The Budget Travel Guide to the Galapagos Islands

Why Visit Santa Cruz, Galapagos?

Visiting Santa Cruz is pretty much unavoidable if you're visiting the Galapagos Islands. Home of the island's main airport (Baltra) and most populated town in the archipelago it's a great place to spend a few days either side of a cruise or some island hopping. The main town is Puerto Ayora, from where most cruises and day trips depart, which is a sleepy port town with plenty of bars and restaurants to enjoy. It's a great base from which to explore the rest of what the island has to offer.

Whilst much of the exotic wildlife that resides in the Galapagos is easier to spot on the other islands, here you can see sea lions, giant tortoises, sea turtles, and many different species of bird life. Be careful for sea lions stealing your seat! On this island you can find the Darwin research centre which provides a brilliant overview of the many conservation projects that are taking place, as well as some beautiful beaches and nature walks.


The official currency of the islands is US Dollars – make sure to bring plenty as it’s very much a cash based economy


Most islanders speak Spanish, although many in the bars and shops also speak good English


Located on the equator the climate is very mixed and characterised by plenty of rain. June-Nov is typically cold and dry, whilst Dec – June is warm and wet


The population is estimated at around 12,000 – the largest of any of the islands


Crime is low, but watch out for unregulated tour agencies and limited medical facilities. Always check your boat has enough life jackets

Protected Status

UNESCO World Heritage Site – sustainable tourism is incredibly important to protect the islands’ wildlife

'I am very anxious for the Galapagos Islands. I think both the geology and the zoology cannot fail to be very interesting.' — Charles Darwin

Getting To The Galapagos

3 airlines run daily services to the Galapagos – LAN, Avianca and TAM – and you can reach the islands from either Quito or Guayaquil on the mainland.  Typically return flights cost from $200 – $500, although we have heard of people paying upwards of this, particularly if they’re booking late. The flight takes around 1.5 hours and there is a 1 hour time difference.

Be prepared for some additional costs on your way to the Galapagos – firstly you’ll need to purchase a Transit Control Card from the airport at a cost of $20 per person. This is a measure to control immigration as it’s a popular place for Ecuadorians to migrate to.

When you reach the airport in the Galapagos you’ll also need to pay $100pp for your National Park Fee – this is to help the conservation efforts that continue to take place across the islands.

Conservation and the Galapagos

Another important aspect of tourism in the Galapagos to be aware of before you arrive are the ongoing conservation efforts. Humans have caused huge amounts of damage to the delicate ecosystems of the islands since their first visits in the 16th century – from the impact of whaling to stockpiling giant tortoises for food on their return journeys, many of the animal species have been severely reduced.  UNESCO removed the islands from their ‘endangered’ sites list in just 2010, but sustainability remains of critical importance.

  • Try to take reusable water bottles with filters to avoid buying multiple plastic bottles
  • Be sure to check the legitimacy of any tour operators you use to ensure they follow sustainable practices
  • Be careful not to bring any introduced species onto the islands with you – your bags will be searched for any organic matter that could cause problems
  • Keep your distance from the animal life and be sure to stay on marked tracks and trails at all times when exploring

Wildlife to Spot on the Galapagos Islands

Chances are that if you’re visiting the Galapagos you’re hoping to see plenty of wildlife – home to many endemic species it’s a treasure trove for nature lovers. Try to spot some of these on your visit.

Blue Footed Booby

Galapagos Islands - Ecuador

Giant Tortoise


Marine Iguana

Galapagos Sea Lion

Sally Lightfoot Crabs

Land Iguana

Charles Darwin & The Galapagos Islands

Many people know of the Galapagos Islands as a stop off for Charles Darwin and The Beagle in 1835, just a couple of years before he began work on his famous theory of evolution. During his visit he spent time on Floreana, San Cristobal, Santiago and Isabela islands, and was amazed at the diversity and extent of the animal and plantlife and its variations across these islands.

From examining the volcanic terrain to collecting various specimens of birds, marine life and reptiles, Darwin’s most famous notes from his visit centre around his observations on the habits of the native mockingbirds. He identified and recorded how they displayed minor differences from island to island – and linked this with the way that very slightly different varieties of tortoises could be found in the same way, leading to his very early observations that animals must in someway change. No visit to the Galapagos Islands is complete without a visit to the Darwin Centre where more about the role these islands played in shaping Darwin’s theories is explained in detail.

Where to Visit on Santa Cruz Island

If you are spending a couple of days on Santa Cruz, we’d recommend exploring some of the main highlights of the island.

Charles Darwin Research Centre

Free to enter, this is a working conservation centre that gives a broader view on how the islands’ wildlife is being cared for by teams of scientists

Price Guide: FREE

Tortuga Bay

A short walk from the town of Puerto Ayora, this beach is definitely worth a visit. Relax on the white sands and take a swim while spotting wildlife such as marine iguanas wandering by

Price Guide: FREE

Santa Cruz Highlands

Take a taxi to the highlands where you can explore a different landscape – lush and green in the rainy season. You can also see giant tortoises roaming and all manner of birdlife.

Price Guide: £

Where to Eat in Puerto Ayora

Puerto Ayora is just a small town by any standard, but it features a wide selection of cafes and restaurants to cater to all tastes. One of the highlights is the exceptional fresh sea food – from lobster to sushi, you can’t go wrong with sampling the island’s seafood.

Galapagos Planet

Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora

This is a great bar with happy hour specials on a variety of cocktails. They do excellent sushi which is also available on happy hour most nights.

Price Guide: ££

La Giardina

Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora 200350

We had an amazing breakfast here, in a relaxed environment where you can sit and watch the world go by. Many stop to enjoy their ice cream sundaes.

Price Guide: ££

Kiosco de Renato

Avenida de Charles Binford, Puerto Ayora

This street is packed with small kioscos serving fresh seafood and other local delicacies at bargain prices, definitely worth a visit.

Price Guide: £

A Murder Mystery

The Galapagos Murder : The Murder Mystery That Rocked the Equator (Fergus Mason)

It’s fair to say that in the early history of the Galapagos there were some rather unusual characters who made the decision to reside on these isolated islands. This is the true story of the first residents of the island of Floreana and the subsequent murder that took place and has never been solved. An easy read, and adds another level of history to your Galapagos experience.

Available on Amazon: UK | US

Lonely Planet

Lonely Planet Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands (Travel Guide)

Does what it says on the tin really, this book is a great introduction and accompaniment to your time on the islands. It’s an easily digestible way to get even more information on the flora and fauna of the island, as well as useful tips on where to ensure you visit while you’re there.

Available on Amazon: UK | US

Tours of the Galapagos Islands

With 18 islands spread over an area larger than 200km, it’s fair to say that navigating the Galapagos independently isn’t always the easiest. We took a cruise as well as doing some independent travelling, and would recommend a tour to ensure you get the most from your visit – not to mention that there are many islands you cannot visit without a licensed tour guide. Here are some of our top picks for small group tours.

Save £100 on any of these tours with G Adventures in their January sale!.

Galápagos — West, Central & East Islands aboard the Estrella del Mar - 10 Days

We recommend this one as a mid range Galapagos sailing adventure as we loved visiting the Western Islands – especially Fernandina.

Price Guide: ~ $2680

Complete Galápagos - Estrella del Mar - 17 Days

It’s a once in a lifetime destination so if you have money to spare and want to ensure you see everything there is to see, this is the perfect extended tour of the islands

Price Guide: ~ $5733

Galápagos Express Camping Adventure - 7 Days

This is the perfect option for budget travellers or those who have a limited amount of time to spend in the Galapagos. It covers 3 islands on a camping adventure.

Price Guide: ~ $1220

This article contains affiliates links to various partners. if you were to click onto one of these partners and purchase a service, we may be awarded a small commission.