The Galapagos Islands are a dream holiday for many but with any bucket list destination comes a hefty price tag. From non-negotiable entrance fees to inflated tour prices, this comprehensive guide to the Galapagos includes all of the important information that you need to know before getting on that plane.
To cruise the Galapagos or land-hop?
There are two different ways in which you can tour the Galapagos Islands, via a cruise or by land-hopping. Both come with their advantages and disadvantages so research is key when deciding how you want to see the islands.
Cruising – Advantages
- Can be arranged in advance with an agent or on mainland Ecuador. The best places to book a Galapagos cruise prior to arrival are Quito and Guayaquil. Santa Cruz has the best deals for travellers who have already made the journey to the islands.
- Fewer daylight hours are spent travelling from place to place.
- There are different routes so you can choose a trip to the islands you want to see.
- They range in class so there are options to suit different budgets. Sometimes you can take advantage of last minute offers both on the islands or on the mainland.
- You are able to explore the more remote islands (but this will only be an option on the most expensive cruises).
Cruising – Disadvantages
- Seasickness can be a problem, no matter how swanky the boat.
- Cruises tend to be much more costly than land-hopping, especially if you want to journey to the most remote islands or spend longer than four days exploring.
- Many cruises (especially the cheaper ones) take you to islands that it is possible to visit independently.
- Flight costs are rarely included in the price of a cruise.
- You may find that a cruise will take you to free attractions on the inhabited islands which begs the question what are you really paying for?
- There is no flexibility within your schedule if you want to visit another island or spend longer in one place.
- Cruises can be damaging to the delicate Galapagos ecosystem.
- Most cruises will only visit attractions on the coast owing to time constraints.
Land-hopping – Advantages
- You have the flexibility to change your plans. Land-hopping gives you the benefit of staying longer in places you particularly liked.
- You get to interact with the people of Galapagos as well as the wildlife. Come see how the locals live!
- You get more time for your money. The cost of a four-day cruise is often what independent land-hoppers spend in a week or even ten days.
- You are able to spend time exploring inland activities.
- Day tours are available to help land-hoppers explore uninhabited islands.
Land hopping – Disadvantages
- Land-hopping takes a lot of organisation on your part. Once you pay for a cruise, you just have to turn up and enjoy the ride. However, a Galapagos land-hopping trip requires a lot of research and time management.
- You won’t get to see the most far-flung islands and may miss out on some of the more exotic wildlife as a result.
- Ferries between the inhabited islands can be quite costly and scheduling means you can spend a lot of your day in transit.
When is the best time to visit the Galapagos Islands?
High Seasons: December – January, June – August
Warmer, calmer seas make this the best time to go on a cruise. There is also good visibility underwater. More tourists visit during these months which bumps up prices. This means there is less room for negotiation.
Low Season: The rest of the year
During the low season, it is sometimes possible to negotiate for accommodation and tours. September to November are particularly good times for striking a bargain as the sea tends to be rougher. Waters are cooler so make sure you rent/purchase a decent wetsuit.
Usually, regardless of whether you are choosing to cruise or land-hop the islands, you will need to purchase your flight tickets beforehand. There are a limited number of airlines which fly to Galapagos and all of them require a transfer at Guayaquil airport. The airlines include Tame, Latam and Avianca. The only two airports on the islands that are serviced by the mainland are San Cristobal and Baltra (Santa Cruz). You should purchase a return ticket in advance. If you are planning on land-hopping, it is worth bearing in mind that it is possible to fly into one airport and out of another which could save you time and money in ferry journeys.
Transit Control Card (TCC)
Visitors to the Galapagos are required to purchase a TCC prior to boarding their flight in the airport. Remember to allow time for this and arrive at the airport at least two hours before your flight. The Transit Control Card costs $20 per person and is designed to keep count of visitors to the islands. The fee is payable in cash only. Some cruise operators will take care of this for their guests but check with your provider as not all of them do.
National Park Entrance Fee
Upon arrival in the Galapagos, there is a National Park fee of $100 per person which must be paid in cash. There is no ATM in either San Cristobal or Baltra airport so bring plenty of cash with you! This fee covers conservation projects on the islands and also improves infrastructure and services for Galapagos residents. Naturally, improved infrastructure benefits tourists as well.
Isla Isabela Entrance Fee
This is applicable if you are planning on visiting Isabela Island. Foreigners are required to pay $10 upon arrival.
Another point of note… The Galapagos Islands are one hour behind mainland Ecuador so don’t forget to reset your watch or you’ll end up eating dinner an hour early as I did!
2018 saw a few changes to the Galapagos Islands entry requirements. As a result of these, you must enter the Galapagos with and be able to provide proof of the following:
- Valid health insurance: Since November 2018, this is now a requirement of entry.
- Return flight ticket: The law now states that a return flight ticket must be produced if asked for by immigration officials.
- Cruise or accommodation reservation matching the dates on the flight ticket: We booked our initial nights accommodation in San Cristobal but nothing else.
Whilst these are technically legal requirements, there is no guarantee that border control will ask to see proof of these documents. Do with that information what you will.
Like the rest of Ecuador, the currency of the Galapagos is US dollars. There are only ATM machines present on two of the Galapagos Islands: San Cristobal and Santa Cruz so bear this in mind when planning your visit. Whilst there are places that you are able to pay using a card, these are not common and you can be stung by big charges. Most things on Galapagos are payable in cash only.
This largely depends on the demand for the tour and the time of year that you are visiting. During our Galapagos trip in November, we saved $50 on tours booked on Isabela, purely because it was low season and the operators wanted to run full trips.
Remember that there are some areas on the islands (such as the Sierra Negra volcano hike) that you can only visit if you’re accompanied by an official Galapagos guide.
Good to know… Only guides have the permits to run tours but they are not allowed to sell them. Tour agencies are the only people who have permission to do that. Therefore, it is normal practice for each guide to work with multiple agencies. You may find people on your tour who paid a very different price to you so always do your research before booking.
Don’t be tempted to book the first thing you see the internet. There are plenty of accommodation options which aren’t online and often these are cheaper. Of course, bagging one of these rooms involves showing up with nowhere to go… I would probably only take the gamble during low season. If somebody approaches you asking for your accommodation budget, give them the lowest figure. This happened to us and the man offered us the spare room attached to his property for just $15US per person. The room had a double bed, a single bed, air conditioning, WIFI, cable TV and an en-suite bathroom with hot water. It was one the cheapest and nicest places we stayed on the islands! Sometimes a gamble can pay off.
Arriving in Galapagos
If you are flying into Baltra airport, depart and purchase your bus ticket from the office outside next to the toilet. The bus will be going to the ‘Canal de Itabaca’. The journey takes 10 minutes and will cost just $5US per person. From there, hop on the ferry to Santa Cruz Island. It is another 10-minute ride and costs just $1US per person. From there, you are able to get a taxi for around $25US or a bus for $5US to Puerto Ayora. The journey takes around 40 minutes.
The airport on San Cristobal is located very close to the main town so it is easy to walk to your place of accommodation or take a taxi for the flat rate $2US.
Travel in between the islands
If you have arranged a cruise, you can skip this bit!
Speed ferries run to most islands twice every day. There is a morning boat around 7 am* and an afternoon boat around 3 pm*.
While it is possible to purchase tickets for speed ferries from vendors on the day of travel, it is more advisable to buy them a day in advance from travel agencies on the islands.
Ferries to San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana can only be taken from Santa Cruz. It is not possible to travel to any of these islands directly by ferry without a transfer in Santa Cruz. You must factor this into your itinerary if you are land hopping as boat travel between the islands can be particularly time-consuming.
Ferries to Floreana do not run daily and schedules seem to vary depending on who you ask.
The cost of a ferry ticket for one person is $30US pretty much everywhere, except for at one tour company on Santa Cruz where they sell them for $25. To find this agency, look for the sign which says ‘ferry offers, $25’ in between the church and supermarket. This is located opposite the main pier. It isn’t a big saving but in Galapagos costs quickly mount up!
Bear in mind that ferries will not dock at the main pier. You will need to wait for your boat to be called and then board the waiting water taxi to transport you to the speed ferry. These taxis charge between $0.50US – $1US per person for a one-way trip.
*These times are not exact and vary depending on company used. Tickets can be purchased both on the pier and from tour agencies. The most comprehensive advice that I found regarding Galapagos ferry schedules can be seen on Galakiwi’s website.
It is possible to fly between San Cristobal, Baltra and Isabela, however, this is much more costly than the ferry. Tickets can be purchased on the islands with some specialist tour companies. These are easy enough to find, just look out for the shop signs advertising air travel.
When are you booking your Galapagos trip?
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