To read more about how to transfer to the city center based upon your arrival airport, check out our Landing in the Galápagos post for more details and specifics. Let’s focus on what to expect once you’ve checked into your land accommodations and are looking to explore the city center.
Getting around the City Centers
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). Taxis are pricey to get from the Itabaca Channel 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 that are accessible by land.
Travelers with Physical Limitations or Mobility Constraints
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.
Do be prepared, however, for lots of inconveniences, as ADA standards are not common outside of higher-end accommodations in the islands. Streets are paved, but often uneven, small steps and short flights of stairs are common entering even the most accessible restaurants, and areas outside the city centers tend to be hilly. I have also found that public bathrooms are usually set far back in restaurant layouts and some restaurants even have sandy beach areas in place of flooring which are less than ideal for those with mobility issues.
As someone who has used mobility aids, I believe that it is possible to navigate the cities with a cane, but crutches and wheelchairs will have a great deal of difficulty. There are some companies that work specifically with disabled travelers, but these companies usually charge top-dollar for the ease-of-mind their services provide. Do not hesitate to reach out if you have questions about disabled travel in the Galápagos (or elsewhere) – we want travel to accessible to everyone regardless of economic status and physical limitations and are glad to help provide any additional information that can help with your planning.
Most trips also require some physically challenging tasks that aren’t exactly advertised. For example, any boat travel (including cruises booked in advance) will require transfer by water taxi (usually an open, uncovered small vessel, such as a panga is used) due to the draft limitations of the ports. This only costs ~$1 per person, but those who haven’t spent a lot of time traveling by water may find this slightly daunting. Be sure to use the “Galápagos handshake” if a crew member offers their hand – grab behind the crew member’s wrist for extra stability. It is slightly awkward, but you will be grateful for the extra stability when transferring between two vessels rocking in the waves.
Also know that almost all day trips will involve physical activities of some sort – land hikes (either with elevation changes or over uneven volcanic surfaces), snorkeling or a combination of the two. As I build out guides for each day trip, I will include information on the accessibility level for different destinations. I honestly think you would be better for self-guided than booking with a tour agency in most cases if you are worried about physical limitations. Day trips and multi-day cruises all take place within the national park (comprising 97% of the islands), which means you are required to 1) be led by a trained and certified naturalist guide and 2) that you are able to keep up with the group. Even before my hip injury, I had a hard time keeping up with our tour guide on the Pinzon and Daphne tour we took in 2016, so I would also suggest notifying your guide that you may be lagging behind slightly so that they can adjust their pacing accordingly.
Though I will break down accessibility for individual trips in more detail in future posts, I would not recommend the ever-popular Bartolome Island trip for those with mobility issues, sports-induced asthma or breathing problems. There are over 300 steps required to get the iconic shot and the last 100 steps or so are just straight up the face of a volcano you are scaling. There are plenty of trips and numerous self-guided activities where you can better control your mobility and access, but make sure you know what level of physical activity you are in for no matter where you decide to go. No one wants to travel hours to a destination only to not be able to participate in the experience. Plus, knowing if you are making wet or dry landings is important when deciding how to dress and what type of footwear to bring for the day.
Independent Travel Between Islands
If you want to save money but also see a diverse range of islands and wildlife, consider a self-guided land tour like the one that we are planning. There are four inhabited islands (technically five if you count Baltra Island, though the only human presence is the airport) – San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela and Floreana. It is possible to travel to all four independently by boat and to three by inter-island flight (there is no airport on Floreana).
We will be staying on San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela during our stay. Though it is easy to reach San Cristobal and Isabela from Santa Cruz for a day trip, we are going to maximize our money and time by staying on this islands and doing other shorter (and less expensive) day trips that depart from Isabela and San Cristobal.
Visitor sites that fall within the national park (which is 97% of the islands) require a guide to visit, so we are planning to take day trips to see a diverse range of animals otherwise not found in the port towns. Though it is possible to find day trips marked up based upon popular demand (like Bartolomé), more expensive trips usually mean longer distances to cover and therefore higher fuel costs. By staying on the further removed inhabited islands (Isabela is the furthest west of inhabited islands, San Cristobal the furthest east), we plan to take shorter day trips with lower fuel input costs that depart from Isabela and San Cristobal. Do know that tour operators on Isabela are much more limited than on San Cristobal and Santa Cruz. Most multi-day tour operators, if you are going that route, are based in Puerto Ayora, the largest urban center, on Santa Cruz Island.
If you decide to stay on one of the other inhabited islands, you won’t have to take the same lengthy return trip back to home base on Santa Cruz. Here’s an example – for an Isabela day trip from Santa Cruz, expect 2-3 hours (depends on how rough the waters are) transit time one-way from Santa Cruz to Isabela, a few hours maximum seeing a few visitor sites and then 2-3 hours return back to Santa Cruz. If you just take the ferry and overnight in Isabela, instead, you can spread out the time between your departure crossing and return crossing, spend more time on the island you are wanting to see and explore the sites you are interested in for longer periods of time.
The islands marked in orange above are the inhabited islands where you can stay overnight – Isabela, Santa Cruz, Floreana and San Cristobal. Original map from Columbus Travel.
Day Trip versus Ferry Transfer – What’s the Cost Difference?
A day trip (Santa Cruz-Isabela) can run $150-$200 per person, but a ferry will cost only $25-$30 per person each way. We would even consider high-speed charter between the islands (starting at $30 per person each way), which will also cut down on the standard transfer time and allows more opportunity for spontaneous stops to observe encounters. Even if it is a little bit more than the public ferry, it is significantly less than a standard day tour.
The inter-island ferries tend to fill up, so be sure to buy you ticket the day before your departure. There are kiosks near the main port in Puerto Ayora that sell tickets to San Cristobal and to Isabela. Unlike with day tours, there isn’t money to be saved by waiting until the last minute to book your fare. Inter-island ferries only leave twice a day – once very early in the morning (6 or 7 PM depending on your destination) and once in the afternoon (1 or 2 PM depending on your destination). The tourism office in Puerto Ayora should have time tables for reference and will be able to direct you to resources to confirm the ferries and their departure times.
Be sure to arrive a full thirty (30) minutes before your departure so that you are not denied boarding. Due to the strict limits on produce and other items prohibited in the islands (see more about what is allowed and prohibited here), all baggage must be re-inspected before you board the ferry for inter-island transfer. Arriving early also allows for you to be further up in the queue and gives you more flexibility in choosing your seat on the boat. This is a definite advantage for those prone to sea sickness, so early birds are at an advantage.
Notes on Visiting Floreana
We are interested in staying on Floreana as well, but we are not depending on this destination in our upcoming trip for a couple of reasons:
The inter-island ferry from Santa Cruz only leaves on certain days of the week (we’ve read as infrequently as once or twice a week). There are reports that more regular ferries are available, but hosts on Floreana that we corresponded with stated that ferries do not run daily and we need to secure a ferry before securing a room
Sometimes there are not enough passengers to justify the ferry crossing and rides are cancelled regardless of hotel bookings you may have already completed for staying on Floreana
Accommodation options are more limited and may be a bit pricier on the island. We are making plans in case we get the opportunity to visit, but we aren’t depending on staying on this island to check all our boxes for this upcoming trip.
Floreana is supposed to be the slowest and is definitely the least developed and most pristine of the inhabited islands. Recent estimates put the population at under 300 and there are no major roads crossing the island, in stark contrast to San Cristobal and Santa Cruz. There are no tour agencies based on the island, but there are several visitor sites that do not require guides to see on your own without a group tour. I have also read that the invasive paper wasps are the worst on Floreana, so come prepared with lots of bug spray.
Floreana is definitely a cash-only island and it goes without saying that there won’t be any ATMs available. Whereas you may get away with using a credit card on Santa Cruz or San Cristobal (though with hefty service charges), be ready to pay in effectivo on Isabela and Floreana.
I have also read that there is not a grocery store on the Floreana since it is a much smaller port town than Isabela, San Cristobal and Santa Cruz Island. If you plan to save money by making meals yourself, be sure to buy your goods on Santa Cruz and give yourself a little extra time for bag inspection prior to your scheduled ferry departure time. I’ve read access to groceries is also limited on Isabela, but there are more choices for restaurants in Puerto Villamil and you should be able to stay on budget with a little shopping around. We will be sure to come back and update you on the best deals we find after our upcoming visit.
Every Minute is An Encounter Opportunity – Even in Transit
On a final note, one of the main complaints we have seen online regarding land-based and self-catered budget trips is the amount of time you spend on the water. First, we don’t see this as a disadvantage – this is valuable time to observe larger pelagic species and there is a high probability of incredible encounters while travelling over water. It is about the journey, not just the destination! I saw frigate birds diving into the water in a feeding frenzy on the way to Bartolome, schools of dolphins playing after snorkeling near Pinzon Island and colonies of sea lions on uninhabited islands we passed when returning to Santa Cruz.
Plus, by not traveling from and returning to Santa Cruz every night, you are cutting down on the ecological impact of your travels between the islands by limiting unnecessary and repetitive commutes. Yes, multi-day cruises are an even more efficient way of minimizing impact, but not everyone has the luxury of dropping $5K-$10K+ to offset their environmental impact. We believe in striking a balance between what is practical given our fiscal limitations and what is best for the natural sites we are visiting. There are plenty of practices on-board these cruises that are also far from eco-friendly, so just use your best judgment when determining how you can limit your footprint given your own unique constraints. I have to take taxis more than I would like to due to new physical limitations, but the point of visiting the Galápagos is not to shame others for not being able to afford (fiscally or physically) to travel with the least degree of impact.
Join us on our journey to enjoy all the natural world has to offer while we still can. Drop us a line if you’d like to partner with How to Afford Your Bucket List.