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

In this version of our “A Day Under…” series, your itinerary includes a self-paced tour of the Charles Darwin Research Station, animal spotting from the shore and piers near Academy Bay, a snorkel and beach stop with marine iguanas at Playa de la Estacion and a visit with the local (animal) fish purveyors at the open-air fish market on Santa Cruz.

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 B 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.

This itinerary is also great for a partial day on Santa Cruz, such as your arrival or departure day, which is why many cruises will include the Charles Darwin Research Station as a part of their itineraries (plus, it costs them nothing to bring you here for several hours). Feel free to stop by the Visitor Information Center for maps and additional information on ferries and events on the islands during your stay, as this is located just off Av. Charles Darwin, the main route you will be following for the day.

The Charles Darwin Research Station is just a short walk away from downtown Puerto Ayora along Av. Charles Darwin, the main drag during your stay on Isla Santa Cruz. Most cruises, land-based and otherwise, will include a stop here in your itinerary. Most people don’t know that they can visit here at their own pace for free, though! During our visit, we saw numerous tour groups with guides of varying helpfulness just fly past the enclosures and exhibits and we were glad to be able to visit at our own pace. Some of the signage at the enclosures is bilingual in Spanish and English, but there are some portions of the exhibits at the station that are only available in Spanish (there was a short documentary film without subtitles which was very informative, but I was glad to have an understanding of Spanish for this film and for the more detailed portions of the museum catalog information).

The Infamous Galápagos Land Tortoises – Multiple Species in One Place

While you may be able to get closer to the land tortoises roaming free on the private tortoise reserves of El Chato and Las Primicias when visiting the highlands, all of the animals on view at the Charles Darwin Research Station are behind low enclosure walls now. I’m 5’2″ and was able to see over them easily, so don’t worry that these are going to obstruct your view. While you may not have the walls between you on these ranches, you are still required to keep your distance, so we found that you could actually be as close (or closer) to the tortoises at the research station since the enclosure keeps you separated at closer range.

Unlike the ranches, you can see a number of different species of the Galápagos land tortoises all on one island, including those from Isabela and other islands you would have to specifically visit to see that particular island’s species. If you’re flying through with a tour group, you won’t be able to take in the differences between the different varieties, all on view in one place. If saving money, you might also have one of the lower class of guides and the depth of knowledge and their English language skills may be more limited. We definitely recommend coming through on your own. This is also a great place to see land iguanas which tend to be more elusive to spot on your own in the wild.

Now is a good time to talk about one of the most important national park rules – throughout your Galápagos visit that you must maintain a distance of 2 meters away from all wild animals. You will find that sometimes you will have to pass closer than you’d like at certain sites (we had to get awfully close to the sea lions lounging at the dry landing for Isla Bartolome). The 2 meter rule isn’t always possible when the animals curiously approach you as well, which was surprising, but you still need to be respectful and just let them continue on their way.

On some islands, the boobies are known to nest in the middle of the hiking trails because they are so unperturbed by human interaction. It is critical that you remain respectful of the animals and keep as much distance as possible. Yes, you will see people awfully close to touching animals on Instagram and the like, but know that you are putting that animal’s life at risk of infection or foreign exposure and possibly risking your own life in the process. Sea lions are very charming and quite adorable, but most wildlife incidents in the Galápagos are the result of sea lion interaction, particularly bull sea lions in the bachelor colonies, and not from sharks. The difference? People know to keep a respectful distance from sharks and many do not show sea lions and other animals the same respect.

There are also some indoor exhibits at the station which include information on ecological initiatives, paleological findings on the islands, archives of past researchers and studies that have taken place on the islands and other small exhibits spread throughout the station. There is a restaurant and bar to stop and re-fuel during your visit and several outlooks to stop for excellent birding and views. We recommend starting your day here before getting into the water so that you aren’t walking into any of the exhibits wet. You can certainly see most of the enclosures even if you’ve already taken a dip and it won’t take too long to dry out in the strong equatorial sun.

Marine Animal Spotting along Academy Bay

There are also small trails that lead to the edge of Academy Bay from the station that you can walk down; only a few are marked as private drives when we visited in 2016. Several of the employees recently off shift jumped into the water here for a dip and we saw numerous marine iguanas jump into the water and swim out to some abandoned wooden piers in the crystal blue water for a quick snack. There are small tide pools where we felt comfortable wading, but be sure to step around the Sally Lightfoot crabs on the rocks and keep your distance from any sunning marine iguanas. The currents in Academy Bay are said to be quite strong and swimming is not advised for tourists in the area. This was one of several times that we saw locals disregarding the warnings to not swim in certain areas, but they are individuals that probably have a long history with the waters here that tourists never can. Make sure that an area is safe for swimming before jumping in, even if you see others doing so. Most beaches and visitor sites have a brown sign near the trail that advise on which activities are permitted and suggested at each site.

As you head east on Av. Charles Darwin heading toward the Research Station, you will see a small path on your right-hand side that leads to Playa de la Estacion, a great off-the-path snorkel spot that you can visit for free at your own leisure. There is a mixed sand and volcanic rock beach lined with marine iguanas, Sally Lightfoot crabs and a number of birds. There isn’t much space to lay out and sun, but the water is shallow and clear and just beckons you in. Rent your own snorkel or save and bring your own. This is a great place to practice your underwater photography skills in the Galápagos light conditions, which can be harsh, before venturing out on more expensive day trips.

Watch your step for crabs when crossing the volcanic rock – the younger Sally Lightfoot crabs are dark and camouflage themselves quite effectively until they are more mature. There are mangroves separating a second sand beach which you can easily wade in (maybe only waist high) to reach the other shore. There are several tourist shops and little restaurants along the paved road that leads to the beach and the research station if you need to re-fuel or have an air conditioned rest. As mentioned above, we recommend passing the beach and visiting the research station first before going for a dip so that you can take in all of the indoor exhibits without being dripping wet.

Here you can buy prime cuts of freshly caught Galápagos fish alongside native residents, both human and animal. There are usually several sea lions begging for scraps, numerous great brown pelicans, frigate birds and even a great blue heron are all among the fishermen’s clientele. At night, there are usually crates of langostines for sale as well and small grills if you want for them to cook it off for you to enjoy al fresco by the market.

Several restaurants may also cook the fish for you at an additional cost, usually coming with sides, if you make friends with any of the staff. We aim to find accommodations with a shared or private kitchen access so that we can cook for ourselves at least once a day to cut down our budget costs even further. Seriously – the quality of fish is incredible and you can watch it come off the boat and be cleaned right in front of you. Alex haggled for the specific cut from the specific fish he wanted when we visited last time and we paid less than $7 for two generous prime cuts.

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 B: The two boxes to the far right are the Charles Darwin Research Station and the areas where you can view the waters of Academy Bay (but do not swim here). The middle box near the clear water is Playa de la Estacion, and if you continue west along Av. Charles Darwin, you will reach the Puerto Ayora Fish Market at the far left-hand side of the map along the main tourist drag.

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

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 optional cab fare (to end of paved road leading to Charles Darwin Research Station, 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 Charles Darwin Research Station. There will still be a short walk (or bike) from where the cab has to drop you before you reach the entrance to the research station

Not really an add-on if you are able to save on meal costs for a day!

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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