Famed guest blogger Jessica Festa arrived in the Galapagos Islands with nothing but a smile, an adventurous spirit and a backpack. Find out how she fared in this great solo travel piece. If you plan to head to the Galapagos Islands soon, check out LAN Airlines flights - IgoUgo's recommendation for Galapagos air travel.
“Let me get this straight. You flew here alone and have no idea where you’re staying?” asked Nancy, a middle-aged Californian, as we waited for our luggage. A look of abject horror crept across her face.
I grinned and nodded. I had just arrived in the Galapagos Islands - San Cristobal, to be exact - and was excited to explore the wildlife, snorkeling and hiking that I’d heard so much about.
I wasn’t worried about being there alone, but there were others who were.
As the other travelers retrieved their luggage, I noticed they all had nametags on and were forming into orderly groups based on their particular cruise line. Grabbing my backpack, I headed for the exit. Nancy dragged her husband over to me and made sure to stay close, her maternal instinct kicking in full force.
“I’m worried for you! You didn’t book a cruise? What will you do? I thought everyone did cruises.”
Judging by the fact I was the only one not wearing a nametag, everyone did. Luckily, I’m not everyone.
As a backpacker who usually travels solo, I enjoy doing things my own way and discovering alternatives to travel norms. OK, I’m kinda stubborn. But that’s not why I skipped the organized tour. I just wanted to get the absolute most out of my trip. And boy did it pay off. Here’s why.
Travel your own way, set your own budget
On a standard cruise of the Galapagos the price includes your guided excursions, a berth on a cruise ship and food. International airfare, the flights from Quito or Guayaquil to the islands, entrance fees and insurance are not included.
It’s because of this that most people believe the Galapagos Islands is an expensive place to visit; a standard cruise costs several thousand dollars, never mind all the extra costs.
But when traveling solo you’ll find the flexibility and freedom to set your own budget. Less than an hour after arriving I had snagged a single room with TV, Wi-Fi and an ensuite bathroom for $25 a night at Leon Dormido hostel less than a minute from the waterfront and a short walk from the ferry docks.
Even better, finding your own tour on the island isn’t as tricky as you might assume. There are several tour operators based on the island, and I quickly found a tour to Isla Lobos, Kicker Rock and Puerto Grande for $50 ($120 if you wanted to dive.)
As for food, eating on the islands is undeniably more expensive than on the mainland, but you can still find plenty of restaurants that will serve up the Ecuadorean staple meal of rice, beans and meat, plus a drink for about $4. Of course you can also find plenty of fine dining too, if you feel like splashing out on a great meal.
Another big misconception is that you need a professional guide for every moment of your stay on the islands. Although it’s true that large sections are restricted to guided groups for ecological protection, there is still plenty you can do on your own and for free.
On San Cristobal, visiting the beaches, hiking around the crater lake and active volcano of El Junto, swimming with the sea lions of La Loberia and seeing the iconic giant tortoises at the Jacinto Gordillo Breeding Center are all free of charge.
On Santa Cruz you can visit the Darwin Research Center, El Chato Tortoise Reserve, white sand beaches and hike the volcanic crater of Media Luna.
And on Isabela you can hike the Sierra Negra volcano, see flamingos at Laguna Salinas, snorkel at Laguna Concha Perla, explore the National Park Tortoise Reserve and check out the historical (and supposedly haunted) Wall of Tears.
Photo of Kicker Rock by Philly_Girl
Set your own pace
For me, another major benefit of being my own tour guide meant I could set my own pace and delve a little deeper into island life.
Along with eating my daily breakfast with Andrea, the owner of my hostel, I also become friends with Jens, a local guide. I got invited to his boss’ BBQ, went for drinks with his friends and explored some of their favorite beaches and sites on San Cristobal.
Walking around town on my own, I ate with the locals, joked with street vendors and got to know the vibe of each of the islands I visited. Some days I could wake up feeling ambitious and ready to tour the island from sunrise to sunset. On others I felt more inclined to pass an entire day on the beach. When you travel your own way, it’s all up to you.
Underwater sea turtle photo by Philly_Girl
How To Visit The Galapagos Islands Independently
Flights & transportation
To get to the Galapagos Islands, you’ll need to fly from Quito or Guayaquil on the mainland. You can choose to either fly into San Cristobal or Baltra Airport, where you can take a cheap bus to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz.
If you want to get from island to island, ferries run between San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana and Isabela. You can take a 3-hour ferry from San Cristobal to Santa Cruz for $20 to $25. This is where you’ll find Puerto Ayora, the hub for ferries and cruises. You can purchase ferry tickets to the other islands at any local tour agency.
Entrance fees & visa requirements
There is a $100 fee to enter the Galapagos Islands national park, which you pay on arrival. Additionally, you’ll need to pay $10 for a Transit Control Card (TCT). Both fees are cash only.
Citizens of the U.S., E.U., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan do not require a visa to enter Ecuador up to 90 days, although this should be double checked before planning a trip as this can always change. What you will need is a valid passport for more than 6 months, a return ticket for air, land or sea travel and proof of economic means to support yourself during your stay in Ecuador.
In Ecuador, the currency is the U.S. dollar.
While the Galapagos Islands are notorious for being expensive, this doesn’t need to be the case, especially if you are traveling independently. Accommodation options include bed and breakfasts, pensions, hostels, budget hotels and more upscale hotels and resorts.
There’s also camping available, as long as you get permission from the landowner. There are only four islands that offer accommodation; San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana and Isabela.
Finding A Guide
If you’re looking for a guide to do a day tour, you can book one at a local travel agency. Generally, land-based tours are cheaper if you have more people, although the travel agency can help you find companions.
Moreover, a bit of price shopping never hurt. For example, on San Cristobal, I was offered an overland tour for $50 for the day. I walked around the corner and was offered the same tour for $35 including lunch.
Ready to travel? Find flights to the Galapagos with LAN Airlines. Not quite ready to book your trip? Check out these great shots by IgoUgo travelers who’ve been there (more here!). If you’ve been there, too--or are planning on going—we’d love to know about it in the comments.
Our favorite baby seal photo by will_lax
Sea lions on the beach photo by wheretogonext
Sea turtle photo by Philly_Girl
Marine iguana photo by Linda Hoernke
By Jessica Festa
Jessie loves nothing more than her backpack. With a Masters degree in Communication she had a choice; find a steady job or live the dream. She was always going to choose the latter. On her blog, Jessie on a Journey, she covers lesser-known destinations as well as popular places from new and unusual perspectives. She also writes for Fodor's, Gadling and the Huffington Post, among others. You can follow her travels and writing on: Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Pinterest.