Expat Life

You don’t have to cruise the Galapagos; stay on the islands and explore at your own pace

I went to the Galapagos for three weeks and didn’t set foot on a cruise ship.

Three weeks? No cruise? Don’t you have to go on a cruise when you go to the Galapagos?Karla logo

With all the advertising for cruises, it’s easy to overlook the fact that it’s possible to explore the Galapagos from a home base. I was an island girl for three weeks, stayed on three different islands and paid a lot less than I would have had I taken a cruise. I spent about $1,300 during my visit and had a great experience.

What did you do? you might ask.

I took day trips, snorkeled, met locals and tourists, spent a lot of time hanging out, visited beaches and wildlife, and taught myself to draw animals I met on each of the islands.

An islander's view of the Galapagos.
An islander’s view of the Galapagos.

My decision to be an islander instead of a cruiser was the result of a conversation I had with an Ecuadorian naturalist in Cuenca. He advised me that I would be freer to pursue my own interests if I was not restricted to a cruise ship routine. He also pointed out that the ships have a destructive impact on the environment. It was easy to take him at his word since he had trained on cruise ships to be a guide. His advice was to stay on the islands.

Following his advice, I did some internet research and found hotels and ideas galore about how to be in the Galapagos without a cruise.

Hanging out with a sea lion.
Hanging out with a sea lion.

Instead of the several-hour island stopovers you get when you take a cruise, I got to know three islands in some depth and could spend as much time as I wanted drawing giant turtles and scruffy iguanas — and just staring off into infinity. As much as I learned as an islander, there’s still much more to explore on Santa Cruz, Isabela, or San Cristobal, and a I look forward to a return visit.

I understand that my approach is not for everyone and that some folks prefer the planned itinerary and comforts of a cruise ship. But for me, island hopping, staying in a hotel, not getting sea sick, and being in places as long as I chose, drawing, and relaxing provided a magical time.

For those considering staying on the islands, you’ll find a large range of lodging options through a Google or TripAdvisor search. There are hostels and hotels for all budgets.

When I go back to the Galapagos, I look forward to a day hanging with sea lions on the beach and a morning watching iguanas cross the road. Or, I might spend money on Spanish lessons. Or, I might spend nothing and volunteer for a nature project. These are options you won’t have onboard a ship.


Karla Freeman, expat, traveler, tango dancer, writer, currently lives in Cuenca and is the author of Creating Magic in Midlife: 101 Questions and Answers to Reinvent Your Work, Relationships and Life! Available on Amazon Kindle and at Carolina bookstore on Calle Hermano Miguel in Cuenca.


  • Ernesto

    Having also spent a couple of weeks on the Galapagos Islands actually splitting our time between a 7 day cruise and ” island time ” we found you will have an extremely restricted experience without a cruise. The Galapagos experience of a variety of landscapes, and wildlife experiences is unparalleled with a cruise. While a cruise has a somewhat rigid agenda, it is not luxury comfort, and not without significant discovery. Although this issue is debatable ” ships have much less impact on the environmental footprint ” than landbased accommodations. Can you imagine an additional 3,500 visitors each day ( daily cruise capacity ) and their impact on any of these islands ! For some photos and more information : http://www.pachamama-spectrum-of-treasures.com/2016_01_01_archive.html

  • KR

    Hi Karla, we’re planning a trip like yours in April. Which 3 islands did you choose for your adventure?

  • Jeremiah

    What a wonderful experience! Thank you for sharing-good tips, for sure.

  • nards barley

    I look forward to seeing the poor man’s Galapagos some day. (Isla de la Plata)

  • Ed NineThreeNineFive

    Excellent article. A few years ago a couple we met told us almost the same thing.
    Since Asia has been tour destination focus.
    Maybe we should take a second look at these tips.

  • Juan

    97 % of the Galapagos Islands is National Park – by restricting your visit to the 4 inhabited islands you are restricting your visit to less than 3 % of the Galapagos ! Day trips enable you to access a little more but then you spend 5 – 6 hours on a boat each day. Ironically your photo of ” Pinnacle Rock ” is one of the many Galapagos landscapes you would not have been able to access. For us Galapagos was all about nature – the civilization is interesting as well. In my humble opinion while you may have enjoyed your vacation time there you have yet to see the Galapagos Islands !

    • Edgeof2

      She didn’t ‘ see ‘ the Galápagos Islands then even though she was there for 3 weeks ?? Sounds like she had a nice experience though as an option to a cruise.