A Day Under $100: Isla Santa Cruz – Version C

In this version of our “A Day Under…” series, your itinerary includes a visit into the underground Tuneles near Bellavista, a stop at a private farm in the highlands and a visit to the remote Playa de Garrapatero, only accessible by private taxi hire.

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 C of Isla Santa Cruz for under $100 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 a possible extension of the self-guided highlands tour if you opt for a full-day taxi hire instead of a half-day taxi hire. The price for this day’s itinerary can be significantly less if you are able to share the cab hire cost with more than one traveler (up to four in one vehicle). You can do this itinerary in either direction – your choice. We will be going to the lava tunnels first to get a little mucky and clean off at the beach afterwards. You can easily do this itinerary in reverse as well.

There are lava tunnels throughout Santa Cruz and many different private reserves and farms have access to their own tunnels. They vary in size and upkeep and you should plan to get muddy. Most recommend bringing a torch or headlamp to get the most out of your visit. These lava tunnels are an independent site, not combined with the tortoise reserves where most visitors to the islands get their lava tunnel fix. Just like the private tortoise reserves, Los Tuneles is not one of the Galapagos visitor sites that requires a guide to visit, so you are free to explore at your own pace.

Once you have negotiated a half-day taxi hire, make sure that they know you want to visit Los Tuneles near Bellavista and keep an eye out for the sign – it is visible from the main road. We would also suggest bringing a windbreaker or lightweight rain jacket to protect your clothing.

Even though taxi hire rates are fairly standard in the islands, do make sure that you choose a driver you trust and discretely note the license number if you are agreeing to a private hour for more than one stop. Also make sure that they understand your itinerary – in fact, these drivers can be keep to accessing numerous farms and sites further away from Puerto Ayora that don’t have the big-budget marketing dollars or an online presence.

So what are these lava tunnels all about?

One thing that will become abundantly clear once you arrive in the Galapagos is how active the volcanic activity in the area has been, even in recent geological history. You are walking deep in the geological history of Isla Santa Cruz when you enter these hidden underground caverns formed by lava flow. As the lava continued to flow, a hard outer crust is formed which makes up the ceiling and walls of the lava tunnels leave behind these gorgeous cavities for you to explore. It is one thing to observe all the different volcanic formations and fields as you explore the islands and an entirely different experience to be in the depths of the island itself looking at the ancient geological forces at work.

In fact, underground structures such as these are a critical source of something unexpected for the population on Santa Cruz: water! A large portion of the municipal fresh water sourcing comes from the crevices and walls of underground structures such as these. Partially due to the volcanic caverns and tunnels and partially due to the extremely permeable soil on the island, clean water is gathered from underground sources and wells. Most of the water needed to support the local and tourist populations has to be brought in since the population demands much more water than is accessible in this manner and through rainfall collection. When you are spending so much time in the water and on boats, it is easy to forget that fresh water is not as easy to come by, even for those that live on the islands year-round.

Accessibility to Los Tuneles and other Lava Tunnels on Santa Cruz

Growing up in central Texas, I have been visiting limestone caverns since I was a kid. Unlike larger cavern systems, however, the tunnels are largely level without major elevation changes. Though the stairs down into the Lava Tunnels are quite steep, the hike once you are in the tunnels is fairly level and easy. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes, though, and be prepared to navigate damp stairs and surfaces if you haven’t explored caves or caverns in the past.

It is also important to know that some tunnels make require bending over to pass through tight spaces. I have read reports that portions of the tortoise reserve tunnels may require a brief time crawling on hands and knees to pass through a choke point in the tunnels. We plan on exploring numerous lava tunnels (at least three different locations) during our trip, so we will update this entry with more information on the most and least accessible of the sites once we have seen for ourselves!

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.

We have not yet visited this farm, but we are looking forward to stopping here to explore and grab some baked goods on our way to Garrapatero Beach since there won’t be any services, food or drinks available there at the beach. We actually found this cute little working family farm on Instagram.

We also recommend asking locals and your taxi driver if they have any farms that they would recommend en route to your destination every day. Many of these farms don’t have the infrastructure to have web pages and maintain an online presence, but many welcome visitors with a range of activities.

Highland View is a fourth-generation family farm turned eco-lodge which offers a farm walk through the crater on their property and access to the tunnels located beneath the farm. There are a number of non-endemic species (flora and fauna) at the farm, but this is a great opportunity to see how native Galapageños on the island live.

They serve organic coffee, tea, fresh juice and cold beer, as well as having a bakery and small restaurant on site. Like many tourist sites throughout South America, there is a magic swing here for a photo opp and a beautiful mirador looking out toward the ocean. We plan to buy a few baked goods to keep on us for lunch before we head to Garrapatero Beach.

Other places we plan to stop at en route: El Trapiche Ecologico Galapagos, another eco-tourism farm with a focus on organic products, coffee and chocolates; Oh My God! Coffee in Bellavista, great coffees, jugo and free smoothies with another location on Av. Darwin in Puerto Ayora; Majitos Cupcakes in Bellavista – all located along Via Playa el Garrapatero

This remote cove on the eastern edge of Santa Cruz Island is a great place for a lazy beach day. Garrapatero is definitely the best place on Santa Cruz to get your traditional white sand beach fix in and there’s a reason why it is so popular among locals. First, there is much less tourist traffic than at Tortuga Bay since you have to hire a taxi in order to visit Garrapatero as it is much further removed from the bustling downtown of Puerto Ayora.

Secondly, many people who visit Tortuga Bay for its white sand beaches are also disappointed when they find out that you can’t swim at Playa Brava due to the strong currents – it only safe to swim in the murkier waters of Playa Mansa around the bend. Tortuga Bay is still a must-visit, but if you are imagining something closer to an idyllic beach to lounge, swim and sun, Garrapatero is your destination.

What wildlife might I see at Garrapatero Beach?

Even if you are having just planning to have a beach day, you will inevitably run into wildlife anywhere you visit in the islands. The fact that Garrapatero is so remote also means that it is fairly pristine and you have a chance to see the native wildlife without as much foot traffic as at Tortuga Bay and without the rush of visiting the more-regulated visitor sites that require a naturalist guide.

Garrapatero Beach is a pristine white beach located along the Garrapatero Cove where it is common to see marine iguanas and shore birds. It is only a short walk to a brackish lagoon nearby, where you may get the chance to see Galapagos flamingos, stilts, plovers and pintails. We will be visiting Garrapatero for the first time in February, so we will report back more on what animals we see there. There also appears to be some kind of kayak options to tour the cove, so we will let you know what we find out about access to this service once we are on the ground.

Just to reiterate, be sure to wear plenty of sunblock for the unforgiving equatorial sun – do not underestimate how quickly you will burn when you are visiting the islands. Also be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks if you plan to stay a while and pack out all of your trash. There is a new rule in the islands that disposable plastics are prohibited, so be sure to pack a reusable water bottle, some camp utensils and a reusable bag to keep your trash in when packing out. We plan to bring an extra bag to pick up any trash or plastic we may see at each site as well – we encourage you to leave the islands in better condition than you found them in!

Map of Version C: Garrapatero Beach is at the far right hand side of the map and Puerto Ayora is at the bottom lefthand side of the map, where most tourist accommodation is located. There is one main E-W road, Via Playa el Garrapatero, on which both Highland View Galapagos and El Trapiche Ecologico Galapagos are located. The two green flags on the far lefthand side are the coffee shops and bakeries we plan to visit in Bellavista, the second largest city in Santa Cruz and where many locals call home. The lava tunnels are also located near these cluster at Bellavista.

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

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 + $10 baked goods and coffee at eco-tourism stops + $20 per person ($40 half-day cab hire for up to 4 people) + $10 snorkel and mask rental (we suggest bringing your own) + $5 visit to Bellavista Los Tuneles

If you have more than one person to split the taxi hire with, you can save even more money on this itinerary. You can also opt to skip the Bellavista Tunnels and only visit the free tunnels located on site at the eco-tourism farms you choose to visit – choose your own adventure!

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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