Galapagos Islands

Galapagos Itinerary

Backpacking the Galapagos Islands

Duration: at least one week

Budget: $125 per day

A visit to the Galapagos Islands with its unique inhabitants has long been on our bucket list. The volcanic archipelago is known for its unique wildlife, including sea lions, lizards, and giant tortoises. The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean, about 1000 kilometers from the Ecuadorian mainland. The islands are renowned for their unique and diverse wildlife, which was studied by Charles Darwin during his famous voyage on the Beagle.

Imagine a place where sea lions and lizards are just hanging out in the village like it’s the most normal thing to do. That’s the Galapagos Islands for you! We were blown away after our first minutes.

Shortly after purchasing our flights, we were getting a little worried: the Galapagos islands are supposedly one of the most expensive destinations in South America! There was no way we would be able to afford a Galapagos cruise, so we decided to backpack the islands. Although most of the islands are uninhabited and can only be visited by cruise ship, there are three populated islands (San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, and Isabela) where you can backpack and explore on your own. This article will share tips on traveling the Galapagos Islands without a cruise.

San Cristobal- the island of the sea lions

San Christobal mesmerized us within the first minutes of discovering the town. The closer you get to the Malecon, the more sea lions you’ll see! It’s incredible how they seamlessly integrate into the city. You won’t see stray dogs; instead, you’ll spot sea lions casually hanging out on benches, in front of houses, or even in bathrooms. We couldn’t believe our eyes!

San Cristobal offers plenty of things to do, and we could have spent much more time there! Despite the cheaper things to discover on your own, plenty of tour operators offer 360-degree tours, dive excursions, and day trips to nearby islands.

Best places to stay in San Cristobal

Cavalerio church in Leon, Nicaragua
Granada, Nicaragua: market

San Cristobal | La Galapaguera Tortoise Habitat

It was our first time to see giant turtles and one of the main reasons to visit the Galapagos islands! The hundreds of year-old tortoises are free to roam around the area as they please, so you must keep your eyes open. We were lucky to arrive late (as always) around lunchtime, and it seemed like the tortoises were having lunch, too! We were lucky and saw about 20 giant tortoises as they all came together to one feeding spot! It’s incredible to imagine how old they are, how many things they’ve seen, and how they go on with their lives. We would have loved to interview one of those giants about their life perspectives! The center is also a breeding center, so we also got to see babies and mid-agers (younger than 100 years).

San Cristobal | Playa Puerto Chino

This picturesque beach, located about 30 km from the main settlement, is the perfect spot to relax after visiting the turtle conversation center. However, it’s not easy to get there. You can either go there by bike (it’s challenging), on tour or rent a taxi. Sadly, we couldn’t find any buses. So we took the most accessible and cheapest option. Our taxi driver dropped us off at the turtle conversation center, and we agreed he’d pick us up at Playa Puerto Chino in the late afternoon.

You’ll reach the secluded beach after a walk of about 10 minutes. The bay is home to sea lions, and we had the beach entirely to ourselves when we went. It was terrific to observe sea lions in their natural environment.

Helpful tip: There are no restaurants or any other facilities. So bring your food and drinks if you are without a tour. We ended up quite hungry. Also, bring bug spray because there are some horseflies around. They’ll only bother you on the way to or from the beach.

Leon, Nicaragua: barrio Sutiavia
Granada, Nicaragua: dani in front of church

San Cristobal |Playa Mann

Our favorite beach on Cristobal! Why? We loved hanging out amongst the many sea lions who made this stretch of beach their home. Also, it’s the only beach we could find offering tasty, affordable, authentic food! It was the first beach we had discovered, and we loved watching the sunset from there. It’s a spot also visited by locals, especially during sunset hours. It was lovely to hang out and make new friends.

Santa Cruz | Turtles and touristic hub

Since we only figured out that it was easy to hop between the islands, our trip to Santa Cruz was spontaneous and unplanned. We were going to skip Santa Cruz for Isabella when a tour operator offered us a 360-degree tour for as little as 30$ each. He told us he had only two Bolivians on that tour and wanted to fill it up. So even though we got to spend very little time on the island, we got a good overview of what it had to offer.

Santa Cruz is, without a doubt, the touristic center of the Islands. The island is conveniently located right between Isla Isabella and San Cristobal. On the one hand, the tour gave us a good overview, but to be honest, we didn’t like running from one site to the other.

Best places to stay in Santa Cruz

Granada, Nicaragua: Lauri in Parque Colon
Granada, Nicaragua: Lauri in Parque Colon

Santa Cruz |El Chato tortoise center

Our favorite thing to do in Santa Cruz was by far the visit to the El Chato, the giant tortoise center! We didn’t spot as many as in San Cristobal, but we could see them from an even shorter distance, and they are even bigger!

Santa Cruz |Las Grietas

On our tour, we also visited Las Grietas, a water tunnel that offers excellent snorkeling. You must hire a water taxi or walk about 20 minutes from the main pier to get there. It gets pretty crowded, though, with many people jumping and taking pictures. The walk there through unique fauna was more our thing.

Granada, Nicaragua: Lauri in Parque Colon
Granada, Nicaragua: Lauri in Parque Colon

Santa Cruz |Tortuga Bay

Tortuga Bay is one of our favorite places in the Galapagos. It’s a beautiful, secluded beach perfect for a relaxing day. It is split into two parts: the angry (brava) beach and the calm (mansa) beach.

How to get to Tortuga Bay

The Tortuga Bay trailhead is located at the end of Charles Binford Avenue, a few blocks behind the main tourist dock area close to Las Ninfas and hotel Fiesta. Just follow the path for about a mile and a half (30-45 minutes from the trailhead) to arrive. The trail is paved, flat, and easy, leading through an old lava field colonized by Palo Santo trees and Opuntia cacti. It is a pleasant walk, accompanied by Darwin’s Finches and Galapagos Mockingbirds flitting between the trees and the melodic tunes of Yellow Warblers. Don’t forget to look to the ground, where red-throated lava lizards scurry around the dry brush habitat. When you arrive at Tortuga Bay, you’ll be greeted by white sand beaches and turquoise waters. It’s truly a paradise!

 You can also reach Tortuga Bay by boat. The journey takes about 20 minutes and costs around US$10 per person. Boat departure times vary, so checking at the dock for information before setting off is advisable.

Galapagos 65

Santa Cruz|Playa Brava

Strong currents & great surf

As you reach the end of the trail arriving at Tortuga Bay, your first sight of white sand will be Playa Brava. The water currents here are powerful and most suitable for surfing. However, this is a strictly no-swimming zone as it can be dangerous.

Galapagos 72

Santa Cruz |Playa Mansa

Calm waters & wildlife

Save your swimming for Mansa Beach, where the water is crystal clear and much calmer. Tortuga Bay is teeming with marine life, such as iguanas, crabs, turtles, and many different types of birds. It truly is a nature lover’s paradise!

Isla Isabella - lizards and surfing

Isla Isabella is the least populated and least developed of the three islands we visited. As soon as we got off the boat, lizards greeted us. Casually hanging out, they weren’t bothered by passengers getting off the ship and walking past them. They look like miniature dinosaurs.

The island consists of one main settlement comprising charming one-story houses. You can find several restaurants and bars along the beach. Isla Isabella felt authentic. It’s one of those places where tourists and locals easily meet and get to know each other. The island is unpretentious and offers plenty of things to do.

Best places to stay on Isla Isabela

Granada, Nicaragua: Lauri in Parque Colon

Surfing on Isla Isabella

A local friend told us that there is excellent surfing on the island. It’s one of the things tourists and locals love to do on the island. So we rented a surfboard for a day and had a fantastic time. The waves were great, and the water was crystal clear. We even saw some turtles while we were surfing!

Isla Isabela|Hike Sierra Negra and Volcán Chico

Hiking Sierra Negra is one of the best ways to experience the diverse landscapes of the Galapagos Islands. Although you could be forgiven for assuming that Volcán Chico is a volcano in its own right, it is just part of Sierra Negra and is considered to be a parasitic cone. In simple terms, this means it is another way for lava to exit the central volcano. Hiking Volcán Chico and Sierra Negra allow you to see two very different sides of the same coin. While Sierra Negra is primarily bald with very little vegetation, Volcán Chico is covered in lush greenery. The only way to access Volcán Chico and Sierra Negra is via guided tour. Tourists are not allowed to visit the area without a guide, and the Galapagos authorities are very strict about this.

The hike is open all year round, assuming the volcano is not in a period of high activity. During these times, Sierra Negra tours will be postponed until the danger passes. This can take weeks or even months. Hiking Sierra Negra is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see one of the most unique ecosystems on Earth.

Hiking the volcano takes around 5-6 hours from start to finish. Even though the trail’s incline is gradual, the hike can be strenuous for some due to the distance and heat of the equatorial sun. But trust us, the views are worth it! Once you reach the crater’s edge, you’ll be rewarded with an incredible panorama of Isabela Island and a sense of the scale of the eruption that created Sierra Negra. On a clear day, you can even see nearby Fernandina Island.

During periods of high activity, tours will be postponed until it’s safe to visit again.

Isla Isabela|Snorkeling Las Tuneles

Snorkeling Las Tuneles was by far one of our most unforgettable snorkeling trips ever! The boat ride itself already promised adventure. However, since the sea was rough this day, our captain had to undergo some quite thrilling maneuvers till we entered the area of las Tuneles. The collapsed lava tunnels are home to white-tipped sharks, turtles, giant pirate fish, and many other sea creatures. We even saw some seahorses in the wild! It was utterly unique! However, keep in mind that the Pacific is sometimes cold and rough. Also though we were wearing neoprene suits, we were still freezing. On our way back, we saw penguins, manta rays, and dolphins as they accompanied our boat. It was incredible! To top it all off, we even saw giant turtles in a romantic mood.

Popular tours in the Galapagos islands

Get ready to travel ECUADOR

How to backpack Galapagos islands

Backpacking the Galapagos Islands is possible! However, it’s not as easy as other South American destinations or Ecuador’s mainland. This is even truer if you are trying to travel spontaneously without much planning. You can only visit the three inhabited islands without a cruise.

San Cristobal

San Cristobal is also the administrative capital of the archipelago.

Animals on San Cristobal: sea lions, giant turtles

Santa Cruz

The island is not only the touristic hub but also the most lively city in the whole Galapagos archipelago.

Animals on Santa Cruz: sea lions, giant turtles

Isla Isabela

This island almost felt magical to us. Spend some days and sit down and watch the wild biological diversity.

Animals on Isla Isabella: sea lions, Lizards, penguins, manta rays, sharks

Wildlife on the Galapagos Islands

Maybe most importantly: Many species are endemic to one island, which means you’ll only find them in one place or island. Hence you won’t find all the animals you want to see in one place. This makes traveling between the islands necessary.

How to get there and away

Fly into San Cristobal and fly out from Santa Cruz! This will save you time, money, and a full day on a boat. The touristic infrastructure is well developed on the islands, and you’ll find everything but the internet there.


How to visit the Galapagos Islands without a cruise?

Traveling between the three inhabited islands is easy. However, a few things to remember: Buy your tickets a day in advance to be sure. Secondly, the boat rides can be pretty rough! Bring sea sickness medicine and a plastic bag, and don’t eat or drink too much before you get on! The price is fixed at $30 per ride and takes about two hours from San Cristobal to Santa Cruz and another two hours from Santa Cruz to Isla Isabella. Lastly, remember that it’s not always possible to travel from San Cristobal to Isabella in one day.

How high are the fees for the Galapagos Islands?

Before arriving at the Galapagos Islands, be prepared to pay $20 for a transit control card and $100 or even $140 if you stay longer than two weeks for National Park Fees. Both fees have to be paid in advance! However, it’s easy to do once you arrive at Quito or Guayaquil airport.

Best time to travel the Galapagos Islands?

The archipelago is located along the equator, yet the climate is not typically tropical. However, in December, the water was too cold to swim.

From January to May: It’s hot with higher rainfalls

June to November: The weather is cooler. Marine life is very active.

Safety on Galapagos islands

You are gravely mistaken if you think of the Galapagos islands as only a natural paradise. On the contrary, the islands are on the cocaine smuggling route. Lately, even US forces have been deployed. Nonetheless, the islands are entirely safe for visitors.

Tap water

You can not drink tap water on the Galapagos islands. So make sure to bring your Lifestraw Go to enjoy cool water while avoiding having to buy plastic bottles.

Challenges for the conscious traveler

Animal Encounters: Even though it is incredibly tempting to touch and come up close with the wildlife, keep your distance and do not ever touch or feed them!

Sunscreen: Protect the unique ecosystem and be extra careful to use reef-friendly sunscreens.

tanzania travel Zanzibar beaches

Packing List Ecuador

You’re packing your bags for a trip to Ecuador – congratulations! You’re about to embark on an amazing journey into one of the most biodiverse countries in the world.

Wondering what to pack? Check out our packing list to prepare for all Ecuador has to offer. You’ll find anything from clothing to travel gadgets and eco-friendly toiletries!

Traveling Ecuador?

Ecuador Itinerary

Places to visit in Ecuador

Dive into a land of contrasts!