I´ve been living the slow travel lifestyle in Ecuador for two years and have recently been on the boards answering questions about travel here, the Galapagos, buses, volunteer options, safely, you name it. I have volunteered and worked at a hostel, led volunteers to the coast for three weeks, and worked at a really good Irish bar that boasts teachers, guides, hostel owners, travel agents, Spanish students, gap year travelers, bike guides, etc. Through these experiences and while I was posting responses to questions on the travel boards I came up with a plan for traveling on a budget that I wanted to post here as a know a few brave souls who have done similar trips and really have gotten a lot out of it. For those willing to spend a little time and a lot of energy to see the sights in Ecuador, here are a few well vetted ideas.
Volunteering at hostels
The Secret Garden, Quito takes volunteers for a month or more where you help check people in and out, serve food, take people to clubs and bars, and act as their social, travel, and Ecuador guide. Good way to meet other travelers and get free food and accommodation. Really good for figuring out what you want to do next as everyone is in the same boat..
Currently from the bar where I work I came across this opportunity a few days ago-
Hostal Llullu Llama is still looking for people who like to help run our in Isinlivi. From the end of April until they like. We usually prefer that people stay for 8 weeks and then we give food and board in return. Isinlivi is pretty small so people have to like being out there in the Andes and speak Spanish, cause it will make their lives much more fun. Teaching at the local school is an option and the rest of the work is helping at the hostel. Receiving guests, giving information, take our dog for hikes, etc. While the position is currently filled they have the need for new volunteers every eight weeks.. A great way to learn Spanish first hand, meet a lot of people traveling, and get out of the city and into Ecuador's beautiful country side.
For the Galapagos, There are companies that offer land based volunteer trips that cut the cost of a cruise and include tours and activities on three islands.. Santa Marta, San Cristobal, and Isabella. Incorporating conservation work puts participants on the other side of the equation as far as the damage that tourism does to the islands. These trips usually cost about two thousand dollars including air fare. With the extra money saved people have the independence to stay at the end of their trip and find activities that they want to do. As I have been doing a lot of research from the hostel about these activities as opposed to a cruise.. Here is a list of free activities on each Island.
Centro de Interpretacion: (free)
An extremely informative museum with information in Spanish and English on the geographic and human history of the Galapagos, definitely worth a visit. An easy, short walk from town.
Las Tijeretas: (free)
This is the area behind the interpretation centre. There are several paths leading to various lookout points, as well as a snorkelling area where sea turtles, sea lions, and herons can be seen. There is also a sandy beach (Punta Carola) with a sea lion colony. You can see blue-footed boobies diving, as well as on the rocks, pelicans, marine iguanas and frigate birds flying (also in the trees from the higher lookouts).
Playa Mann: (free)
A popular sandy beach right at the edge of town, across the street from the university. There are often sea lions here, and the water is calm for swimming. Boobies can be seen flying and diving here.
La Loberia: (free)
About a 30-40 minute easy walk from town. Walk towards the airport and turn left at the corner right before the military school (ask directions along the way). You will pass a gravel pit before reaching the sign for the entrance. This is a mostly rocky beach, with some sand,
with a playful sea lion colony. Marine iguanas can also be seen here.
El Junto: (free)
A lake in the crater of a volcano where frigate birds can be seen fishing and bathing. To walk here all the way from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno takes about 3 1/2 hours, or on weekdays there is a bus which runs about 5 times a day (first two buses leave at 6:30 and 7am) to the village of El Progreso, and then from there you can walk for 2 - 2 1/2 hours along the main road to reach the lake (ask directions in El Progreso, then once you are on the main road you cannot get lost).
Punto Chino: (free)
This beach is another 10km past El Junto, and other than walking, hiring a car or taking a tour is the only way to get there. We did not go out this far, so are not sure what a car would charge to take you out there.
El Chato tortoise reserve (free)
This is part of the park where we saw over 30 giant tortoises in the wild. Transport from Puerto Ayora in a collectivo costs $1 US p/p each way (if there are 5 of you) to Santa Rosa and then a 10-15 km round trip walk through the reserve and back to Santa Rosa. Ask for directions in Santa Rosa if you are unsure.
Bellavista tuneles del amor (3.00 US p/p)
These giant lava tunnels stretch over 1 km. Transport from Puerto Ayora to Bellavista in collectivo is 0.25 US p/p each way, and then a 2.5 km round trip walk (ask directions in Bellavista).
Darwin research centre (free)
Has a Giant Tortoise and Iguana breading centre. 2 km round trip walk from Puerto Ayora. Ask anyone in town to point you in the right direction.
Bahia Tortuga (free)
A nice sandy beach where you can see marine iguanas, crabs, and birds. 12 km round trip walk from centre.
Garrapatero Beach (free)
A sandy beach suitable for swimming (and camping with a permit from the parks office). Marine iguanas, endemic poison apple trees, crabs, mangroves, and lots of birds can be seen here. Transportation from Puerto Ayora costs $10-15 each way (for the whole truck, so best to find a group), also arrange pick-up time with the driver because not many vehicles come out this far. This beach is also set up with a beautiful campground though a permit is required from the park entrance Puerto Ayora in advance. Day and night there are lots of bloodsucking bugs. Bring drinking water!
Volcan Sierra Negra: (free) *This could be a little complicated so see endnote.
This is apparently the second largest caldera in the world and a beautiful hike, with spectacular views of northern Isabela on a nice day. Transport from Villamil in a city bus is 1.00 US p/p (.50 US for Ecuadorians) and leaves at 7:00 am every day. Tell the driver you want to be let off at the entrance road to el volcan. Then it's a 6 km walk to the park entrance (but try hitchhiking, as workers are often driving up at this time and may take you for free) then a 16 km walk up to the caldera and to Volcan Chico, and then back to the park entrance. From the park entrance it is a 18 km walk back to Villamil (again try hitchhiking, it is unlikely that you would not get a ride, but possible) any truck back to town will cost 1.00 US p/p.
Las Tintoretas: (free if you swim, $15 for a "Bay Tour")
These are some neat islands just off the harbor where we saw sea turtles, white tipped sharks, manta rays, seals, hundreds of marine iguanas, a penguin and many other sea birds and marine life.
Transport: we rented some flippers for 2.50 US and swam out there (it took us 2 hours to get there, at a leisurely pace, looking a sea life, and 45 minutes to return, at a fairly rapid pace). We recommend you go with at least one other person and at low tide. At high tide the water gets quite rough as the reef is submerged. When swimming, try to follow the shore/reef since it is an active harbor with boats coming in and out. If you are not a strong swimmer we do not recommend you do this.
Wall of tears: (free)
The wall itself is not that exciting, despite its interesting history, but the walk along the beach and between the lagoons to get there is beautiful. We saw the largest Marine Iguanas of anywhere on our trip on this beach.
Transport: walk about 15 km round trip along road beside beach (you can walk the first part on the beach)
National park tortoise reserve: (free)
Not as interesting as the Darwin centre, but to get there you can follow a nice boardwalk through some lagoons which is a pretty walk. This reserve also has tortoise species which you can't see anywhere else. Transport: walk west along the main road out of town, then turn right (north) at the sign where the boardwalk starts (before the road forks), you will see a very red-orange lagoon, follow the boardwalk about 1 km until you get to the parking lot.
Laguna Salinas: (free)
Nestled between urban development, one street back from the main street you will likely see flamingos here between about 5:30-6:00 am or pm.
Laguna Concha Perla: (free)
Located right beside the port, there is a little boardwalk to get out to it and it is a good place to snorkel and see rays, seals, penguins, sea turtles, Sally Lightfoot crabs, and many fish.
These programs and opportunities are a savvy way for the adventurous to explore and not just be given the gringo tour..
These are good ways to see places on a limited budget. I have done it off and on and it´s a good experience. The Galapagos on a backpackers budget, Latacunga, and Cotopaxi are all somehow all easily made available to people if they don´t mind spending their time and energy chipping in a little to get a lot out of their experience.
As I said this is in Ecuador, but I know that other hostels in Peru and Columbia are doing the same type of things. Try Loki in Peru or The Cranky Croc in Columbia! Hope this helps and let me know if I can find anymore information for you! I live in Quito and enjoy seeing people find great opportunities and make the most out of their time here.