How to Visit The Galapagos Islands Without a Cruise: A Complete Guide

You don't need a cruise to see the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. Save a ton of money with this budget-friendly alternative to Galapagos Islands travel! Visit one of the most popular vacation destinations in South America and save a ton of money.

     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!

This post was last updated on 10/10/2017.

A marine iguana basking in the sun in the Galapagos Islands. You'll see plenty of these big guys when you visit the Galapagos Islands by land!
A marine iguana basking in the sun in the Galapagos Islands. You’ll see plenty of these big guys when you visit the Galapagos Islands by land! Original photo credit: “Galapagos” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by pantxorama

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 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, Nature Galapagos offers multi-day land based tours with set itineraries, which takes a huge amount of planning off your shoulders! You can also book day trips with them online as well.

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.  Our complete guide to backpacking the Galapagos Islands without a cruise includes information and tips for every tour and day trip we did, plus a few we didn't have time for.

Here's what you'll find in our complete guide to the Galapagos Islands by land:

We did say it was complete, right? 

Luckily, we've created a downloadable version!  Enter your email below and we'll send you everything you need to know about visiting the Galapagos Islands by land in a convenient 15-page PDF. Download it and take it with you to use offline on your phone, tablet, or laptop!

For even more information about the how to visit the Galapagos Islands without a cruise, you can read about our week in the Galapagos in detail in these 2 posts:

Ready? Let's get started!

A female blue footed booby on the Los Tuneles tour, from Isla Isabela, in the Galapagos Islands! Self guided visit to Las Grietas, near Punta Estrada, in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos, Ecuador. Read our complete guide to the Galapagos Islands without a cruise!
A female blue footed booby on the Los Tuneles tour in the Galapagos Islands! Side note: boobies are the most awkward bird we've ever seen. They're super weird and totally adorable.

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 free shuttle to the ferry from Baltra to Santa Cruz Island. 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 a 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. Here are our must-have recommendations for what to pack for the Galapagos Islands!
Note: Some of the following are Amazon Affiliate links, which means that we will receive a small commission from your purchase at no extra cost to you. These commissions go towards the costs of running our site and providing useful, free travel resources to you. Thank you for using our links!

  • 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 PurifierThe 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 BagDon'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 or, if you want to really ball, a Travel Towel Robe. 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. The robe would be perfect for the hour or 2 you'll be spending on the boat ride back, still dripping wet and being blasted with not-warm-enough ocean breezes.
  • 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 and reef sharks. You gotta have a GoPro!

For more packing tips, check out our recommendations for what to pack for South America!

Lupe the Sea Lion is a regular at the Puerto Ayora Fish Market on Santa Cruz Island! The Puerto Ayora Fish Market is a recommended stop in our complete guide to the Galapagos Islands without a cruise!
Lupe the Sea Lion is a regular at the Puerto Ayora Fish Market on Santa Cruz Island! The Puerto Ayora Fish Market is a recommended stop in our complete guide to the Galapagos Islands without a cruise!

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 free 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!
30 Things No One Tells You About Backpacking in Ecuador
  • 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.
Suenos Silvestres hostal in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, in the Galapagos, Ecuador.
We got a fabulous room at Suenos Silvestres hotel for $50 per night in Puerto Ayora!

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
2 for $8 Happy Hour daquiries in Puerto Ayora!
2 for $8 Happy Hour daiquiris in Puerto Ayora! There are plenty of spots with sunset drink specials along the main street in Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos Islands.

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 OMG Espresso, a roastery serving locally grown Galapagos coffee. Bonus: it also has fro-yo!
  • 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.

Self guided visit to Las Grietas, near Punta Estrada, in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos, Ecuador. Read our complete guide to the Galapagos without a cruise!
Las Grietas is the best snorkeling near Puerto Ayora! Stunning Las Grietas is prettiest and most empty at midday. The natural channel is clear and very, very deep!

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!
On the way to Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos. Read our complete guide to the Galapagos Islands without a cruise!
The most beautiful beach I've ever seen. Look how incredibly clear the water is!

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 attemped 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!
Sea lions basking on the beach in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. Complete guide to the Galapagos without a cruise.
Sea lions are everywhere on Isabela Island in the Galapagos. You'll have to step over them on a regular basis. Does it ever get annoying? No. Never. Sea lions are the cutest and we want one as a pet. Original photo credit: "Sea Lion siesta" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by empty007

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!  Next 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).

Sipping a fresh coconut with a super chill iguana by the docks on Isabela Island in the Galapagos! We spent a week backpacking the Galapagos Islands.
Sipping a fresh coconut with a super chill iguana by the docks on Isabela Island in the Galapagos!

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.

Isabela Island: a Land-Based trip to the The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

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.
Casa Rosada hotel in Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island in the Galapagos, Ecuador
On Isabela Island we stayed in Casa Rosada, the pink hotel on the left. It was the cheapest, most budget option, and left much to be desired ... except for the view, which was absolutely stunning! There were volcanic rocks and marine iguanas covering the beach.

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.

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.

Galapagos Starfish on the Los Tintoreras tour from Isabela Island, the Galapagos, Ecuador.
We saw several crazy looking starfish like this one on the Los Tintoreras tour from Isabela Island! Original photo credit: "galapagos" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by pantxorama

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.
A blue footed booby and his babies on the Los Tuneles tour from Isabela Island in the Galapagos! Read the complete guide to backpacking the Galapagos Islands by land.
A blue footed booby and his babies on the Los Tuneles tour from Isabela Island in the Galapagos!

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.
Sea turtle swimming underwater in the Galapagos Islands.
Sea turtles are a frequent sight underwater in the Galapagos Islands. You'll find several resident sea turtles in Concha Perlas. We also found a 6-foot giant Manta Ray, which was considerably more terrifying. Original photo credit: "P2115226" (CC BY 2.0) by Lucy Rickards

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.
Hiking trail by the beach on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos, with a very chill marine iguana. Read more in our complete guide to the Galapagos Islands without a cruise!
Hiking trail by the beach on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos, with a very chill marine iguana (I think they're all chill, actually).

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.

Sea Lions on the beach in San Cristobal in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.
Sea Lions on the beach in San Cristobal in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.  Original photo credit: "Galapagos with Germans" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by islodelba

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!
Kicker Rock is the most popular day tour from San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos. Learn more in our complete guide to the Galapagos Islands by land.
Kicker Rock is the most popular day tour from San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos. Original photo credit: "Kicker Rock" (CC BY 2.0) by brian.gratwicke

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!

Download the Galapagos Islands by Land Guide

Enter your email below and we'll send you everything you need to know about visiting the Galapagos Islands by land in a convenient 15-page PDF. Download it and take it with you to use offline on your phone, tablet, or laptop!

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, you can 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:

Please leave us a comment below  if you have any questions about planning your trip to the Galapagos Islands without a cruise!


Did you find this post informative? Please save it to reference later on Pinterest! Note: full sized image can be found by clicking the Pin It button.
You don't need a cruise to see the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. Save a ton of money with this budget-friendly alternative to Galapagos Islands travel! Visit one of the most popular vacation destinations in South America and save a ton of money.

Feature photo credit: "Sea Lion siesta" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by empty007

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.

Get the FREE Galapagos Islands by Land Guide!

Subscribe below and we'll send you our massive 15-page Galapagos Islands by Land guide packed full of helpful tips & information for your trip. PLUS, our favorite tips for visiting Ecuador!

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit
Hey, I'm Lia! I'm a Kentucky native living in San Francisco. I'm extremely practical and also entirely addicted to travel, which I'm forever trying to reconcile. If I had a patronus, it would a spreadsheet. Or a llama. Possibly a llama creating a spreadsheet. I'm married to Jeremy and I'm obsessed with him and it's super gross, unless you're us, in which case it's the best.

62 Comment

  1. So glad I stumbled upon this post while browsing Pinterest in the middle of the night because I haven’t been able to sleep since our nightmare US election. We want to go to the Galápagos, but I haven’t been wanting to go on a cruise tour. I had pretty much abandoned the idea of going at all because I must be a terrible travel blogger. Your post has reinvigorated the idea. Gracias!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      I totally feel your pain … and I’m happy to hear that I helped in some small way! I would like nothing more than to go back to the Galapagos right now and drown all my worries in a pile of marine iguanas or sea lions. It’s way more financially doable than the cruise companies would have you believe!

      1. Marcy says: Reply

        Thank you so much for this great post and advice! I can’t decide if we should spend two nights in Santa Cruz to do a day trip to North Seymour (or such) or stay a third on Isabella? Do you think the cost and time of the trip to an uninhabited island is worth it after already being to Isabella? PS: we will already be in Santa Cruz for the beach and snorkeling. Thank you!

        1. Lia says: Reply

          I think I’d stay in Santa Cruz and check out North Seymour – that’s one of the ones that’s harder to get to! You can probably do the best tours in Isabela (Tintoreras and Los Tuneles) in 2 days. And Santa Cruz is home base for a ton of tours, plus it’s the home of Las Grietas, which was our fave thing on the island!

          1. Marcy says:

            I can’t remember if I replied or not. But wanted to thank you for your advice. Much appreciated!

          2. Lia says:

            You’re so welcome, Marcy! Happy to help.

      2. Laura Rachal says: Reply

        We were so excited to find your blog. We also thought that Galapagos would not be doable due to budget. We just got back from a diy safari in Africa and had an amazing time doing it on our own. So I have 2 questions: what month were you there? And can you pay your entrance fee before you arrive?

        1. Lia says: Reply

          Hi Laura! We visited the Galapagos in August. And I don’t believe you can pay your entrance fee before you arrive. You’ll have to go through a lot of little booths at the airport with various pieces of paper and fees. I believe they also track things like how many people are on the Island at one time, etc. Here’s more information on that fee and what it’s used for:

          Let me know if you have any other questions I can help with!

  2. Thank you for all these tips and helpful information. We will be in Puerto Ayora soon and will be spending a week there. We won’t be doing a cruise and doing a land based tour instead. A cruise for a family of four was going to take all our travel budget for a year or two. So glad to see all these great posts on doing the Galapagos without a cruise. You’ve convinced me about Las Grietas 🙂

    1. Lia says: Reply

      So happy to help! You’re going to have a blast!! Doing the Galapagos without a cruise is the best to do it in our opinion. And def check out Las Grietas! SO amazing!!

  3. […] variety of exciting things to do and see and experience: from the Amazon jungle to Patagonia to the Galapagos to Machu Picchu to the marble caves of Chile and the glaciers of Ushuaia to Bolivia’s Uyuni Salt […]

  4. Thanks so much for this detailed post! I can’t wait to go there in a couple of months!
    All best for your next trips!

  5. Wonderful article! We are busy planning a honeymoon in the Galapagos most likely in Feburary. What time of year did you go!?

    1. Lia says: Reply

      We went in August. But Ecuador is right on top of the Equator and gets pretty much the same temperatures year-round. They may have a rainy & dry season, which would be something to look into. But it for sure won’t be cold in the Galapagos in February!

  6. charleymills says: Reply

    This is wonderful information. We’re doing a last minute trip next week from Quito. Did you book your day tours ahead of time, or just grab them once you were on the Islands?

    1. Lia says: Reply

      We booked them on the islands! Couldn’t figure out a way to book in advance and anyway, it wasn’t necessary. Just book your tours a day or two in advance once you get to the islands, and you won’t have any problems. Everyone you meet will be more than happy to help you. One day we were desperate to do a last-minute tour and a friendly employee at our hostel spent hours on the phone calling every tour operator in town (she had the numbers all memorized and knew them all, of course) until she was able to get us on a tour! So don’t stress, you’ll be taken care of 🙂

  7. Nina says: Reply

    Thank you for your post! My husband and I were shocked by the cruise prices, and it’s good to know this trip can be done on our own. I really appreciate your detailed and easy-to-understand information. I have a question about currency: we were planning to use the Visa for everything, but sounds like that may not be the best option since you describe a lot of small fees- $1, $2, $12, etc., and also that a lot of places in Ecuador don’t even take credit cards. Did you bring a lot of cash on your trip? And, are U.S. dollars accepted or would we need to exchange? Thanks! -Nina

    1. Lia says: Reply

      What’s great about Ecuador is that they use US dollars – everything but the coins are the exact same! So yes, you can definitely just bring US dollars. We used cash pretty much the entire time we were in Ecuador because of the high fees for using credit cards. You’ll find ATMs everywhere, but in the Galapagos, there’s pretty much just one ATM per inhabited island, so we stocked up at the ATM in Puerto Ayora (at the 1 grocery store, right outside of the 1 dock – sooo very easy to find). Our bank is ATM-fee-free but if your bank charges things like a % foreign transaction fee or a fee for using an ATM, definitely bring some cash (stashed in a few different places for safety). You’ll save the most money that way!

  8. This is such a useful guide to the Galapagos Islands! I’ve looked into cruises and group tours and have been shocked by the prices. Your itinerary looks wonderful, I’d love to see all those sea lions! Did you see any giant turtles too? I’ve seen a lot of pictures of them in the Galapagos but wasn’t sure if it’s possible to do a trip to see them from Santa Cruz Island.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      We saw giant turtles everywhere! Both the land tortoises and the sea turtles. You’ll see tons of sea turtles swimming offshore by the beach at the Charles Darwin research center, which is totally free and on Santa Cruz island. There’s also a HUGE amount of the land tortoises that you see just hanging out by the road to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz! But we swam with sea turtles every single day during our time on Isla Isabela, especially in Concha de Perlas, las Tintoreras, and Los Tuneles, which are all day trips. Pretty much you’re going to be swimming with sea turtles in the Galapagos no matter where you go!

  9. This is a fantastic post. I’ve always wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands. I had no idea that you could visit on your own like that.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      A lot of people aren’t aware! We definitely think it’s the best way to see the Galapagos Islands.

  10. This place looks magical. 900 for a week is a fantasy for me at the moment, but one day I will be old and rich and able to afford it! Loved the Lupe sea lion 🙂

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Oh, we definitely understand that struggle! Compared to the multi-thousands that the cruises cost, $800 seemed like a bargain to us for 9 days. We know of other backpackers who were able to teach english on the islands for even cheaper! But any way you cut it, the Galapagos isn’t as cheap as the rest of Ecuador, or even South America. Still, it doesn’t have to be as expensive as a cruise.

  11. Vrithi Pushkar says: Reply

    Such great information and an awesome guide. Galapagos is on our bucket-list and i am saving this for when i go.

  12. I was so excited to read this because it sounds daft but I didn’t realize it was possible to visit the Galapagos if you’re not on a cruise! I get terrible seasickness and just figured an 8-day cruise was not something I’d ever be able to do. Now I’m going to consider going and this guide will be invaluable for planning a trip!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      I’m so glad to hear that we’ve opened a whole new world of Galapagos travel to you! We were the same way before we started planning our trip… we’d never heard of doing the Galapagos by land so we just had no idea that it was a thing. When we found out there were like, hotels on the island and you can just take ferries in between each, it was such a DUH moment. It’s probably good that not many people know about it because it definitely makes for a very non-touristy and relaxed trip!

  13. kellybarcus says: Reply

    This is great! I’m not a huge cruise fan, so this is super helpful!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      I’ve never been on a cruise, so I can’t really knock it … but it just sounds miserable. Like being stuck with a bunch of people and rocking back and forth constantly while you’re shuttled around on someone else’s schedule? Ugh no. One day I’m sure I’ll be proven totally wrong, but until then, I’m staying on land!

  14. Aubrie says: Reply

    Wow what a comprehensive guide! I am definitely saving this for later! I really want to go to the Galapagos Islands and your pictures were amazing!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thanks Aubrie! I’m glad that the guide was helpful for you!

  15. Val says: Reply

    Wow what a great guide to these island .. now I wanna go! Thx for sharing!


    1. Lia says: Reply

      You totally should Valerie! The Galapagos are amazing!

  16. iamthewannabevagabond says: Reply

    Found this really helpful! Thank you for recommending the Galapagos Islands to me via FB. I definitely want to add it to my itinerary now I know it is affordable!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Absolutely! Happy to help 🙂

  17. Manouk says: Reply

    Amazing! So much information, I love how detailed you made it. I have saved it and will definitely come back and read it again when we visit the Islands in August. We plan to stay two weeks, so hopefully we manage to do all three islands.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      That’s a fantastic length of time for a Galapagos trip! You should definitely be able to see all 3 islands. I’m glad our post was helpful! Let us know if you have any other questions we can answer.

  18. Marc Patry says: Reply

    You seem to place the blame on the lines at the airport on the amount of cruise-goers. In 2015, apx. 80,000 people went to Galapagos on a cruise, and 160,000 went without a cruise (government of Ecuador statistics).

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Wow, that’s really interesting! I had no idea. The lines really weren’t that bad, just about an extra hour or so. But we were with the same folks from the airport all the way to the Santa Cruz docks, and all of them except about 5 people (including us) went and met up with the same handful of cruise ships. So while there may be a higher volume of folks coming to the Galapagos without a cruise, I think they’re probably more evenly spread out and not as likely to show up in groups of 100+ at a time. Or perhaps we just chose a day to fly that was the same day as several cruises were set to embark.

  19. Kellie says: Reply

    This is a fantastic trip report! Well done. We have two teens (junior and senior) and even though they’ve traveled to 6 of the 7 continents, we still haven’t been to the Galapagos. Since they are in school, we are limited to school holidays to visit. The cost of a one week cruise for 4 during Christmas is roughly half of what we paid to travel around the world for nearly five months! I’m now considering doing a land-based tour but I’m wondering on the practicality/availability of getting rooms during the week before Christmas if we don’t book in advance. Any thoughts on that? Thanks so much!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thank you Kellie! We couldn’t believe how insanely expensive it can be! We encountered no trouble at all finding rooms without booking anything in advance, but we weren’t travelling during the holiday season. I’m not sure how different it might be around Christmas. I would recommend contacting a local and asking, or perhaps trying to book in advance just to make sure you’re covered! You can contact one of the hotels where we stayed in Puerto Ayora, Sueno Silvestres, here: Perhaps he can give you an idea of whether you might need to make reservations in advance during that time of year. Tell him we said hello 🙂

  20. Taylor says: Reply

    Would you recommend specific footwear? I am traveling in South America for the year and only brought crappy flip flops and sneakers. I would wear my sneakers in the water but if they get wet I’m not sure they will dry. Do you think it is worth getting some tevas? I’m also concerned about breaking in new sandals during my trip. Do the places with wetsuits also have water shoes for rent?

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Flip flops are definitely not good for the water because of their tendency to float away. I highly recommend getting a pair of Tevas – they’re leather, so no breaking in necessary, they’re cute, and the strap keeps them on tight. I’ve worn them swimming, snorkeling, white water rafting, and even hiking, and they are up for the challenge! This is the pair that I wear (I’m on my 3rd pair!):

      Some places definitely rent water shoes, but if you’re snorkeling, you may not need them because you’ll have on flippers.

  21. Yen says: Reply

    Hello, thanks for a great detailed report. We are going next month with our 11-month old baby. What do you think about having the baby in the speedboat from Santa Cruz to Isabella? And on day tours?

    1. Lia says: Reply

      I think the baby will be fine in the speedboat – it’s choppy and bouncy, but hopefully in a sort of lulling, relaxing way? – but I’m not sure about day tours. You’re in the water for pretty much all of your day tours and there’s not always a boat nearby. I’d be sure to ask the tour operator when you book about whether it’s OK for the baby to stay in the boat while you’re in the water!

  22. Srini says: Reply

    Lia & Jerry
    Thanks a lot for a well written & detailed guide to Galapagos!! we are planning to go there in early Nov and we didn’t want to do the standard Cruise tours and I was looking for info on how to go by ourselves. I am glad I got to your blog 🙂 Super!! After reading your blog, I am convinced that we can go on our own. Thanks a lot.. 🙂 Srini

    1. Lia says: Reply

      We’re so happy to help, Srini! I’m glad you found our blog too 🙂

  23. Bobbie/Barbara says: Reply

    Hi Lia – question: when you post taxi fare is that per person or per car? As there are 4 of us I just need to be sure. Thanks so much for your help!!!! Bobbie

    1. Lia says: Reply

      That’s per car! So the more people there are, the cheaper it ends up being. We usually find travelers to split cars with for that exact reason.

  24. Carine says: Reply

    Thanks for the amazingly detailed post, you have just given me and my boyfriend our next destination! I wanted to know about your 800$ cost for the trip. Is it including everything from tours, hotels, food and taxis and such?

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Yes, $800 (EACH, So $1600 total) includes everything for 8 days: entrance fees, tours, hotels, food, and transportation, from Quito to the Galapagos and back. It even includes flights – but our flights were insanely cheap because we booked using LATAM points we earned from a rewards credit card, which isn’t doable for everyone. And of course you’ll need to get yourself to Quito. But that’s a good number to go off of for your trip on the actual islands once you arrive!

  25. Gabrielle says: Reply

    Oh how happy I am to have found this! What a thorough and encouraging article on traveling the Galapagos without a cruise! I’m so very excited! Thank you so much for sharing this information

  26. Anna says: Reply

    So glad i found this site, full of useful information!! Thank you!
    What month did you travel? I am travelling with small children and i am worried about the ferry from Santa Cruz to Isabela being not calm, did you find this to be the case?

    1. Lia says: Reply

      We visited the Galapagos in late August. The ferry from Santa Cruz to Isabela is definitely not calm – the waters are quite choppy! If your little ones are able to take an anti-nausea medication like Dramamine, that’s a big help. It also helps to sit outside so you can watch the waves as you bounce over them, but it is colder, so take a jacket and some sun protection as well!

  27. Paula Olymbios says: Reply

    Hello Liz,

    Thanks for such a comprehensive blog. We are thinking of going next year in August. My questions are how cold was the sea water – the tempertuare if you it. Secondly how difficult was the crossing in the ferries between islands.
    Thanks Paula

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Hi Paula! Great questions. The water is a bit cold, as it’s the Pacific ocean. That said, it’s certainly warmer than the water in California 😛 you’ll be fine with a short-sleeved wet suit for most of the tours, which are typically provided (or you can rent one from a zillion different places in town). I’m a big wuss and after a few minutes of swimming in a short wet suit I was fine.

      The ferry crossings are not bad if you take dramamine! I get nauseous just thinking about swaying from side to side, and a dramamine kept me feeling totally fine. The actual ferries are very easy to locate and simple to purchase a ticket for, too, so the whole process is relatively painless. It’s around 2 hours on the boat from Santa Cruz to Isabela and back again.

  28. Ashley says: Reply

    Great Post! Thanks so much for the info. I was wondering if you had a file that can be downloaded of this guide? Thanks again.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      That’s an awesome suggestion, Ashley! It took me a few days, but I whipped one up. I’ll send you a copy 🙂

  29. John says: Reply

    Hi Lia,
    Your land-based visit of the Galapagos is excellent. Very well done. We have just returned from 10 days in Ecuador and five of those on a fantastic cruise. We waited and got our cruise package at half off plus they included round trip airfare from Quito to Galapagos and ground transportation. We were on a relatively brand new 16 passenger catamaran. Our Naturalist and crew were fantastic. We had 4 shore excursions every day including snorkeling. We snorkeled with sea lions and turtles all around us. This was a 4-star trip and certainly not for the budget conscious.

    For those on a budget that would like to do a cruise go to Community Hostel in Quito. ( If you do the free walking tour of Quito this is where you meet up) They have a board that lists last minute deals for boats that cruise the Galapagos. A real bargain. Folks will have to check out the reviews for the particular boat they may want to go on.

    One thing we would like to suggest is to list what the airfare is for the Galapagos. Rather than mentioning your luck of using points/miles. Currently, the airfare is running around $425 Rt from Quito plus $20 mandatory Galapagos Tourist card. So adding that to your per person cost it would be $1245. for your 9 days. $800 sounds good but you left out a big chunk!

    John and Susan
    Boquete, Panama

    1. Fantastic tips!! Thanks so much! We definitely recommend getting the LAN or Avianca credit cards to stock up on points if you have time before your trip (which is what we did) but yes, paying out of pocket will take a big chunk out of your budget. Thanks so much for the info!

  30. Hilary says: Reply

    Thanks for sharing your experience! Really helping with my planning. When you did DIY activities like snorkelling, where did you leave your belongings? Especially those that aren’t waterproof. I was thinking of bringing along a backpack to more secluded areas so leaving my stuff in my accommodation may not be a feasible option.

    Thank you

    1. We just left our bags nearby on dry land. There wasn’t any issue, we never felt nervous or unsafe. There aren’t a lot of tourists and not many locals, either – the crowds are all from the cruises. I wouldn’t bring like, your wallet and leave it there, but everything else is fine to leave on the beach or on land within eye range!

Leave a Reply