This remote archipelago of 13 large and 6 small islands became famous when Charles Darwin celebrated its pristine ecosystems and bountiful wildlife found, literally, nowhere else on earth. Since becoming a National Park of Ecuador in 1978, its appeal has only increased for visitors who wish to relax and explore this paradise, both underwater and on land. As usual, visiting during low seasons -- from late April to June and early September through November will save you money on flights, boats and lodging.
All travelers to the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador will fly into the main airport in Quito, which is also one of the two ports with flights to the islands themselves. Aside from getting there on a private boat, flying is how people get to the Galapagos - from either Guayaquil or Quito. You must show proof of transport back to the mainland though it is fairly easy to extend dates of roundtrip flights should you decide to stay longer. You can actually get what is called an "open jaw" flight that would fly out of Guayaquil and return to Quito, or vice versa. Prices are slightly cheaper when flying from Guayaquil, but as international flights only arrive into Quito most travelers will save money connecting from there. Airfare from either city currently hovers around $340-$440 depending on the season.
Since there are only 1 or 2 flights to the islands daily, both departing in the morning, you will generally be forced to stay overnight wherever you are flying from. One benefit that many people take advantage of is to spend a little time in Guayaquil or Quito ahead of departure and find any last minute flights and cruises deals by visiting travel agencies in person. Avenida Amazonas, in Quito, is where the majority of agencies are based.
Planes arrive at either Isla San Cristobal or Isla Baltra with similar fares. Again, it is possible to fly into one island and out another to suit your plans. Tours launch out of both of these ports, or nearby, so make sure you are landing in the correct place if you have made advance reservations for cruising in the islands.
Seeing the Islands
Since the entire Galapagos archipelago is a protected park with regulations on entry all visitors must pay a $100 US dollar entry fee. Travel around the islands by boat or over land requires a registered naturalist guide except when inside town limits, which usually means joining a tour. Most visitors to this beautiful place take multiple day tours on boats that include lodging and meals on the boat. Still, there are some options for a land-based trip which can be easier on the budget.
Touring by boat
Cruising tours vary widely in price and comfort. Last minute 4-5 day packages can be booked from the Ecuadorian mainland or in towns like Puerto Ayora for $400-500 US dollars. One online resource, www.galapagoscruiselinks.com, allows the operators of boats to list unfilled spots on specific cruises so that travelers may search by date and contact the operators directly.
With a great deal of draw coming from marine wildlife, remote islands and water activities; many people find cruises better value for money despite the fact that staying on land is generally cheaper. Smaller boats with fewer passengers can offer a more exclusive experience; sometimes this will mean a higher price tag but not always. When looking for special deals and comparing cruises, be sure to consider the provided outdoor equipment, services or the nights that are on land. A few packages will even include your park entry fee and flights, though these are usually high-end options.
Sleeping on Land
For flexible travelers, the easiest way to save money is avoid the multi-day tours completely, find accommodations in the several small cities on the inhabited islands and make use of public transportation between islands and guided daytrips. INGALA is the inter-island speedboat service which travels between the islands of San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isla Isabela for $30 US dollars one way, $50 US dollars round trip.
One popular homebase is Puerta Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz; a dusty town with hostels and a seaport. Isla Baltra is the closest airport, about 2 hours away. The largest of the informative centers run by the Charles Darwin Foundation is located on this island. Lodging and tours can also be found in the town of Santa Cruz, with last minute trips available to several uninhabited islands if there have been cancellations.
You can fly to the airport at San Cristobal, which leaves you just a brisk 20 minute walk from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno - the capital. The quiet Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabela is accessible via speedboat from Puerto Ayora. In or near both these centers one can enjoy simple lodging, beaches, snorkeling, interpretive centers and the opportunity to join guided trips.
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Article Added on Friday, February 24, 2012
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