budget Galapagos tough

A bit over a year ago I wrote this post on building splurge money into your shoestring travel budget. Sometimes you have to throw that $40 a day budget out the window. While I’m a big advocate for going to cheap destinations where you can get a lot more for your money, even in those places you have to drop some serious dough sometimes if you want to get the full experience.

I got an e-mail last week from someone who was flabbergasted at how expensive lodging was in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. But he was going in July, the peak of the peak season, and going to the most popular spots in Peru. I gave him some advice on shaving costs here and there by staying in some towns that wouldn’t be so mobbed, but there’s only so much you can do. It’s the same story in Ko Pha Ngan, Agra, Bali, or Pokhara if you come at the very peak. That may be a good time to be there weather-wise or event-wise, but understand that the laws of economics still apply.

There are other cases though where you are paying a lot because the place or experience just plain costs a lot. Because of a writing assignment, I just took my second trip to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. If you search around on the web, you can find articles on how to “do the Galapagos on the cheap,” but really it’s all relative. You have to spend a few hundred dollars to fly out there in the first place, you’ll pay $110 in fees after arrival into a conservation fund, and then virtually everything on Santa Cruz Island is going to be twice the price as the mainland while you’re lining up a tour.

marine iguana

Once you do get some kind of bargained-down tour, it’s still going to cost you north of $150 a day per person most likely to just take short jaunts to see the nearby islands. That’s cheaper than going with a well-known tour company where people are happy to pay $500 to $800 per night, but it’s not exactly shoestring travel territory. That’s because of a lot of good regulations that are in place to keep the environment from getting degraded. Guides must be trained and licensed, plus only around 100 ships are authorized to ply these waters with passengers.

Captains also have to be licensed and must undergo training on, among other things, how and where they can dock and send passengers to shore. They don’t really have a say in their itinerary. For good reasons, you can’t just hire a fishing boat captain in the harbor and say, “Show me some boobies!”

Galapagos OwlThat guide you’ll get at the low end will be the kind of guy who can’t get hired by any of the real tour operators paying a good salary to real naturalists. After he struck out with all of them or got fired because of a string of guest complaints, he has ended up with you. It’s a pretty safe bet he won’t be able to lead you to the hard-to-spot creatures like this owl who hunts in the daytime. He probably won’t be able to explain why this bird is so strange and how it got that way.

I’m using this fragile Galapagos ecosystem as an example, but all around the world there are spots like this where governments have in purposely put hurdles in your way for a good cause. If you want to go to Bhutan, be prepared to pay $300+ per day. There’s no budget tour to Antarctica. Visiting Petra is really going to cost you, so suck it up and overpay. If you want to go deep into the jungle almost anywhere, be it the Amazon, Borneo, or Sumatra, you’re probably going to have to pony up some cash to do it right.

If nothing else, this is all a good reminder than you don’t have to cram everything in on your first trip around the world. You can do that river cruise down the Danube or the Amazon later when grandma is paying for it. You can do that tour up the coast of Brazil when you’ve got a good job later and are making the big bucks. You can go scuba diving on the barrier reef of Australia when you go there as a vacationer rather than a backpacker.

Traveling on a budget means understanding that you can’t do it all, whenever you want, wherever you want. You’ve still got a thousand things to pick from. Save the most expensive ones for later instead of trying to do them half-assed on a limited budget. Even with climate change and economic growth going full-tilt, those experiences should still be waiting for you…