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Everything You Need To Know About Planning Your Galapagos Islands Holiday

If you are planning a Galapagos Islands Holiday then there are definitely some things you should know before finalizing your plans. I just finished a three-week stint in the Galapagos split between land-based and cruise-based itineraries, and it is now one of my favorite places in the world. 

The animal encounters, stunning beaches, and unique islands are truly something very special and my trip ended up being much cheaper than I had been led to believe too – winning.

See sea lions on your Galapagos Islands holiday

Going now is a great idea as there are fewer people than in pre-COVID times and cheaper cruises, tours, and accommodation. Ecuador has now dropped its PCR testing requirement too so you only need to fill in a health declaration online and show proof of vaccination (sorry unvaccinated travelers, you are not currently allowed to enter Ecuador).

There were lots of tips and tricks I learned during my time in the Galapagos, particularly around how to save money once you are there, and I wanted to share them with you to help you plan your own Galapagos Islands holiday. I just know you are going to love it as much as I did.

Land iguana

Things To Know When Booking Your Galapagos Islands Holiday

Galapagos Islands Info and Facts

There are 13 major islands in the Galapagos as well as countless smaller ones. Only four of these are inhabited, and only three are easy to visit with daily transport links and lots of accommodation options: Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabela.

Each of these islands has one main town and this is where you can book day tours and cruises, and find restaurants, shops, and accommodations. In Santa Cruz it is Puerto Ayora, in San Cristobal it is Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, and in Isabela it is Puerto Villamil.

Los Tuneles is one of the must sees on a Galapagos Islands holiday

The Galapagos Islands were formed by a series of volcanic eruptions and are 1,369km/850 miles off the coast of mainland Ecuador. They were originally uninhabited by humans and the first human settlement of the islands was in the mid-19th century.

There are airports on San Cristobal and Santa Cruz and you can get between islands by either taking a very expensive flight with Emetebe ($175 each way) or by taking a “ferry”.

The ferries are actually a fleet of launches that leave twice a day. You can travel between Santa Cruz and Isabela, and Santa Cruz and San Cristobal, but you can’t take a direct ferry between San Cristobal and Isabela. A seat on a ferry will cost you $25 and each ferry takes two hours.

Tortuga Bay, one of the most beautiful Galapagos Beaches

There are two ways to explore the Galapagos – by basing yourself on land and taking day trips or by taking a multi-night cruise. Most of the cruises are in small ships of around 16 people and you can do anything from 4 to 15 days.

So, cruise vs land-based – the age-old question. I did both and I have to agree with the majority that the small boat cruises are where it’s at BUT I absolutely loved my time staying on the islands and doing day trips too so if that is all you can afford then it is still 1000% worth it and you will have the time of your life. 

Tips To Save Money in the Galapagos

Packing

  • Take everything you need for your Galapagos Islands holiday like toiletries and sunscreen because it’s expensive to buy these items in the Galapagos.

See Frigate birds on Lobos Island on a Galapagos Islands holiday

Food and Drinks

  • Look for local restaurants with meal deals and happy hours – they are more prevalent than you would think.
  • Eat set menus at local restaurants for lunch and dinner where possible – you will find these menu del dias at local restaurants on all three islands.
  • Try the local street food. There isn’t a whole lot of it but I did see a couple of places in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal.
  • Get basics for breakfast like fruit, pastries, and cereal bars from a local supermarket rather than eating an overpriced breakfast at a restaurant.
  • Take a reusable water bottle as many accommodations have free drinking water.
  • Take a lot of snacks with you in your luggage if you have the room because they cost a lot less on the mainland.

Swimming with sea lions

Galapagos Day Trips

  • Don’t book day tours till you arrive on the islands – you will pay half to two-thirds less if you book on the islands.
  • Make sure to ask around at a few different agencies for day trips because prices do vary.
  • Take your own snorkel and mask rather than hiring one.
  • Book direct with accommodation providers to avoid booking fees – book the first night only if you aren’t comfortable just showing up somewhere without a reservation.
  • If you want to explore the Galapagos by being land-based, don’t do a multi-day tour. It’s easy and a lot less expensive to just book your accommodation and day trips yourself.
  • Take advantage of all the free or cheap activities if your Galapagos Islands holiday is a DIY land-based trip – there are a number of gorgeous beaches, hikes, and snorkeling spots on the four inhabited islands.

Cerro Brujo beach is my favorite of the Galapagos beaches

Galapagos Cruises

  • If you are going to do a Galapagos cruise, book it as late as you are comfortable. Two to three weeks out is usually when prices are being slashed – we booked three weeks out and saved over $700 each for our cruise. You do need some flexibility if you want to do this so have at least a couple of different cruises you are interested in doing in case one sells out.
  • Use a last-minute deal site like Lastminute Galapagos and Galapagos Last Minute Deals to book your Galapagos cruise or book with a tour agency on arrival in Puerto Ayora or San Cristobal. 
  • It’s usually cheaper to book with a travel agency rather than direct with the boat owner. No idea why – it’s weird.

Take a cruise on your Galapagos Islands holiday

Money

  • Pay for everything in cash to avoid credit card fees which can be as much as 5%. There are a number of ATMs in Puerto Ayora and one in San Cristobal. When I was on Isabela in March 2022 there wasn’t a working ATM.
  • When withdrawing money from an ATM always decline the conversion – your bank will give you a much better rate and the difference for a $300 withdrawal can be as much as $50 if you accept the ATM conversion.
  • If you are traveling in the Galapagos on a budget expect to spend $5 – $7 for a basic meal at a local restaurant, $25 for a ferry, and $25 for a budget but nice hotel room with air-conditioning and a bathroom with hot water.

Galapagos Islands Turtle

General Tips For Your Galapagos Islands Holiday

Before You Fly

  • Fill in your Galapagos Islands transit control card online before arriving at the airport to save time. You will have to pay $20 for this in cash at a special counter at the airport in Quito and Guayaquil.
  • On arrival in the Galapagos, you are required to pay the $100 national park entry fee. This also needs to be paid in cash.
  • Arrive at least two hours before your flight, three is preferable because all the paperwork and checks you have to do take a long time.
  • Do your health declaration online before flying into Ecuador
  • Have a return flight out of Ecuador and out of the Galapagos before flying in or be prepared to buy them at the airport because it is likely that they will check. We nearly missed our flight from Bogota to Guayaquil because we had to book a return flight and we were having trouble with the airport WiFi.
  • Travel insurance is not compulsory to enter the islands but some cruises require you to have it.

Bartolome Island in the Galapagos

Weather and Packing

  • The sun is really harsh in the Galapagos so cover up as much as possible and apply reef-safe sunscreen.
  • In the hot months, I recommend packing a small travel umbrella to shade you from the sun when you are walking around, and for the downpours that are semi-regular.
  • For hot beach weather and warmer water visit from December through May. This is the wet season but we only saw a few downpours during our time there.
  • The hottest months are February and March and the heat and humidity are NO JOKE. 
  • Be aware that from June till November it is cold, foggy, and drizzly and you will need to pack layers and wear a wetsuit in the water.
  • Don’t pack any perishable foods and check what food items you are allowed to bring to the islands.
  • Don’t pack non-recyclable plastics in your luggage as they may be confiscated.
  • Make sure to bring an underwater camera – you will regret it if you don’t!
  • Also, bring a camera with a good zoom lens for all those Galapagos animal sightings.
  • Important things to pack are a day pack for day trips and excursions, a waterproof bag, a raincoat, hiking boots or walking shoes with good grip, a rash guard for snorkeling in the summer, and hiking sandals like chacos that can also get wet – perfect for wet landings.
  • Horseflies can be bad on some beaches so make sure to bring mosquito repellent.

Cerro Brujo Beach Galapagos

Transport

  • If you are planning to take ferries between islands, book through your accommodation or a travel agent at least the day before. There is an early morning ferry and a mid-afternoon ferry.
  • Be very careful when booking flights with Avianca – they have flights that are much cheaper which sometimes show up on their website but are only for Ecuadorian nationals. The website will allow you to book them and there will be a minuscule warning at the top of the screen that lets you know that foreigners will be charged more at the airport if they book these special flights. The banner warning is very easy to miss and we got hit with a US$150 fine when we went to fly back from the islands to Quito.
  • Flights generally cost about $200 each way and you can fly from either Guayaquil or Quito to Santa Cruz (Baltra) or San Cristobal. Prices don’t really go up or down and both a checked and carry-on bag are included in this price. Airlines that fly between the mainland and the Galapagos are Avianca and LATAM Airlines.
  • If you fly into Santa Cruz and you are staying in Puerto Ayora, you will need to buy a $5 ticket for the bus, $1 for the short crossing between Baltra (the island the airport is on) and Santa Cruz, then you can take a $5 bus or a $20 taxi to town. Look for people to share a taxi with to cut down the cost.
  • If you fly into San Cristobal the airport is right by town and you can take a taxi for a couple of dollars.

See sea lions on a Galapagos Islands Holiday

Galapagos Cruises

  • It can feel overwhelming trying to choose a cruise. The first thing you need to do is to do some research on the different islands and the animals you can see there. For me, I wanted to visit Espanola for the birdlife and Gardner Bay, Genovesa for hammerheads and birds, San Cristobal for Cerro Brujo beach and the sea lions on Lobos Island, and Bartolome for the volcanic landscapes, so I found a route that visits all of these.
  • If you get seasick, keep in mind that even during the calm season from December through May, the ocean can still be quite rough. I highly recommend booking a catamaran or a larger ship if you are sensitive to boat movement.
  • A lot of boats sail at night and I couldn’t sleep during the nights we were sailing because it was like being on a rollercoaster.  
  • The longest sailings are to the western side of Isabela and Fernandina Island. If you get seasick or scared of rough water – just be aware of this. A larger boat or catamaran should be smoother.

Flamingo flock

General

  • The Galapagos Islands and Ecuador in general use the US dollar.
  • Spanish is the main language spoken in the Galapagos Islands and it helps to learn some before you go although you will be able to get by with English and Google translate.
  • There are Galapagos animals you can see all year round and others that you can only see in certain seasons. To see waved albatrosses on Espanola you have to visit between April and December, and if you want to see whales then visit between June and November.
  • Carry water around with you, especially in the hotter months. 
  • If you are doing a land-based Galapagos trip, it can be hard to choose which island/s to stay on as they are all different and offer different day trip options. I recommend doing some research about which day trips you want to do before deciding which island to stay on.
  • Eat at Rosy Mar for excellent and affordable seafood in Puerto Ayora and at Las Delicias De Jaqui in Puerto Villamil for the best set menus on Isabela.
  • Try local craft beer – there are craft breweries on each island. I loved the beer from Santa Cruz Brewery in Puerto Ayora, Zaroa in Puerto Villamil, and Endemica in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.

Galapagos penguin

About the Islands

  • Isabela is the most laid-back island and gets fewer visitors so if like more offbeat travel destinations then this is the island for you.
  • Santa Cruz and San Cristobal both get more tourism as they are the islands with airports but they also have a larger number of day trips to other islands.

That’s all I can think of for now but please let me know if you have any questions and I would be glad to help. I am planning to write a post about the Galapagos animals and where to see them soon, and I already have a post up about the best beaches in the Galapagos.

Visit Tortuga Bay on your Galapagos Islands holiday

Book Your Galapagos Islands Vacation

Where To Stay in the Galapagos

You will be staying on at least one of these islands if you aren’t doing a Galapagos cruise.

Santa Cruz Island

There are a number of solid budget options in Puerto Ayora, we stayed at Hospedaje Germania and were really happy with it. Hostal Sueños Silvestres and Hostal Casa Cascada are good options too.

Great mid-range options include Hotel Coloma GalapagosLa K-leta Boutique Guesthouse, and La Peregrina Galapagos B&B. More luxurious options include Hotel Cucuve and Finch Bay Galapagos Hotel.

The best vacation rentals are this deluxe two-bedroom suite, this lovely home surrounded by beautiful gardens, and this ocean view two-bedroom suite.

Baby seal

San Cristobal Island

San Cristobal is more expensive than Santa Cruz and Isabela but there are still some good budget options. We stayed at La Casa de Jeimy and it was excellent for the cost. Palma Del Mar 2 and La Casa De Mi Sub are highly rated budget options as well.

Great mid-range options include Galapagos Eco FriendlyHostal Romy, and Cucuve Eco Hostal. More luxurious options include Galapagos Casa Playa Mann and Casa Opuntia.

The best vacation rentals are this penthouse with spectacular sunsets and this colorful two bedroom house.

Isabela Island

Isabela has a lot of good budget options. We stayed at Hostal Villamil and I recommend it. Hostal Punta Arena and Hostal Insular are great budget options too.

Great mid-range options include Hotel Star FishHostal Galapagos by Bar de Beto, and Hotel La Laguna Galapagos. More luxurious options include The Isabela Beach HouseHotel Albemarle, and Cormorant Beach House.

The best vacation rentals are this two-bedroom vacation home and this amazing beachfront house.

Gardiner Bay

The Best Insurance For Your Galapagos Islands Holiday

Make sure you get travel and health insurance before your Galapagos trip, just to be on the safe side. Safety Wing is my go-to and they are cheap and easy to claim with. 

Safety Wing also allows you to sign up when you are already traveling, unlike a lot of other travel insurance providers.

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