HOW TO VISIT THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS WITHOUT BOOKING A TOUR
With day tours averaging around $100 and 4 day cruises starting at $1000 and rising rapidly if you add more days, it’s pretty obvious why most backpackers will avoid the place. But visiting the Galapagos islands without a tour is actually pretty simple and can easily be done on a backpackers budget.
All you need to do is follow these simple steps:
- Step 1 – Book your own return flights
- Step 2 – Book your own accommodation on the islands
- Step 3 – Choose an itinerary
- Step 4 – Organise your own travel between the different islands
- Step 5 – Use our guide to do all the free and/or cheapest activities
STEP 1 & 2 - BOOKING FLIGHTS AND ACCOMMODATION
We go into more detail about booking flights and travelling to the islands here as it is slightly more complicated than internal flights or flying to another country. And if you’re concerned about not being able to afford a trip to the Galapagos Islands then we have six tips how to save money here which might help convince you to go.
Step 1 – Booking Flights
Step 2 – Book Your Own Accommodation
STEPS 3 & 4 - CHOOSING AN ITINERARY AND TRAVELLING BETWEEN THE ISLANDS
Once you get yourself to the islands, all you now need to worry about is deciding what free activities you want to do and on what day, and whether you want to travel to the other islands. Here’s a simple breakdown of our week itinerary to give you an idea of what you might want to do. We think a week is easily do-able for a backpacker and we managed to keep our spend below £500.
Step 3 – Choosing an Itinerary
As mentioned, we spent 7 days on the islands and managed to keep our total spend low whilst doing something everyday. We would recommend a 5 days to a week as this gives you enough time to see two of the main islands.
- Day 1 – Fly to San Cristobal, visit the interpretation centre, watch the sunset on the beach
- Day 2 – Visit the Giant Tortoise Sanctuary and El Junco Lagoon
- Day 3 – Dive day (on the days we dive, you can just fit in another free activity which we have listed below, use that day for a tour or to move on to another island)
- Day 4 – Travel to Santa Cruz, visit the Darwin Centre and Playa Mann
- Day 5 – Visit Las Greitas and Tortuga Bay
- Day 6 – Dive day
- Day 7 – Day tour to Pinzon Island (this was a paid tour so we haven’t included this below. Again you can replace this with a free activity or use this day to visit Isabela).
- Day 8 – Return to San Cristobal, fly back to the mainland
Three of our days were spent on a paid activity. Two days diving and then we spent one day on a snorkel tour to Pinzon island.
We don’t expect you to copy this itinerary exactly, but more use it as a guide to plan your own trip. For example, if you don’t dive then you could spend 2 days on San Cristobal, 2 days on Santa Cruz and then 2 on Isabel if you want to see every inhabited island in the Galapagos.
Or if you want to save money, why not do a 5 day trip – 2 on San Cristobal, 3 on Santa Cruz, then fly home. The options are endless are we’ve covered three different itineraries in this post.
Step 4 – Travelling Between The Islands
STEP 5 - USE OUR GUIDE TO DO ALL THE FREE ACTIVITIES
Okay so hopefully now your flights and accommodation are book and you’ve decided on an itinerary. Now you just need to clue yourself up the free activities on each island and plan your days accordingly. For some reason, people travelling to the islands think that they need to book tours or cruises to be able to see everything but this really isn’t the case. The funniest part is that many of these expensive tours take you to the same places we’ve listed below which you can do for free by yourself.
Another concern of travellers is that they won’t see the very best the islands have to offer or miss out on all the animals by not booking a tour. Again, this is wrong. Animals are all over the islands, simply wandering around and minding their own business. It’s impossible not to find them. Alongside this, some of the most impressive natural sites like Las Greitas are completely free as well.
You won’t be dissapointed following our list of activities and you will come away from the islands feeling like you’ve seen everything they have to offer. Below is a list of all the free things you can do on both San Cristobal and Santa Cruz:
FREE ACTIVITIES ON SAN CRISTOBAL ISLAND
The Interpretation Centre is a short walk from the main town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. It is an educational centred focusing the geological and natural history of the Galapagos islands, as well as the efforts to protect its uniqueness. The exhibit provides a fascinating history of the islands such as colonisation attempts in the past, and the current economic and political situations the islands are facing. You will probably need an hour here depending on how much you want to read an absorb.
Cerro Tijeretas Walk & Viewpoint
The exit of the Interpretation Centre leads out on to a nature trail. Follow the path and you will arrive at the Cerro Tijeretas panoramic viewpoint, From here you can grab your first sight of Kicker Rock far off in the distance – and if your lucky, your first sightings of some of the famous endemic species on the island. Along the trail we came across several curious Lava Lizards, Darwin’s Finches and our first Marine Iguana chilling in the middle of the path. You should aim to visit the centre, Cerro Tijeretas and Punta Carola Beach all in the same day as they are close to each other and all on the same path.
Punta Carola Beach
If you decided to combine all three of these places in one day then you can continue to follow the trail along from Cerro Tijeretas. It will lead you along the coastline where you can stop at a small rocky beach called Muelle Tijeretas to snorkel or if you just want the sandy beach then continue along the path to reach Punta Carola. Here you can park yourself down next to the sea lions and spend the rest of the day here relaxing. We planned it so we arrived there just before sunset and suggest you do the same as the sun sets across the ocean directly in front of the beach – the perfect way to end your day on the Galapagos Islands.
La Loberia Beach
Another sandy beach worth your time is La Loberia, found on the south-west coast of San Cristobal Island. La Loberia beach is a coral sand beach and another great place to spend the day watching sea lions. It is also a good place to snorkel as the water is fairly calm and shallow. At the end of the beach you can find a marked trail through jagged lava rocks were you will find the marine iguanas, warming themselves in the sun. Follow the trail to the top to find great spot to watch sea birds such as blue footed boobies or frigate birds who nest in the cliffside below.
On our second day on San Cristobal we decided to head into the highlands to see more of the famous animals the islands have to offer and get our first sighting of a Galapagos Tortoise. We are cheating a little here as this isn’t completely free but it’s the only paid activity on the list we promise! The reason this isn’t free is that the taxi drivers in town sell this as a ‘tour’ but all you’re really doing is paying for transport around the island for the day and exploring places by yourself.
As all of the places you visit are on the north part of the island, which is far away, the only other way to do this by yourself is with your own transport which is probably more expensive. It costs $60 in total (not per person) so if you have or can find other people to share the ride with it will make it cheaper for everyone.
During the day you will visit four places: The giant tortoise habitat (Galapaguera), El Junco Lagoon, Puerto Chino Beach and La Casa Del Ceibo. Don’t bother with the last place, it’s just a café with a treehouse in the garden and you had to pay to get in – really not worth the money or the time. Tell your driver you don’t want to go there and try to knock a bit off the price!
Galapaguera, El Junco Lagoon & Puerto Chino Beach
All three of these places are free to enter. The Galapaguera is a semi-natural reserve built to help raise and care for the once endangered giant tortoise. The babies are kept in enclosures which you can visit, and they are cared for here by the staff until they are old enough to roam free. Once they are old enough, they wander around the massive habitat and you can follow paths through the area to spot them sat around doing very little.
El Junco Lagoon is a highland lake, great for catching your first look at frigate birds which nest here. A quick tip – if the weather is bad then skip this part as well. We visited on a very rainy day with lots of fog and could hardly see the lake, let alone any birds – save your money instead.
Finally, Puerto Chino is another secluded beach great for seeing more sea lions, blue footed boobies nesting on the rocks and generally wasting a few hours working on the tan. Our suggestion would be to decide on which places to visit, haggle with a taxi driver, and try to get the price down to as low as possible. A return taxi from town to the Galapaguera should be around $30 for example if you just wanted to do that.
FREE THINGS TO DO ON SANTA CRUZ ISLAND
Most of the activities on this list are half day activities so you can probably do two in a day. Visiting the Darwin Centre along with exploring the town is a good way to fill a day as they are closer to each other. We decided to visit Las Greitas and Tortuga Bay during the same day as well but you could spend all day on the beach searching for turtles in the mangroves at Tortuga Bay so it is entirely up to you.
Puerto Ayora & The Fish Market
Santa Cruz is the more developed of the three main islands with the town having more restaurants and bars to enjoy, so you can spend a bit of time exploring here. The waterfront is a nice walk and along the way you will come across the fish market set outside in front of a small harbour. The fish market is a popular place for tourists in town because Lupe the sea lion that has been visiting the market every day for around the last 10 years. Apparently, she turned up one day, got fed and hasn’t stopped coming back since. Aside from that, just looking at the lobsters and other fresh fish caught from around the islands is enough to make you want to find a sushi place for lunch.
Darwin Research Centre
After the market, continue walking along the waterfront until you reach the Darwin Research Centre. The centre is an educational space that provides detailed information on the species on the islands, the problems they are facing and the conservation efforts currently being undertaken by scientists to help them. For example, the mangrove finch population on Santa Cruz is down to around 100 individuals and a huge effort is underway to try and bring this species back from the brink of extinction. Along with all the information, you have another opportunity to see the Galapagos tortoises (although in full captivity this time) if you didn’t see them on San Cristobal, and to our surprise, a taxidermized Lonesome George. Yes, this is the final resting place of the infamous last Giant Pinta Tortoise.
From inside the Darwin centre, you should see signs pointing towards Playa Mann. Follow the signs and a short path out of the back of the centre will take you to a secluded beach . You can spend a few hours here either snorkeling, catching some sun or watching groups of marine iguanas huddling together on the rocks. The Darwin Centre is open between 7.30am – 12.30pm and 2pm – 5.30pm.
Las Greitas is a huge crevice formed between volcanic rock that has filled with ocean water. It’s the perfect place to go swimming during the day so grab some snorkel gear before heading out (most hostels and hotels will rent them to you for the day). To get to Las Greitas, make your way to the harbour, hop on a water taxi and ask for ‘Las Greitas’ – a two-minute trip that costs $0.80.
You will be dropped off on a small boardwalk opposite the harbour and from here follow the clearly labelled signs and path through lava rocks and cacti fields. When you arrive you will see two large jagged cliffs rising up on either side with a crystal clear channel of water running through the middle. The water here is perfect for snorkeling and cooling off from midday equatorial heat and you can even do some cliff jumping if if you wish.
Tortuga Bay, a secluded beach surrounded by mangrove trees, is another great spot for snorkelling, catching some sun and marvelling at the Galapagos wildlife. You have two options to get to Tortuga Bay: you can either head to the port and grab a water taxi which takes around 20 minutes and costs $5 return, or make your way to the start of the Tortuga Bay path and walk there instead. The walk is around 2km along a paved path where you will be able to see lots of vegetation, lava lizards and finches.
At the end of the path you can see a huge beach. Take a right, follow the beach and make your way a little further down to where you can see volcanic rocks and mangrove trees to find the entrance to the bay. Along the beach, you can see marine iguanas crawling out of the sea and up onto the beach to warm up and if you go snorkeling, try looking for for baby sharks, rays and fish in the mangroves. There is also a small kayak rental place if you want to go kayaking in the bay.