The Galapagos Islands are a destination that appear on most people’s bucket lists. From the clear turquoise water and white sand beaches to the incredible variety of unique animals and wildlife, the Galapagos Islands are a magical place to visit. We knew we wanted to visit the Galapagos Islands during our month in Ecuador, but as budget backpackers, weren’t sure we could afford it. Everyone seemed to visit the Galapagos Islands on a cruise, costing them thousands of dollars – PLUS airfare!
After some digging, we realized it was actually possible to visit the Galapagos Islands without a cruise. It sounded like it might be the best way to visit the Galapagos on a budget – and it was! Our week of backpacking the Galapagos Islands without a cruise was totally budget-friendly: our total cost for the Galapagos Islands was $800 each for 9 days. Plus, without a cruise dictating where we went and when, we were able to see all that the Galapagos Islands have to offer at our own speed, without being surrounded by a crowd.
We were able to have a fantastic week and see all of the Galapagos Islands wildlife on our bucket list: blue footed boobies, frigate birds, black marine iguanas, tropical island penguins, eagle rays, manta rays, sea turtles, land turtles, and more – all without a cruise! If you’re looking to visit the Galapagos Islands on a budget, we thoroughly recommend exploring the Galapagos by land. It was the most magical week of our entire 4 months of backpacking in South America, and we can’t wait to go back!
Here’s what you’ll find in our complete guide to the Galapagos Islands by land:
Table of Contents
We did say it was complete, right?
For even more information about the how to visit the Galapagos Islands without a cruise, take a look at our Galapagos Packing List and read about our week in the Galapagos in detail in these 2 posts:
Ready? Let’s get started!
This post was last updated 08/2018.
The Complete Guide to the Galapagos Islands by Land
Visiting the Galapagos Islands without a cruise is the best way to see the Galapagos Islands, hands down. But finding the information to pull together an itinerary for backpacking the Galapagos Islands by land is not easy. Luckily, through lots of trial and even more error, we’ve figured it out for you! Any land-based Galapagos Islands trip will center around these 3 islands: Santa Cruz, Isla Isabela, and San Cristobal. They are the 3 inhabited islands, and it is from each of them that you will be able to embark on tours and day trips to see everything that the Galapagos has to offer.
We spent half the week doing day trips with Galapagos Islands guides (as is required for all locations on the uninhabited islands) and the other half blissfully exploring the 3 inhabited islands on our own, snorkeling and hiking to areas that don’t require a guide or a tour. We’ve created a detailed 15-page downloadable guide to backpacking the Galapagos Islands without a cruise including information and tips for every tour and day trip we did, plus a few we didn’t have time for. Sign up below to get the guide send straight to your inbox!
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We booked all of our Galapagos guided tours in person once we arrived on the Galapagos Islands, and we think that’s the most budget-friendly option. But if you’d prefer to book online in advance, you can find some good multi-day land based tours with set itineraries, which takes a huge amount of planning off your shoulders! Here are a few options:
How to Get to the Galapagos Islands
The only way to get to the Galapagos Islands is to fly from Ecuador. There are two cities with airports that frequently fly into the Galapagos: Quito and Guayaquil. All flights are with either Avianca or LATAM, which are both reputable and reliable South American airlines. We booked our flight from Quito to Baltra with Avianca using credit card points, which saved us a huge amount of money.
There are two airports on the Galapagos to fly into:
- Baltra: Baltra is the airport closest to Puerto Ayora and Santa Cruz Island. It’s super easy to get from Baltra to Puerto Ayora, and everyone will be headed in the same direction. There’s a shuttle service to the ferry from Baltra to Santa Cruz Island which costs $5. From the Santa Cruz ferry dock, you can either take a bus (the cheap, slower way) or a pickup truck taxi (the expensive, faster way) to Puerto Ayora.
- San Cristobal: San Cristobal airport is right on San Cristobal island, so this is the best place to fly into if your first stop is San Cristobal.
Travel Tips for Flying to the Galapagos Islands
- The check-in process at the airport takes a while for any flight headed to the Galapagos Islands. You’ll be given some paperwork to do to let you into the island. Then, you’ll go through an extra security checkpoint for certain items that aren’t allowed into the Galapagos, like most raw produce. There are lines for each of these stops, and depending on the amount of cruise-goers leaving that day, it might take a while (for us, it was around an hour). Allow yourself more time than usual.
- When you arrive at the Galapagos Islands airport, you’ll be subject to even more paperwork, and you’ll have to pay the $100 entrance fee. We know, $100 is steep! But the entrance fee goes towards conservation, breeding of endangered species, research, habitat protection, and other really wonderful services that keep the Galapagos Island the magical wildlife haven that it is.
- If you can, fly into one airport and out of the other. We flew in and out of Baltra by Santa Cruz Island, so we based ourselves in Puerto Ayora. 9 days wasn’t enough time for us to stay on all 3 islands, and we missed out entirely on San Cristobal. If you can, schedule a flight into Baltra and out of San Cristobal or vise versa to give yourself more time and flexibility for a greater variety of tours.
What to Pack for the Galapagos Islands
We may have made a ton of packing mistakes on this trip, but we learned from all of them. We’ve got a full length guide to packing for the Galapagos Islands, but here’s a short list of a few must-have recommendations.
- High SPF Sunscreen: The Galapagos are ON the equator, and the sun is STRONG. Skimping on sunscreen could mean the worst sunburn of your life! I really like this Neutrogena sunscreen because it soaks into your skin quickly and doesn’t leave that icky filmy feeling.
- Reef Safe Sunscreen for when you’re snorkeling or swimming, to protect the coral reef and underwater critters! You’ll be swimming right through their home, and wearing regular sunscreen harms the wildlife that you’re there to see. For more information on how your sunscreen can harm wildlife & the environment, this Vogue article is a fantastic source of information.
- Bathing Suit Cover or Swim Shirt: I’m gonna be honest with you: reef safe sunscreen is not the easiest to apply. It’s thick and doesn’t soak in easily. But like, I love animals and the environment. So my solution is actually to cover up my skin as much as possible so I don’t HAVE to wear sunscreen. Win/win! When swimming, especially in cold water (like the Galapagos) I like wearing lightweight merino wool shirts (his & hers). The thin layer of wool protects my skin from the sun and insulates me, keeping me warm even when it’s freezing! Another good option is a UV Swim Shirt, or even just a white button-down quick dry shirt.
- Snorkel Mask & Fins: I so wish we’d brought our own snorkel gear. Not only would we have saved SO MUCH MONEY on rentals during our entire week in the Galapagos Islands, but we would’ve looked so legit rolling up to the ferry like “oh, we don’t need rental gear, we have our own.” Every time I met someone with their own gear on a tour I was like oh, you must be an expert – here, you go first. They probably got better pictures just because we were intimidated. Snorkels equal power.
- Water Shoes: For every minute that you’re not wearing flippers, you’ll want to be wearing water shoes. Whether you’re trying to walk over one of the insanely spiky black volcanic rocks – they’re pretty, but they hurt so much – or just wading into some water (surprise! more volcanic rocks) your un-cut feet will thank me later. I swear by my trusty leather Tevas, and Jeremy likes classic close-toed water shoes.
- Steri-Pen Water Purifier: The tap water in Ecuador is not safe to drink, so we purified everything with our Steri-Pen. It’s such a life saver! And we’re saving plastic water bottles from the landfill. (Note: you can also use a Sawyer mini filter or water purification tablets to purify undrinkable tap water, both of which we brought just in case, but we found that we preferred the Steri-Pen for ease of use and taste.)
- Dry Bag: Don’t set foot on a boat without putting your stuff in a dry bag, just in case. Like I’m not saying the boat is going to tip over, but you never know when a wave/rogue sea lion is going to splash your sh*t, and I’m not big on risk. This one is excellent and comes with a phone protector too, so your phone is extra safe (and usable while you’re in the water)!
- Travel Towel: Towels are not provided on the day tours you’ll be taking on your land based Galapagos Islands trip, so you’ll want to bring your own lightweight, quick-dry towel.
- Dramamine: For said long boat rides. Trust me, you will need it.
- Travel Clothesline: We had this hanging up in every hotel room we stayed at in the Galapagos. Every day we hung up our wet towels and bathing suit to dry. It keeps your stuff from getting moldy and avoids the dreaded wet bathing suit rash *shudder*.
- GoPro: You didn’t come all the way to the Galapagos Islands to NOT get underwater footage of baby sea lions swimming with giant sea turtles, or Blue Footed Boobies stuffing each other’s faces down their throats, or whatever. You gotta have a GoPro!
- Coffee: While you might think that great coffee comes from Ecuador it can be tricky to find great coffee on the Galapagos Islands itself. So if you are a serious coffee snob we recommend packing your own stash. Slip a pack of Alpine Start instant coffee into your luggage to avoid any coffee anxiety.
For more packing tips, check out our massive guide to what to pack for the Galapagos Islands!
Santa Cruz Island & Puerto Ayora
Puerto Ayora is a bustling coastal town on Santa Cruz Island that is absolutely teeming with wildlife! Around every corner is another opportunity to see brightly colored crabs, snoozing sea lions, and cuddling marine iguanas. You’ll find many of the best restaurants, hotels, and day tours in Puerto Ayora. See this post for even more information about Puerto Ayora.
How to Get to Puerto Ayora
- From the Baltra airport: take the shuttle to the docks. Santa Cruz Island is a 5 minute ferry ride from the Baltra docks. From the docks on the Santa Cruz side it’s about a 45 minute drive into Puerto Ayora. You can either take a $20 white pick-up truck taxi – you’ll find many waiting – or the much cheaper bus. There are limited airline arrivals each day, so expect to wait a little while for the bus to fill up fully before it leaves. We found a group to share a taxi with us to cut costs. The bus will take you to a terminal just outside of town, but a taxi from the bus stop is only $1.
- From San Cristobal: take one of the daily ferries to Puerto Ayora. It’s best to purchase your tickets at least a day in advance as there seats are limited. The ride is about 2 hours.
Tips for Visiting Puerto Ayora
- The Puerto Ayora fish market is a must-see and perfectly captures the magic of the Galapagos Islands. Lupe the Sea Lion is a regular at the Puerto Ayora fish market. She positions herself behind the counter directly underneath the cutting board, where she knows she’ll get fed scraps and skin from the fresh fish fillets all day long! She’s like a pet dog that’s also an adorable sea lion. We want one!! You’ll also find a small crowd of hovering pelicans and herons, and sometimes napping sea lions as well. Make sure to stop by during the week when it’s open!
- Most places in Ecuador don’t accept credit card, or charge extra to do so. The Galapagos Islands are no exception: cash is king. Luckily, there are ATMs galore on Puerto Ayora and loads of shops, restaurants and bars to spend your cash in!
- Bring sunscreen with you from the mainland. It’s insanely expensive here, and you’ll need it for the extra strong rays due to the proximity to the Equator. Make sure to bring reef safe sunscreen for when you’ll be in the water, to protect the coral reef and other marine wildlife that live in the Galapagos! This is our favorite reef safe sunscreen.
- There is a huge grocery store right by the main dock in town, where we picked up groceries for snacks and breakfast. But keep in mind that most hotels won’t have a kitchen, and even though we were backpacking, we didn’t find any hostels.
Where to Stay in Puerto Ayora
There are plenty of affordable hotels in Puerto Ayora! Expect decently sized private rooms with private bathrooms, hot water, towels, drinkable water, and the works for around $50-70 a night, or a bit higher if you opt to include breakfast. You’ll want to stay within walking distance of the docks, kiosks, and grocery store, and most hotels are located within a 10 minute walk from everything.
Budget: Ballin’ ($200+)
- Finch Bay is hands down the nicest hotel in Puerto Ayora. If you want to splash out like a celebrity, this is the place. Luxury everything. There’s even a private dock with a private yacht for guests. Finch Bay is located on Punta Estrada near Alemanes Beach, away from the main area of Puerto Ayora – so you’ll need to take a cheap, super quick water taxi to get to the main dock (but you’ll also be conveniently located for your day trip to Las Grietas!). Amenities include free Wi-Fi, A/C, a gorgeous swimming pool and restaurant, and a pier with yachts to visit the islands. Breakfast with bacon, sausages, pancakes, fresh fruits and eggs is served daily. Check Prices
Hotel Angermeyer Waterfront Inn is in a picturesque building made of lava stones and driftwood, located on the Punta Estrada Waterfront by Alemanes Beach. Huge windows overlook the sea as you dine on your included breakfast or enjoy a cocktail by the fireplace. Sunbathe, chill, or snorkel on the private waterfront! Check Prices
Budget: Mid-Range (Under $100)
- We stayed at Sueno Silvestres and definitely recommend it. If you stay here, tell the owner, Carlos, that we said hello! He was so friendly and welcoming. The hotel is located close the the Charles Darwin research center and a few blocks away from the beach & main stretch of Puerto Ayora in a nice quiet and private area. Our room was large, hot water was plentiful, there were free towels and drinkable water provided, and breakfast is available for an extra fee. Check prices
- We also stayed at Galapagos Native, which is more centrally located closer to the docks (located just off of a busier street). Our room was large, there were hot water and towels included, and we loved that breakfast was included in our rate. Check Prices
Budget: As Cheap As Possible (Under $50)
- For a true budget option, we’ve heard good things about this hostel! Galapagos Best Home Stay has 4-bed dorm rooms for around $20 a bed. That’s an amazing value for the Galapagos! Check Prices
Where to Eat & Drink in Puerto Ayora
- The Kiosks/Los Kioskos are the best place to eat in Puerto Ayora. We honestly wouldn’t have found Los Kioskos if not for asking a few locals! The Kiosks comprise seafood alley, a street lined with small, locally-owned restaurants all cooking variations of the same incredibly fresh, locally caught seafood purchased from the fish market earlier in the day. You’ll hear sizzling from the charcoal parillas and smell smoky, grilled fish long before you stumble across this little alley.
- Our favorite part about Los Kioskos? The best food in Puerto Ayora is also the most budget friendly! A whole bruja fish to share is $15 at Sol y Mar, one of the kiosks in seafood alley. Their grilled and fried whole fish, grilled octopus, seafood cazuela, sopa de queso, and various batidos are all excellent!
- The kioscos are located at Baltra & Charles Binford. It’s easy to walk from anywhere in town. You can also always take a cheap pickup truck taxi. If you need to, ask any local for help finding los kioskos – they’ll all know. More information about Los Kioskos on the Galapagos Islands here.
- The best coffee in Puerto Ayora that we found was at 1835 Coffee Lab, a roastery serving locally grown Galapagos coffee.
- You’ll find plenty of places to get drinks for Happy Hour along Charles Darwin avenue, the main street in Puerto Ayora. Stroll through around sunset to take advantage of the best 2-for-1 drink offers!
Activities and Day Tours from Puerto Ayora
Puerto Ayora is the main hub for the Galapagos Islands, and a good home base to do the Galapagos without a cruise. There are plenty of activities you can do on the island itself, plus loads of day trips and tours. We recommend booking your Puerto Ayora day tours as soon as you arrive on the island. To book a day trip or tour, just find any tour operator (their offices are all over town) or visit the kiosk near the docks. Be aware that you’ll need to pay for your day tour up front with cash.
We’ve included information and tips on the best day trips and tours from Puerto Ayora that we enjoyed. There are many, many more that we didn’t get a chance to experience! Here’s a great resource with more helpful information on the other activities in Santa Cruz Island.
Snorkel in Las Grietas
Las Grietas is a beautiful clear pool between two sheer volcanic cliff faces. During midday when the sun is high, the pool is a bright, clear blue, and the sun’s rays sparkle all the way to the bottom of the deep pool, making for incredible photos and views. You can jump off the dock into the water if you like, and climb up the cliffs to jump from the rocks if you dare! Las Grietas is the best snorkeling on Santa Cruz Island by far. As a bonus? It’s free! No guide or tour necessary. Just rent some snorkel gear for the day in Puerto Ayora.
How to Get to Las Grietas
- From Puerto Ayora, take a water taxi from the docks and ask for Punta Estrada or just say you’re going to Las Grietas – they’ll know what you mean. It’s a ridiculously short ride and the water taxi is under $1.
- Once you’re dropped off, you’ll walk past a fancy hotel and a couple of high-end bars and restaurants (this is the expensive side of Puerto Ayora). Walk along the boardwalk (it’s the only option for you to walk on, so you won’t get lost). The boardwalk will take you past Punta Estrada, a small cove where you can swim, with a beach during low tide. Keep walking down the boardwalk past some interesting pink tinged salt flats. After about 15 minutes you’ll reach Las Grietas! tl;dr follow the only path until it ends. Easy enough, right?
Tips for Visiting Las Grietas
- There are actually 3 pools in Las Grietas, but most people never make it past the first one. Don’t miss out! Swim all the way to the end of the first pool, climb (carefully!) over the rocks, and swim through the second pool to access the hidden third pool. To get to it you’ll either have to carefully climb over more rocks (seriously, be careful. Jeremy slipped and cut his foot here) or take a deep breath, dive down, and swim through the underwater cave on the far right side. When there are no people in the pool, there are hundreds of fish swimming in this section undisturbed, and it’s absolutely incredible.
- Head to Las Grietas around noon to beat the cruise crowds and catch the most sparkly, sunny hours. When the cruises show up they make tons of noise and scare away all the fish. You’ll want to clear out by 5pm.
- We spend an entire day at Las Grietas – pack a lunch! And bring plenty of water and sunscreen, too.
- We tried snorkeling at Punta Estrada and it wasn’t worth it – visibility is awful. We only recommend visiting Punta Estrada to eat lunch on the beach during low tide and make friends with hungry finches who will land on you and look cute hoping to catch some crumbs!
Swim and Kayak in Tortuga Bay
Tortuga Bay is always listed as a must-see in Santa Cruz for wildlife, but we’re not sure we agree. It might have just been the wrong time of year, but we didn’t see a single turtle. Also, the visibility in the water was awful for snorkeling. We kayaked around the bay looking for rays, sharks, and turtles, and only managed to see a few tiny fish.
It was, however, a great beach day. The beach – especially the stunning white sand beach leading to the bay itself – is absolutely pristine, and gorgeous. It was worth the hike out even if the snorkeling wasn’t. We recommend spending a day relaxing on the beach, swimming, and kayaking in Tortuga Bay – but don’t expect to see any wildlife.
How to Get to Tortuga Bay
- The best way to get to Tortuga Bay from Puerto Ayora is by walking. From the Puerto Ayora pier, cross the main road and reach Baltra Avenue. It’s a red cobblestone street with a bike lane. Walk 2 blocks and you’ll reach Charles Binford Street. Turn right. Follow Charles Binford Street out of town until you reach the end of the street, after about 10 minutes.
- At the end of the street is a staircase up a short hill. At the top of the hill is a little kiosk where you’ll sign in to enter the park.
- From the kiosk is a smooth cobblestone path – stroller friendly, we saw a few families – that you’ll walk down for about 45 minutes. It’s not the prettiest walk, unless you enjoy seeing the same cactus and stubbly tree scenery for 45 minutes.
- You’ll reach the beach and be rewarded with an incredibly beautiful view. The water here is too dangerous for swimming, so there’s usually nobody here. Turn right and walk down the beach for a stunning 15 or so minutes until you reach the end of the beach.
- To your left are some rocks where you can see nesting marine iguanas and watch turtles swim in the open ocean.
- Straight and to the right you’ll find Tortuga Bay – look for people swimming and sunbathing on the shore of a big horseshoe shaped bay!
Tips for Visiting Tortuga Bay
- Pack in everything you will need for the day as there is nowhere to buy anything at the beach. We advise bringing tons of sunscreen and sun protection (the sun is much stronger here on the equator!), a lot of water (remember you have a long sunny hike to and from Tortuga Bay), a packed lunch and snacks, toilet paper (there isn’t a bathroom, but you can find a spot if you need one in the bushes), a towel, and of course your swimsuit!
- The water is comfortable for swimming without a wetsuit and is pretty shallow during low tide.
- We rented snorkel gear for $14 and it definitely wasn’t worth it – this isn’t a good snorkel spot. There are supposed to be reef sharks, rays, and turtles in the water, but it’s deep and murky and you can’t see anything.
- We rented kayaks for $20 an hour from the lone vendor on the beach. We attempted to snorkel in different spots in the bay that were too far to swim to, but that didn’t pan out. If you enjoy kayaking just for the sake of it, rent a kayak. Otherwise, you can skip the kayak rental.
- If you want to try to skip the hike, we saw water taxis in the bay that go around the perimeter of the island to and from Puerto Ayora. You can catch one at the main docks in Puerto Ayora. While we were visiting there were a few hanging out ready to take people back, but don’t count on one showing up – be prepared to walk!
Santa Fe Island Day Trip
We took the Santa Fe Island day tour from Puerto Ayora. The tour was over 8 hours long: we left at 8am and returned at 5pm. First we spent over an hour relaxing on a beach. None of the group knew we were going to be parked at a beach for over an hour, so nobody had brought anything to do, blankets, sunglasses, etc – we were all prepared to just hop in the ocean and snorkel. There was a lot of grumbling and boredom. I spent an hour building a sand castle. There are worse ways to waste time, but I do wish we’d had some advance notice.
Next we went to a rocky cliff face to snorkel. The current was incredibly strong; this is not your average relaxing snorkeling and swimming was difficult! We did see some pretty fish – the water was deeper than most of the other tours we went on.
After snorkeling, we went to another area, a bright blue lagoon, where we finally were able to swim with sea lions along the rocks where they lay relaxing. Then a provided lunch, then another optional hour for swimming, and then an odd 30 minutes of our boat trying to catch fish for the next day’s lunch; then finally we returned. It was an interesting tour, but certainly not the best we’d done.
Tips for the Santa Fe Tour from Santa Cruz Island
- The best part of this tour was that it wasn’t rushed; we weren’t constantly having to keep up with a group or all trailing the same animals. Also, there are 3 separate locations, 2 of which have unique snorkeling opportunities, so it wasn’t repetitive or boring at all.
- If you do this tour, do it earlier in your trip as you’re unlikely to see much that’s new and exciting if you’ve already been snorkeling a lot.
- It’s cheaper than most day tours from Puerto Ayora: we paid $60 each including lunch.
- Our tour didn’t include wetsuits, but the water is frigid. Rent wetsuits at any agency in town for the day.
- The provided masks were poorly made – two of the air tubes, including mine, fell off in the ocean. We were then asked to pay for the lost tubes (I politely refused). Yet another reason why we recommend bringing your own snorkeling gear as part of our Galapagos Packing List.
Isabela Island/Isla Isabela
Isabela Island is the BEST Galapagos Island for wildlife. It’s also a local favorite: every local recommended that we spend most of our trip on Isabela Island! Seahorse shaped Isabela Island is one of the three inhabited Galapagos islands. Its main town, Puerto Villamil, has plenty of hotels and restaurants. Puerto Villamil is small, with unpaved sand roads. From end to end, you can walk the entire town in 10 minutes. In comparison to bustling Puerto Ayora, Puerto Villamil is tiny and sleepy – and far more tropical feeling.
Food and hotels costs far more here, and there are fewer options. Strangely, we didn’t find the same plentiful seafood options here as we did in Puerto Ayora. Restaurant food was mostly lackluster and expensive.
There aren’t many stores on the island, so we recommend buying food at the grocery in Puerto Ayora and bringing as much as you can in to save money. Although we only spent a few days staying on the island, we saw TONS of wildlife.
There are a lot of great tours and other spots that we didn’t get a chance to visit! You can find more information about activities on Isabela Island here, and read more about our time in Isla Isabela here.
How to Get to Isabela Island/Isla Isabela
- You can only get to Isla Isabela from Santa Cruz Island – there is no ferry from San Cristobal!
- To buy a ferry ticket to Isabela Island, just ask any tour agency in Puerto Ayora – they’re all selling the same tickets. We purchased our ferry tickets from L/P Andy, who have a kiosk directly on the docks in Puerto Ayora.
- It’s best to book your tickets to and from Isabela Island a day or two in advance.
- If you don’t wish to stay overnight, you can book a day trip to Isabela Island which includes one of the tours listed below, from any tour agency in Puerto Ayora.
Where to Stay on Isabela Island
Although Puerto Villamil is tiny, there are plenty of comfortable places to stay on Isla Isabela. The quiet sandy seaside town will feel like an island heaven. But don’t expect bargain prices – everything from electricity to coffee must be shipped to the island from the larger Puerto Ayora, making costs that much higher.
Here are our picks for where to on Isla Isabela for any budget.
Budget: Ballin’ ($150+)
- Hotel Albemarle: Set in a Mediterranean-style house located right on Cuna del Sol Beach, Hotel Albemarle features a lush garden with an outdoor pool. Decorated with tiled floors and wooden-beamed ceilings, the large rooms at Albemarle Hotel are cozy and cute – and air conditioned! Each room features private marble bathrooms and either sea or pool views. If you visit during Carnaval in late February, you’ll be steps away from the beachfront party! Check Prices
Budget: Mid-Range ($100-150)
- Drake Inn: If you like oceanfront views, Drake Inn is an amazing value. Located across the street from the beach, you’ll be treated to stunning sea views from the private rooftop terrace. Each room here will provide you with air conditioning, a private balcony, and an included breakfast. Drake Inn is a located 3 minute walk from the Puerto Villamil town center. Check Prices
- La Casa de Marita: Situated directly on the beach, La Casa de Marita has all of the amenities you want at a super reasonable price. There’s free Wi-Fi, a buffet breakfast, A/C, private balconies, hammocks to swing in as you watch the sunset, an on-site restaurant, and a pool. You’ll pay extra if you want ocean-front views, but you’re only ever a few steps away from the beach. Check Prices
Budget: As Cheap As Possible ($50-$100)
- Hostal Cerro Azul: Let me be clear: this hostel is mostly “cheap” because it’s not directly on the beach. It’s close to both the beach and the main stretch of Puerto Villamil. The amenities are just about all there: A/C, private rooms and bathrooms, hammocks, a common area, and free Wi-Fi (in common areas only). Check Prices
Tips for Visiting Isabela Island & Puerto Villamil
- Bring cash with you – there are no ATMs on Isabela Island! Most places won’t accept credit cards, or will charge a high fee to do so (this is the case throughout Ecuador). Bring USD from home, or stock up at Puerto Ayora.000000
- Where to Eat on Isabela Island: There is one block in Puerto Villamil with several similiar restaurants all lined up next to each other. Our favorite of the bunch was El Encanto de Pepa. It has generous dinner specials like grilled fish, octopus, or fried shrimp with rice, fries and juice for $7.
- Where to get coffee on Isabela Island: Honestly, there is no good coffee on Isabela Island. We tried so hard to find some, but we couldn’t – and our hotel was right across from a pricey coffee shop, too. We recommend buying cheap $1 coffee at a little juice shop near the main stretch of restaurants. It’s the cheapest we found: everyone else was charging double that for the exact same shitty instant brew. You could also get shitty instant coffee from the grocery store in Puerto Ayora and bring it with you. If you are a serious coffee snob we recommend preparing in advance and packing Alpine Start instant coffee to avoid any coffee anxiety.
Activities & Tours from Isabela Island
Nobody visits Isabela Island for sleepy little Puerto Villamil (sorry, but it’s true). The reason you must visit Isabela Island is for the fantastic day trips, tours, hikes, and wildlife excursions! Below are our favorite of the bunch, along with tips and suggestions.
Las Tintoreras Tour
Las Tintoreras are just off the main dock of Isabela Island, so this is a shorter guided tour than most since there is little travel time. This is a fantastic tour for snorkeling, but it is crowded and quick. We had 16 people in our tour and only stayed in the water for an hour. As soon as we spotted a turtle or an eagle ray, a crowd of people was suddenly jostling us for pictures and the animal would quickly flee.
After an hour in the water, we headed over to a nature walk in a lava rock field to see some iguanas and a small inlet where white tip reef sharks were resting. The Las Tintoreras tour was a bit too fast paced for us – we like to go at our own speed, and observe wildlife much more quietly. But, you do see a LOT of wildlife! The best part of the tour was the snorkeling, and we wish there was more of it … and less people.
Tips for the Las Tintoreras Tour
- The tour was $45 each for 3 total hours of adventure, only 1 hour of which was in the water. Or you can book a tour in advance online here.
- The water is chilly, so we recommend wearing a short wetsuit.
- We’d recommend looking into a kayaking tour of Las Tintoreras instead, which is $40 per person and includes 3 hours on the water and no nature walk, meaning there is much more snorkeling. It’s also a much smaller tour and leaves whenever you like. We really wish we’d done this instead!
- You can book either the complete tour or the kayaking tour of Las Tintoreras at Pahoehoe Tour Agency, off of the main strip in Puerto Villamil.
The Lava Tunnels Tour/Los Tuneles
Los Tuneles/The Lava Tunnels tour from Isabela Island was our favorite guided tour by far. It’s about 5 hours long, including 45 minutes of travel each way. Once you arrive, you’ll be snorkeling for a good hour and a half, which allows for a more relaxed speed and less frantic jostling for pictures.
We saw countless beautiful fish, sleeping sharks in caves formed by molten lava, several giant sea turtles, and a few rays. Then we got back into the boat to eat a provided lunch, and the ship captain carefully navigated us into the lava tunnels where we saw a penguin and a nest of baby blue footed boobies with their parents! It was truly magical and everything we hoped for in a Galapagos tour.
Tips for the Lava Tunnels Tour
- We paid $90 each for a tour operated by Pahoehoe, and we’d highly recommend them. Our guide spoke excellent English and was very knowledgeable – he’d been leading Galapagos tours daily for almost a decade! You can find their office in town along the main street in Puerto Villamil. We have been told prices can fluctuate so be prepared to pay up to $110, which is still totally worth it.
Snorkeling in Concha Perlas
Concha Perlas is a lagoon near the docks of Puerto Vilamil where you can do self-guided snorkeling and swimming, no guide necessary. After the hustle and bustle and crowd of booked tours, we wanted to do some DIY snorkeling at our own pace. Concha Perlas did not disappoint, with excellent snorkeling: perfect visibility, plenty to explore, and lots of wildlife!
We swam with several sea turtles, a GIANT manta ray (horrifyingly large, like 6 feet and jet black. I’ll be honest, I thought I was going to die), a swimming iguana, and a sea lion all in under 2 hours – and with no crowds of people to navigate around! This was by far our best self-guided day trip in the Galapagos Islands.
How to Get to Concha Perlas on Isla Isabela
- Concha Perlas is little lagoon to the side of the main dock in Isla Isabela, which is about 10 minutes walking from Puerto Villamil.
- Look for a little boardwalk with a sign heading off into the mangroves just before the main docks – just past the stand selling fresh coconuts! Walk a short ways down this boardwalk stepping over napping sea lions (one barked at us, don’t get too close) and you’ll end up at a little dock with a ladder leading into the water.
Tips for Snorkelling in Concha Perlas on Isla Isabela
- We highly recommend spending a relaxed day of snorkeling here. It is such a nice change of pace from the guided tours!
- Concha Perlas is close to food and drink options right on the beach (including fresh young coconuts, yum!) so no packed lunch is necessary!
- The water is a little cold so you do need a wetsuit.
- We rented short wetsuits and snorkel gear from Pahoehoe for $22.
The Wall of Tears Hike
El Muro de Las Lagrimas is one of Isla Isabela’s most famous hikes. It’s self guided and is the only way to see Galapagos Flamingos without a guide. The name comes from the wall at the end of the hike. Before the Galapagos Islands was a destination for travelers all over the world and a nature conservatory, it was on its way to becoming a secretive prison colony – as one Ecuadorian native told us, it was meant to be what Guantanamo Bay became.
The Wall of Tears was built in the 1950’s by 300 prisoners, toiling away under the hot sun to cut and haul heavy black volcanic rock in order to build their own prison. Pushed to their limit, the prisoners – many of whom had perished during the backbreaking work – revolted and attacked their jailers. All that is left of their struggle is the wall.
Although we didn’t have time to do the hike, we were most looking forward to the chance to see flamingos, land tortoises, sea lions and marine iguanas on the 3-hour long hike. If you opt for the hike, bring a lot of sunscreen and water! The Ecuador sun is stronger than elsewhere in the world.
San Cristobal Island
Sadly, we did not make it to San Cristobal Island. We tried, but it turns out you can’t do a day trip from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island to San Cristobal Island for a tour without an overnight stay.
However, we heard that there isn’t much to do on San Cristobal. Most of the locals we spoke to said that Isla Isabela and Santa Cruz Island were the best to visit. We can’t say how true this is, but we were bummed that we didn’t get a chance to check out the loberia beach, to see breeding sea lions, and do the Kicker Rock tour.
How to Get to San Cristobal Island
- You can fly into San Cristobal island and take a ferry to Santa Cruz or to other uninhabited islands.
- You can take a ferry from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal. It’s about 2 hours long and leaves twice a day.
Where to Stay in San Cristobal
The main town in San Cristobal is called Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, and that’s where all of the available accommodations are located.
Budget: Ballin’ ($250+)
- Golden Bay Hotel & Spa: Treat yo’self to beachside luxury at this amazing resort. Located on the Playa de Oro (hence the name, I presume), Golden Bay Hotel & Spa is everything you’d want from a luxury hotel in the Galapagos Islands. You’ll eat your included breakfast gazing out the windows at frolicking sea lions on the beach, only steps away. After a long day of snorkeling with critters, you’ll relax in your air conditioned room after a massage at the spa. Can you imagine anything more heavenly?! Check Prices
Budget: Mid-Range ($100-$250)
- Casa Playa Mann: Situated just steps away from the beach and about a 5 minute walk from the main stretch of town, you’ll be able to enjoy plenty of ocean or garden views from your hammock at Casa Playa Mann. You’ll also find amenities like A/C, a fitness center (if you’re That Person who works out while on vacation – you go Glen Coco), and free WiFi. Check Prices
Budget: As Cheap as Possible (Under $100)
- Casa de Jeimy: Located only 10-15 minutes walking from the airport, Casa de Jeimy is conveniently situated only a few blocks away from the waterfront. You’ll get private rooms, A/C, WiFi, and the works all for a fantastic rate. Enjoy the rooftop common area overlooking the harbor or the shared kitchen and hammocks. Check Prices
- Hotel Mar Azul: You’ll get awesome value at Hotel Mar Azul. The hotel is located super close to the pier and main stretch of shops and restaurants. Your room will be equipped with A/C and a mini fridge and breakfast is included. You can rent snorkelling gear from the front desk. No frills, but the rate is great! Check Prices
Tips for Visiting San Cristobal Island
- Tours and ferries are operated separately. This means that you can’t schedule a tour from Santa Cruz Island on San Cristobal and return the same night – the ferry schedule doesn’t allow for it. You have to do an overnight on San Cristobal if you want to return to Santa Cruz.
- If San Cristobal is on your must-see list, we recommend trying to book a flight that lets you fly into Baltra and out of San Cristobal, or vise versa. Or, allow yourself a couple of days.
- Book tours and ferries a day or two in advance!
- There are 3 ATM’s in San Cristobal, so no need to re-fill your cash supplies in Puerto Ayora.
Where to Eat & Drink in San Cristobal
- Stop by the Mockingbird Cafe for cheap meals AND the best coffee in the Galapagos! The owner of local coffee plantation Hacienda El Cafetal owns this coffee shop, which is serving up the most prized local coffee beans grown on the islands. The coffee plantation dates back to 1832, but you’d probably know it best as the source of the very first Starbucks Reserve beans in 2010.
- Grab a $5 almuerzo, aka set lunch, at Rosita for a cheap and filling meal – an Ecuadorian tradition. If you’re on a budget for dinner, too, head to Lucky’s, a local favorite with meals under $4.
- The best thing to eat in the Galapagos is whole grilled fish cooked on a sizzling outdoor grill, and that’s what you’ll find at Bambu.
- Get some delicious fresh seafood at El Descanso Marinero, which is considered by many to be the best restaurant in town.
- Here is an excellent list of local places to eat in San Cristobal that aren’t on TripAdvisor!
Activities & Day Tours from San Cristobal
Although we didn’t get a chance to experience them ourselves, we heard plenty of good things about the activities available on San Cristobal! Here are the best things to do on San Cristobal. You can also find an excellent guide on San Cristobal here.
The Kicker Rock Tour from San Cristobal
Kicker Rock, also called Leon Dormido for its resemblance to a sleeping sea lion, is a unique rock formation consisting of two vertical slices of cliff face set in perfect parallel to one another in the open sea. It is home to a plethora of fantastic underwater life.
This is the one tour we didn’t get to do, and REALLY wanted to. We heard from a fellow backpacker that Kicker Rock was the best snorkeling in the Galapagos! In addition to the usual Galapagos menagerie of rays, fish, turtles, and more, you’ll also get the chance to swim with sea lions and, circling far down below, hammerhead sharks!! Ahhh!
Kicker Rock is also an amazing place to dive, if you’re certified.
How to Get to Kicker Rock
- Kicker Rock is just off the shore of San Cristobal. If you’re in San Cristobal, it’s an easy and inexpensive day trip. Book with any tour operator in town.
- If you’re in Santa Cruz, you’ll need to book a ferry to San Cristobal, book a Kicker Rock tour on San Cristobal Island, and then book your return ferry the next day. I know it sounds like a lot of booking, but it’s actually really easy to do: You can book the ferries & tour while still in Santa Cruz, with any agency or tour operator in town. Or, just go to the docks and find the kiosk (there is only one). They’ll be able to help you there.
- Plan to stay overnight on San Cristobal – you can’t do this as a day trip from Puerto Ayora!
La Loberia Beach
La Loberia is named for its claim to fame: it’s a Sea Lion breeding ground! When the tide is low, you can snorkel with adorable baby sea lions and their sea turtle friends like you’re a character in a Disney movie (just don’t touch them. Or feed them)! You also have a good chance to see blue footed boobies and frigate birds here – and you’re guaranteed to get spit on by some huffy marine iguanas.
To get to La Loberia, Take a $3 camioneta (a white taxi found everywhere on the islands) 5 minutes, or rent a bike for a 15 minute ride. Or, walk for 40 minutes out of town. You can visit La Loberia without a guide, but look for a yellow or red flag which indicates that it’s unsafe to swim. Stay for the sunset – the views are said to be absolutely incredible!
Watch the Sunset at Lover’s Beach
Cozy up with your honey (or like, a sea lion or whatever) at Punta Carola, also known as Lovers Beach. To get to Lover’s Beach, take the path through the Interpretation Center or walk to the end of the dirt road and locate a rocky path leading to the beach. You can watch the sunset from the beach or continue on the path up Cerro Tijeratas (aka Frigate Bird Hill) to catch some absolutely stunning views of the sun setting over Kicker Rock from up high – while chillin’ with some Frigate Birds, of course. It’s a Galapagos Islands dream!
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We hope this guide was informative and helpful in showing just how much there is to see on the Galapagos Islands without a cruise! Backpacking the Galapagos Islands is a fantastic and budget-friendly adventure, and by far our favorite stop during our 4 months in South America.
For even more information about the how to visit the Galapagos Islands without a cruise, check out our Galapagos packing list guide and read about our week in the Galapagos in detail in these 2 posts:
Prefer to book in advance online? Here are some great tour options!
Planning a trip to Ecuador? There’s SO MUCH to see and do in this amazing country! Check out our other Ecuador resources:
- Backpacking Ecuador: Itinerary for 1 Incredible Month
- 30 Things No One Tells You About Backpacking in Ecuador
- 11 Mind-Blowing Things to Do in Baños, Ecuador (on a budget)
- Hiking the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador: Reverse Route Travel Guide
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Disclaimer: This post contains a sponsored link from Nature Galapagos as well as a few affiliate links to hotels, flights, and tours. Our trip to the Galapagos Island was NOT sponsored and we paid for everything 100% out of our own pockets.
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