Explore the Galapagos Islands: Guided tour or on your own?


The Galapagos Islands are one of the most famous and unique sets of islands in the world. Most famous thanks to Charles Darwin, who used the unique species he found on the islands as proof of his theory of evolution through natural selection. We have all seen the Attenborough documentaries and dreamed of seeing some of the peculiarly evolved animals. Blue-footed birds, lizards that can dive into the ocean, and who can forget the island’s namesake, the Giant Tortoise?

Why to visit Galapagos islands
Blue-footed Booby bird on Galapagos

What you will like best about the Galapagos is the animal’s reaction to humans or lack thereof. There were never any mammal predators on the islands, so the wildlife simply never evolved to evade mammal predators. This means you can get very close to the action without affecting the animals’ behavior. The Galapagos are on many peoples bucket list but many budget travellers are put off by the suspected high price. Yes, if you are thinking of going on a cruise then you will have to break the bank. However, you can travel on your own for a fraction of the price, which will still give you the opportunity to island hop and see a large collection of endemic species.

The Galapagos are a part of Ecuador, and they are located around 1000 kilometers from the mainland. The best way to reach them is by plane, with flights leaving from Quito and Guayaquil to San Cristobal and Baltra island (which is located just off the main island of Santa Cruz). Avianca flies Quito (UIO) to Baltra (GPS) directly. Otherwise, all other flights by Avianca and other flight carriers, LATAM and Tame, fly via Guayaquil (GYE) to either Baltra or San Cristobal (SCE).

Usually, LATAM has the best prices, but it is advisable to check all companies because prices may vary from time to time. The stop-off in Guayaquil is just to pick up extra passengers, so you will not need to leave the plane. All flights from Guayaquil to the Galapagos are direct and usually take around two hours. Which route you choose is completely down to your itinerary. But do sit down and work out your plans before you book.

Galapagos islands from above
Galapagos islands from a tiny airplane (Image source: Flickr)

Which islands do you want to see, what is the cost of accommodation and food, what is the cost of day tours, and what are your plans once you get back on the mainland? These are the questions you have to answer before planning your trip to Galapagos. If you plan to island hop, then it is a good idea to fly into one of the islands and fly out of a different one to save yourself a return taxi boat fare. Most flights are flexible tickets, which gives you the option to extend your stay if you wish.

When traveling to the Galapagos, the airport experience is a little different. There is a dedicated desk in Quito Airport where you present your boarding passes and passports along with proof of departure once you have checked in for your flight. At this point, you will have to pay a $10 per person transit fee for entry into the Galapagos. This helps the authorities monitor and limit the number of tourists they get to the islands each year.

There is then a separate baggage screening process and a declaration that you will have to fill out. You are not permitted to take any of the following into the Galapagos, and this is what they are screening for:

  • Live animals
  • Plants
  • Seeds

Once on the plane, further precautionary measures are taken in order to reduce/prevent the introduction of non-native species to the Galapagos’ ecosystem. They spray the cabin with insecticide to get rid of any stowaway bugs. When you arrive at the Galapagos, you will need to pay to enter the islands. The price is $100 for people aged 12+ and $50 for children under 12 years old, but will be increased to $200 per person ($100 for children) from 1 August 2024 onwards.

The answer to how long to spend in Galapagos depends on your preferences, budget, and availability. No time is right, but we advise staying here for about two weeks, more if you have the time and money. However, two weeks should give you enough time to hop between the islands, see plenty of wildlife and just relax too. But, if you don’t have two weeks available, the minimum recommended number of days for visiting the Galapagos Islands is 5 days.

This is the most common question people ask about the Galapagos, and honestly, there is no correct answer. Both options have their pros and cons. It all depends on time, budget, and what you are looking to see. Whichever you choose, you will be happy with that decision because you will still see many things. We highly recommend doing both if you can spare the time and have a healthy enough budget.

The majority of the distant islands are only allowed to be visited by cruises, while others do not even allow any visitors to set foot on them at all. Keep in mind that some islands like Darwin and Wolf require a minimum 2-week tour. Each island holds its own unique landscape, which comes with its own unique set of wildlife. So, a good starting point when planning whether you want to travel on your own or take a cruise is deciding which places and wildlife you want to see, as not all cruises have the same itinerary.

Giant Tortoises on Galapagos
Giant Tortoises on the Galapagos

For example, blue-footed boobies frequent most areas of the Galapagos, with hotspots being on the Northwestern coast of Isabella and the Northeastern coast of Fernandina. Meanwhile, the magnificent frigate bird is more likely to be seen in North Seymour, Floreana, San Cristobal, and Genovesa. Giant tortoises can be spotted inland on Santa Cruise and Isabella, and the Galapagos fur seal is likely to be in the northern and western areas of the islands, especially during breeding season.

A cruise around the Galapagos will cost a lot, especially if you are on a backpacker budget. Tours start at around $1000 USD for a 5-day cruise. If the price of a tour is an absolute no-go for you and you want to do it yourself, then you can only get access to San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, and Isabela islands. But even once you are on these islands, there are still areas prohibited to visitors by land. You can also take a ferry to Floreana Island, but ferry schedules are pretty much nonexistent, so a lot of time would be needed to make sure you can return back to one of the main islands.

There are many guided cruise options from 3 days right up to 14 days, costing anything from $500 to several thousand. Booking in advance means that you will likely be paying around $3000, even for the most basic of tours/cabins. If you have the time, then wait until you arrive at Santa Cruz Island. This is where you will find the cheapest prices for a last-minute cruise as it is where the majority of them leave from.

Keep in mind that you will pay a lot more if you book a tour of the mainland. Even if it is last minute, there are many tour agencies, some more reputable than others, but across the board, prices are all roughly the same. Different companies even sell the same tour, so it’s worth seeing if you can get the name of the boat you will be on. If one agency’s price for the same cruise seems a bit too good to be true, then most likely it is.

Sea conditions can be extremely rough on the cruise, so make sure you don’t forget seasick tablets! A day usually consists of several meals balanced between 3 activities per day with your guide. So you will go snorkeling, hiking, or taking a zodiac cruise to the harder-to-reach spots.

There are several journeys per day by taxi boat between the three main islands that cost between $25 to $30, depending on the island. Agencies also offer day tours such as snorkeling trips, diving, and bicycle rental, which may be a good option if you wish to go a bit further afield without spending too much. It is an easy day trip by yourself to the highlands if you visit Santa Cruz island to see the famous Giant Tortoise. There will still be no shortage of sea lions, iguanas, tortoises, and sea turtles if you choose to see it by yourself.

Every island has a variety of shops and cafes for food as well as plenty of accommodation options. If you prefer to cook for yourself, head down to the local markets and chat with some fisherman about their catch of the day. You can pick up a huge tuna steak for $4 a kilo and lobster for $3 a kilo. There are also heaps of fresh fruit and vegetables as well as eggs in the local markets, which are less than a kilometer from the center of Puerto Ayora.

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