Feeling confident from the moment you land? Here’s a tip to maximize your money when staying on Santa Cruz, especially if you have a couple of friends with you to split a private taxi hire. If you are flying into Baltra Island and staying on Santa Cruz Island, plan to spend $20-25 per person (without any sightseeing) to get to your accommodations in Puerto Ayora (see our breakdown of the costs and options for transfers here).
With this hack, throw in an extra $20-$30 and you can visit numerous sites with a private hire taxi on your way into town. Plus, if these are sites you plan to see, you can save $60+ per person by visiting them self-guided instead of on a pre-purchased highland tour. In short, you can save up to $120 for two people, mitigate the cost of the most expensive leg of your Santa Cruz transfer, and maximize your time at three visitors sites with self-guided pacing.
If you are traveling with more than two people, you stand to save even more. Note: you can also do this trip on your own after you arrival once you have settled into Puerto Ayora, but know that a half-day hire will run you approximately $40. We have a cost-breakdown of all the itinerary variations below. We recommend this trip upon arrival because you are going to be spending about $25 per person fixed cost for the transfer without making any of these stops, so why not take your time and see some of the sites?
Maximize your Unavoidable Transfer Expenses
Once you are off the ferry from Baltra to Santa Cruz, you will be greeted by a number of taxi drivers, so ask around to find a taxi driver available for a half-day hire. Most flights arrive on Baltra Island after the morning day trips have already departed. Once you factor in approximately 2 hours to make the transfer to Puerto Ayora from Baltra airport, realize the day of your arrival may be mostly in transit and that your after-flight transfers on Santa Cruz will be the most expensive of any of the islands.
With this plan, you will stop at some of the main tourist attractions (all entry fees <$5) that you would otherwise pass on your way into Puerto Ayora and maximize your time and your money. If you have a later afternoon departure from Baltra Island, there is a chance that you can reverse this itinerary, but be prepared for a very early opening and make sure that you confirm when the tortoise reserves open on the day of your departure.
For less than $30 more than the taxi transfer into Puerto Ayora by itself, you can have the same driver stop at the highlands attractions you would be driving past anyway. Be sure to discuss your itinerary and timing with the driver you agree to hire, but you can stop at the following highland stops:
Los Gemelos (free), along the main road to Puerto Ayora. These twin sinkholes are surrounded by scalesia forest just along the main trans-island road to Puerto Ayora. They are overgrown but quite near the road, so ask your driver to stop at the trailhead for a quick visit. If you’re lucky, you may see some vibrant red Vermillion Flycatchers or even Short-Eared Owls at this stop
Reserva El Chato ($5) or Primicias ($5) Tortoise Reserves, both of which feature free-roaming Galápagos tortoises and lava tunnels for exploration on property; word has it that Primicias tunnels are longer, but otherwise the two experiences are quite similar. I suggest Primicias mostly because almost every guide and many cruises tend to recommend or visit El Chato, so you may face smaller crowds. It states online that the $5 admission to El Chato includes rubber boots and complimentary coffee or tea, but I am not sure if Primicias includes this as well with their newly raised admission fee.
Los Tuneles (<$5) before heading into Puerto Ayora. There are lava tunnels at both El Chato and Primicias, so it is up to you if you want to see more on the same trip. There are actually several “Los Tuneles,” some of which appear to be free and one of which appears to charge $5 per person (near Bellavista). Tip: You can also visit the Bellavista Los Tuneles when hiring a taxi to visit the more secluded Garrapatero Beach.
A Note for Bargain Hunters: this is basically the exact same highlands itinerary that numerous tour agencies in Puerto Ayora will try to sell you for $60+ for a half-day per person. I’m not exaggerating, either! Lonely Planet (whose guides I do love) links to tours following this exact same itinerary that will run you $80+ per person and depart from Puerto Ayora. That means you will still spend ~$30 per person to get to Puerto Ayora and then $80 per person to see these sites (when admission fees only total $10 and a shared taxi hire is <$50 for half a day).
Breaking Down the Costs
Let’s break down the total costs for two individuals travelling together. Do note that this is the maximum you should pay for all legs of your journey. You can save a bit more by going to Primicias and the free Los Tuneles instead and may be able to negotiate for a half-day cab hire for less than $50. You can also make the price per person even cheaper if you find a couple of friends to share your private hire tab with! The great thing about the Galápagos is that most everyone is heading to the same places, especially on Santa Cruz, so ask around and you may even find some fellow adventurers to share the cab with you at the airport or on the bus and ferry transfers before you arrive on Santa Cruz.
Option 1: $202 total / $101 pp – Transfer to Puerto Ayora + Highlands Tour booked with an agency
This is what most people will pay for these experiences
Breakdown for 2 people : $10 bus fare + $2 ferry fare + $30 cab + $160 booked tour fees
Option 2: $112 total/ $51 pp -Transfer to Puerto Ayora + self-guided Highlands Tour on a different day
Save ~$100 for two people
Breakdown for 2 people : $10 bus fare + $2 ferry fare + $30 cab to Puerto Ayora + <$50 1/2-day hire the day of self-guided tour + $10 admission to El Chato or Primicias + Los Gemelos (free) + <$10 admission to Los Tuneles
Our Pick: $82 total / $41 pp – Transfer to Puerto Ayora with self-guided Highlands Tour along the way
Save ~$120 for two people
Breakdown for 2 people : $10 bus fare + $2 ferry fare + <$50 1/2-day hire the day of self-guided tour and transfer to Puerto Ayora + <$10 admission to El Chato or Primicias + Los Gemelos (free) + <$10 admission to Los Tuneles
You can visit the same sites on your own, and at your own pace, for <$45 for two people without feeling rushed. This self-guided tour is also reversible! If you have a late afternoon departure from Baltra Island, you can also hire the half-day cab on your way to the dock at the Itabaca Channel. Do know that this would be a pretty early day, however, since you need plenty of time to catch the ferry and bus to the airport before checking your luggage and checking in for your departing flight. This would work will for those who are planning open-jaw flights, such as flying into San Cristobal, transferring to Santa Cruz by ferry and then departing from Baltra on their return flight.
Things to Consider with This Hack
Since you are hiring the driver for the half-day for you and your group, you should be fine leaving your luggage in the car before you check into your hotel. At the end of the day, this is always done at your own discretion and we recommend keeping any items of value on your person (why would you leave your camera packed up anyway?)
I would also recommend writing down (or discretely photographing) the license plate, vehicle number or other distinguishing features of your private hire’s taxi. Many locals use WhatsApp for communication, so you can also check if there’s a number to reach the driver at personally if you don’t see them upon wrapping up at each site. Yes, it may be overkill – but always better over-prepared than underprepared, especially if trying to save money. I find it hard to imagine a tourist ending up fully abandoned or lost in the Galápagos unless you are breaking the rules (e.g. visiting sites without guides or after hours) and most in the Galápagos are friendly to tourists since it is the foundation of the local economy, but better to air on the side of caution.
A Note on Taxis in the Galápagos
Taxis on the island are all small pick-up trucks and they almost all charge standard rates to different sites now (though you can occasionally bargain for half-day private hire rates). They are pricey to get from the canal into the city center for the initial transfer, but once you are in Puerto Ayora, the most a cab ride will set you back is $1.50 and most rides are $0.50 or $1 total regardless of the number of passengers. The <$30 you will spend to take a cab to Puerto Ayora will be the priciest taxi or transfer you will see anywhere on the islands and this is primarily because of the distance.
There is only one inter-island road connecting the Itabaca Channel dock to downtown Puerto Ayora and it is a somewhat lengthy 40 kilometers away. Fuel, like everything else on an island, is expensive, which drives up the price of this leg of your transfer. The docks and airports for arrivals on San Cristobal and on Isabela are within walking distance of the port city centers, so cabs are <$5 and you could even hoof it if you are willing to haul your luggage.
Once you are in the Puerto Ayora, Puerto Villamil or Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, expect to pay <$2 and under for all passengers for cabs anywhere within the a few kilometers of the city center. $30-50 is fairly standard for a half-day hire on most islands if you want to visit some of the more remote sites accessible by land.
The fact that cabs are Puerto Ayora and other island towns are so reasonable is actually one of the reasons why we are going back to the Galápagos next. I am still recovering from a pretty complicated hip injury despite being in the early 30s, so we want to have the safety net to be able to even afford to be driven everywhere and STILL remain within our budget.
We had considered returning to South Africa to visit our dear friends. The airfare would have been slightly more expensive to Cape Town (even catching a great deal), but we would be spending significantly less on the ground. I am usually the primary driver when we rent cars abroad (I’ve spent much more time driving on the other side of the road and am a bit more confident adapting to less than ideal conditions abroad), but my injury makes driving myself around difficult. That, coupled with the fact that a private car hire, particularly on a daily basis, is very reasonable in South Africa, but still not exactly kind to our budget. Knowing it will be less than $10 a day to be driven absolutely everywhere allows me rest easy even with a bum hip. Those are certainly not the prices we would be paying for multiple cab rides in other beach or island towns.
In the end, we recommend stopping at 2 or 3 of these sites while making your transfer so that you don’t pay to basically take the same trip again in a few days to see the highlands. We regret not being able to stop and photograph the wild tortoises making their way along the roadside and seeing Los Gemelos (we are novice birders and this is supposed to be a pretty rad spot!), so we will definitely be using this hack ourselves in February.