Choosing the Best Galapagos Cruise For You
A trip to the Galapagos Islands is no ordinary vacation; that's why planning that trip is no ordinary task. There's so much to consider when thinking about your vacation to the Galapagos, so let us help you figure out what the best option is for you.
Step one: Choose the trip type, cruise and land-based options
There are two options for a Galapagos vacation: Cruises or land-based tours (known also as “island hopping” or “hotel-based tours”). Some people like to combine both these to get the most out of their island experience, but really either one is a great way to see what the Islands have to offer.
LAND-BASED GALAPAGOS TOURS
Seeing the Galapagos on a cruise is the quintessential Galapagos experience. Most people decide to tour the Galapagos on a cruise for several reasons including the opportunity to visit more islands and National Park visitor spots in less time, and excellent quality of services upon higher end yachts.
Land-based tours have distinct advantages, such as lower costs and freedom to maintain your own schedule. They are especially attractive for folks who don't quite have their sea legs and are prone to sea sickness. They can also let you experience other activities not available on cruises such as hiking to the top of volcanos, bicycling and SCUBA diving day trips.
Once you've decided that a cruise is the right choice for you, here are a few other things to consider.
Step two: Deciding when to go
There are two main seasons in the Galapagos Islands: the dry season (from June to December) and the wet, warm season (from December to May). Although there's never a bad time to visit the Islands, the temperatures do change considerably between the seasons, and the wildlife activity changes with it.
The dry season, known also as the “garua” season, is characterized by cooler temperatures, light midday mists, and expansive blue skies. This is when sea mammals like sea lions and fur seals are most active. Land birds are also at their peak activity. Ocean temperatures are lower during this season because of the Antarctic Humboldt current.
The warm season receives more rainfall, but showers generally do not last long and ground water is quickly absorbed by the porous volcanic soil. During this season, the vegetation is lush and green, and the water reaches its peak temperatures. Island birds are very active during this time.
If you are looking to save some money, consider planning your trip in April/ May or September/ October, as these months are considered the tourism low-season, and many operators have higher availability and discounted pricing.
Step three: Choosing the type of boat
There are several options you have for the type of boat you choose.
- Cruise ships: If you want a more traditional cruise experience, there are several large boats that accommodate between 30 and 100 people. These are the biggest passenger ships in the Galapagos Islands, and they will offer a more stable lodging experience if you're worried about motion sickness. There are also often more facilities (gyms, Jacuzzis, etc.) accessible to the guests right on board.
The main disadvantage with larger ships is that the scheduling is more concrete since it must accommodate a larger number of people, and boarding and de-boarding the ship will limit your time doing the activity to some extent.
Smaller vessels (generally accommodate around 16 passengers in 8 double-cabins) –
- Catamarans: This is the best option for stability among the smaller vessels, as it floats on a wide base spread over twin hulls. This allows for more comfortable and spacious cabins and may even have an onboard Jacuzzi. Another advantage of smaller boats is the fact that you might have more flexibility with your activities. Since your cruise director doesn't have to coordinate 30-100 people, it will be easier to leave and return from activities, which allows for a bit more liberty in how your crew arranges the schedule.
- Sailboats (and motor-sails): These boats are some of the smallest passenger boats in the Galapagos Islands. Seldomly powered by wind, as itineraries necessitate anchoring at a visitor spot, then speeding (with a motor) to the next visitor spot. This is the best option for the adventure seeker. Their low occupancy and generally lower cost means that you will have a more intimate experience with your crew and the other people on the boat. Due to the narrower hulls, cabin space and social space is generally more limited, and rocking with the waves is unavoidable, even when anchored.
- Motorboats: The motorboats that cruise the Galapagos Islands come in all sizes and builds. Naturally, the bigger the boat is, the less it will rock and the more space there will be in your cabin. There are a fair amount of very stable, larger vessels, and also a good selection of smaller motorboats.
Step four: Deciding on your trip's length
There's no formula for deciding the right amount of time to spend in the Galapagos Islands. Cruises can be as short as four days or as long as a month, depending on which company you choose. Even the four-day cruises offer a fair sampling of activities, but the longer the cruise the more opportunities and activities you will have to experience the Islands.
Here's a quick reference guide to give you a good idea of what each trip length might feature:
- 4-5 day cruises: Generally focus on one geographic area of the Islands, such as the eastern Islands, the Central Islands, or the Western & Southern Islands. You will probably have a chance to do only one or two of the main activities (snorkeling, hiking, swimming, kayaking, etc.), and you will most likely only see several of the islands. This is a good option if you want to combine your cruise with a land-based tour.
- 8 day cruises: Eight day cruises are ideal for people who want ample opportunities to experience the main activities without the burden of a two-week commitment. On these cruises, you will have several opportunities to do all of the staple attractions, like snorkeling, swimming, hiking, and kayaking; like the 4-5 day cruises, you will probably focus on one geographic part of the Islands, but you will be able to enjoy that area more thoroughly, as your boat will likely stop at more tourist sites on each of the islands. This kind of cruise also allows you the perfect amount of time to get your sea legs and get accustomed to the motion while still spending plenty of time on land with the dry landings.
- 15+ day cruises: These are the most comprehensive cruises of the Galapagos Islands. Any cruise of two weeks or more will probably hit all of the major islands and give you ample opportunity for exploration of each one. This is the best way to see literally everything the Islands have to offer to the fullest. The longer trips are also where you might find specialty tours, like diving-intensive cruises.
- Keep in mind: The first and last days of your cruise will be shorter, as these will be the days you are flying from the Ecuador mainland and traveling to and from the airport.
Step five: Choosing your cruise company
Once you've decided what type of boat you want and when you want to go, you've arrived at a good place to pick your company. The remaining factors (trip length, activities, etc) are all things you can plan with your cruise company, as they usually have a fair amount of options.
Step six: Special Interest Trips
If you prefer certain activities, like snorkeling, diving, biking or hiking, here are a few specialty trips that are designed to suit specific travelers:
- Honeymoon cruises
- Multisport adventure packages
- Kayaking-intensive cruises
- Snorkeling-focused cruises
- Scuba Diving day trips
- Liveaboard diving cruises
- Photography cruises
- If you are traveling with children, make sure you double-check with your cruise company. Most operators accommodate non-infant children, but each company has its own rules.
- If motion sickness is something you are worried about, avoid traveling on smaller boats that tend to amplify the motion. Also, it is advisable to travel between February and April, as these months have the calmest waters.
- Respecting the Galapagos Islands is one of the most important things you as a traveler can do. The National Park works very hard to maintain the environment in a pristinely kept condition, but visitors also have to play their part by respecting these efforts and the National Park's rules.
- There is a $100 National Park entrance fee and a $20 transit control card fee that must be paid in cash upon arrival to the Galapagos Islands.
No matter what cruise you choose, how long you stay, or when you visit, you are guaranteed an amazing experience in the Galapagos Islands. Planning is key, so get started early. And make sure to either bring someone to share the experiences with, or at least a camera with a high-capacity card to capture the memories forever.
Article writen by Brian Bayer January 2016.