The Galapagos rang a particular mystic note in our mind. Of course, there are the legendary finches and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution changed how the world viewed the history of mankind. But first and foremost, the remoteness of the places, its unique fauna and flora attracted us to the Ecuadorian islands. A Galapagos cruise was a true bucket item list.
The archipelago is composed of 20 main islands – 13 major and 7 minor – and other many small islets and is located about 1,000 km (600 mi) off Ecuador. A World Heritage site for both land and sea, each island is unique with its own scenery and wildlife. The best way to visit the Galapagos Island is as a liveaboard cruise, and as exclusive as it may, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
This is an expensive destination but many options are available from budget, mid-range to high-end luxury. Other elements will determine the costs including the duration, the type and size of the boat, the islands visited, the services, the food quality, the experience of the guide, the evening activities – endless variations made our head spin. The price range varies from under $350 to over $700 per day depending on the level chosen. The cruises can last from 4-day / 3-night to 15-day / 14-night. The longer cruises will allow reach to more islands and a wider range of wildlife diversity
We booked ourselves in Quito. Whether this is the best way to do or not, I don’t know. We knew what we wanted: a small group, preferably a sailboat, and to visit as many islands as our budget allowed us. We went for an 8-day trip on the Angelique sailboat for $1,250 per person. The old boat has since been decommissioned.
Remember to book several months in advance if you have a particular boat or activity in mind as they fill quickly. As the former Director of Content Marketing at Viator, I would recommend their Galapagos Islands Cruises. This is an affiliate link, which means we receive a percentage if you make a purchase using this link. Our opinion is our own and is not impacted by this affiliate link.
Know Your Galapagos Islands
- Santa Cruz Island has the biggest population centered in the town of Puerto Ayora, an easy access to the airport, and hosts the Darwin Research Station. You can take a day trip from Santa Cruz but given the distance, a multi-day cruise will allow you to view remote islands
- Isabella Island is the largest of the islands, has five active volcanoes and the Breeding Center.
- San Cristobal Island holds the second largest urban population in Puerto Baquerizo, a small town with an attractive waterfront Malecon
- Espanola Island is the place to observe Albatrosses
- Fernandina Island has a unique volcano landscape, with the largest cormorants and Galapagos penguins’ populations.
- Bartolome Island holds the famous Pinnacle Rock and has great snorkeling opportunities
- Lobos Island is popular for diving and has a population of boobies and Darwin finches
- Genovesa Island is the further remote island and the most popular for birdwatching with blue-footed and red-footed boobies, and several other bird species.
- Seymour Island is another bird paradise and a great diving spot
- Floreana Island is mostly known for its top snorkeling, pink flamingos, and famous Post Office Bay.
- Santiago Island is known for marine iguanas and the red Sally Lightfoot crabs, as well as a good snorkeling spot, and hiking around the Sugarloaf Crater.
Watch for Group Sizes
The park regulations prevent boats larger than 100 passengers to cruise the archipelago in order to avoid overcrowding the islands. It is similarly easier to bring a small group of passengers to an island than a big group of 100.
- Yachts & Sailboats can host from 10 to 30 guests. These can easily access narrow coves and beaches. The small size boat means smaller cabins, dining room, deck and overall space in general. These afflicted by seasickness might want to go for bigger boats as these small ones tend to provide a rougher sea experience
- Mid-sized cruisers carrying 40-60 passengers are a good compromise between the yacht that can go anywhere and the space of the bigger boat. They are favored by those looking for a high-end service and comfort while still in an intimate setting
- Small Cruise Ships can carry 80-100 passengers. These are in fact the largest cruise boat one can find in the Galapagos. Stable and with the most amenities, the small cruise ships are popular with families with children. Schedule tends to be less flexible as it takes time and operational planning to move the numbers of visitors around each island
Decide Your Type of Boat
- Sailboats: Classic, traditional boats are more for their look than sailing since there is little wind in the Galapagos. The motor will be used most of the time. However, the feel of the sailboat is not to be discarded.
- Motor yachts: More common than a sailboat, these are more stable and offer more size options than sailboats.
- Catamarans: Combining both speed and stability, these are becoming popular through the archipelago.
Amenities & Services
- Guide: You need to have a licensed guide to visit most islands. Probably the most important in my mind, a more experienced and knowledgeable guide will give you a better experience. Our guide was somewhat knowledgeable but we could listen to better explanations from other guides. The level of English will vary greatly. Our guide’s English was acceptable but it was hard to get in-depth explanations. Many guides might have higher qualifications as naturalists, and a better knowledge of the islands.
- Comfort: The quality of the accommodation will vary greatly, from hot or cold water, a full window or a hole, bunk bed or queen size. Our room included two bunk beds and the cleanliness was ok. However, the old boat had cockroaches in the bathroom that would creep into the bedroom. Definitely not a great experience.
- Food: From budget buffet to gourmet dinner, served by a chef or a regular cook, you will find a large variation in the level of food served. We ate basic meals, budget style and by no mean gourmet. Towards the end of our trip, we were served with slices of cheese for dinner as the boat ran out of meat. If you are looking for a gourmet experience, please make sure to check the boat services and offerings.
Type of activities
- Wildlife viewing and photography. Earlier in the morning or late in the evening is usually the better, usually better time for better light.
- Hiking: most land’s access can lead to hiking opportunities but good hiking options are around Sierra Negra on Isabela Island.
- Diving: The best spots are on Wolf and Darwin Islands. See hammerhead sharks, eagle rays, whale sharks. This is better reserved for experienced diver due to rough conditions, cold waters and strong currents. Kicker Rock on San Christobal is a popular dive site. The best time to dive is from June through November – it is even rougher due to the Humboldt Currents but rich in wildlife thanks to more nutrients and plankton.
- Kayaking: The bigger boats might bring kayaks with them. Otherwise, these can be rented at Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz Island
- Snorkeling: Available from all islands, snorkeling on Isla Lobos is a popular spot and a must-stop.
- Birdwatching: Mating season for the land bird is from December to May and is a great time for bird watching across the archipelago.
- Giant Tortoises: The symbolic creature can be observed at the Charles Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz Island and the Galapagos Interpretation Center in San Cristobal Island. At the Breeding Center on Isabela Island, you can hold a tortoise egg. The Giant Tortoises can live nearly 150 years, and weight up to 900 pounds
- Penguins: Tagus Cove on Isabela Island has the biggest population but a large population can be found on Fernandina Island.
- Marine Iguanas: The largest colony can be viewed on Fernandina Island, but also on Seymour Island and Santiago Island.
- Albatrosses: The largest seabirds on earth are found at Punta Espinosa on Espanola Island.
- Boobies: Blue-footed boobies can be seen on Lobos Island and Seymour Island. Both blue-footed and red-footed boobies have large populations on Genovesa Island.
- Frigates: Found on different islands: Lobos, North Seymour, Floreana, Isabela, Genovesa and San Cristóbal
- Sea Turtles: Seymour Island would be a good spot to regard them
- Flightless Cormorants: Fernandina Island hosts a large colony
- Hammerhead sharks: Great opportunities to view them on Seymour Island
- Chatham mockingbirds: San Cristobal is the only island whether this tiny bird can be found
When to Visit the Archipelago
The Galapagos can be visited any time, and even in high season, it will not be crowded thanks to the limited numbers of visitors per island per day imposed by the national park. However, lower seasons will increase the perception of remoteness with the numbers of visitors dropping.
- High season runs from June to August, and then from December to January. The rainy season lasts from December to May when the weather is hot but the ocean is calm.
- The dry low season is from June to November, with cooler temperatures and rougher seas. This is however when the marine life is most active and experienced divers might have a chance to observe hammerhead sharks and whale sharks.
What to Bring for your Galapagos Cruise
Besides your usual summer vacations items (swimsuit, beach towel, sunscreen, cap), we would recommend binoculars, waterproof cameras, good waterproof shoes like Teva, low hiking boots to hike on spiky lava rocks, quick dry clothes as you will be in and out boats all day long, wind jacket and a fleece for windy evening while on deck. Bring cash ($100 park fees is to be paid in cash). Snorkelers and divers might want to bring a wetsuit, preferably a full 6mn if possible, or make sure to rent one as the water is colder than you think. And if needed, a customized snorkeling mask.
How to Get to the Galapagos Islands
Once in Ecuador, you can fly from either Quito or Guayaquil. Most flights from Quito stop in Guayaquil. Fly into Baltra Island but most cruises depart from Santa Cruz Island