Traveling to The Galapagos Islands doesn’t have to be expensive. Hostal and hotel rooms are no more expensive than anywhere else. You can get a bed from $10 a night per person and a three-course meal from $4 per person. The islands are friendly, safe and laid-back and teaming with wildlife. You can visit the islands entirely on your own. Full disclosure: we combined these free experiences with a 60%-off last-minute, short cruise as a visit to the Galapagos remains a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience and we wanted to get the most of it.
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Our favorite, free activities, include some of all-time-trip-favorites:
1. On Isabela, there is a beautiful walk to the turtle breeding center. On the way you can see many flamingos and marine iguanas. The breeding center itself is worthwhile too. Just make sure you don’t come during the siesta because you will miss the hatchlings.
Free Galapagos activity: marine iguana swimming on Isabela
2. On Isabela, take a swim near the harbor. Next to the pier, there is a small beach. Just let yourself float towards the boat. There are almost always penguins around. I got lucky and four of them came to float with me. They played with my camera and my fins. It was my top wildlife encounter of the entire trip, and 100% free. Video coming soon.
3. There are turtle breeding centers on Santa Cruz and Isabela. When we were there in June 2016 the Santa Cruz breeding center was under renovation and you could not see hatchlings, so Isabela was a better experience.
4. For some evening fun, head over to the pink house at the end of the beach; Casa Rosita has a lively happy hour from 5 pm to 7 pm. Old and young will enjoy balancing on the slackline here and watching locals perform their stunts. We treated ourselves to delicious brownies across the street at the Boobie Trap cafe afterward.
5. On your way to the ‘Wall of Tears’ (built by convicts during the early days of Galapagos as a penal colony) there are many potential stops. Our favorite was Playa Amor, a swallow tide pool with clear water and small wishes for an idyllic swim.
6. On San Cristobal, there are several opportunities to swim with sea lions for free. They are very touchy-feely and like to come close to you. They will swim around you, at you, and are generally having a great time. It’s a thrilling experience. There are always sea lions ready for action at Playa Mann near downtown though currents there can be strong. If you go to the two beaches past the interpretation center (blanking on the names), there will be more waiting. We also swam with sea lions on our day trip to Punta Pitt. Video coming soon.
7. Make sure to stop by the fish market in Santa Cruz on the main drag, Darwin road. Pelicans and sea lions are always waiting there for scraps of fish, which is a funny sight. It is a fifteen-minute attraction but worthwhile.
8. A water taxi and $0.80 take you to the other side of the harbor. Walk past the ‘German Beach’ and a pink salt lake to find a lava gorge in between two high rocks with very clear water. It is fun to snorkel up and down and see the colorful that got trapped there.
9. Don’t bother taking a day trip to the highlands. You can rent a taxi to see giant land turtles in the wild there. Once upon a time the farmers loathed the turtles eating their crops. Now they charge $3 a person for tourists to see the critters roam free. It was one of our highlights.
10. In the highlands of Santa Cruz, you can also enter a lava tunnel. I wouldn’t make the trip just for the tunnel, but go in if you there anyway for the land turtles then tag this on.
11. Go to the pier at night. Every night we saw tens of adolescent black-tipped sharks near the dock, presumably attracted to the lights.
12. If you travel with kids, check out the many soccer fields dotted in Puerto Ayora. There is always a pickup game on and the locals are very friendly and happy to include your kids for a game. If you bring your own ball, as we did, you can even initiate a game and make new friends.
13. No matter which island you go to, you will see a lot of marine iguanas and sea lions, in town, on the beaches, on your walks. You don’t need to pay for any day tour or cruise to see these. We only saw marine iguanas swimming on Isabela, and we only swam with sea lions on San Cristobal, but that may be coincidence.
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