…but so are most islands. Remember that you are also not traveling to just any island, but to a set of islands completely isolated the middle of the Pacific Ocean, far from mainland South America.
It isn’t exactly easy to get to the Galápagos, so of course everything on the island will have the added cost of the distance it takes for goods to reach the island. Like other islands, resources are limited and usually pricier than on the mainland, so stock up on essentials before you hop on your flight to the Galápagos. Toiletries, over-the-counter medications and liquor are some of the items that will have the highest mark-up when purchasing in the islands.
Fact or Fiction: You can reach the Galápagos Islands via boat from South America
This map from Southwind Adventures shows that the Galápagos are so far from the mainland that even when you zoom out to view the entire South American continent, they are still off the western edge of the map.
Fiction! Despite what television or movie references may tell you (I’m looking at you, Bobby Axelrod of Billions), you can’t just hop on a boat or a private yacht and head for the Galápagos. Though you might be spending a lot of time by boat once you arrive in the Galápagos, you have to fly to either San Cristobal Island or Baltra Island (adjacent to Santa Cruz Island) first.
Cash versus Credit
One interesting thing to consider when planning for the Galápagos is that it pays to use cash. Whereas some people rely on credit cards for vacation purchases that they will pay off once they return, there are significant benefits to using cash on this trip:
Some islands are cash-only and don’t accept credit cards at all (Floreana, Isabela). There is now an ATM on Isabela for Ecuadorian visitors who bank with COOPCCP; the ATM only accepts COOPCCP debit cards according to this TripAdvisor reports.
Credit card purchases are subject to up to an additional 12% VAT. Some travel agencies and hotels will allow credit card purchases without VAT added if you do not require an invoice or receipt. If you opt for this, make sure you watch the merchant enter the correct amount, as overcharges and refunds may have no recourse without an invoice.
Credit card purchases may also be subject to the establishment’s additional convenience fee (>3-5%)
Cash allows you to haggle for prices and goods (inclusive of tax)
Almost all individual day trips and cruises must be purchased in cash unless you pre-booked online with a credit card or, more likely, a bank transfer
Tip: Make sure to bring ample cash with you, as the ATMs have daily limits of $300-$600 and have been known to run out of cash, especially during high season. I have read online that the bank in Puerto Ayora (located on Darwin Avenue near the fish market) can be used to exchange traveler’s checks, but I personally have not used traveler’s checks in my travels. You CAN bank with a teller inside with a passport if you want to take out cash and break it up into smaller denominations.
This map taken from EcuadorBloggen’s WordPress shows the two locations (marked with blue squares) where you can find ATMs in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz – opposite the fish market and near the departure pier, both along Av. Darwin and within walking distance of most accommodations.
“…but the Galápagos are too expensive for me”
Something we heard again and again while travelling in mainland Ecuador was that the Galápagos were SO expensive that most people weren’t even going to bother. Well, we had already booked our transfer flights to the islands and a reasonably priced AirBNB. There was no turning back now, so we prepared for the inevitable damage to our wallets. I cannot tell you how surprised we were with the wealth of things that you can simply do on your own, and sometimes even for FREE.
There are some fixed costs that everyone has to pay no matter how you decide to spend your Galápagos vacation. The following fees are usually not included in pre-booked cruise prices, so make sure to budget for these costs (per person) as well:
$20 tourist transit control card (per person)
Also known as the TCC in English or TCT in Spanish; issued by INGALA (cash only purchase when connecting in Guayaquil or Quito, unless pre-purchased online through the Ecuadorian government here.
Note: You will not receive a confirmation email which makes some people uneasy, but you may get to skip a lengthy airport line if you purchase in advance. Other travelers have noticed that some browsers warn that this website is not secure. It is run by the Ecuadorian government, so you can decide whether or not you are comfortable purchasing this online in advance
Get this documentation first – you need it to board your flight and to pay the national park fee once you arrive in the Galápagos! Keep this safely inside your passport for the duration of your trip. The price may be going up, along with national park fee, in 2020.
Your transit card is valid for a maximum of 60 days. You may have a received a 90-day tourism visa when landing in Ecuador, but strict migration laws limit you to 60 of these 90 days in the Galápagos.
Tip: Always check the visa requirements based upon your nationality. It is also always good practice to review your country’s current guide to the country you are visiting, including travel warnings and advice (if available). Though the protests have been resolved as of this writing, nationwide protests in Ecuador’s mainland persisted for some time recently in multiple urban centers, which could significantly change your plans and travel. It is always better to know what it will be like on the ground BEFORE you land as the political climate can change anywhere very quickly.
$100 national park fee (per person)
Cash only, collected upon landing at either Galápagos airport (GPS or SCY). You need to have your tourist transit card FIRST before paying this fee. Don’t get in the wrong (and inevitably) long line just to be asked to queue elsewhere first
There is talk that this fee will be going up to $200 per person soon. Yes, this is a lot of money, but this goes directly to the maintenance of the National Park. This fee is also intentionally cost-prohibitive to deter over-saturation of tourism on the islands.
Unlike other national parks abroad, you only have to pay the national park fee once! If you are visiting Kruger National Park in South Africa, however, you have to pay this fee for every DAY that you are in the park. Kind of a bargain once you know that, huh? $100 seems like a lot if you are just staying for 5 days ($20/day), but if you are staying for 2 weeks or more, you are paying less than $8 a day for the privilege of running around the Galápagos (largely unspoiled BECAUSE of this required fee!)
At the end of the day, there are tons of things to do for free on all of the inhabited islands and you may be able to do and see all of the things that make this location a part of your bucket list without spending hundreds or even thousands on day trips and cruises (to understand how quickly this can add up, it is not uncommon to pay $150-200 a day per person for a half-day or 3/4-day trip including a small meal).
In fact, many multi-day cruises and multi-day land-based trips (more on the differences between the two later) build in several free activities that you could do on your own and at your own pace. We were dumb-founded to see groups of cruising travelers being rushed through the Darwin Research Center. We were able to take in the animals and sights at our own speed, wade into the water among the feeding marine iguanas at the free public beach, and even re-visit for free.
I highly doubt that the innumerable cruising travelers know that they are paying top dollar to visit free (or inexpensive) attractions. It hardly seems justifiable to spend a minimum $200 avg. per person per day on a multi-day cruise if several days are filled with free activities that are better enjoyed alone anyway!