana on the white sand at Tortuga Bay, one of the best places to see in Galapagos
Tortuga Bay

Cheap Galapagos Islands hostels for backpackers

You definitely don’t need to spend a fortune on accommodation while backpacking Galapagos on a budget, since there are lots of hostels and guest houses to choose from.

Here are the hostels we stayed at, my honest reviews of them and a few more options that caught my attention.

Santa Cruz Galapagos hostels

Hostal El Pinzon – This hostel was great value for money. What we liked about it was its location, spotless and spacious rooms that are cleaned every day, air conditioning, shower with hot water, the possibility to use a kitchen and free purified drinking water. The cons were a lack of natural light in the rooms and poor wifi connection.

Hostal Sir Francis Drake – Another place that looks like amazing value for money. The location is super central, close to all the restaurants, the harbor and the main street. The rooms look cute and have AC, a TV and a private bathroom.

San Cristobal Galapagos hostels

Hostal Nathaly – This was a lovely guest house with super clean rooms, free drinking water, a tiny but spotless kitchen and very helpful owners. Out of all the places we stayed at, Hostal Nathaly had by far the best wifi connection. A great affordable option for anyone backpacking Galapagos on a budget.

Hostal Suiza – Very reasonably priced hostel with spacious rooms located just a few blocks from the main street. They also have a shaded garden where you can relax.

Isabela Galapagos hostels

Posada del Caminante – A simple hostel with comfortable and spacious rooms that stayed cool despite the heat outside. There’s a free laundry service and free snorkeling gear you can use. They also provide free drinking water and bananas! The disadvantages are that you might have issues with the shower (no hot water during our stay), the kitchen is super tiny and the wifi connection is weak, which is the case all over Isabela.

Hospedaje Muro De Las Lagrimas – This place is located just one block from a beautiful sandy beach. The rooms look pretty with lots of natural light and there’s also a garden with hammocks and palm trees.

Sally lightfoot crabs standing on a volcanic rock, one of the most common animals to see when visiting Galapagos on a budget
Sally lightfoot crabs climbing on lava rocks

Final tips for backpacking Galapagos on a budget

  • Sunburns – Since the Galapagos Islands are located on the equator, the sun here is seriously strong. Get yourself some reef safe sunscreen so you wouldn’t harm the pristine underwater world and even consider swimming/snorkeling with a T-shirt on to protect yourself from the harsh sun.
  • Cash – Most businesses only accept cash so make sure you have enough with you. There are several ATMs in Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. In Isabela, however, there is only one ATM. There, we found ourselves in a situation where we were running out of cash and the only ATM on the island was out of order! 
  • Snorkeling – Galapagos is a snorkeling heaven so buy yourself a mask and a snorkel so you wouldn’t have to rent them every time you visit a beach. Not only will you end up saving money but it’s also much more convenient to always have your own mask with you. 
  • Horseflies and mosquitoes – This might be dependent on the season, but when we were backpacking Galapagos, there were lots of horseflies and mosquitoes harassing us. Remember to bring a repellent with you everywhere you go!
  • Reusable water bottle – Like in most of South America, tap water in the Galapagos Islands is not safe to drink. Some hostels provide filtered water free of charge so bring a reusable bottle with you. Even better, get yourself a bottle that can purify water for you, so you won’t have to worry about running out of drinking water. We swear by the Grayl water purifier bottle and have been using it during all our travels to purify unsafe tap water and even water from rivers.

You might also be interested in my other blog posts about the Galapagos Islands:

For more photos and videos of our Galapagos budget trip, check out my Instagram account. Look for the highlight called Galapagos.

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