For people around the world, a visit to the Galápagos Islands is a common “bucket list” destination. Unfortunately, visiting this unique but out-of-the-way spot can be a very expensive proposition. For example, a family of four visiting from North America may find that between airfare to Ecuador and then on to the Islands, entry fees, accommodations, tours, meals, etc., that the cost of a Galápagos trip can easily approach or even reach five figures, forcing it to remain a dream for many.
Rita and I are no exception – we also wanted to visit the Galápagos. Actually, it was becoming a source of embarrassment that we had not done so already. After all, we lived in Ecuador for six years and in that time traveled all over the country. In fact, we know Ecuadorians who tell us we have seen more of their country than they have. We’ve visited Buenos Aires, Uruguay, Peru and even hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, but had yet to take the relatively simple hop over to the Islands.
So last August, we decided to take advantage of a trip to the capital city of Quito for an International Living conference to finally make our dream a reality.
This is one of those cases where being an expat in Ecuador gives you a definite advantage. If you are a cedula-bearing resident, you can significantly cut your costs and enjoy a rewarding visit to these famous tiny islands that have had such a tremendous impact on science and our understanding of the world around us. Even if you are not a resident, our experience may help you to plan for your own trip without breaking the bank.
Advantages of Residency
The first advantage we had is huge and should be obvious right off the bat: we were already in Ecuador. This eliminates the cost of international air travel and all of the associated expenses like paying for parking your car back home, hotels for late night arrivals or early morning departures, and so on. The only flights you need to book are domestic runs to the Islands from Quito or Guayaquil. Even if you are not close to either airport, travel within Ecuador by bus, car, or domestic flight is very affordable. Roundtrip tickets to the Galápagos, depending on the time of the year and how early you make your reservations, will cost around $400/person.
If you are a resident and 65 or over, you can make your reservations through a travel agent or at the airline’s business office and get a 50% discount on the price of the ticket. Note that this is only the ticket price – you will have to pay the full charges for airport fees, fuel tax, and other fees – but it is still a substantial savings.
While we are on the subject of airline reservations, here’s another tip for saving money. There are two airports in the Galápagos that handle flights to and from the mainland; one is Aeropuerto Seymour on Isla Baltra, which connects by ferry to Isla Santa Rosa, and Aeropuerto de San Cristóbal on Isla San Cristóbal. These are the two most populated and popular islands, as Santa Cruz is the home of the Darwin Research Center, and San Cristóbal hosts the Interpretation Center.
You can reduce the costs of getting from island to island on your visit by flying into one airport and out the other. The airlines charge the identical rates whether you use the same airport or both, so this means you don’t have to waste money backtracking to an island you have already explored just to catch a flight.
One last word on choosing your flights; LATAM, Avianca, and Tamé all have service to the Galápagos. I suggest trying to avoid Tamé if possible. They have a local reputation for a high frequency of late and/or cancelled flights, and it can be a long process trying to get a refund – speaking from personal experience.
When you arrive at the airport, catching the flight is a different procedure from other domestic flights. First, you must go through a special line where your luggage is scanned, checked, and sealed with zip lock ties. So if you planned on swapping out a jacket or anything from your luggage, do that first! These ties cannot be cut until you arrive in the Galápagos.
Next, everyone (except of course those who live in the Galápagos) must pay a $20/person fee at the Quito or Guayaquil airports to acquire an Entry Visa to the Islands, even residents of the Ecuador mainland. This is a two-part card, which is stamped when you arrive and then one side detached when you exit – so it is important not to lose that! You will need to show this Entry Visa when you check-in for your flight and drop your bags at the counter.
The next place a resident will see a tremendous savings is when you arrive in the Galápagos. At the island airport when you show your Entry Visa, there is a $100/person National Park fee. This (and the earlier Entry Visa) must be paid for in cash – credit cards are not accepted. But if you can show a cedula (national ID card) indicating you are an Ecuadorian resident this fee drops all the way to $6! Even better, if you are 65 or over, you pay only a $3 fee.
Your cedula can continue to save you money on the islands. For example, some of the tour companies offer discounts to residents, especially on “last minute” fares. Emetebe Airlines, which offers intra-island flights between Islas San Isidro, Baltra, and San Cristóbal, also discounts their rates when reserved using a cedula number for identification.
There are some other ways to save money in the Galápagos and still have a rewarding and full experience. You can book some very nice accommodations in advance via online resources like Expedia and Booking.com at hotels and hostals for as little as $40/night, most of which include Wi-Fi and breakfast. You will find meals to be a little pricey at many restaurants, especially those connected to hotels or along the beaches. But if you look to see where the locals are eating, or explore a block or two off the beach, you can find meals more in line with typical Ecuadorian prices.
For example, a lunch at the more “tourista” venues may cost $15 dollar each or more. But we found smaller restaurants offering almuerzos that included a seafood soup, salad, rice, grilled fish, and a juice drink for just $5 each. I should point out that every meal we had during our visit to the Galápagos was delicious, and we certainly did not feel cheated even on the most expensive of dining options (you have to try the lobster!), but you can certainly shave some dollars off your total package and enjoy great food.
Of course, the biggest expense once you are in the Galápagos is in taking boat tours around the island or off to the unpopulated ones, dive tours, snorkeling expeditions, and guided inland tours. If you are a diving enthusiast, of course you want to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity. But if like my wife and me, you are mostly interested in hiking and exploring, seeing some seals, tortoises, boobies, and the other unusual animals that got Darwin thinking almost 200 years ago, you can do all of that (and save a bundle) by visiting just two or three islands and setting off on your own.
Everyone has different ideas of the perfect Galápagos vacation, and there is no right way or wrong way to do it. You can take a boat tour, where you live onboard and travel to a new island overnight so as to visit as many as possible; you can stay on just one island, and take day trips to others; you can spend some time on some or each of the four populated islands; or some combination of all three.
We chose to fly into Baltra and spend four nights on Santa Cruz, then take the Emetebe flight to San Cristóbal for another four nights before returning to Guayaquil.
Our total cost for the trip for two including roundtrip airfare to the Islands, the short Island hopper flight, four nights accommodations on each of two islands, entry visas, National Park fee, ferrys, and cabs totaled only $1935.85. It could have been $400 less if we had shuttled from Santa Cruz to Isabela by boat instead of plane (more on that later). I did not keep track of our meal costs, as almost all were paid in cash. However, breakfast was included at one of the hotels and I would estimate we spent about $70 a day on average, including beers and cocktails.
All of the sites and activities we enjoyed were available to the public at no charge. Over the next few posts, I’ll be giving you an idea of some of the things you can see and do with such a simple (and affordable) trip to one of the most incredible destinations in the world; the Galápagos Islands.