Galapagos Cruises have become incredibly popular and there are no shortage of agencies looking to sell you a Galapagos Cruise. AdventureSmith Explorations founder and director, Todd Smith, along with the crew of Galapagos experts at AdventureSmith offer the following advice to travelers interested in travel to the Galapagos Islands.
Plan Ahead! Congratulations, you have made the decision to travel to the Galapagos Islands, one of the most spectacular and remote locations on Earth. Visitation to Galapagos is limited, vessels are small, and spaces fill up fast. Many Galapagos cruises are often sold out 6-9 months in advance with holidays booked more than 12 months in advance. For the best selection of Galapagos cruises and available cabins advance reservations are encouraged, and often required.
Getting to/from the Ecuador and the Galapagos Galapagos Cruises begin and end in the Islands, located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. It is not possible to fly directly to the Galapagos from North America on the same day, so most Galapagos cruises require a stopover. Quito, Ecuador’s colonial capitol city is the most popular stopover and a great location to explore the Andes or Amazon. It is also possible to stopover in the coastal city of Guayaquil.
I highly suggest travelers consider arriving Ecuador at least two nights prior to the cruise. Most flights from North America arrive Ecuador in the evening between 8-11pm. If your flight is delayed or cancelled, and your flight to the Galapagos is early the next morning, you will miss the ship. The wilderness nature of Galapagos cruises makes it difficult to catch up. Arriving two nights prior provides a full day to recoup from your flight and explore Colonial Quito (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) or the nearby market at Otovalo.
After your cruise, flights arrive back into Guayquil and Quito in the late afternoon usually between 2-4pm. It may be possible to fly back to North America on a red eye flight, however most travelers choose to overnight again in Quito and depart the next morning. This also allows you to leave some luggage at your hotel for the duration of the cruise. This can be helpful if your Galapagos cruise is part of a larger South American travel package. Many Galapagos Agencies will offer this pre-post combination as a Galapagos Inclusive Package for a discounted rate.
How Much Time to Spend in the Galapagos Islands Galapagos cruises range from 4 day/3 night to 15 day/14 night cruises. When combined with stopovers in mainland Ecuador trips can reach up to 18 days/17 nights. How much time you have and how much time your budget will allow are important factors when considering your Galapagos Cruise.
Because of new itinerary regulations, implemented by the Galapagos National Park in 2011-2012, travelers must now choose a 10-14 night cruise if they wish to experience all the unique habitats and species the Galapagos has to offer. Each ship now operates a 14 night/15 day itinerary with no repeated landing sites. When choosing any cruise less than 10 nights carefully consider what islands and experiences are important to you. Shorter cruises will inevitably miss out on some species. It is important to consult with a Galapagos cruise expert who has been to the islands and knows the landing sites. They will match you with the right Galapagos Cruise for your interest, ability and budget.
How to choose your boat All Galapagos cruises include daily guided shore excursions in small groups to explore the islands and experience wildlife up close. Shore groups are limited to 16 people by the Galapagos National Park to limit the impact to the environment and preserver a wilderness experience for the visitor. So even aboard a 100 passenger ship you will still explore the islands up close in a small group with a trained naturalist guide. All cruises also offer the opportunity to snorkel almost every day.
I separate Galapagos boats into three categories; small yachts and sailboats carrying 8-32 passengers, mid size cruisers carrying 40-60 passengers and small ships carrying 80-100 passengers.
Yachts & Sailboats Smaller yachts and sailboats can vary considerably in price and amenities from rustic floating base camps to luxurious yachts that will satisfy the most refined travel styles. They offer the most active and intimate experience with the most time ashore. It is easier to get 16 travelers ashore in one group than it is to ferry 100 passengers ashore in multiple groups so smaller yachts can mean more time ashore. In general smaller yachts often carry kayaks whereas larger ships do not. If kayaking is important to you choose a small yacht.
The trade off is that these boats are smaller. They have smaller cabins, bathrooms, dining room and deck space. Smaller boats means there are not as many public places to go for a private moment on deck. However travelers aboard small yachts and sailboats often comment that getting to know their fellow passengers and crew, is one of the highlights of the trip.
Sailboats are popular in the Galapagos Islands but keep in mind that ocean currents and wind conditions are such that most transit is done under motor power. Sails will be hoisted when conditions and schedules allow. Sailboats are the smallest boats in the Galapagos and often have bunk beds instead of lower beds.
The Beluga and Voyager offer simple accommodations at an affordable price. The Corals and sister ships Eric/Letty/Flamingo are the most popular mid priced options. The Grace and Evolution offer wild elegance in the Galapagos.
Mid Sized Cruisers Mid sized cruisers carrying 40-60 passengers offer the efficiency and intimacy of the small yachts combined with the space and amenities typically found on larger Galapagos ships. Ships such as the Eclipse, Isabela and La Pinta have larger cabins, spacious bathrooms, ample deck space, delicious cuisine, a high crew to passenger ratio and excellent guides. There are multiple decks where you can always find a moment to watch the sunset and enjoy the solitude.
Mid sized Galapagos ships offer ample time ashore and in the water snorkeling. They have efficient landing systems with multiple shore craft to ferry hikers to the trail or to snorkel in speed and comfort. Mid sized ships appeal to travelers willing to pay for the some of the finest boats available. The Eclipse, La Pinta, Isabela II combine elegance and adventure while the Islander offers the regions finest expedition leaders from National Geographic.
Small Ships Because mega cruise ships are not allowed in the Galapagos, these small ships carrying 80-100 passengers are the largest to cruise the region. These ships are the most stable and appeal to travelers concerned about seasickness. They are also very appealing for families with small children because some offer adjoining cabins and because of the additional space.
Galapagos small ships offer a variety of cabin categories from affordable with portholes to elegant with balconies. Usually there are multiple decks, vistas, libraries and salons where you can mingle with other guests or find space for yourself.
Each small ship has a unique personality and appeals to a certain clientele. The Legend and Santa Cruz are popular and affordable, the Galapagos Explorer is more upscale and the Endeavour has expedition leaders and lecturers from National Geographic.
A Word About Guides The experience and demeanor of your Galapagos guide will have a profound impact on your overall experience. The Galapagos National Park trains and strictly regulates guides in the Islands. The Galapagos National Park has instituted a rating system of Level 1-3 to gauge a guide’s experience. Levels are achieved through a combination of longevity and education, but I have found that this does not tell the whole story. Galapagos Naturalist Guides vary considerably in their skills and experience. A guide’s personality and ability to engage travelers is just as important as their level of knowledge. Don’t assume that all guides speak English, they don’t. In general you will find that the most experienced guides work aboard the nicest ships. Nicer ships have higher prices which translates more tips for the best guides. While no operator can guarantee which guide will be aboard on your cruise, ask your booking agent about the quality and qualifications aboard the ships you are inquiring about.
One Galapagos Cruise line, Lindblad Expeditions, stands above the rest in terms of on board programs and naturalist guides. In addition to guides employed by the Galapagos National Park, they employ a wide range of experts from National Geographic. Lindblad Expedition cruises aboard the National Geographic Endeavour and National Geographic Islander appeal to travelers seeking willing to pay a premium for an intellectual and educational experience.
Ocean Conditions & When to Go Weather in the Galapagos Islands is attractive to adventure travel and small ship cruising year round. Galapagos climate is almost entirely influenced by the ocean currents. The “Warm Season” from December until April is dominated by a warm current bringing hot sunny days with sporadic rains and calm seas. Average temperatures range from 70’s to upper 80’s with water temperatures in the mid 70’s.
From May to December cool currents from the south create cooler weather, and rain is uncommon creating comfortable hiking weather. Although seas are rarely rough, trade winds cause the ocean to be choppier this time of year and a misty fog may linger into the day. Average temperatures range from 60’s to upper 70’s with water temperatures from the mid 60’s to low 70’s.
You are usually cruising close to land and between islands which serve to provide a bit of protection from rougher seas. On a typical 8 day Galapagos cruise, you will make 2-4 crossings through open water where you may encounter 4-6 foot swells over the course of 4-6 hours of travel. It is extremely rare to encounter stormy conditions; however swells can cause a lot of rocking during open water crossings. More likely the swells will gently rock the boat during the time of transit.
Find more information on Galapagos Climate. What is going on in the Galapagos Islands when you want to travel? View this handy “Galapagos By Month” guide to understand Galapagos climate, wildlife and occurrences by month.
Galapagos Cruise Reviews There are now countless Galapagos cruise and travel review websites on the internet. Many offer honest advice, but many need to be taken with a grain of salt. Use Galapagos Reviews as a tool but don’t rush to judgment when you read a poor review. Often this is a result of a mismatch between the style of the traveler and the type of cruise they were on. The best type of Galapagos review is a personal referral. Ask your booking agent if he/she can put you in touch with someone who has traveled to the Galapagos or aboard the boat you are inquiring about. Reputable Galapagos agencies will gladly refer their past clients.
Galapagos by land While I strongly believe that a small ship cruise is the best way to experience the Galapagos Islands, cruises are not for everyone. It is possible to visit the Galapagos, including remote landing sites to encounter wildlife, on a lodge based trip. Similar to Galapagos cruises there are a variety of Galapagos land based trips that appeal to different travel styles and budget. Some tours are based from a single lodge, which offers less travel days and more time to explore and relax. Others offer a mix of lodges based on different islands. Some offer active options such as kayaking, mountain biking, scuba diving while others are more relaxed. All land based tours will have guided visits to Galapagos landing sites to view wildlife. Land based tours offer a chance to visit Puerto Ayora or San Cristobal, the two largest settlements in the Galapagos Islands.
Ask An Expert Most important speak with an experienced Galapagos expert. AdventureSmith Explorations employees are award winning Galapagos small ship cruise specialists with a focus on guided small group nature tours and custom travel for individuals, couples, families and small groups. Our founder and president Todd Smith helped pioneer expedition cruising and our staff has decades of experience guiding, arranging, and selling wilderness adventures. We offer first hand knowledge, personal service, sustainable practices, and unbeatable prices. Contact us today.