There is no doubt that a visit to the Galapagos Islands is typically a destination put on almost everyone’s (must-see-before-you-die) AKA Bucket List.

The islands are a wonderful example of nature’s finest and vehemently protected ecosystems with wildlife found nowhere else on the planet.

With impossibly blue sea, otherworldly landscapes, and pristine beaches untethered by commercial development, there is a joyful feeling of paradise lost that prevails. Protected by no-touch rules and a 2-meter proximity regulation, the animals are free to roam and live without fear.

The playful antics of the Galapagos sea lions are mesmerizing both above and under the water. And witnessing the grandeur of the Giant Galapagos Tortoises is simply an experience like no other.

Put simply, these islands are Magical, Enchanting, and Engaging. Being in a place where respect, care, and protection of animals and the environment is the priority upleveled our experience like no other.

A Seemingly Daunting Destination?

One of the most-discussed challenges of a visit to the islands is the possibility of needing to save up for years before making the trip because of the sheer expense.

I can say that we did not do this, (we planned just a few months in advance) and managed to see almost the same flora and fauna as my other visits to the Galapagos that I discuss below.

Another prohibitive factor may be the sheer machinations of getting there.

Yes, the Galapagos are far away, but for many, so is Hawaii. Yes, there are a few more hoops to go through, but nothing prohibitive as of this writing.

Naturally, things could change, but, I am going to give you our best tips and tricks to visit this magical place without breaking the bank.

One caveat to point out is that I (Kit) speak Spanish, which helps immensely as we travel around the world. I always say that other than English, Spanish is the most useful language we have found for smooth travels. It covers Central and South America, Mexico and Spain. I also use it quite a bit in California when we visit!

Mr. Nomad is learning on DuoLingo and is making good progress! The app gamifies the learning process and about 15 minutes per day can do wonders. When you try to speak the local language, no matter how imperfect, it shows respect, and locals in most countries appreciate the effort. Give it try!

Mr and Mrs TIP

Bring Cash
The currency of Ecuador is US dollars, and many places on the islands don’t accept credit cards. In addition, there are fees that need to be paid in cash which I outline below.

For this reason, it’s important to bring the fee payments in cash along with enough cash to pay for meals, tours and purchases in places that might not accept cards, and there are quite a few. Bring smaller denominations such as $1s / $5s/ $10s and $20s.

My 4th Experience Visiting The Galapagos

Having had the privilege of visiting 4 times now, with the last visit just last month is something for which I am so very grateful.

My first 3 visits were more along the typical tourist route, which is absolutely one way to do it, especially if you plan on visiting only once in your lifetime.

Visit #1 – A Broad Educational Overview

My first visit was by ship, with naturalist guides onboard and briefings before every island landing. It was fascinating and exhilarating to be there and akin to a very expensive field trip. I chose this option because I wished to see and learn as much information as possible since I believed it would be my only visit to this magical island chain.

Visit #2 – Mother nature’s surprise

The second visit to the islands was a very unusual one. I thought it would be fun to book a different type of accommodation, up in the highlands with its own tortoise sanctuary. Other than diving, I didn’t pre-plan since my first visit gave me a very thorough background about the islands and their flora and fauna, and my main goal was to log as many dives as possible. Alas, best-laid plans….

On the 3rd day of my visit, a Tsunami hit the islands. That’s when I was immensely grateful for having booked up in the highlands. Visitors at the beach areas were taken to the highlands and the floor of the hotel lobby as well as the restaurant was literally covered with blankets and air mattresses for those displaced by the Tsunami. Needless to say, all excursions, boat taxis, tours, dives, and land transportation were canceled for the week.

Once the floodwaters subsided, I walked to the sea and saw something that I had never seen before – sharks in the trees! The damage to the buildings and the infrastructure was substantial.

Preparing for the Tsunami, the event itself, and the aftermath is an experience I’ll never forget. It did not, however, dampen my passion for these islands.

Visit #3 – Getting the hang of it

I was ready to give it another go. This time it was on a pre-packaged tour which was land-based, and much more affordable than my first visit.

The naturalist guides took us to the popular sights on the island of Santa Cruz with expert lectures on the flora and fauna. We had group dinners and time to explore on our own, and the rules and areas were carefully explained.

Paying close attention to the itinerary, and the locations that could be visited without a guide inspired me to do this again – only without a prepaid tour or itinerary.

Visit #4 – Dialing it in

My recent visit was the 4th one and with Mr. Nomad, and having had diverse experiences in my first 3 visits, I finally felt like I was ready to tackle the visit without a tour or prepaid plans.

While large buses of tourists were deposited for a pre-set time allowance, we decided when to go and how long to stay. It was such a wonderful experience to move around freely and to snorkel with sea lions whose playful antics kept us continually fascinated.

One day after a visit to a local beach covered in sea lions, we walked to a bar for a sunset cocktail and a sleepy female sea lion was lolling about without a care in the world.

It was absolutely a joy to share the space and sunset with such a lovely creature.

We met a gentleman who was at the same bar, and we struck up a conversation. He was on a high-end cruise ($8,000 per person) and two cruise days had been canceled due to an illness of one of the passengers onboard that apparently required evacuating all the passengers on the ship both days, and all the tours were canceled as well.

Needless to say, we were very grateful that our non-itinerary-based visit gave us autonomy and freedom that he and the other tourists didn’t have despite the price tag and advanced planning.

So with that said, this is how we traveled on my 4th visit.

Mr. and Mrs. Nomad Budget Friendly Galapagos Itinerary with FREE Airfare

Below is our 6-day Galapagos and 2-night Quito itinerary, including how we booked our flights using miles and where we stayed.

We have found that the best location for jumping to Ecuador and the Galapagos is from Panama which also has multiple UNESCO World Heritage sites, so it can be an interesting place to begin.

Note that flights to/from the Galapagos must originate in Ecuador. We chose Quito as our first stop because of its rich Indigenous culture and friendly people.


Outbound: Panama – Quito – Santa Cruz
Inbound: San Cristobal – Guayaquil – Panama

We booked this itinerary entirely with miles on United Airlines and their partner COPA AIR which is based in Panama. We used their Excursionist Fare which gave us the leg from San Cristobal (Galapagos) to Guayaquil for FREE. It’s one of the best ways to do this itinerary. Note that there are taxes and fees that come along with miles bookings, but in the case of our Galapagos trip, they were eclipsed by the value of the ticket.

So how did we get the points to do this?

We are big fans of Chase Sapphire for travel and perks.

They have an excellent sign-up bonus that can vary. With the bonus points in your account, you now have a jumpstart on your Galapagos Adventure with free airfare.

Here is a link to Chase Sapphire Preferred.

Our Journey Begins

When it comes to selecting accommodations, we have found that has the most complete platform for information, photos and candid reviews.

Depending on the property, it also allows reservations to be held and payment made at the property.

For our visit to the Galapagos, we used entirely and will give you the links to our recommendations.

Pre-Galapagos stay in Quito

Quito is a fascinating place and a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are so many fascinating things to see there, and we chose Boutique Hotel Chakana as our base.

This little gem is decorated with indigenous artwork and paintings which is an integral part of the Ecuadorian culture. Breakfast is included and served in the dining room on the bottom floor.

It’s important to note that there are a lot of stairs, and the rooms facing the interior are much quieter. Next time, we will request an interior room.

The hotel can arrange tours as they did for us. Ask for Santiago as a guide. His knowledge is in-depth, his manner is easy and friendly and his English is perfect.

Additionally, the hotel can arrange efficient airport transfers.

We are looking forward to returning to this fascinating part of Ecuador again.

At the Mainland Airport (Quito or Guayaquil)

Make certain that you give yourself at least 3 hours at the airport. An added administrative hurdle surprised us when we arrived that wasn’t required the first 3 times I visited which is the Galapagos Islands Visitor Control Fee – $20 cash each. At Quito airport, this kiosk was located close to the entrance of the departure terminal.

We stood in line for about 1 hour, because progress was slowed by tour operators paying for large groups. This means that if you are a group, only one person needs to stay in line and there is a coffee shop next to the kiosk.

Hold onto the pass you receive after paying the fee, as you will need to show it when you land and pay the second fee

Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz is the most popular island to begin a Galapagos adventure.

Many wonderful sights and experiences are waiting to be discovered on this island.

But first, let’s go over the basics on arrival and transportation to the main town, Puerto Ayora at the south end of the island.

Upon entering the Galapagos, which is a national park, you will need to pay a park entrance fee of $100 cash each. You only pay this once.

There is a line that looks like an immigration line. The first booth is to check your visitor control document and the second booth is to pay the park entrance fee.

Once you have paid the fee, head over to the baggage claim area. (It took almost 30 minutes for our bags to arrive.)

After retrieving our luggage, we were ready for what I call “running the gauntlet” of bus-to-ferry-to-taxi.

For first-timers traveling independently, it can be an overwhelming scramble of baggage, lines, and “what do I do now?”.

Here’s how it works:

Once you have claimed your luggage, you will need to buy a bus ticket ($5.00 each as of this writing) that goes about 10 minutes to the dock.

You buy the bus ticket in a kiosk next to the buses.

At this juncture, you will need to take a 5-7 minute ferry ride across the channel. This costs $1.00 each. (could vary so be prepared with $1s).
The ferrymen will load your bags onto the roof of the ferry, but don’t worry, this is standard procedure, and quite efficient.

From there, you have two options to travel from the ferry dock to Puerto Ayora.

Once you have claimed your bags from the ferry, you can grab a 4-door pickup (max 4 passengers) truck taxi across the island to Puerto Ayora.

As of this writing, (2024) the price was $35 for the ride. If you’re looking to save money, you can share it since it’s a flat $35. We chose to ride alone

Mr and Mrs TIP:

Your luggage will be put on the flatbed of the truck, and it can rain there. So it is advisable to pack in a bag that is waterproof or make your packing waterproof.

To save a little money, the multi-passenger bus costs $5.00 per person. However, it is slower and can make multiple stops at various accommodations before reaching yours. Nevertheless, it will get you there.

Puerto Ayora

Puerto Ayora is the main town on the island of Santa Cruz where shops and restaurants abound. One of our favorite places to have a bite and to do some work was 1835 Coffee Lab. Fast internet was much appreciated, and not found everywhere on the island. It’s also a great people-watching spot, and the coffee is excellent.

1835 Coffee Lab

We stayed at a cute family-owned B&B called La K-Leta.

It was centrally located and walkable to everything you need, and each morning they brought breakfast to the room at whatever time you specified on a blackboard near the office.

Our kitchen at La K-Leta

We opted to wing the timing since we had no set tours planned.

It was my first experience sleeping past 5AM in the Galapagos as most tours begin very early.

We booked the family room which was ample size with a sofa and a large bed. It also had a kitchen and refrigerator which was great for preparing snacks for our daily excursions.

If you fancy top-end accommodations (along with matching prices), look into Finch Bay which is on the way to Tortuga Bay and has a small private beach that is free to visit.

Places We Visited

Mr and Mrs TIP:

We recommend first thing a visit to the Darwin Station for a guided tour.

Here you’ll learn from the experts about the magnificent Galapagos Tortoises and the conservation efforts that are helping them to thrive again.

Tours in English and other languages are prescheduled, so check in advance for hours of your preferred language.

Taxis and Boats will take you to some remarkable places in the area.

We negotiated a tour price with the taxi driver that we randomly found at the ferry dock and it was terrific. If you would like to contact them (husband and wife team) via Whatsapp: Lourdes +593 99 070 9073

As I mentioned before, speaking Spanish helped us to negotiate the price and dial in our wishes.

Alternatively, one of the owners at the K-Leta speaks perfect English and can assist you with hiring a taxi. Which, for some reason, are all 4-door white pickup trucks!

Darwin Station

Fee: $10 per person

The beauty of the Darwin Station is its proximity to town. You can walk or rent a bike to get there.

Once you pay the entrance fee, you’ll join a naturalist guide and walk the station learning about the iconic Galapagos Tortoises and their adaptations.

For example, the Saddle Back species has a high arch in the shell near the neck that accommodates upward grazing of trees.

Other species have a flat or rounded area over the neck for grass grazing.

Lonesome George, the island’s most famous inhabitant, sadly passed away since my last visit, but after roughly 5 years of taxidermy efforts at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, he is memorialized in the museum at the Darwin Station.

Fish Market

The Fish Market is an open-air space near the port that attracts multiple species of wildlife. On one visit we saw Pelicans, Marine Iguanas, multiple sea lions (begging for treats ) and a mother sea lion with her pup.

Pups are highly protected because any unknown scent (such as from a human) can render them indistinguishable to their mothers who return to nurse after food searches.

One day we visited we were able to walk around the fishmongering area to take some photos and videos. The next day, it was roped off with yellow tape. Perhaps someone broke the 2-meter rule…

Taxi Tour

Price: $60 for 4 hours (and totally worth it)

Rancho Primicias

Our first stop was to the privately-owned tortoise sanctuary and lava tube of Primicias (The other is El Chato which is nearby)

I had visited El Chato 2 times and it was busy with tour groups, so we opted for Primicias this visit and we literally had the place to ourselves.

On the property is an impressive lava tube, which we were excited to explore.

Lava tubes are formed when the outside skin of a molten lava flow solidifies. This particular lava tube was huge and well-lit. Be prepared for dampness while exploring and shoes with grip help. (ie. not flip flops)

We were dropped off at one end of the tube (which is on private property and didn’t require a guide.) Wow! That is all we can say.

It’s about 1 kilometer long and has lighting. It is damp inside, and at one point there was a collapse in the tunnel which requires a “duck walk” or a “stomach slide.” in other words, you need to crouch down pretty far.

The Taxi picked us up at the other end of the tunnel, which worked perfectly so we were able to maximize our one-way through the tunnel and not worry about the return hike (and crawl).

The Iconic Giant Tortoises

After about 3 minutes drive, we arrived at the grounds of the tortoise sanctuary.

The grounds are wide open with no fences so the tortoises can roam freely about. We opted for a tour guide who has worked for the ranch for 9 years to guide and educate us on these magnificent creatures.

His services were free but we gave him a tip – his tour was engaging and informative.

There is an area with empty shells from former residents and we each took a turn crawling inside to experience the point of view from the tortoises’ perspective. There is also a display of a skeleton of a tortoise with its shell which gives you a close-up of their unique anatomy.

After our walk around the sanctuary, we opted for lunch at the onsite restaurant and it was delicious! The restaurant is situated next to the giant tortoises so you can watch them lumber about while eating. That was a very special and unique experience and is highly recommended.

Garrapatero Beach

After lunch, we headed to Garrapatero Beach which was about 20 minutes away. Lourdes and her husband waited while we walked about 15 minutes down a cactus-lined path to beautiful Garrapatero beach where the sand and the water were pristine. If you wish, you can rent a kayak from the caretaker at the beach.

We needed to sign in and out, but nothing else was required.

Mr and Mrs TIP:

There are limited services at Garrapatero Beach other than a toilet. So bring your own water, snacks, towels and umbrellas if you plan on staying for a while.

The entry into the water was smooth and shallow and the vibe was relaxed. There were only about 4 other people there during our stay, which made it a highlight of our visit to Santa Cruz island.

Down a little path across from the beach is a lagoon with flamingos, ducks, and other waterfowl. There are camping signs on the way to the lagoon, however we didn’t see any tents or anyone camping at the time.

After about 1.5 hours at this beautiful beach, we headed back up to the taxi and headed back to the hotel. On our way, we were slowed by a tortoise crossing the road, which was a charming testament to their ability to roam freely.

Tortuga Bay

On our last day on Santa Cruz, we chose to go to Tortuga Bay by boat rather than walking as it had been raining on and off during the day.

We purchased roundtrip tickets at a little kiosk at the dock. Departure times were offered in the morning and the afternoon.

They did say that sometimes if there aren’t enough people to fill the boat, they would cancel that trip. But our departure time left as planned.

The ride was smooth and scenic and gave us a good view of the harbor and the tour boats.

Once we arrived at the bay, we walked about 10 minutes to get to the bay.
It was spectacular, with emerald green water, golden sand and no current or waves.

At one point we watched a large male marine iguana (so prehistoric looking) swim from the bay to the beach, and crawl to a sunning spot there.

I’ll never get over the marine iguana’s propensity for swimming! On a dive I did on a previous visit, a marine iguana was swimming about 10 meters below the surface – that was certainly a first for me!!

There are more sights to see in Santa Cruz, but our 3-night itinerary provided the highlights of this wonderful journey.

San Cristobal Island

Inter-Island Transportation

After reading a lot of reports about choppy seas, and sea-sick passengers going from Santa Crus to San Cristobal, we opted to fly instead, and little did we know that this flight is more than a mode of transport.

The only flight we found for our days was on a twin-engine Island Hopper operated by Emetebe.

It turned out to be an amazing journey – basically an aerial tour of the islands which was very special and certainly a first for both of us in the Galapagos.

The plane held 8 and there were never more than 4 during the trip which included a stop at Isabela to refuel, drop off 2 passengers and collect 2 others.

Taking a boat is definitely less expensive, $30-$40 per person one-way time varies depending on the seas. (around 2-3 hours) Flying was $221 per person with pre-booked seats directly behind the captain (these seats are highly recommended for the best view).

The views were spectacular and since the Galapagos is more of a sea-faring destination, flying was unique and one of the most memorable parts of our visit.

San Cristobal

We landed safely at the airport in San Cristobal and were met by our host from Hotel Pimimpiro, which is a lovely family-run boutique bed and breakfast. Our room was next to the sparkling pool, which was wonderful for refreshing swims and pool exercises!

Our host drove us to the downtown area and the oceanfront walk so we could orient ourselves. The hotel is about a 10-15 minute walk to town (slight hill down and up) which was fine for us.

We have suggestions for waterfront options that we visited if you prefer to be closer to the action. As with all things near water, the prices are higher than off-water options.

Galapagos Sunset is a boutique hotel with 9 rooms, some with ocean view ( Link)

Casa Blanca. We found this to be a good value, although the rooms were not updated when we visited.

Hotel Indigo is a high-end option with an in-house restaurant.

Since we weren’t on any sort of tour program, we walked to many free spots easily accessible from town. There are several taxis on the island, and one day we arranged an all-day taxi to take us to the same spots as the pre-arranged (and pricey) tours.

Mr and Mrs TIP:

Speaking Spanish helped us to receive excellent pricing. Even if you’re trying, the locals appreciate the effort.

Here is our San Cristobal itinerary:

Day One:

We walked the town and immediately visited the large colony of sea lions that were just in front of the seafront walk. They were lounging and playing and rolling and so engaging to watch.

We later checked on boat tour prices. There is a popular tour called 360, which visits multiple beaches by boat, however we didn’t opt for that this visit. Prices varied between $120-$170 per person depending on the tour operator.

Mr and Mrs TIP:

Rent or bring snorkel gear to fully appreciate the in-water experience with the sea lions. This gear can be rented in many of the dive shops you will find in the town. 

We then arranged for a taxi to take us to a beach area about 4 miles out of town called Playa Loberia (free) where you can swim/snorkel with the sea lions if they agree. We waited awhile for a few sea lions to join us in the water but it was worth it!

The walk from the drop-off point was about 15 minutes. The beach was lovely, and although the colony there was smaller than in town, being able to swim/snorkel with them was magical.

We stayed about 2 hours during which large groups of tourists from the prepaid tours visited.

It could be worthwhile pre-arranging a pickup time with the taxi as the cell phone reception at this location is pretty bad.

There are however taxis coming to drop people off regularly, so if you are ok potentially waiting you can wing it.

We were fortunate to find a waiting taxi once we reached the drop-off point and we returned to town for dinner. We also met with a taxi driver and arranged for him to take us on an all-day tour the following day.

Day Two:

On San Cristobal, there is a route that most tours take, which was perfectly fine with us. Our cab driver picked us up after breakfast and we began our journey.

Our first stop was La Galapaguera, which is San Cristobal’s version of the Darwin Center. We found it to be more personal and less structured than the Darwin Center, and we enjoyed our time there very much.

La Galapaguera is a dedicated research and conservation center where you can see hatchlings and adolescent tortoises protected up to a certain age before being released onto the property.

Each tortoise had a number, and we had fun watching them during their daily activities.

The weather that day was a bit wet, and we attempted to stop at El Junco Lagoon, a freshwater lagoon nestled in the center of the island, however, we opted to keep moving to our next destination, Playa Chino – a true gem!

We heard about Playa Chino from a local on Santa Cruz, who said it was his favorite beach in the Galapagos and we were excited to visit.

It’s quite a journey to get there, but completely worth it.

A true hidden gem, Playa Chino had a small colony of sea lions, crystal-white sand and ice-blue water.

We were told that during our visit (Dec 2023) the water was warmer than usual, but we still felt the occasional thermoclines. Nevertheless, it was an amazing experience.

The skies had cleared a bit by the time we arrived. There were very few people there, (probably deterred by the weather) and we shared a swath of sand with a family of friendly sea lions for a couple of hours before meeting up again with our taxi driver to take us back into town.

This beach was definitely a highlight of our visit to San Cristobal.

Mr and Mrs TIP:

Bring your own drinks and snacks as there are no services at Playa Chino

We headed back to town and happened across a fabulous bar/restaurant called The Pier Restaurant & Cevicheria, where we watched the sunset and ate amazing ceviche, for which it was known.

Day Three

We decided to explore more of the beaches near town and the interpretation center which is an excellent presentation of the formation of the islands. More on that below.

Playa Mann was the first beach we encountered. Because it is close to town, it was quite crowded so we decided not to stop. It does have a little snack hut for food and drink, which makes it quite a convenient beach overall.

We continued walking and arrived at Cerro Tijeretas where there was an unusual occurrence of two different species of frigate birds co-habitating in a single colony. We enjoyed the dry forest and other birds living there. (Free Entry)

Just beyond Cerro Tijeretas is Punta Carola, a beach in the northwest of town. The beach is roughly 900 feet long and there is a large colony of sea lions. (Free Entry)

We found it to be a bit less snorkel-friendly and the sea lions that day weren’t swimming. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the visit.

We then took the well-maintained path through the dry forest up the hill about 20 minutes to the Interpretation Center. (Free).

The displays are in both English and Spanish, which is extremely helpful.

A visit here will provide a history of the Galapagos islands in three contexts: natural, human and conservation.

The Human History Room explains the volcanic origin of the islands, the currents, the unique climate and the evolution of different species.

The Human History Room explains the discovery and colonization of the islands, and continues with conservation efforts to preserve the beauty and pristine systems.

Mr. and Mrs. Tip:

Definitely go if you are interested in learning about the Galapagos.
The Interpretation Center on San Cristobal offers an impressive amount of information about the islands themselves, which is not found in such detail in the other centers we visited.

We ended our final day with a walk back to the same bar/restaurant as we visited the prior day and were happy to sit by a sleepy sea lion who didn’t even notice we (or anyone else) were there.

Photo here

As we watched the sunset on our final day, we were immensely grateful that we were able to experience these beautiful islands in a way that was less touristy, less structured and much less expensive than the normal bucket list pricing so frequently offered.

Photo here

We hope that using these tips and itineraries will help you to create an unforgettable journey of your own to these amazing islands!

Photo here


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