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There are two ways to see/visit the Galapagos Island. On a cruise/tour boat that will take you around many of the islands (how many will depend on the cost and duration) or independently using public transport to get between the three main [inhabited] islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isabella without the need for a guide staying in local guesthouses.
Recommended is going independently. You won't to
the far outlying islands, but will see plenty and enjoy more at your own
pace. You will also be total flexible and spend much less. It is also
easy. Here is how:
Hunt around for a cheap flight from the mainland (normally Guayaquill to Santa Cruz Island - Baltra airport), the price of that flight will depend on the season and how far you book in advance. You should be about to find something for US$300-400 return.
There are many hostels and guesthouses on all three inhabited islands. They all seem to have a monopoly going and minimum prices are US$15-20/night (but you can haggle depending on the season). There are campsites on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal which are cheaper. Most hostels have kitchens to rustle up food, but eating out is not too expensive. If you are on a real budget take food or anything you will need from the mainland. Obviously all prices are expensive.
Ferries are ~US$25 each journey, and don't forget you will be required to pay the US$100 park fee. Activities such as snorkelling trips are in the ~US$50-100 range and driving trips will be a couple of hundred. If you have gear (taking a snorkel is recommended) or can rent it simple things like snorkelling in the harbour or body boarding are amazing and cost nothing (note the water will be cold). Just walking along the beach and hanging-out with locals is brilliant. Highly recommended!
Well you may have a better cheaper without, especially if you can only afford the cheaper options. If you book from abroad or through the internet you will pay significantly more (sometimes 1.5 to 2 times more than what you would pay on the islands or Ecuador). Booking from Quito is the safest option, but it's likely you will pay a premium for doing so. Booking on the islands is often quoted as the cheapest method, but not without a tiny risk and no guarantee of amazingly cheap prices since accounts are mixed and seem to depend very much on individual experiences and seasonal variations and you will also need a couple of days to spare and won't want a particular boat, fly independently to the islands and shop around in Puerto Ayora. There are up to 10 boats of different price levels leaving daily in high season, and fewer boats but also fewer passengers in low season. The following are bottom prices (cash), after bargaining (roughly):
Tourist-superior = US$600; hot water and private toilets, air con., accommodates 8-16 people.
Tourist-class = US$525
Economy-class = US$450; shared toilets/showers, cold water, no air con., diesel fumes/engine noise may disturb you at night, some cabins may have a few little cockroaches at night, bring some seasick pills, accommodates 8-12 people.
Note: Regardless of boat class, any cruise through the Galapagos will be amazing. All boats go to the same islands, although more expensive and faster boats may add Genovesa Island to their itinerary. Drinks other than water/tea/coffee are never included in the price. Diving is never included in the price either.
Everyone who buys an 8-day cruise (includes the North and South islands) will actually spend 6 days/7 nights cruising; it actually starts at 7 p.m. on the first day and ends early in the morning on the 8th day. If you are picky and want a specific class of boat, you may have to wait from a few hours to one or two days while you visit some of the sights in Puerto Ayora: enjoy Tortuga beach and the animals, Darwin Research Center, the birds and iguanas until the boat you choose is available. We still had time to spend another day-and-half in Puerto Ayora on our way back and would have loved to stay longer. Shorter cruises (3 or 4 nights) takes you either to the North or to the South islands; considering the air fare and the park entrance fee that you paid to get to the Galapagos, the 8-day cruise is a much better value.
They may try to trick you into not booking a cruise directly from
the islands, often by creating fear that you may not be able to find
- They are usually owned by expat foreigners who charge 50% to 70% over the price of the cruise, only for making a phone call to the islands, while the locals (boat owner, captain, tour guide, cook, waiter, sailors) do the real work.
- "The boat returns to port during the trip” is an excuse used by travel agents to downgrade all competitor's boats and sell their own expensive packages to naïve tourists. Boats don't actually return to port, they stop in Baltra for a few hours on the 3rd or 4th day to pick-up passengers from the airport and to stock on food/water.
- "There is a very limited choice of boats that sell last minute deals in Puerto Ayora”; that is again bad advice from those travel agents, unless you are looking for a top luxury and very expensive sailing boat.
- "Economy class boats don't offer qualified guides”; again not true, we had an excellent English-speaking Naturalist guide on our economy boat; actually all local guides speak English all the time.
- "We also offer last minute deals to the islands”; all Thorn Tree readers who booked a Galapagos cruise for the last two years paid between 50% and 70% more from Quito than the ones who booked from Puerto Ayora. This is consistent with my survey with all passengers from all boats that I checked myself.
You can go directly to the TAME airline office in Quito domestic terminal, which is located about 20 meters from the international terminal. Or you can reserve your flights in advance through firstname.lastname@example.org. Last info: there are two daily flights from Quito to Baltra at 7:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. with a stopover in Guayaquil. There is a 15% discount off TAME flights if you have an ISIC student card and are under 30. The flight back from the islands (daily at 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.) can be changed at any time in Puerto Ayora for free, provided that you haven't done the pre-check-in, which should be done a day or two before you fly out, either by the tour guide or by yourself at the TAME office. The penalty for changing dates after the pre-check-in is approximately US$25. Air fares (return trip) are:
High season (approx. from 1 Nov. to 30 Apr. and from 15 Jun. to 14 Sep.) US$450 from Quito and US$400 from Guayaquil.
Low season US$400 from Quito and US$350 from Guayaquil.
Note: that what's considered "high season” for air tickets is slightly different than "high season” for cruise boats (approx. from 1 Dec. to 15 Jan. and from 1 Jul. to 31 Aug.) Aerogal (same airfare but no discount for ISIC holders) flies 3 times a week to San Cristobal Island, which most cruise boats don't go to. TAME also flies to San Cristobal 4 times a week.
If you want to dive and there are no diving facilities
on your boat, all you will have to do is choose which boat you want to
dive with, and tell your captain; he will arrange the divemaster to come
talk to you before the first dive, or your captain will take you to the
other boat at the right time each day. Suppose you are cruising in an
economy boat (which don't usually offer diving) and are diving with a
first-class boat; you may even have a hot shower and free breakfast in
the first-class boat (if you ask) on the days that you dive with them.
Each dive cost around US$60 per tank and includes all gear; if you do 5
or more dives and bargain you may get each dive for US$55.
If you want to dive 3 or 4 times per day you should book a live aboard. A live aboard can go to the islands of Darwin and Wolf (regular cruise boats don't visit those) where you may see a whale shark if lucky. Please look at what Scuba Iguana and Nauti Diving have to offer.
When is a good time of year to go: From January to June, the seas are at their calmest, warmest (26ºC) and the skies are usually clear, although those are also the rainiest months. From June to December, the air is cooler, the skies are often lightly overcast but there is virtually no precipitation in the lowlands. Every guide has his own "best month” to visit the islands. September is the coldest month with the water temperature reaching 19ºC
Galapagos Wildlife: A Visitor's Guide - David Horwell
This relatively small book on the wildlife of the Galapagos Islands is packed with information/pictures and is likely to make you the envy of all other passengers on our boat. The author has gone to a great deal of trouble to condense a vast amount of data into a handbook for the traveller, without sacrificing essential information, clarity or accuracy. Really useful, packed with loads of background natural history info & great pictures, plus great detailed information about all the landing sites.
More recommended reading material: In case you want to do some reading prior to your trip (books in Ecuador are expensive), recommended are the following:
"Galápagos, A Natural History” by Michael H. Jackson
"Marine Life of the Galápagos” by Pierre Constant (for divers)
"Voyage of the Beagle” by Charles Darwin; it has only 23 pages on the Galápagos but for historical reasons it makes an interesting read if you are travelling throughout South America.