How to Decide On A Land Based vs. Liveaboard Visit to the Galapagos Islands, Aside From Costs

While researching holiday in the Galapagos Islands for the Christmas season of 2019, I looked, thoroughly, at doing a land based trip vs. a liveaboard. You can find many articles about the pros and cons about one or the other: land based vs. liveaboard. But I didn’t find any that were more like a guide or rubric to help someone make the decision for themselves. Most articles were for or against one or the other.

So I’ve decided to provide a rubric. I hope this helps you!

Contents:

  • Why Choose Between Land vs. liveaboard? Why not do both?
  • Why Liveaboards May Not Be The Obvious Choice, Besides Cost
  • Budget Considerations: actual comparison of land vs. liveaboard
  • How Are the Land vs. Liveaboard Experiences Different?
  • The Flora and Fauna of the Islands + When, Where to See Them
  • My 7 Criteria for Comparison Land vs. Liveaboard
  • Galapagos Logistics that I Wish Someone Had Told Me

I included all of this info as it may shape your decision!

{Why Decide Between a Liveaboard Vs. Land Based?
Why Not Do Both?}

Why is this even a thing? Why not do both a liveaboard and land based? I think for a lot of people that would be ideal, but the challenges are cost and time.

In order to do both, you would have to double your budget, plus, add at least 3 days to your itinerary. For many people, that isn’t feasible, so you choose one or the other.

People that do do both a cruise/liveaboard as well as a stay on the islands are usually on the islands for a full 14-16 days, plus travel days to get to Ecuador, so at least a 2.5-3 week trip.

{If You Can Afford It, Go On a Liveaboard….I Disagree}

What I found interesting when researching this trip, was that the literature positions land based visits as the less desirable option. It was positioned as if going on a liveaboard is the obvious choice but if you can’t afford it, then you go land based…and I think that’s wrong.

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer to this question. It’s subjective for every person and family.

{Budgets}

While I disagree that the choice of land based or liveaboard is entirely based on your budget, the fact is that a budget is real and it’s an important factor. So let’s talk through that first before addressing anything else.

All livaboards except the most bare bones ones tend to come out more expensive than a land based tour.  In general liveaboards that are 5 days or less start at about $2500 per person. And those that are 8 days or longer start at about $4500 per person. You probably wouldn’t want to go on a liveaboard that’s less than 5 days as it’s just too short. Five day cruises are more like 3 days, because the first and last days are really travel days.

Below is a budget scenario for you to play with. I purposely left out flights to mainland Ecuador, flight to the Islands and the national park fees because everyone has to pay those regardless of whether they choose liveaboard or land based. The below scenario is so you can compare the cost of a liveaboard vs. land based trip to the Galápagos Islands.

Liveaboard Costs:

The maximum capacity allowed in the Galápagos Islands is 100 guests. National Geographic operates one such large ship and the budget ranges from $700 to $1700 per person per day depending on the time of year and what type of room you book.

The least expensive ship we found was $1500 for a 4 day cruise. That was for a room that’s a little over 100sq. ft. including a private bathroom, no windows, and 2 twin beds. It does not include alcohol, WiFi nor wet suits.

For an 8 day cruise budgets started at about $700 per person per day for a basic room. Pricing varies as there are many ships and also depends on the time of year. The Galápagos are a fantastic destination year-round.

Like the rest of the world, the Christmas holiday season is high season along with the warm season which starts at the end of December through June. The warm season is also the wet season but in typical showers tend to be light and brief.

Just to give you a sense of living quarters on liveaboards, there are ships with rooms ranging from a little over 100sq. ft. to about 470 sq. ft. or more, for a premium suite with a balcony. There are also ships that can be chartered for a completely private experience. I saw one that started at $23,000 per person.

Land Based Visit Costs:

  • $27 Baltra to Puerto Ayora (shuttle, ferry, + taxi) pp
  • $400 2 nights accommodation on Santa Cruz ($200/night) for 2-3 people
  • $600 3 nights accommodation Isabela ($200/night) for 2-3 people
  • $400 2 night accommodation San Cristobal ($200/night) for 2-3 people
  • $150 inter island ferries pp
  • $250 food and drink pp
  • $650 tours pp
  • $125 taxis for 2-3 people
  • $50 misc.pp
    Total: $2652 which comes out to $1,902 per person for 8 days.

This scenario is for 8 days so that you can compare with an 8 day liveaboard. The above scenario assumes:

  • you’re taxiing to Puerto Ayora instead of taking the bus. By bus it costs $3.60, a savings of $23.40
  • $200/night accommodation. There’s everything from budget hostels that are $60/night to luxury hotels on the islands that cost $400/night. We took the middle road for the sake of this scenario at $200/night.
  • Assumes you’re visiting all 3 inhabited islands (if not, that impacts costs of inter-island ferries and accommodation. Note: via ferry, you can’t go directly from Isabela to San Cristobal and vice versa – you have to come back to Santa Cruz first, which means also staying 1 night on Santa Cruz and then moving to another island the next day, because of the ferry schedule.You can fly between the 3 islands – flights cost around $190 per person per leg.
  • Assumes you’re ferrying, not flying inter-island. ($37 per leg vs. $190 per leg)
  • Assumes you’re eating breakfast at your hotel (already included), and that you’re eating lunch and dinner, and that you like to have a few drinks everyday. If not, this number could be lower. Some tours include lunch. Some days you may skip a meal and just snack.
  • Assumes you’re doing 4 day tours at $150 each.

So you can see, you can play with the numbers, but this gives a good anchor to think about your budget. You can see that for 8 days at nice accommodations on land, at $200 per night, you’re still more than half less than the starting point of an 8 day liveaboard ($4500) and still about $500 less than the starting point of a 5 day liveaboard ($2500).

You can reduce costs further. You might not need $200/night accommodations or to go on 4 day trips.

If you take the bus to Puerto Ayora instead of a taxi, you’ll save some money. The bus to Itabaca channel ($1; 5 minutes) + ferry across channel ($.80pp; 10 minutes) + bus to Puerto Ayora ($1.80; full, no air conditioning; 45 minutes) + taxi to final destination ($1-$2; a few minutes). The bus doesn’t leave until it’s full.

Faster, less crowded option: bus to Itabaca channel ($1; 5 minutes) + ferry across channel ($.80pp; 10 minutes) + taxi to your hotel ($15-$25; 45 minutes); no waiting time.

Here are some general numbers for you:

Accommodation: ranges $50-$400/night
Avg. meals: $27pp per day
Tours: $100-$250pp per tour

Other Fees That Everyone Pays:

  • San Francisco to Quito (RT): $1500 (economy); usually more to fly to Guayaquil
  • Stay 1 night in Quito: $50-$400
  • Transit Control Card: $20pp (cash only)
  • Fly to Baltra (RT): ~$500pp (flights from Guayaquil are usually a little less since it’s closer. All flights from Quito stop in Guayaquil.
  • National Park Entrance Fee: $100pp (cash only)

{Primary Differences Between Liveaboard and Land Based Tours Activities}

Now that we got budget stuff out of the way let’s address other things that may influence your decision about a liveaboard vs. land based visit to the Galapagos.

On liveaboards your day time activities are basically:

  • snorkeling and/or diving, maybe kayaking
  • hiking
  • eating
  • hanging out on the boat

On land based tours your activities are:

  • day tours involving hiking + snorkeling
  • hanging out at the beach with no set time to leave
  • independent leisure walks around the islands (Santa Cruz, Isabela, San Cristobal)
  • visit giant tortoises
  • hang out at the pool at your hotel
  • hang out in town (Santa Cruz)

{Cruise Pros and Cons}

+ less touristy + more exclusive
+ more time spent viewing wildlife
+ visit islands that are accessible by sea only
+ no logistics for you to figure out; you’re always at the destination
– miss out on spending time on the inhabited islands
– more $$$$

These can go either way (+/-) depending on how you feel about them:

+/- traveling with the same people (strangers) through the duration
+/- restrictive for people who like to snorkel/dive but not necessarily a lot
+/- restrictive for people with specific dietary needs

Keep in mind that liveaboard ships vary. Like any travel experience there are basic, mid-tier, luxury and ultra-luxury liveaboards. There are ships that accommodate 18 passengers and others for 100 passengers (maximum allowed in the Galapagos). Some cruises are themed – focused on diving or photography.

{More Time With Wildlife on Liveaboards But Not Necessarily Fewer Species}

On liveaboards there’s no doubt that there is more time and therefore more opportunities to see wildlife compared to land based visits, simply because on liveaboards you don’t have the logistics of getting to the wildlife, since you’re already there. BUT are you going to miss out on species altogether on a land based tour? A few. But the species that most people look forward to seeing when they visit the Galapagos are accessible via land based tours. Below, I detailed most of the wildlife species, that people look forward to seeing in the Galapagos as well as where and when you’re likely to see them.

A note about sharks. The one bummer on land based tours is missing out on sharks…IF you like to scuba dive. Galapagos Sharks, Scalloped Hammerheard Sharks and Whale Sharks are mostly spotted off the waters near Wolf & Darwin Islands which are only accessible by sea. BUT White Tip Reef sharks are in abundance throughout Northern Isabela and North Seymour which are both islands you can visit on a land based visit.

A note about birds. Avid birders may also want to consider a liveaboard because Genovesa Island aka ‘Bird Island’ is only accessible by a guided cruise. BUT Española is also fantastic for bird watching and is accessible via day trip from San Cristobal.

{Land Based Pros and Cons}

+ less expensive than liveaboards
+ more time to see attractions on the inhabited islands
+ more schedule flexibility
– don’t get to visit further away islands
– more logistics to figure out – food, accommodation, tours, transportation
– get to each island on your own

{What Does It Mean When They Say on Cruises You See More?}

It means that there are more opportunities to see wildlife because you’re surrounded by them the entire time on a liveaboard. On land based tours there are more logistics to get to the places to see the flora and fauna. But in terms of species, you can see almost all of the same species that liveaboards would see. In other words most species are seen on or around Santa Cruz, Isabela, and San Cristobal.

{Understanding the Galapagos Islands Geography
and Getting To/From Each Island}

Below is a run down of the most popular species that people hope to see when they visit the Galapagos. These are the ones most people think of when they think of a visit to the archipelago. If you’re really into sharks – scalloped hammerheads, whale sharks, Galapagos sharks, then hands down do a liveaboard and go scuba diving in the Northern region of the Galapagos.

Otherwise, people leaning towards a land based visit will be happy to know that even though their time with wildlife will be shorter, the opportunities to see varying species is about the same. Before I get into the species here’s a good map of the Galapagos Islands to help you get your bearings.

The 3 inhabited islands where you can stay on your land based visit are: Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal. Santa Cruz has the biggest town, called Puerto Ayora. This is kind of the hub of the Galapagos Islands. If you need to book tours, accommodation, flights, get money from an ATM, this is where to do it.

Isabela is the biggest island and often considered the most beautiful. San Cristobal island gives you access to the Southern region of the Galapagos.

For those with FOMO while on a land based visit:

  • Marchena island is accessible by cruise only but rarely visited by scientists and tourists alike
  • Genovesa is also accessible by cruise only and is a paradise for bird lovers hence why it’s dubbed “Bird Island”
  • Pinta Island is not accessible to tourists regardless of liveaboard or land based
  • Pinzon Island is not open to anyone – it’s accessed only with special permission
  • Darwin & Wolf are accessible by scuba boat or liveaboards only
  • Rabida is accessible by liveaboard only and is famous for its red soil
  • All of the rest of the islands are accessible on a land based tour

You can fly or take ferries to/from each inhabited island (Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela). You cannot ferry directly from Isabela to San Cristobal. To ferry from San Cristobal to Isabela and vice versa you must go via Santa Cruz and usually that means staying one night on Santa Cruz. The ferries take anywhere from 2-4 hours depending on how choppy the water is (~$37 one way). Flights are about 20 minutes (~$190 one way).

Liveaboards usually depart from either Santa Cruz or San Cristobal which gives you the ability to add time on before or after the cruise to enjoy either island.

As far as accessing the uninhabited islands on day trips you travel via speed boat. Depending on which islands you’re going to, each leg can be anywhere from 40 minutes to 2 hours. For some people being on a speedboat for that long is painful. But remember on a land based trip you don’t have to go on a day trip everyday. There’s much to see and do on the islands themselves.

This website provides a really nice description of each of the main Galapagos Islands and what you can expect to see on each.

{Popular Galapagos Island Species, Where and When To See Them}

Please keep in mind that these are generalizations, particularly about when you’ll see wildlife. The info below is based on historical data on when you’re most likely to see them. But we’re talking about wildlife in its natural habitat so there are no guarantees. Species in no particular order:

Giant Tortoises (Santa Cruz, Isabela, Floreana, Pinta, Pinzon, Española)

PC: BBC.com

When: year round. Most active during midday during cool season and early morning + late afternoon in warm season.
Warm + Wet season = January to June
Cool + dry season = July to December

Great and Magnificent Frigate Birds
(main colonies on North Seymour, Floreana, San Cristobal and Genovesa)

PC: Galapagosislands.com

When: Year round

Blue footed Boobies (North Seymour, Espanola, Fernandina, Floreana, Isabela, Pinzon, and Santa Cruz). The highest frequency is on North Seymour.

PC: naturegalapagos.com

When: They’re usually flying at sea outside of breeding season, which is from June to August.

Galapagos Sea Lion (All along the coastline)

PC: Erik Thorvilson

When: year round

Marine Iguanas (Isabela, Fernandina, Española, Floreana, Santa Cruz and other islets around them)

PC: Nat Geo

When: year round

Galapagos Land Iguana (Fernandina, Isabela, Santa Cruz, South Plaza, Baltra, Santiago, North Seymour)

PC: galapagosconservation.org.uk

When: year round

Galapagos Penguin (90% Fernandina and Isabela; but also on Santiago, Bartolome, northern Santa Cruz, Floreana)

PC: worldwildlige.org

When: Nesting is between May thru January and the best time to see them!

Waved Albatross (Espanola Island + Southern Galapagos = Floreana, Santa Fe, San Cristobal, Espanola)

The largest bird in the Galapagos with their unique mating dance is one thing many visitors look forward to seeing on a visit to the Galapagos.

PC: galapagosconservation.org.uk

When: From January to March they’re not on land so chances of seeing them are limited. Breeding season is from April to June and mainly on Espanola. After breeding season they can be seen throughout the Galapagos but mainly in the Southern Galapagos. You can do a day trip from San Cristobal to Espanola.

Sally Lightfoot Crab (all beaches and shallow water)

PC: happygringo.com

When: during the day, year-round

American Flamingo (Floreana, Isabela, Santa Cruz, Santiago)

PC: santacruisegalapagoscruise.com

More specifically, they’re found on Punta Cormorant lagoon on Floreana and Quinta Playa or Puerto Villamil on Isabela. They can also be found in Punta Moreno, Isabela, Bahia Tortuga and Las Bachas on Santa Cruz and Puerto Egas on Santiago).

When: During their nesting period from March to July as well as when they’re foraging.

White Tip Reef Shark (Throughout the archipelago but North Seymour, Champion and Gardner islets, and northern Isabela island)

PC: oceanpark.com.hk

When: year round

Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks Northern Galapagos = Darwin, Wolf and occasionally around Kicker Rock)

PC: oceana.org

Available to scuba boats or liveaboard only. 
When:
year round but January is highest frequency and May is lowest.

Galapagos Turtle (all over the archipelago)

PC: galapagosconservation.org.uk

When: year round, but from December to March you’ll see more females hugging the shores waiting to lay their eggs at night.

There is much more flora and fauna to see in the Galapagos Islands. I’ve only touched on the most popular species that people commonly think about when they think about these beautiful islands.


{Decision Criteria for Liveaboard vs. Land Based Galapagos Islands}

These are some key questions to ask yourself before you decide to go on a cruise or a land based visit to the Galapagos Islands.

  1. Do you enjoy cruises?
  2. Are you a foodie?
  3. Any dietary restrictions?
  4. All Inclusive vs. Plug-n-Play
  5. Are you cool with skipping the 3 main inhabited Islands?
  6. Are you a scuba diver? Snorkeler? Both?
  7. Cost differences between land vs. cruise (detailed above).

{Do You Enjoy Cruises?}

One of the first things to think about when considering going on a cruise or a land-based trip to the Galapagos is whether or not you like cruises. They’re not for everyone. And as I mentioned above, in my opinion it’s not the obvious choice for the Galapagos. But what if you haven’t been on a cruise before? Then how do you answer this question?

Mirror Experiences. If you’ve never been on a cruise have you ever been on an experience that in some ways mirrors a cruise? I’ve never been on a cruise/liveaboard for multiple days. But I have done an overnight liveaboard on a ship at Milford Sound. And I have done the houseboat experience in Kashmir. I’ve also stayed at all inclusive resorts. And I’ve done luxury overnighter trains. Combining all of those experiences together and thinking through the things I liked/didn’t like about each of those travel experiences helped me to get to my answer.

Liveaboards are also a lot like being on safari…but on water. On safari you’re time is split amongst game drives, relaxing at the lodge, eating and sleeping.

Research. Read about others’ experiences online on TripAdvisor forums and travel blogs. The internet is amazing. There’s a ton of info right at your fingertips. As you journey through links, videos, blogs and forums, each page you land on provides  one more tidbit of useful info.

Ask Friends. Talk to your friends who have visited the islands to get first-hand accounts. I reached out to my network to see if anyone had visited the Galapagos. One couple had and their travel style is very different than mine. Even though we have differing tastes, it was helpful to hear about their experience to help me shape mine.


{Foodie: All Inclusive Food & Drink & Activities}

Some people really enjoy the all inclusive experience, especially foodies when the food and beverages are included. Most  liveaboards are all inclusive with varying policies around how much alcohol is included. Land based tours tend not to be all inclusive. Most hotels on the inhabited islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabela include breakfast. For the other meals, if the hotel has a restaurant you can eat there, otherwise head to town to eat at one of the restaurants.

As for tours, some hotels can book tours for you, otherwise there are plenty of tour booking kiosks on Santa Cruz island.

Still, land based aren’t all inclusive in the way liveaboards are where that company provides all of the services.

{Do You Have Dietary Restrictions?}

For anyone who has dietary restrictions that might be an important factor for you while choosing a liveaboard vs. land based. For example, vegetarian and vegan diets are nascent in South America. And while the number of vegans and vegetarians around the world is increasing it’s still a small number of people. So that means that catering towards those diets is a special consideration – not for the majority, which means more work for the tour company and easily forgotten.

On a liveaboard you’re kind of captive. Whatever they prepare and serve you is what you get. On land you can choose restaurants and even buy your own groceries. When I called companies for quotes on liveaboards, they were quick to tell me that they could accommodate my dietary needs. But when I asked follow up questions such as:

  • can you give me examples of dishes that have been prepared for vegetarians in the past?
  • would it be possible to talk with the chef a few weeks beforehand to create a menu?

Then I got push back. I know to ask those questions because I’ve had enough travel experiences across 6 continents to know that simply them saying, ‘yes we accommodate your dietary restrictions’ doesn’t work. It’s not reassuring. And if they’re not willing to give you more time to talk through that then that’s a red flag.

Many tour booking companies aren’t the actual tour operators – they’re middlemen. So the booking company simply forwards your dietary info to the actual tour operator and from the middleman’s perspective their job is done.

On trips where we were either forgotten or given horrible food – despite providing all of our dietary restrictions ahead of time and paying for a luxury experience, there have been a few times when I complained to the tour company. And they ALWAYS respond with something along the lines of, we sent the tour operator the info; thus we fulfilled our obligation. If they didn’t provide the service take it up with them. Even though the tour company was our liaison whom we paid and was our point-of-contact, they take 0 responsibility and they don’t care. After all the tour is already done and paid for.

This is something to think about when making your decision about a cruise or land based visit. Your trip duration matters here too. But most trips to the Galapagos are not 1-2 days, they’re more like a minimum of 5 days which is a long time to have sh*tty food.

I’m not saying that this will happen. But it might, and only you can decide what you’re willing to put up with and whether that’s a risk you want to take.

{What Kind of Experience Are You Looking For?}

Do you prefer showing up and having everything all setup and taken care of? Then you might want a cruise. On a cruise everything’s set and taken care of – accommodation, food, transportation, tours, equipment.

On land based tours:

  • you’re choosing restaurants to eat at
  • selecting and booking day tours (unless you pre-booked)
  • figuring out accommodation and taking taxis or walking (unless you pre-booked)
  • day tours will have most equipment such as snorkel and fins, but not wetsuits

So there’s more time and effort that you have to put in on a land based tour. On the other hand there’s more flexibility. If you decide you want to spend a day at the beach instead of doing a day trip, you can do that whereas on a liveaboard the itinerary is pre-determined.

What I Did. I booked a combo of the two. I worked with Anywhere.com to book everything for my land based tour except for lunches and dinners. Since I’m headed to the Galapagos Islands at the peak of peak season – the Christmas holidays – I wanted accommodation and tours booked in advance. The seeking convenience side of me decided to pre-book transportation as well. The two hotels I’m staying at include breakfast so that leaves flexibility to select where to eat the rest of our meals – which I like.

I built in ‘free days’ into the itinerary.

Anywhere.com also arranged all of the pickups and dropoffs, travel inter-island and domestic flights. So in a sense I booked an all inclusive experience, but different than a liveaboard in that each segment is not executed by one single company. That’s important because if any issues arise you’re just one customer on 1 small excursion vs. traveling with a cruise on a multi-day journey where they’ll likely be more responsive to address any issues.

Prebook or Book in Advance? If you read online, a lot of people recommend booking 1-2 nights of accommodation in advance and booking everything else once you arrive on Santa Cruz – mainly to save money. For the Christmas holidays, which is the peak of peak season there were differing recommendations – people saying to book in advance and others saying it’s fine to wait until you arrive. I think there’s no right or wrong, it really boils down to your risk tolerance, budget, and schedule flexibility.

{Optimizing for 3 Main Islands or Further Away Islands?}

This next part is mostly written for working (not retired) Americans who usually have to choose between a cruise or a land based tour. Most Americans get about two weeks holiday per year. Because of the logistics of getting to and from the Galapagos Islands, most Americans have to decide between a liveaboard or a land-based visit. Few people can do both. If you think about it, you need 4 days out of a two week trip just for travel days – getting to/from mainland Ecuador and getting to/from the Galapagos islands.

When I researched liveaboards, the only ones that seemed worthwhile were at least 7-8 days long. The 5 day cruises were too short because they’re really only 3 day cruises as 2 days are travel days.

So that’s 10 days gone already – the cruise + travel to Ecuador. Then if you want to spend 1 day on Santa Cruz and maybe 2 days in Quito and the surrounding area then there’s no time left. So you can see that unless you have more time (and more funds) then most people have to decide between a liveaboard or a land-based tour.

The 3 inhabited islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isabela are in themselves beautiful and worthwhile visiting. So the question is, are there things on any of those islands that you would be really sad to miss out on?

Popular Attractions on Each Inhabited Island

Santa Cruz Island: El Chato Ranch, Los Gemelos Craters, Lava Tunnel, Charles Darwin Research Station, Las Grietas
Isabela island: beautiful beaches, flamingo colony, Wall of Tears, Sierra Negra and volcanoes
San Cristobal: less touristy beaches, hammerhead sharks

{Are You a Hardcore Diver? Snorkeler?}

If you enjoy being in the water, like a fish, then you will love the cruise environment, namely because there’s less travel time to get from beautiful destination-to-destination. Most cruises sail to the island at night so that you wake up and you’re there! For avid divers and snorkelers who are always ready to jump in, that’s fantastic value.

If you’re more like the type of person who  for example, goes to Hawaii for a week and goes snorkeling maybe 1-2 times and is more than happy to spend the rest of the holiday doing other things, then maybe a liveaboard isn’t for you.

{Recap}

I hope these 7 criteria, plus knowing about where and when to see the flora and fauna and the geography and logistics of each option has been helpful as you decide how to visit the Galapagos Islands. Below is more additional info that I wish someone had shared with me when I was making my travel arrangements.


{Ways to Save If You’re a On A Backpacker Budget}

If you’re a backpacker on a budget you can still enjoy the Galapagos Islands. Remember budgets are subjective. Also, people forget that being on a budget just means keeping costs as low as possible, not necessarily, not having money to spend. If that was the case then you wouldn’t be traveling!

Budget Cruises. You can find 3-5 day Galapagos cruises starting at $2500 per person. Compared to a lot of other cruise options that cost anywhere from $5000-$20,000+ per person, that’s a steal! Cruises that are considered budget cruises wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a market for them.

Like all things in life, you get what you pay for; so take the time to understand what you’re getting at that “budget” price. For example are they providing snorkel gear? How much food? Type of food? What are the accommodations like? How many tours? Where will the cruise stop?

While I was researching, I read anecdotes of people who booked a cruise last minute and got a great deal. If you have that kind of flexibility in your travels, more power to you!

Budget Land Based. If you’re looking to keep costs low on a land based visit to the Galapagos here are some tips:

Minimize time on Santa Cruz. As the most developed of the 3 islands it’s also the most expensive. Isabela is the 2nd most popular island as it is widely regarded as the most beautiful. San Cristobal is the least popular amongst tourists. You can take the ferry

Minimize day trips to neighboring uninhabited islands. Those day trips cost anywhere from $75-$250 per person.


If you can, book day trips when you arrive in Puerto Ayora vs. before arriving in Ecuador. You can save money by booking directly through the tour agencies or even boat owners.


Spend more time enjoying free things on the islands – beautiful beaches, great snorkeling and wildlife viewing opportunities.


When you arrive to Santa Cruz island take the bus to Puerto Ayora which costs a few dollars vs. a taxi that will cost around $25.


Try cutting down to 2 meals per day. On average you can expect to spend around $27 per person per day on meals. Pack some Clif bars or other food (only things that are allowed, please).


Bring everything with you. Everything costs a lot more on the Islands so minimize avoiding having to buy things like sunscreen, flip flops, clothes, and hats.


Take the inter-island ferry instead of flying. The inter-island ferry costs about $37 per person per leg. Flights cost about $190 per person per leg. When I was researching about the ferries reviews consistently said that it was the choppiest ride of the entire trip or that they’d been on…ever. They say the inter-island ferries usually take anywhere from 2-3 hours and even 4 in rough seas. The ferries are 27-32 passenger speed boats. They usually wait to fill them up before departing.

All ferries depart/arrive to Santa Cruz. In other words you can’t go directly between Isabela to San Cristobal and vice versa. You have to go to both islands via Santa Cruz.

{How to Get To the Galapagos Islands}

Getting to the Galapagos Islands is a multi-step process. The Islands are about 600 miles off of Ecuador’s coast. First you have to get to mainland Ecuador, Quito or Guayaquil (both are cities in Ecuador; Quito is the capital city). It’s generally recommended to stay at least 1 night in either city:

  1. oddly enough it seems like lost luggage is a thing when flying to the Ecuador so staying overnight gives you more time to recover it.
  2. because of flight times to the Galapagos you almost have to stay for at least 1 night.

Flights from the United States are generally more expensive to Guayaquil but the nice thing about is that the flight time from there to the islands is a little bit shorter. All flights from Quito to the islands stop in Guayaquil.

  • Flying time Quito to Guayaquil: approx. 30 minutes
  • Flying time Guayaquil to Baltra: approx. 2 hours, 15 minutes

Instead of flying to Baltra (Santa Cruz), alternatively you can fly to San Cristobal which takes about the same 3.5 hours and also stops in Guayaquil.

{Getting to Santa Cruz Island and Puerto Ayora}

The majority of people fly to Baltra, not San Cristobal. Baltra is an island which connects to Santa Cruz via the Itabaca Channel. To get to Santa Cruz Island you:

  • fly into Baltra
  • take a 5 minute bus to the Itabaca Channel crossing
  • Cross the Itabaca channel (10 minutes)

From the channel dock the majority of people are going to be headed to Puerto Ayora which is about a 45 minute drive. You can take a private taxi (about $25 total, not per person), or you can take the public bus ($1.80 per person). The bus is not air conditioned and does not depart until it’s filled to capacity.

The bus stops in the main town center in Puerto Ayora and from there you can take a taxi to your hotel or hostel ($1-2). Taxis in the Galapagos Islands are white pick up trucks.

{Visit the Highlands on Santa Cruz On Your Way to Puerto Ayora}

If you’re on the morning flight from mainland Ecuador to Baltra, and you’re not in a hurry to get to town, then you might want to talk to the taxi driver or pre-arrange a visit the Highlands on your way to Puerto Ayora. Ask the taxi driver to stay and wait while you’re visiting. You should be fine leaving your luggage with the taxi driver as this is a very very touristy.

You’re going to pass through the Highlands on your way to town anyway and if you’re on the morning flight you have plenty of time before sunset. You’ll save a little money as you won’t have to take another taxi for a visit to the Highlands but more importantly you’re getting great efficiency from your time as you can’t do any day tours on your arrival day.

If you’re on the afternoon flight to Baltra, you may want to visit the Highlands another day, not your arrival day as you’ll be more crunched for time before sunset. It depends on how much of a tortoise person you are. If you’re really a tortoise person and you might wanna hang out with them for a couple hours then you’ll feel crunched for time. If you’re not planning to hang out with the tortoises for very long then do your Highlands visit on arrival day.

Things to see in the Highlands on Santa Cruz:

  • El Chato Reserve – Giant Tortoises
  • Lava Tunnels
  • Los Gemelos – the twin pit craters

El Chato Reserve and the Lava Tunnels are next to each other and your $3 entrance fee for El Chato is also your entrance for the tunnels. Los Gemelos craters are about 5 miles (about 8km) away from there though so if you want to see the craters as well then talk to the taxi driver before getting in. The taxi driver may charge you a little bit more The visit to the craters is likely to be short as it’s a look out point. As you can see on the map below you’ll pass Los Gemelos pit craters first, then drive a bit further to El Chato and the Lava Tunnels and then down to Puerto Ayora.

Ignore the travel time in the map above, Google maps included the time to cross the Itabaca Channel. It actually takes about 45 minutes to get from the the entry point of Santa Cruz island to Puerto Ayora.

The highlight of a visit to the Highlands is visiting El Chato Nature Reserve where you can see the famous Giant Tortoises. The area can be kinda swampy and if necessary they will give you rubber boots. You can also have lunch in their restaurant. Have some extra cash in case you want to purchase some of their coffee. It’s a self guided walk and you can observe the tortoises eating, resting and maybe walking. The $3 entrance fee is for the Reserve as well as the Lava Tunnels and includes tea or coffee + snack.

The Lava Tunnels are a short walk from El Chato Reserve. The Lava tunnels are an easy walk. There’s about 8-10 feet of the tunnels where you have to crawl on your hands and feet so you will get a little muddy. It’s completely dark in there so it’s recommended that you bring a headlamp or flashlight.

You want to give yourself at least 2-3 hours to visit all 3 places.

This is also nice because by the time you get to town it’s likely your room will be ready and you can check in and get cleaned up after your muddy crawl through the lava tunnels.

Alternatively, if you want to head straight to town you can visit the Charles Darwin Research Station, head to the beach to swim and snorkel, go to Las Grietas, a natural volcano fissure for swimming (not really snorkeling), hang out in town – all of which are free. The Charles Darwin Research Station is open 7 days a week from 7:30am-12:30PM and 2PM-5:30PM. Double check holiday hours.

If you decide to go the Highlands a different day, expect to pay about $25-$30 total for a return trip taxi including wait time to visit El Chato and the Lava Tunnels. They might charge a little more if you also want to go to Los Gemelos pit craters.

{Booking Day Tours}

If you’re planning to book your day trips once you arrive in Purtyo Ayora, you’ll see booking kiosks around town. This will be a cash holiday so anticipate your needs before you arrive. The US Dollar is the official currency. There are ATMs on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal, none on Isabela, but some have limits on how much you can take out (as low as $200) and restocking the machines with money isn’t an exact schedule.

You can use credit cards on the Islands but most will charge a hefty surcharge. As you can imagine, everything is expensive on the islands, so bring sunscreen, batteries, flip flops, clothes, a wide brimmed hat with you, if you don’t want to spend a small fortune on these items once you get there.


{Conclusion}

This article is about how to decide how to visit the Galapagos Islands. It is NOT an argument for or against a land based visit nor an argument for or against a liveaboard. Rather this article is a rubric to help you make the best decision for yourself. I disagree with the literature that states that liveaboards are the obvious choice; and that the only reason people don’t do them is because of budget constraints.

I think the decision is more nuanced than that and it’s worth spending the time to understand the differences, as for many people this is an expensive, once-in-a-lifetime trip.

In this article I detailed:

  • Why Choose Between Land vs. liveaboard? Why not do both?
  • Why Liveaboards May Not Be The Obvious Choice, Besides Cost
  • Budget Considerations: actual comparison of land vs. liveaboard
  • How Are the Land vs. Liveaboard Experiences Different?
  • The Flora and Fauna of the Islands + When, Where to See Them
  • My 7 Criteria for Comparison Land vs. Liveaboard
  • Galapagos Logistics that I Wish Someone Had Told Me

I hope it was useful for you! Please leave comments and questions.

Samta, Founder, PassportPages

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