Galapagos Islands on a Shoestring Budget: High Maintenance Travel for Low Income Dirt-bags (like me)
The following blog is part of a series that is inspired by my trip to the Galapagos Islands during March/April 2017. See my previous blog which provides a summary of Darwin's groundbreaking thesis On the Origin of Species along with videos explaining what we've learned since the age of Darwin. A coming blog will recount my narrative of waking up in a pool of my own blood without a wallet or a cell phone on the streets of Quito, Ecuador two nights before my cruise departed. This is why all the pictures on this blog look a little different. Since my phone was stolen, I had to use my GoPro to take pictures in the Galapagos. Luckily, the cruise I went on had a photographer taking pictures along the way.
I know you. You want to travel to the Galapagos Islands to observe it scenic beauty and to appreciate the wondrous nature that played a pivotal role in the development of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution via natural selection. However, you, like me, are short on cash and every time you look up the cost of visiting the Galapagos you find the price failing the “Ha! Test.” For those of you who don’t know, the Ha! Test is when you look at a piece of information that is so ridiculous that you instantly laugh out loud. You know, like when your friend approaches you with an investment opportunity that will definitely make you a billionaire before you turn 30. Well, in this blog I am going to tell you how I traveled to the Galapagos, took a weeklong luxury cruise, and had a bedroom all to myself for ~$2,500 USD (regular price > $11,200!). Also, I am going to tell you how you can enjoy the Galapagos without taking a cruise for less than $1000!
How inclusive is all inclusive? Well, I suggest you watch this video of me walking around my cruise ship. This baby included a theatre room, a library, a gym, a dining hall, two observation decks, a bar, two spas, dryers to dry your clothes, snorkeling gear, glass bottom boat tours, kayaking, hiking, dancing lessons, swimming with turtles, seals, etc… unlimited espresso drinks, unlimited Dramamine (for those of you with sea sickness), three all you can eat meals a day with snacks in-between, visits to private bungalows, a trip to the Darwin research center, a tour of a local distillery including tasting, a trip to a tortoise mating habitat, a walk through lava tubes, guided tours of five islands, a private photographer for the ship, a full color book about the Galapagos Islands, and my own bedroom with two twin mattresses, a bathroom, a desk, and a shower.
Santa Cruz II Cruise Ship 2017
I know, I know. You’ve looked at the cost of travelling to the Galapagos before or read all of the amenities listed above and the price I just gave you didn’t pass the Ha! Test. “Sure,” you are likely thinking as you roll your eyes. Well sir, Madame, or non-gender binary reader, listen up and read on because you can partake on an all-inclusive week long luxury cruise in the Galapagos for less than a stay in a weeklong luxury hotel in Las Vegas. And no, you do not have to “buy” timeshares, push energy drink cleanse diets, thump Bibles, or sell body parts on the black market. All you have to do is stay flexible and NOT plan anything.
Traditional Ecuadorian dance aboard Santa Cruz II
That’s right. Don’t plan a damn thing. As you may recall from my blog on travelling to Egypt, the best thing you can do as a (western) tourist is not plan anything. Why? The answer is simple: everything is negotiable and seats not sold are a loss to the travel agency. Similar to India and the Middle East, with more information come better prices. If you shop online, you have the least amount of information regarding the competition and absolutely no concept of what the cruise market actually looks like. Think about it. All of the companies that have a website know that the people accessing the website are well-to-do and well paid tourists that want to make sure their trip “goes perfect.” After all, you have to schedule time-off and make sure your cruise does not sell out! Quick! Buy that ticket now!
Don’t fall prey to this old sales technique. It’s the same technique companies use when they put an ad in the paper with the term “quantities limited.” Really? You mean you aren’t going to order another product to sell me if you run out? Do you honestly think a company is going to refuse to take your money and not try to accommodate you to sell you something? Of course they are! They are in the business of selling things to people like you; people who want to buy ‘the thing.’
You see, these companies all work on the same basic selling principle: scarcity. Online, they present you with this idea that seats are limited and that you will never be able to plan that dream vacation unless you pay a bunch of money upfront to ensure that you get exactly what you want. The reality of the situation is that the Galapagos Islands use tourism as their major economic driver (the tourism industry employs 40% of its residents accounting for over half of the local economy). There are few resources on the Galapagos other than pristine, protected environments and they know this. This is a large reason for the amount of preservation that happens on the islands. What this also means is that any dude that can afford a cruise ship runs their own cruise company. The ultimate result is that every day there are literally dozens of cruise ships leaving from the main island of the Galapagos packed with tourists.
North Seymour Island
Let’s say that you are looking to board a luxury cruise. Well, luxury cruises tend to be on bigger ships. Bigger ships tend to have more rooms. More rooms mean that the company has to sell more tickets. And the more tickets you have to sell, the less scarcity you actually have. Looking to book a ticket on a luxury cruise? Ignore the scarcity hype. Believe me; they got all the rooms left in the world. Don’t believe me? Well, I asked around the boat; some people had paid as much as $12,000 to share a room for a trip I booked for ~$2,500 (the last minute price for the cruise was $1,700). What I am saying to you, the overachieving, over planning, OCD western consumer is that the tourism industry in the Galapagos knows your mentality and they know your bankroll, and they exploit this information to maximize their profitability. That’s the bottom line. So put your OCD aside for a week and let things ride out however they may. Remember, an empty room is a room without a customer, and a room without a customer means lost revenue. Cruise companies hate lost revenue. Rather than allow a room to run empty, they’d rather fill it with something that has a pulse and $1,700 to pay them. This is the concept that fuels the “last-minute-cruise” economy.
Remember, the cruise I selected (Santa Cruz II) was the one of the top-tier cruises offered in the Galapagos. I ended up on this boat completely out of coincidence. My original intent was to take a cruise that was less than $1000. Unexpected to me at the time is that the last minute tickets for the lower quality cruises are actually much scarcer than the last minute tickets for the premium cruises. The reason this was a surprise to me is because the top tier cruises offer a much better last minute value (considering the percentage cost of a last minute ticket vs the percentage cost of a full price ticket) than the middle and bottom rung cruises (which are cheaper in terms of price, but have a smaller last minute ticket vs full price ticket ratio) and I figured people would want to snatch those up first. So why is it that the bottom rung cruises are more difficult to find last minute? Well, because unemployed hostel ready dirt bag tourists like me generally spend months traveling and cannot afford to spend more than $1000 on a week of vacation. As a result, the lower quality last minute cruises fill up quickly while the higher quality ones stay vacant. What this means for you is that the high-end cruises are actually more likely to be available when you try to book last minute than the bottom rung cruises!
Raft landing on Fernandina
You see, the last-minute dirt bag economy is much different than the well-off OCD economy. The well-off OCD economy is based on exploiting people’s inability to handle uncertainty and the allure of a ‘trip of a lifetime.’ The last-minute dirt bag economy is based off of the concept of spending the least amount of money to visit the most places. One economy runs off of the idea that everything will be settled for you ahead of time, that you will not have to interact with any locals or sales people to haggle over prices, and that you only have to pay for a week or two of vacation before you return to your cushy-salary/ retire-at-70-job. The other economy runs off the idea that you are willing to barter and talk to every single sales office on the block to find the cheapest way to visit the islands because you still have 6 months of traveling ahead of you (this applies to Antarctica cruises as well). Cruise companies sell the ‘perks’ to the well-off OCD economy to sell tickets at inflated prices months ahead of time. On the contrary, cruise companies have to sell the ‘value’ to the last-minute dirt bag economy, understanding that bottom line price takes precedence over things like the quality of the food served on the ship and that the tickets need to be sold within a week.
Sea lions and marine iguanas on Fernandina
The cost benefit analysis is ultimately up to you. If you are comfortable with the idea that you may not end up on exactly the cruise you want to join, then you should aim for last minute. I suggest you do what I did and not look at any of the cruises in advance. After all, you are going on a cruise ship in the Galapagos and none of them are going to be bad. The only way you can be disappointed is to hype yourself up about a specific cruise and then not find a ticket for it. As far as planning ahead, think about it this way: you can go now, not book anything, and save $10,000 (although you do run the risk of sharing a room with a stranger unless you last minute book with a friend, spouse, etc…) or you can work for several years to save up the money to schedule the exact time you want months in advance. However, option two is a bit of a Catch 22 since the only reason you’d need to spend the extra $10,000 to get the exact cruise you want is to accommodate the employer that you have for the sake of saving to go on the trip in the first place. Not to mention, you can book your last minute cruise in main land Ecuador which significantly reduces your risk of flying to the Galapagos without a cruise… which leads us to the tutorial on how to book a greater than $11,200 cruise in the Galapagos for ~$2,500.
Before I get into the step-by-step tutorial, let me break down the costs so that you can decide if this route is right for you.
0. The Pregame
The national currency of Ecuador is the United States Dollar. Thus, for those of you from the USA, there is no need to exchange any currency before your trip. Withdraw money from your bank account and you will be ready to go once you land. Bring smaller bills and coins. And I don’t mean $20s. Bring quarters and $1 coins ($1 coins are very common in Ecuador; $1 bills are rarely used). Ecuador is primarily a cash economy and receiving change for purchasing things with $20 bills is a bit of a luxury (many do not accept $100). In addition, like many countries in South America, prices are always negotiable. It is much easier to negotiate with dollar coins and quarters than it is to negotiate with $20 bills for which people “don’t have change.” All tourists entering the Galapagos must pay a $100 cash Entrance fee upon landing in the Galapagos and purchase a $20 transit control card at the airport in mainland Ecuador. There are very simple to purchase and do not require a travel agent or agency to acquire.
Isabela Island Boat Tour
Likely related to the currency is that almost all of the travel agencies have employees that speak English. There is no need to fear being “stuck” in Ecuador with no way to get around because you think no one speaks English. The contrary is actually true- it is in their best interest to speak English since they understand that most of the tourists from Europe and the USA speak this language and will pay people for travel services. That being said, it does not hurt to know a little bit of Spanish if for no other reason than to show the citizens of Ecuador that you are at least trying to experience their language and culture (it helps with price negotiation as well).
Snorkeling with Green Sea Turtle near Isabela Island
If you are a US citizen, make sure that you have a passport that is valid for at least 6 months to travel to Ecuador. US citizens do not require a VISA as long as they are staying for less than 90 days in a 12 month period. I believe that this is true for citizen of the European Union (EU) as well; however, citizens of other countries should check your passport and VISA requirements before travelling to Ecuador. Remember, the Galapagos Islands are part of Ecuador so you do not need any special passport or VISA to travel from Ecuador to the Galapagos. Be aware, if you have travelled to other countries in South America or in the Amazon basin, you may be required to have a Yellow Fever vaccination prior to traveling to Ecuador. Otherwise, there are no required vaccinations. I was required to receive a Yellow Fever vaccine due to my travel to Colombia; however, I did not receive any other vaccines and did not encounter any problems. (As an aside, for those whom are afraid of contracting some kind of disease in Ecuador, please note that Ecuador actually has stricter vaccination requirement than the USA. For example, I did not need a Yellow Fever vaccine to return to the USA after traveling to Colombia, but I did need a Yellow Fever vaccine to travel to Ecuador after traveling to Colombia.)
1. The Airplane to Ecuador
Next, purchase an airline ticket from your place of origin to Ecuador (not included in the quote above). The Galapagos Islands are part of Ecuador and located off the west coast, approximately 800 miles west of Quito. Therefore, you will have to fly from mainland Ecuador and then board another plane on either Avianca or TAME Linea Area to fly to the Galapagos. Therefore, when you book your flight to mainland Ecuador, make sure that you are flying into either Quito (UIO) or Guayaquil (GYE) since daily plane flights depart these locations to the Galapagos.
(For those of you who want to visit the Equator and do that tourist stuff, I suggest flying into Quito.)
2. The Airplane to the Galapagos Islands
To procure your tickets from mainland Ecuador to the Galapagos, you can either purchase them in advance or buy them last minute. From my experience, the price is not any different. For those who may be in Quito reading this blog and wondering if you “missed” your opportunity since you did not book a plane ticket in advance, do not fret. Hoping that a last minute plane ticket would be cheaper, I waited to land in Quito before I purchased my plane ticket to the Galapagos and bought the next available ticket which was leaving in two days.
When I purchased my last minute ticket at Quito airport, the person at the counter informed me that I had to buy a return ticket since the Galapagos do not permit people to enter without a planned departure/ return. While you may run into this situation, this is not always the case. I met people on the island that were visiting from Europe, had purchased one way tickets, and were staying on the islands for an indefinite amount of time. It’s really the luck of the draw. However, when booking your ticket to the Galapagos, make sure to leave at least ten days between your arrival and departure so that you have time to go on a cruise (see step 3). After purchasing your ticket, you can purchase your transit control card for $20 right next to the ticket counter. A lot of websites claim that the line is long and that you may miss your flight as a tactic to convince you to purchase one far in advance through a cruise company. This is nonsense. I arrived about two hours before my flight and there was literally no one in line. Purchasing my card took less than ten minutes.
Glass bottom boat near Floreana
As for the airline, I chose Avianca because this airline had the best deal and earliest departure for the Galapagos from Quito. Nevertheless, both airlines include about 23kg or 50lb of checked luggage in the ticket price. When flying to the Galapagos, you will have a choice between two airports: Baltra Island (GPS) or San Cristobal (SCY). I chose Baltra Island (GPS) since this is the airport for access to Isla Santa Cruz which is the main island that contains the Darwin Research Center. In addition, San Cristobal (SCY) is only available via flights from Guayaquil (GYE) and thus can require extremely long layovers if you are departing from Quito (UIO). My suggestion, book your flight to Baltra Island (GPS) since most of the cruises in which you are interested are going to depart from here anyway. Once you land in the Galapagos, have at least $100 cash ready to pay your entrance fee (credit cards are not accepted). This fee varies by age and nationality:
Curious Sea Lions, Penguins, and Sting Rays Floreana
3. On a Boat Anything is Possible!
To recap, you have flown to Quito (UIO), Ecuador and booked your flight to Baltra Island (GPS) in the Galapagos with a return flight. The time between your departure to the Galapagos and your return is at least 10 days. Now, it’s time to book your last minute cruise!
To book a last minute cruise, you have two options:
(Traveling from the Quito airport to the heart of the city is super easy. You can take an hour long bus ride, the 199 for example, for $2.00. I suggest planning a few days to experience Quito and visit the Equator while you wait for your plane flight to the Galapagos. However, if you have no interest in traveling to a hostel in Quito to book your last minute cruise, then get on your plane to the Galapagos and prepare to visit a travel agency at or near a hostel on the island. Similar to mainland Ecuador, travel agencies and hostels are everywhere in Isla Santa Cruz of the Galapagos.)
Now that you are at the travel agency, tell them you are interested in a last-minute cruise in the Galapagos. They will then ask you on which days you are available and what kind of cruise you want. Remember how I told you to book at least ten days in the Galapagos? Well, this is why. I gave my travel agent a nine day window and told him to give me a list of cruises that were available during that time. Then, he looked through his book and came up with a list of ~10 cruises. Then, I told him my price range and he reduced the list to 6 cruises with prices next to each of them. From here, he explained the route for each available cruise (all the travel agencies I visited had laminated maps and markers to show the routes for each cruise and pictures of each cruise ship) and what the perks were for each one. After going through them all, I put them in order from most desirable to least desirable and he started calling the cruise companies.
Something to keep in mind is that the last-minute cruise tickets are very cheap because companies want to ensure that their boats leave the harbor without any empty rooms. This means that the travel agencies are pushing to sell these rooms ASAP. There are hundreds of travel agencies on the mainland and dozens in the Galapagos selling the same tickets and there is no online database for the travel agencies to check availability. The travel agencies are going off of a list of vacancies they received in the morning. In other words, as soon as you tell the agent which ticket you want to purchase, they immediately call the cruise company to see whether the tickets are available. As I stated earlier, members of the last-minute dirt bag economy want to purchase the cheapest accommodations possible and place less emphasis on the quality of things like food, etc… For this reason, the cheapest cruises fill up the fastest. So, if you are a true last-minute dirt bag that needs the cheapest possible boat, I suggest visiting a travel agency early in the morning and giving yourself a larger window in the Galapagos so that you have more opportunity to find a ticket on a boat during your stay. However, if you want to spend a little more and book a luxury cruise and save ~$10,000 like I did, then you’re in luck since these tickets sell significantly slower. (I picked from 3 out of the 5 cruises that were available.)
4. Where to Stay in the Galapagos
Your travel agent went back and forth with a few cruise companies, called around, and eventually found a cruise that interests you. The tickets are purchase and now all you have to do is get to your cruise on time. For those of you who, like me, are not leaving for your cruise on the same day that you arrive in the Galapagos, you are going to have to find a place to stay. Since you are likely flying to Baltra Island (GPS), it is most likely that you will need to find a place in Puerto Ayora. Now, I know that your first instinct is to hurry up and book that hostel or hotel right now so that you do not end up sleeping on the street. This won’t happen.
Remember, 40% of employment in the Galapagos is from tourism- this means that there are hostels and hotels everywhere. Also, it means that the hostels and hotels are cheap because all of the options drive down the price. Since you are reading this blog, I assume that you are not interested in a luxury resort (and if you are, there are plenty). Rather, I assume that you are interested in affordable accommodations with a reasonable living standard (and there are plenty). To find hostel or hotel at a reasonable price, I suggest waiting until you arrive in the city of Puerto Ayora and start walking into lobbies to ask.
(I say this from experience: for my first night in the Galapagos, I booked a room ahead of time. As a result, I paid $30 to stay in a shared room that was about a mile away from the main downtown area. The next two nights, I found a room by asking for prices in the lobby and paid $20 a night to stay in my own room in the heart of the city.)
5. Where Do I Find Civilization and How Do I Get There?
You are now determined to wait until you arrive in Puerto Ayora to book your room. You fly from Quito and have now landed at Baltra airport. How on Earth are you going to get from the airport to Puerto Ayora which is 47km or 29 miles away? This journey requires at least two buses and a ferry.
First, grab your luggage. After you make yourself through the passport (and Yellow Fever vaccine) checkpoint, you will see all of the bags sitting in a room. You may have to wait a while to receive your bag since guard dogs sniff all of them to ensure that no invasive species enter or leave the country. (Don’t try to take anything into or out of the Galapagos- the fines are outrageous and you don’t want to mess with the natural beauty of the place.) Once you have your bag, you will make your way outside to the main bus area. From here, all of the airlines provide a free bus service (~20 minutes) that takes you about 5.5 km or 3.5 miles to the Itabaca Channel. (Make your way onto the next bus ASAP. People do not always wait in line and will shove ahead. If you miss a bus, you may have to wait hours for the next one (more about that in my next blog).)
At the Itabaca Channel, you have to depart the bus and gather your luggage. You then have to transfer your luggage onto a ferry which takes you across the Itabaca Channel. The cost of the ferry is $0.80 USD and it is very unlikely that they will have change for any bills larger than $5. Although the ferry ride takes about 10 minutes, the operators do not depart until the ferry is full. During my trip, I had to cross this Channel four times and had to wait over an hour one of those times. (Take this into consideration when returning to the airport for two reasons:
After you cross the Itabaca Channel, you must collect your luggage from the ferry and transfer it onto a bus. These buses are first come-first served and are scheduled to arrive depending on the plane arrival times. In other words, if you miss the bus, you will have to wait for the next flight to find a spot. The cost of a bus ticket to Puerto Ayora (40km or ~25 miles) is $1.80 and takes about 45 minutes. Again, do not expect change for bills over $5. By the time I got on the bus, it was standing room only, but the bus driver didn’t seem to care. The bus will drop you off at the main junction in town which is Charles Darwin Avenue and Baltra Avenue near Parque de San Francisco. From here, you are adjacent to several restaurants, convenience stores, travel agencies, a boat dock, shops, hotels, and hostels. You can also take a cab (a white pick-up truck) to anywhere in town for $1.00. When you want to return to Baltra, you will need to take the bus from Terminal Terrestre Indefatigable. The first bus leaves at 6:30AM and does not depart until it is full. The later buses fill up fast so I suggest you take the early bus.
(After you cross the Itabaca Channel, If you miss the bus, or decide you’d rather take a taxi (a white pick-up truck), then the cost is $15-20.)
6. Alternative Non-Boat Adventures in Isla Santa Cruz
With steps 0-5, you should be able to find yourself in the Galapagos on a shoe string budget, having booked a last minute cruise and staying in a last minute hotel. Since you did not book anything in advance, you are able to take advantage of the last-minute dirt bag economy. Although you may feel more comfortable doing things out of the exact order in this tutorial (for example, you may wait until you are in the Galapagos to book your cruise rather than book it in mainland Ecuador), by following these simple guidelines, you should be able to save a bundle on your trip to the Galapagos and actually turn your dream of visiting into an affordable reality.
Let’s say you are totally broke and cannot afford to take any cruises in the Galapagos, but you still want to go for the experience.
Booking a room:
Lava cave near Rancho Primicias
Tortoise sex at Rancho Primicias