As you seek to tour the Galapagos on a budget, you'll discover the phrase "enchanted islands," because so much of what you'll see here is rare or impossible to find anywhere else on earth. The Galapagos Islands offer an opportunity to observe nature -- plant life, landscapes and animal life -- at levels you'll never forget.
Unfortunately, the distances and logistics of visiting this important area are daunting. You'll need a careful logistical strategy, as well as a reliable tour operator that specializes in Galopagos vacations. As with any popular area, there are a few unscrupulous operators who will try to sell you bogus tours.
Getting to the islands from mainland Ecuador usually involves a short flight from either Quito or Guayaquil. The distance of about 600 miles is covered in roughly 90 minutes by air to either the easternmost island of San Cristobal or a small former military base at Baltra. Keep in mind that the islands are one hour behind the time on the mainland.
From those points, many visitors embark on cruises lasting from 2-7 days. The cruise line arranges daily excursions and provides a cabin and meals. Note that many group tours do not include the cost of equipment rentals or the entry fee to the national park, which is $100 for adults and $50 for children under the age of 12.
Ecuadorian companies will arrange vacations that combine tours of the Andes (Quito) and the islands. Prices and the quality of the arrangements vary widely. Do some research. Determine tours in your price range and then examine reputation, length of time in business, complaints and specifics of the trip. Don't be afraid to choose a tour that is slightly more expensive than its competitors if it will provide a better experience or comes with a trusted recommendation.
A Few Tour Operators to Consider
Don't view the following list as endorsed vendors. The links are furnished only as starting points for your research. Be sure to read the fine print of all trip agreements before completing the transaction.
Ecoventura uses "expedition yachts" for their seven-day trips that leave San Cristobal on Sunday evenings. The ratio of guide to passenger is kept low, at about 10 to 1. Cruise rates start at about $3,600 double; you can charter the entire ship for a group of 20 or fewer for $72,000. Rates do not include airfare or entry fees to the national park.
SmarTours.com offers packages that combine a Quito layover and a visit to the markets in Otavalo with cruises in the islands. These 10 day trips run about $4,000/person, and there is a provision to receive a discount if you book well in advance of travel.
Klein Tours operate from Quito and offer a variety of trips ranging from just a few days to more than a week in duration. Prices increase with the complexity and duration of each tour.
Lindblad Galapagos Cruises offers 10-day itineraries from $4,700. Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic teamed up in 2004 to provide the tours through Sunstone Tours.
G Adventures sometimes has tours available. One recent budget trip started at $1,800 for six days (four days in the islands) with a beginning and ending stay in Quito.
A Few Cautions
There have been consumer complaints about fraudulent Galapagos tours over the years, so please be sure to check references and take seriously any pattern of complaints you might dig up against a given company. Notice the word "pattern" here: a few complaints are to be expected, but large numbers of people bringing up the same concerns might be worthy of more consideration.
Beware of an operator that wants to make the deal quickly. Ask yourself why someone would be in a hurry to close the deal. Reputable companies will let you take your time and think about your options.
In short, be sure you watch for signs of a travel scam as you would with any other planned tour.