A Day Under $75: Isla Santa Cruz – Version A

In this version of our “A Day Under…” guides, you will hike through a forest of towering opuntia cacti perfect for birding, watch marine iguanas enjoy the surf and sand of Playa Brava, snorkel or kayak in Playa Mansa, learn about renewable energy initiatives on the islands at el Centro de Informacion de Energia Renovable and leisurely stroll around the downtown-adjacent Laguna de las Ninfas.

Some of you may already be cringing at the thought of $75-$100 per day, but hear me out. As a budget backpacker during college, I totally understand the sentiment, but know that this is unbelievably cheaper than what most people you will encounter in the Galápagos are paying.

Even if you are cautious and frugal, your daily budget is going to be two or three times what you would expect to pay for comparable meals and accommodation on the South American mainland, so it is important to know that going in. When you consider that most cruises start at $2,000 and up for as little as 4 or 5 days, even $200 a day is quite the bargain.

It is not unheard of for superior and luxury class cruises to start at $5,000-$7,000+ for 8-10 day cruises, so $400-$700 per day per person is not at all uncommon for the average visitor before airfare. Using our “A Day Under…” guides, you can figure out how many days you can afford to stay on the islands and how to balance the higher costs of stays in the Galápagos with the encounters and experiences you are wanting to have. Instead of building out an itinerary day-by-day, use these guides to fill out extra days at the beginning or end of your cruises, have back-up plans if the day trip you are wanting is sold out or cancelled and maximize your time and money on the islands if you are building your own trip.

Setting Expectations

Though a Galápagos trip is technically an island vacation, this will not be the typical beach-based island vacation that you may be used to or have been imagining. In the Galápagos, some of the most beautiful and pristine beaches in the world are at your disposal, with an array of colors and textures ranging from powder white sands to deep iron-rich reds, earthy olivine to black sand and varieties of volcanic rock.

These beaches remain pristine, however, because they are remote and highly regulated by the national park. There are strict hours of access for the public sites that do not require guides, with all closing before 6 PM (or earlier) when the sun goes down daily in the islands. Most beaches and visitor sites require at least some time on the water to reach them due to lack of land infrastructure. Some of the most photographed places in the islands require lengthy trips via water to access and you will only have a couple of hours to visit the site at the most before continuing on with your journey. There are a couple places where you can stop to be a beach bum near the port cities, but there are not food and beverage services, so be sure to bring your own snacks and water and pack out everything that you bring with you.

Also, know that accommodations will probably be minimal unless you are shelling out big bucks. There are some luxury lodges and accommodations on the islands, but most hotels and hostales will be minimal and basic in nature with no frills Make sure to ask about the air conditioning and hot water access for your particular room, as these are not necessarily a given. Expect to pay more for a double bed (matrimonial) versus a room full of single beds. Wifi is available but is not pervasive and can be unreliable, so depending on an internet connection while here is not recommended.

Even if you shell out $100-$200+ a day for accommodation alone, the comparable bang for your buck will be much less than what you find elsewhere in Ecuador or mainland South America. Keep in mind that you are coming to the Galápagos primarily for the unspoiled access to animals and nature that is unrivaled in most of the world. If you are expecting an island stay more akin to the Caribbean or resort-style accommodations, know that this type of experience in the Galápagos is only available at the most exclusive of price points.

Now that we have that all out of the way…

Now that we have that out of the way, here’s our Version A of Isla Santa Cruz for under $75 a day. We like to set a cap for our budgets and understand the most we will pay for any given activities, but know that some prices may be negotiable and deals can be found for the savvy traveller. Our day guides plan for the worst-case scenario where you pay full-price for everything, but know that you can go even cheaper with a little effort! Be sure to check back for more “A Day Under…” posts for Isla Santa Cruz and other inhabited islands in the Galápagos coming soon.

Tortuga Bay is located within walking distance of Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz. While it is possible to walk to the trail head from downtown Puerto Ayora, I suggest spending the $1 shared cab cost to bring you to the trail head since it is a sunny 40 minute hike to the beach each way. Check in with the entry desk where they will ask for your name and passport number – this is just to keep track of visitors to the national park site and make sure that everyone departs the site by sundown.

The Trail to Tortuga Bay

The trail is paved with some elevation changes and is mostly uncovered, so make sure you have long sleeves and/or a hat for sun coverage and we suggest making the trip earlier in the day rather than latter. The cut off for starting the trip to the beach is 3 PM so that you have time for the hike out and back before the park closes at sundown. Make sure that you bring water with you and any snacks you may want for the day, as there are no vendors or goods to purchase once you enter the park. Keep a close eye on the opuntia cacti forest you are walking through on your hike, as this is a great opportunity to see a variety of finches that live on Isla Santa Cruz, as well as Galápagos mockingbirds and other bird species. We saw lots of lava lizards flitting on the stone edging on the path, so keep your eye out for encounters throughout the trip. There are a handful of small pergolas along the way to have a quick rest if needed.

There is a steep set of stairs leading to the trail head with slightly over-sized steps, so if this or the 40 minute hike would be a problem, consider the daily panga ride transfers that leave from the Puerto Ayora dock in the mornings. Check with the Visitor Information Center for details of the timing and returns which cost $10 per person each way.

Playa Brava y Playa Mansa

There are two beaches once you reach the end of the trail. The one right in front of you, Playa Brava, is not safe for swimming due to the currents, but you are likely to see marine iguanas and surfers braving the waves side-by-side here. There are several areas of volcanic rock along the beach where we spotted numerous marine iguanas, sea lions and even a lava gull.

As you continue along Playa Brava, you will see a series of tide pools on your left as you approach the mangroves which are great for hopping in with your snorkel. The water is brisk, but the clarity is great and numerous fish and marine creatures can be seen easily in these pools. We saw a great blue heron snatch a tiger snake eel out of this pool and fight with his lunch on the rocks right off of Playa Brava during our visit in 2016. This is also a great chance to see marine iguanas make their way through the surf and the sand, as opposed to the warmer volcanic rock you see them on more commonly.

Once you have passed the tide pools, turn right to continue to Playa Mansa, which is a brackish lagoon with calm waters where you can lay out on the sand or go for a dip. We also recommend walking along the mangroves where we saw numerous bird species, including a yellow-crested striated heron, a striated heron stalking its prey, another great blue heron feeding and several small white-tip sharks feeding in the mangroves within spitting distance of the shore.

The clarity is a lot hazier than what you will see in most other visitor sites, but the trade-off is that the waters are much calmer. You can get lucky with the clarity depending on whether you visit at high or low tide. We actually plan to make at least two trips to Tortuga Bay this time – one early in the morning and one in late afternoon, trying to visit at both high and low tides to maximize the variety of species we will see.

There is also a kayak rental operation at Playa Mansa, where you can go out further into the bay and explore the mangroves and white-tipped sharks at closer distance. Don’t worry – white tips primarily eat plankton and small fish and are not considered a threat to humans.

Mirador and the Playa Penisula Land Trail

Before you make the turn to Playa Mansa, there is also an iguana trail that you can follow to the left. There is a mirador looking out over the bay which is great for pictures, and then another beautiful opuntia cactus forest that looks like you’ve stepped onto another planet. Be sure not to venture off the worn path, as this can damage the endemic species.

The marine iguanas can also be seen here among the colorful Galápagos carpet weed and brave visitors can walk near the cliff edges where the trail transitions into volcanic rock and look down the sheer drop into the bay. We saw numerous Sally lightfoot crabs in various life stages along the rocks here, as well as more adolescent white-tip sharks near the rock walls. It is also not uncommon to see small rays in Playa Mansa, though we did not notice any during our visit.

After taking in the two beaches, mangroves, mirador and land trail, head back to Puerto Ayora. We recommend walking back which gives you a chance to stop at two other free sites along the way.

We’ve read reviews online that people are disappointed in Tortuga Bay for a number of reasons. 1) They weren’t prepared for the hike, 2) they did not bring ample snacks or water, 3) they did not know they could swim at Playa Mansa, or 4) they tried to do the entire visit in two hours or less and did not have time to enjoy any of the sites or slow now to observe any animals in their natural habitat. I was infinitely entertained by watching the marine iguanas bob in the rough surf among currents too strong to be advisable for humans to enter and this was some of the best birding we had during our trip, so don’t underestimate this site simply because of the negative response bias of TripAdvisor postings.

This Center is part of the “Zero Fossil Fuels for Galapagos” initiative and has an information room (show room), reading and resting areas, interactive modules and cinema, which are also available for use as a convention center for Local institutions and private enterprise. Most of the exhibits are in Spanish, but the small exhibits are worth a stop to see the eco-initiatives that are taking place in the Galápagos. There were instant tattoos and stickers and several child-friendly exhibits, as well as more research and scientific-focused information for adults interesting in ecological work in the islands.

I think showing tourist support for these types of exhibits (even if you don’t read Spanish) is important for the community, as it helps them build support for their causes. By simply walking in the door, you are contributing to their admission counts and signalling to them and the Galápagos government that these issues are important to us as tourists and visitors.

As you near the Puerto Ayora port, this free site is located on Av. Juan Montalvo. It is easily accessible from the main docks at Puerto Ayora to fit into your schedule on another day as well. It is named for the bubbles that start to rise at night fall and is well lit for night time marine viewing as well if you are patient. There are reports that parts of the pier and boardwalk may be under repair, but we will update this post with our experiences in our upcoming visit.

Here, you can see a number of bird species living among all four types of mangrove. Sea lions, fish and even sometimes turtles are spotted in the water, so keep an eye out for these along with the great birding opportunities. You now have a leisurely walk to dinner or back to your accommodations for a self-catered meal after a long day of slowly taking in the numerous free sites at your disposal.

Except for accommodations and food, it is possible to do this entire day without spending a dime. As mentioned above, you can also come here at different times of day, arriving for sunrise or staying close to dusk, or plan to visit at both high and low tides to try to maximize the diversity of species that you spot.

Map of Version A: The bottom three boxes show the trailhead on Av. Charles Binford, Playa Mansa at the far west end and the land trail on Playa Penisula. The road going northeast is Av. Charles Binford, which you can follow to the red pin, which is the Centro de Informacion de Energia Renovable near your final stop, Laguna de las Ninfas.

What’s the Final Cost of Isla Santa Cruz – Version A?

Here’s the breakdown of the costs for this trip if you still end up on the high end of your accommodation and food budget for the day:

$30 accommodations + $25 food + $2 cab fare (to Tortuga Bay, return fare to accommodations) + $15 snorkel and mask rental (we suggest bringing your own)

If you bring your own snorkel, this full day worth of activities will only cost you $2 in cab fare to and from the Tortuga Bay trail head!

Add kayak rental: Depending on length of rental and if you bring your own snorkel; $10/hr per person kayak rental at Playa Mansa

Skip hike one-way: $10 per person each way water transfer to Playa Brava replacing free hike

Surf Add-On: ~$25 per person for daily surfboard rental to surf at Playa Brava + extra $1 cab fare allowance to cut down on distance hauling your board. Note: you will still have to carry your board with you for the approx. 40 minute hike each way to reach the beach

What Does This Sample Budget Include?

Let’s set the ground rules. For our “A Day Under…” posts, the following costs are built in:

$30 for accommodation – per person, per day. You can easily find a private room or airBNB for $40 for two, so this is on the high end if you are travelling with a companion and are willing to have fairly simple accommodations. You could also plan for slightly posher accommodations at $60 a day for you and your companion and this would not push your budget over the edge.

$25 for meals – per person, per day. There are plenty of restaurants offering a menu del dia with a set two- or three-course meal for $4-$8. If you are a vegetarian, be willing to budget more for your meals, because most deals will include some sort of stock-based soup and generally a meat-based main dish. This would allow up to $15-$20 for dinner which is very do-able, especially if you venture to the kioskos or off the main tourist drags. Our favorite deal usually runs about $15 for two (based upon weight) – a full langostine split between us that we pick out ourselves, served with rice and beans on the side for each. You can also save more by cooking for yourself if your accommodations have a shared kitchen available and by substituting some small meals, such as breakfast, with protein bars or the like that you pack in your checked bag. Some more expensive tours will also include snacks and a lunch, so do know that you may save a little money on your meal budget for the day if you opt for more expensive day tours. The quality of this food, however, will vary and will primarily be fish-based in nature, as the tour guides usually prepare dishes from fresh catches to provide to day trip tourists.

Does not include an alcohol budget or other fixed expenses (airfare and park entry fees). Alcohol is heavily taxed, as is common on most islands worldwide. Be prepared to spend about $5-8 for a large, basic pilsner and about $8 for a cocktail outside of happy hour if ordering while you dine. These costs can add up fast, and even faster if you are on a multi-day cruise where the prices will be significantly marked up even further. Also keep in mind that alcohol consumption has a direct effect on sea sickness for most individuals, so if you do not have sturdy sea legs, drink with extreme caution. Most day trips and ferries leave before sunrise so that you arrive at your destination before the sun is at its highest and no one wants to be hungover for their 6 AM bus or dock call. It is easy to pick up a beer at a market or bodega if you want something cheap to sip on when dining out at the kioskos.

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