Good news! You don’t need to book an expensive cruise to discover the wonders of the Galápagos – here’s how to DIY it. Regis St Louis, who has journeyed extensively across the archipelago for multiple editions of Lonely Planet Ecuador, explains how to put together an independent itinerary.
Question: I’ve been dreaming about taking a trip to the Galápagos, but it seems like the only way to visit is on an all-inclusive cruise. Is there a cheaper way to visit the islands?
Regis St Louis: While the majority of visitors to the Galápagos travel around the islands on a cruise – which come in at somewhere between $400 and $1000 per person per day – there is indeed a far more economical way to explore different facets of the archipelago. By traveling independently, using inter-island boats and basing yourself at onshore hotels and guesthouses, you can easily cut your costs significantly – to $200 a day or less.
Inter-island travel in the Galápagos
There are quite a few misconceptions about this famous archipelago, located 600 miles off the west coast of South America. Some people imagine a wilderness full of exotic plant and animal life scattered across rugged, entirely uninhabited islands. While there are plenty of unusual species here – from massive tortoises to ocean-going lizards – and the terrain resembles few other places on earth (thank lava tunnels, misty highland forests and pink-sand lagoons), the Galápagos is also home to several human settlements. In fact, in this remote corner of Ecuador, some 32,000 people are scattered across four main islands (a fifth has an airport). All of which is to say that people do indeed live here. And when they move between the islands, they don’t travel by cruise ship.
Private speed boats (called lanchas) offer an affordable way to hop between these main islands. Isla Santa Cruz is the hub, with daily departures west to the island of Isabela, east to San Cristóbal and south to Floreana. These boats leave in both the morning and afternoon and take around two hours each way. The current one-way fare is around $35 (Ecuador uses the US dollar, making for easy, conversion-less travel for visitors from the USA).
Using these small, fast boats to get around, you can base yourself at the main town on each inhabited island, then take day trips to see many of the natural wonders of the Galápagos. You can splash out for a few day tours (or skip them altogether), then supplement your island experience with DIY adventures. Puerto Ayora, the archipelago’s largest town, is home to the Charles Darwin Research Station, which offers fascinating insights into an important breeding program for giant tortoises. North of town, at El Chato Tortoise Reserve, you can see the lumbering giants in the wild. At nearby Los Gemelos, vermilion flycatchers flit through the air amid rare scalesia forest. Over on Isla San Cristóbal, you can hire a bike for a spin out to La Lobería, where marine iguanas bask in great piles on the rocky beach. Isabela, the biggest island, makes a great base for memorable adventures, including a full-day trip up to Sierra Negra, with its simmering fumaroles and otherworldly views across a volcanic landscape. A short boat ride from Puerto Villamil (Isabela’s principal town), Las Tintoreras is one of the archipelago’s best places for snorkeling in the midst of Galápagos penguins.
The pros and cons of DIY Galápagos travel
It’s important to keep in mind that many places in the Galápagos are simply not accessible by day trip. If you’re dying to see the waved albatross, for instance, you’ll need to go to Isla Española, the only place in the archipelago where you’ll find a huge colony of the birds (from April to December). Yet you can’t get there unless you’re traveling on a live-aboard boat that includes the island in its itinerary (not all cruises do). Likewise, Isla Genovesa, Islas Marchena and Isla Wolf (famous for its scuba diving) are all too remote to reach on a day trip.
On the other hand, traveling exclusively by cruise ship gives you only the briefest of glimpses of another fascinating side of life: the islands’ human dimension. Puerto Ayora’s seaside market features fishmongers dexterously preparing the day’s catch under the watchful gaze of sea lions and pelicans. A short boat ride followed by an easy hike takes you to Las Grietas, which draws locals and the odd tourist for a swim through sun-dappled waters while daredevils launch themselves from the overhanging cliffs. At Playa Mann, there’s the curious spectacle of families relaxing on the sands besides basking sea lions. And with no ship-based itinerary to follow, you won’t have to miss out on beautiful beaches like Tortuga Bay, reachable via a forest-lined path from town. Staying onshore also gives you ample opportunities to hear stories from locals – people like Elena Albarado, a resident of the Galápagos since 1983, and owner of the eco-friendly Casa del Lago.
Speaking of lodging, you’ll find plenty of options, both budget-friendly and more luxurious, on all of the inhabited islands. Some of the higher-end places, like Pikaia Lodge and Galapagos Safari Camp, also offer their own land-based tour packages. And if you’re interested in pick-and-mix tours, local operators offer a full gamut of half- and full-day excursions like those offered by Galapagos BK Tours, with departures from Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristóbal.