If you’re planning on backpacking South America, chances are that you will have to make a difficult decision. Are you going to be one of those backpackers that splurge on a trip to the Galapagos Islands or are you going to choose time and money over location and opt for one of the smaller alternatives?
During my backpacking trip to South America, I opted to include the Galapagos on my itinerary. It was crazy expensive in comparison to what I had been spending on mainland Ecuador but in my opinion, worth every penny.
If you just can’t justify the cost of a trip to these magical islands, it doesn’t mean you have to miss out completely. In both Peru and Ecuador, there are islands that it is possible to visit for only a fraction of the cost of a Galapagos trip, dubbed ‘The Poor Man’s Galapagos’.
These islands showcase a small selection of the wildlife that the Galapagos Islands are most famous for but don’t include the hefty National Park entrance fee and costly flight ticket.
For those of you looking to get your fill of wildlife on a tight budget or with limited time, you’re probably wondering which one is better. Having visited both of the Poor Man’s Galapagos islands, I can attest to the benefits of a visit to both. Let’s help you decide so you can start spotting some nature!
Poor Man’s Galapagos, Ecuador – Isla de la Plata
Close to the party town of Moñtanita and the fishing port of Puerto Lopez, Isla de la Plata is a great trip to include in your Ecuador itinerary. You should expect to meet your guide in the morning who will lead you to the pier in Puerto Lopez. From here, you will take a speed-boat out to the island. This journey takes around an hour and a half. Depending on the time of year that you visit, seas can be rough so I would advise having a light breakfast just in case!
Once you arrive at the Isla de la Plata, you will be told to depart so that you can explore on foot. Whilst there are several hiking trails across the island, you are unable to visit independent of a guide. If you are visiting with a tour group, the route you take is predetermined and is chosen by the guide.
As most of the Isla de la Plata is frequented by different breeds of bird, they all live at specific points across the islands to avoid territory conflict. Therefore, the wildlife that you see will be dictated largely by the route that your guide wants to take. When I visited, I was very keen to see the almighty albatross but our guide already had his route mapped out and wouldn’t shift.
During my visit, our route led us past hundreds of the famous Blue Footed Boobys, a bird that screams Galapagos in most people’s minds. While it was really cool being able to see so many of the Boobys (way more than we had seen on the actual Galapagos Islands), the only other birds we saw were pelicans and frigate birds which you can see anywhere along Ecuador’s coast.
Depending on the time of year that you make the trip, your visit may coincide with breeding season. We visited in November which meant we saw Blue Footed Boobys guarding their eggs and huddling their offspring. For me, I thought this more than warranted the trip out to the island. After the hike was completed, we headed back down to the boat for lunch. It was basic but after all of the walking, much appreciated!
After we were all feeling pleasantly full, the boat zipped around to another side of the island so that we were able to snorkel. The water was a bit cold owing to the time of year but it was well worth braving the chill! The snorkelling here was great, we were able to see big sea turtles as well as a whole myriad of colourful fish. Tim actually said that he thought the snorkelling here beat the real Galapagos Islands! After an hour or so of snorkelling, we headed back to the boat and started the journey back.
If you visit from June to September, it is possible to combine this Poor Man’s Galapagos trip with another to go whale watching. During this season, the humpback whales flock to the coast to mate and sightings are virtually guaranteed. These trips tend to cost around $20USD.
Trips to Isla de la Plata can be arranged for around $35 – $45 USD and will take the majority of the day. Included in that price is transport, lunch, life jackets (sometimes), English speaking guide and snorkel equipment (flippers and mask).
Poor Man’s Galapagos, Peru – Isla Ballestas
A trip to Isla Ballestas is most commonly organised from nearby fishing town Paracas, however, it is possible to arrange a tour from Huacachina too. These tours are shorter than that of their Ecuadorian counterpart, taking only around two hours in total.
Nearly all boat trips to Isla Ballestas leave first thing in the morning so that they can avoid the roughest seas. Expect to meet your guide around 8 am. Usually, the guides do hostel pick-ups before transporting visitors to the pier. Here you will need to buy your tickets for the island. This expense is not included in the tour price.
Top tip: If you are visiting both the Paracas National Reserve and Islas Ballestas, buy a joint ticket to save on the entrance fee!
Once you have boarded your boat (beware these can be quite crowded), you will head out to see the famous Candelabra. This ancient geoglyph has been etched into the side of the cliff and can be seen from as far as 12 miles out to sea! Although there is no definitive proof as to how it got here, Ancient Origins says that it could have been a signal used by sailors.
After you have snapped a few photos of the geoglyph, your journey will continue to Isla Ballestas. This Poor Man’s Galapagos differs to Isla de la Plata in Ecuador because you are not allowed to leave the boat. There is no area which is fit for walking and most of the islands are rugged outcrops scattered across the sea.
The first thing that you are likely to see upon your arrival is an abundance of birds. I couldn’t believe how many feathered creatures I saw on this short trip, there were more in one place than I think I have ever seen before in my life! It turns out that there are so many birds on these islands that they actually collect up all of the poop every few years and sell it as fertiliser. What a shitty job!
Unlike Isla de Plata, where you will probably only see one or two breeds of birds, Islas Ballestas offers much more in the way of variety. There were plenty of Boobys, although none of them has the blue feet that the Galapagos Islands are well known for.
We also saw pelicans, cormorants and even penguins! The penguins at Islas Ballestas are actually a different breed to the ones that frequent the Galapagos Islands but it was a nice treat to see so many of these adorable cuties. During my visit to the real Galapagos Islands, we saw very few penguins as they are an endangered species which makes them a rare sight for tourists.
As well as different birds, you are also able to see sea lions, one of the animals that the real Galapagos Islands are famous for. Watching these playfully swim around your boat is a beautiful experience and listening to the noises they make is sure to shock you if you have never heard them before! After an hour or so weaving through the craggy rocks, we headed back to Paracas.
Trips to Isla Ballestas cost roughly 30 soles which is around $9 USD. These tours include transport, life jackets and an English speaking guide. The entrance fee to the island is not included and will set you back 16 soles (around $5 USD).
Which Poor Man’s Galapagos should you choose?
In my opinion, there is no simple answer to this question. In my own personal opinion, I would say that the visit to Isla Ballestas in Peru was my favourite of the two trips. There was more variety in terms of wildlife and I felt like the whole excursion was amazing value for money.
However, Isla de la Plata is without a doubt the most active of the two tours and is definitely the best option for people looking to get involved in the landscape. The hiking views are stunning and there is also the opportunity to snorkel.
In terms of comparing either island to the real Galapagos Islands, Isla de la Plata is probably a better match because of the number of Blue Footed Boobys and the Frigate birds that hang out there. The snorkelling is also very good and offers the chance to swim with sea turtles.
Whilst you undoubtedly see more variety of birds at Isla Ballestas, these are not always the exact same breed that you will find on the Galapagos Islands. However, I really enjoyed being able to see the sea lions which I couldn’t see on Isla de la Plata.
As the answer to which is better is so entirely based on your budget and what you want to see, I have made a handy infographic to help you make your decision. In my honest opinion though, neither one of the Poor Man’s Galapagos trips are that expensive and if you can spare the cash, just do both!
Have you visited either Poor Man’s Galapagos?
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