Monday, 13 May 2013

Galapagos Islands (on a backpacker budget)

An oxymoron? Not necessarily. 
It's true that the Galapagos islands are expensive- there's no way round the $390 return flights and $100 National Park entrance fee. They even add another random $10 tax at the airport- putting you at $500 poorer before even setting foot on the islands. And yet, once there, we were able to see and do absolutely everything we wanted whilst not spending much more than we would in any other South American country: food and accommodation was reasonable and the number of free or relatively cheap activities plentiful. By design, the Galapagos islands are expensive to in order to keep the majority of people out- to limit the impact of mass tourism. The target demographic is middle aged retirees with deep pockets who will visit for a week and dump a ton of cash. The hope is to fuel the local tourist economy enough to deter more destructive economies such as illegal fishing, poaching and farming. While we thought this objective is admirable, we were not rich middle aged retirees, and in all likelihood never would be, so rather than wait until when (or if) we could afford to do a luxury cruise we decided to just go and try and do everything on the cheap. The reasoning was that we would never be closer, it would never be cheaper (the $100 park entrance fee is reputedly set to double in coming years) and the fragile ecosystem that makes up the park is under threat (in 2007 UNESCO listed it as 'endangered') If we waited, it might not be as beautiful as it is now. So, we booked a ticket, and we rocked up, and it really was incredible.

The classic khaki- clad, lens- laden, hat- holding Galapagos tourist
Ecuadorians get a special price for flight tickets to Galapagos- don't try and be a genius here and trick the system. My couchsurfing host in Quito offered to buy our tickets for us, using his Ecuadorian Social Security number, and securing the flights at half the cost they would be for us foreigners, reasoning that once we had bought the tickets what could they do? After deliberating for a while we thought it wouldn't be worth the risk if we got found out at the airport. And thank god we didn't. We met an American girl who had accidentally bought her flight tickets at the Ecuadorian price- she hadn't even been trying to trick the system. Not only did she have to pay the difference in the cost of flights, but also several fees, ending up paying about $100 more than we had. Ouch.

So, most people who visit the Galapagos go on a cruise, which range from about $700 for 4 days to something like $5000 for 8 days, depending on the level of luxury. For us, our budgets couldn't really stretch to that and besides, we couldn't think of much worse than being trapped on a boat with a group of loud, rich and annoying Americans for 8 days (the unfortunately typical demographic of Galapagos tourists). Not to mention the stifling feeling of being told that you were allowed 15 minutes to enjoy one beach, 10 minutes to relax, time for a half hour walk here, 20 minute to snorkel there. It's true you might see a lot more of the different bird life on a cruise, but you can definitely see all of the other major wildlife without forking out. This is where I take issue with Lonely Planet where it implies that the only way to see the islands is through a cruise- from talking to people who had done one we saw just as much, if not more, by doing it independently. And spent hell of a lot less. Although, cruises once you get to the island are alot cheaper than the internet or even Quito, so if the cruise is something you want to do, just book it once at the Galapagos islands. If you fly into Baltra island and get the bus to Santa Cruz island and base yourself in the main town- Puerto Ayora- you can bag last minute cruises for a fraction of the price. One girl we met got herself a cruise for $800 that was originally $3000- she said how smug she felt chilling in the first class hot tub surrounded by the wealthy and knowing that she'd paid a mere fraction that they had!

Walking around, almost every other shop will try to
offer you a last minute cruise, often at incredible prices.
Shopping around for cheap deals! :D
It wasn't just the money that made us not opt for the cruise- we could have found one for very cheap, very easily- but for us, our priority, was the marine life. Both being divers, we wanted to spend as much time in the water, and doing a land based tour meant that we had the flexibility to mix the diving up with some beaches, the highlands  and seeing the rest of the wildlife of the Galapagos  The diving itself was one our biggest spend once we were there- coming in at $380 for three days, 6 dives. But that, compared to the cost of diving in other countries, is not even that extortionate. This is where it helps to shop around, as we found shops charging between $120 for two dives to $175, with no real difference in the quality. But the diving was the best I had ever done. Diving off Floriana island, you often didn't know where to look when your buddy was pointing at a white tipped reef shark inches away, the instructor was calling for us the look at a group of eagle rays swimming (or flying??) past and you yourself were caught in a staring contest with a green turtle. That's not to mention the numerous sealions swimming all around you, quite literally the puppies of the sea as they dart around, nipping at your fins, even trying to nip at my alternate air source (a little air boost??) And then there was thousands of types of fish, moray eels, stone fish, huge sun fish, more sharks, bumphead parrot fish and always turtles and rays. Twice on the way back we saw bottlenose dolphins as well. These pictures can only capture the wonder of it in part, video to follow when my laptop stops being stupid:

Huge sunfish
Galapagos shark
So many sealions!
Flock of devil rays!
Accommodation wise: we only spent $122 during the 10 days we were there, which is... what.... less than a week's rent at University in England?? We could always find a room for $10 a night each, but often went one up on the luxury scale and spent $12- $15 a night each. On Cristobal island we got off the ferry and a guy offered us a whole apartment for $15 a night each, complete with kitchen, hot water, a TV and air conditioning. The kitchen was a huge thing for us as we had trouble finding a room that allowed us to use a kitchen, and we wanted to keep costs down by cooking for ourselves. Our entire food spending came to $70 for the whole 10 days, not including another $15 which we used for snacks, bottles of coke, and ice cream. After a couple of days of spending stupid amounts for food in restaurants, we discovered the wonder of the 'Almuerzo' and 'Merienda' (lunch and dinner set meals) that most restaurants and cafes do a couple of blocks away from the main tourist streets. This is where the locals eat, and for only $3 you get a soup, a main course and a juice. You usually get a choice of some kind of meat or fish, and pretty much everywhere we went also was happy enough to make me something vegetarian instead (usually egg related...) This was an absolute lifesaver in terms of money: some tourist restaurants would try to charge about $10 for a sandwich!

Seeing Giant Tortoises in the wild!
Tours: there are many many tour agencies that offer tours of the island, and to other islands. Our advise is to shop around. From Santa Cruz, we found places advertising a 3 day 2 night tour to Isabella island for $200.We then walked around the corner and got exactly the same tour for $140 (a little Spanish does help here). During this tour, we got 2 nights in a truly beautiful hotel, all our meals, a trip to see flamingos, another to see the penguins, blue footed boobies and marine iguanas, a snorkelling tour with some sealions and a guided walk up the volcano on the island. Other tours we arranged ourselves by just hiring a taxi driver- agencies would charge $50 each to do a tour of the highlands of the island, however if there's two of more of you you can hire a taxi for $60 (so $30 each) to take you to exactly the same places. So on these tours we went to Giant Tortoise Sanctuaries  saw Lava tunnels, and on Cristobal island a 300 year old treehouse, a lagoon, and a white sand beach. Our total cost for tours came to $186.50.

Beautiful beaches littered with sleeping sealions

Galapagos penguin- the only penguin in the world to live
higher than the equator!

And then there's the free stuff, which is numerous. The Charles Darwin research centre is free (the late home of Lonesome George, the very last of his species of giant tortoise). You can also go to many beautiful beaches which are just a short walk away, on Cristobal island we loved Playa Mann which is beautiful white beach with clear water, and several sealions often play around you while you're swimming. There are always good snorkeling spots to walk to, in fact right next to the port on Isabella island we found an amazing spot which had several turtles, penguins, marine iguanas and sealions keeping us company. (That was the other amazing thing there, we spent almost the whole morning there and had it completely to ourselves).

Playa Mann beach, 5 minutes walking from town
Turtle at our free (and deserted) snorkelling spot
Sealions chilling at a beautiful (free) beach
Sunset at another free beach a short walk away!

So, all in all, we saw an incredible amount of wildlife, some expected, most a happy surprise. We hit every single one of the main animals for which the Galapagos is famous for: the Giant Tortoise, the Marine Iguana, the Darwin Finch, the Blue Footed Boobies, the Frigate bird, as well as others which whilst not endemic (unique to Galapagos) are equally as amazing, the sealions, the hammerhead sharks, the rays and turtles, penguins and flamingos. It was the trip of the lifetime.

Total spending: $1300 (£846) for the 10 days
If you don't include the scuba diving: $920 (£599)
And you can do it even cheaper if you never go out for a meal/ don't buy luxuries like ice cream and coke.....

If I compare those 10 days to what I would spend on the average week of skiing in Europe, it's almost equal (once you add up the ski pass, equipment hire, hotel, and then spending money on the slopes or in the apres ski bars). My last university ski trip I think I spent at least that!

So, this blog post is really just to dispell the strerotypes that the Galapagos islands is a rich man's payground, we wanted to prove that you, the budget backpacker, could make it there too, and still see everything!! :D GO! :D

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