Like any good story, a little good luck is necessary for things to go right. To be honest, the Galapagos Islands were not even on my radar when I visited Ecuador. I was a part of the backpacking and traveling community that thought it was too expensive to enjoy the Galapagos Islands on a budget.
At the time, I was living and working in Baños, Ecuador. I had already been there a month and a half so I was starting to get restless and ready to move on. On Thursdays, I hosted a Couchsurfing meetup at the restaurant I worked at and it was usually attended by a few locals, but mostly tourists or expats. At this meetup, I met two brothers, Jay and Bennett, who were doing a Workaway in a nearby town (For those of you who don’t know what Workaway is, it is a website that connects travelers and locals looking for workers, teachers, and many other types of jobs. In exchange for work, you generally get free accommodation and food. It’s a win-win situation for both locals and travelers.)
We quickly became friends and they told me they were heading to another Workaway on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos after their time in Baños ended. I was intrigued, to say the least, and asked if they could talk to their host and see if they needed more volunteers.
Two weeks passed and honestly, the thought of the Galapagos had drifted out of my mind until Jay sent me a WhatsApp text saying I was more than welcome to come volunteer if I was still interested. I immediately started looking up flights and booked a round trip ticket the next day! 3 weeks on the Galapagos sounded good to me! I found a flight for just over $300 round trip.
When I arrived, I was greeted by a man picking me up from Galapagos Safari Camp, the “glamping” hotel where I would be working with the maintenance team. The deal was work 5-6 hours a day in exchange for three meals a day and accommodation.
How hard could this work be? I thought. Man, I was in for a shock! From digging trenches to filling in the potholes with gravel to washing tents with power hoses, I came to appreciate what my Ecuadorian coworkers did on a daily basis for over 8 hours a day. It was a great workout and I think making this city boy do some manual labor was a positive thing. You always need to be humbled and this experience certainly did that! Katrien, the camp director, and the rest of the staff were amazing, making sure I was happy and comfortable throughout my stay.
The safari camp was absolutely beautiful, located in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island and about a 35-minute drive from Puerto Ayora. I was able to do some special activities with the whole staff such as a day trip to Tortuga Bay.
I accumulated my non-working days for the end of my time at safari camp and decided to take a trip to Isabela Island for a long weekend.
As I was planning my trip, I had another bout of good luck as I had no plans for Isabela and was just going to simply arrive, find a hotel and figure out the rest from there. However, I decided to take a glance at Couchsurfing. I figured there would be no couchsurfers at all, but, to my surprise, there were 7. I messaged all 7, heard back from 2, and got accepted by 1. His name was Christian and he said he would pick me up at the port.
When I took the boat over from Puerto Ayora to Isabela (the largest of the surrounding islands at 120 kilometers long), I was skeptical that Christian would be there. I had already set my expectations low to not be disappointed, but I was wrong in the best way possible.
As I got off the boat, Christian was there waiting for me as planned and we walked two minutes to the beachfront house that he shared with his roommate, Ricardo. They had two other American girls staying with them. Their house was amazing, it was completely open air and it had an amazing view from the roof of the beach and ocean. I hit the Couchsurfing jackpot!
Not only were these guys nice and laid back, Ricardo cooked healthy, vegetarian food and insisted on sharing. I don’t use Couchsurfing to save money, I use it to meet locals and have unique experiences, but this was a nice bonus on the Galapagos as the cheapest hostels are priced at $20 a night and food costs a fortune. If this wasn’t already enough, Christian lent me his bike to do a tour of the island and Ricardo, a kayaking tour leader, let me join his afternoon group for half price.
Overall, the Galápagos Islands are incredible, but be ready to spend a bit more money than other parts of South America. Since I am a young solo traveler and don’t need luxury, the adventure is half of the fun anyway! I got incredibly lucky, but if you are looking to go see the Galapagos on a budget, it is entirely possible! Look at Workaway or any work-travel site. I’ll always be a huge fan of Couchsurfing, so definitely look at that as an option. Expect to be a little uncomfortable if you go my route, but at the same time it was an incredible experience and you do not need to wait until you are older and have more money as many travelers say. It is important to note, I only went to Isabela and Santa Cruz and did not do any of the land tours.
Cost Breakdown in US Dollars:
Visitor fee: $100
Departure Tax: $20
Boat ride round trip: $60
Boat taxi: $2
Isabela Island Entrance Fee: $10
Cash Spent: $301.53 ( Taxis, food, drinks, etc.)
Suggested next reading: Baños, Ecuador: An Adrenaline Junkies Paradise or 7 Stunning Locations You Need To Experience In South America