Cruises have long been the most popular way to explore the Galapagos Islands, but in recent years the boom in hotels and day-tour operators on the four inhabited islands in the Galapagos has led to a surge in the popularity of land-based Galapagos travel as well. If you are hoping to visit these enchanted islands by land, then the best way to do it is through a resort or all-inclusive lodge.
Since there are a greater number of hotels, hostels, lodges, and resorts on the Galapagos Islands now than ever before, choosing the right one might seem like a hard choice.
If the price benefits of land-based travel drew you to this option, then you might be inclined to book one of the cheaper hotels, hoping to save your money there and budget it for day-tours or perhaps meals. In fact, the best option for both your wallet and your itinerary is to book an all-inclusive tour at a lodge or resort. That might seem counterintuitive at first, but that little bit extra you spend on the all-inclusive package will be worth it in the end when you experience all the Galapagos Islands have to offer.
Here are the top options on Santa Cruz and Isabela:
Finch Bay (Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz)
Secluded across a private bay in Puerto Ayora, Finch Bay Eco Hotel accommodates guests in just 21 rooms and 6 suites, guaranteeing an intimate experience, conveniently close but removed from the hustle and bustle of town.
- What stands out:
- 4 & 5-day program packages including lodging, daily breakfast, lunch during activities, customizable itineraries, WiFi internet, airport assistance in Quito or Guayaquil, Galapagos ground transportation.
- Finch Bay is the only beachfront hotel in Puerto Ayora.
- Four of the suites are interconnected, which makes Finch Bay a great choice for families.
- The architecture integrates dark volcanic rock and wood to make the hotel blend seamlessly into the environment.
- Good to know: Several rooms are bay-view rather than ocean view (still a great view!); there are no TVs in the rooms (this was a choice by the designers to emphasize the relaxation and nature); the hotel is not in Puerto Ayora, but there is a water taxi that takes guests from the public dock across the bay to the hotel (private transportation can be arranged when booking).
Safari Camp (Santa Cruz Highlands)
Put a unique spin on your Galapagos vacation when you stay in the safari tents of this Africa-inspired lodge. Nine luxurious and fully furnished tents surround a main lodge and infinity pool that overlook the ocean from a privileged location on its own farm/ reserve in the Santa Cruz highlands.d
- What stands out:
- Great for families with young kids because of the Kids Club, featuring screen printing, shoe painting, cooking classes, storytelling, and crafts.
- 5 and 6-day land-based safari options, including a classic safari, a family safari, and a dive safari.
- Also offers itineraries that can be paired with an extension cruise.
- Safaris include lodging, meals, equipment for all activities, English-speaking naturalist guide, Galapagos ground transportation, and airport assistance.
- Good to know: While there is WiFi in the lounge (which can be spotty), the signal does not reach the tents; the camp has a bar and a chef that prepares a menu from food largely sourced right on site from the farm, but if you’re looking for more dining and shopping options, the camp is relatively far from Puerto Ayora.
Pikaia Lodge (Santa Cruz – transition zone)
Built between two giant volcanic craters and named for Pikaia Gracilens – the first creature that is theorized to have evolved into a vertebrate – Pikaia Lodge operates with sustainability and ecological conservation at its core, evidenced by the wild tortoises that guests will likely see plodding all around the lodge.
- What stands out:
- Luxurious highland lodge featuring all the amenities of a bigger hotel, like a restaurant, spa, two lounges, and an infinity pool.
- Two private yachts for day tours and one motor yacht that offers weeklong liveaboard diving cruises.
- Intimate atmosphere with just 6 terrace rooms, 6 balcony rooms, and 2 suites.
- Full range of packages, ranging from 4-8 day itineraries, including Galapagos ground transportation, lodging, airport assistance, meals, bilingual guides and equipment for all excursions, non-alcoholic beverages.
- Good to know: Kids are welcome, but there aren’t any programs or facilities designed specifically for children, and it is discouraged bringing children under 8 years of age; Pikaia Lodge is a bit of a drive from downtown Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, so it can be difficult to access other shops, restaurants, and bars outside of the lodge.
Royal Palm (Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz)
Just over 20 minutes from the town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, this highland lodge is nestled in a Miconia forest, where its 8 Casitas and 13 villas blend right into the natural environment.
- What stands out:
- In addition to the all-inclusive packages, Royal Palm allows you to build your own all-inclusive itinerary based on what you want to do, including options for active travelers, explorers, and those who just want to relax.
- The Royal Palm works with sister hotel Villa Escalesia in downtown Puerto Ayora.
- There are packages ranging from 3-7 nights and include return transfers, full board including one soft drink with each meal, your chosen activities & excursions and taxes.
- Good to know: Since this is another highland lodge, there isn’t a lot to do around the hotel itself, but the concierge can arrange for a 25 minute taxi ride into Puerto Ayora.
Galapagos Habitat (Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz)
This oceanfront hotel in the Galapagos Islands was previously known as the Red Mangrove for its location adjacent a lush mangrove colony. A private deck with exclusive views of Academy Bay grants guests a sense of seclusion even as conveniently close to town as this hotel is.
- What stands out:
- Eco Luxury Group, Haugan Cruises, and La Selva Jungle Lodge are all under the same brand, making it very easy to combine a cruise, a land-based tour, and even an exploration of the Amazon in mainland Ecuador.
- Galapagos Habitat offers island-hopping tours to allow explorers to visit and experience the unique biodiversity of the other inhabited islands.
- They offer day-cruises that visit the major visitor sites on the islands and islets that surround Santa Cruz.
- Good to know: Rooms are designed intentionally simply, but manage to achieve excellent comfort and elegance blending into the surrounding environment.
Scalesia Lodge (Isabela Island Highlands)
Situated in the Isabela Island highland regions, Scalesia Lodge is just 20 minutes from the small fishing village of Puerto Villamil and enjoys the remote privacy of its promontory location overlooking the Pacific blue.
- What stands out:
- The lodge runs all of the tour operations rather than contracting other operators.
- Scalesia Lodge has island-hopping packages in partnership with Finch Bay on Santa Cruz Island.
- There are also 12-15 day Galapagos, Amazon, and Andes packages.
- The Africa-inspired safari style luxury tents are fully electric and feature running hot water.
- Though the largest of the Galapagos Islands, Isabela is the least populous island featuring hotels, and even in the town of Puerto Villamil, there is a noticeably more relaxed pace.
- The hotel offers access to all of the most popular visitor sites on Isabela.
Good to know: There are no flights directly from mainland Ecuador to Isabela Island, so the most common way to get there is via speedboat from Santa Cruz, after transferring to Puerto Ayora from the Baltra airport (Scalesia Lodge enthusiastically helps guests arrange their transportation to and from the airport); there is also the (more expensive but quicker) option to book a private charter flight from Baltra directly to Puerto Villamil.
What is Island Hopping in the Galapagos?
If you’ve been reading about land-based Galapagos tours, you’ve probably come across the term “island hopping,” but what does that really mean? Well, since most of the main visitor sites are around the four main islands (Isabela, Floreana, Santa Cruz, and San Cristobal), you can see and experience most of the Galapagos Islands by visiting these four islands.
By speedboat or plane: Getting from one island to the next either requires a fun (though occasionally choppy) speedboat ride between islands – which generally takes a few hours and gives passengers a great view of the open ocean in Galapagos – or a short (but much more expensive) private charter flight between the islands, which gives passengers a unique and breathtaking view of the Galapagos from the sky.
Why not book a cruise?
When tourism in the Galapagos started to grow several decades ago, cruises were really the only way to see the Islands. While cruises still do offer travelers a great way to see some of the more remote visitor sites, land-based Galapagos tours are increasingly offering a competitive alternative that is generally more affordable and more customizable.
Not only do land-based itineraries revolve around your interests, but they also allow travelers to enjoy a more relaxed pace than cruises and save up to thousands of dollars per traveler – plus, they are a fantastic way to experience the Galapagos for folks who tend to get motion sickness and don’t do well on cruises.
Advantages of Land-based Galapagos Tours
- Less expensive
- Great for people who get seasick easily
- Generally bigger rooms than yachts
- You can explore one location in greater depth
- Experience more of the local culture and island lifestyle
- Get to know local people
- Enjoy a variety of restaurants and bars
More souvenir shopping opportunities
Why choose an all-inclusive package?
- No hassle planning – you can customize your itinerary with the resort, but you don’t have to worry about the transportation, meals, or daily activities since they are all part of the package.
- Just one price – rather than painstakingly planning and budgeting for every little thing – from food to lodging to daily activities and taxis and speed boats between islands and much more – you simply pay one lump sum and everything is included.
- Best day tours – while you might be able to find independent snorkeling or trekking tours, the tours included in the resort packages tend to offer better guides and a better overall experience.
Stay as long as you want – Whether you can only stay for a few days or want to stay for a few weeks, land-based travel allows travelers to determine the length of their vacation, unlike Galapagos cruises which are generally either 4, 5, or 8 days, with only a few two week options and nothing less than 4 days. This is another reason that land-based travel makes for a good extension to a Galapagos cruise too.
Highland lodge or beachfront resort? There’s no hard and fast rule that says you can’t do both – since land-based tours are much more flexible, you can always plan a few days at the beachfront hotel followed by a few in the highlands, or vice versa. Plus, it’s relatively easy to get around the individual islands in the Galapagos via taxi or buses (especially if you book an all-inclusive tour where the transportation is already planned), so even if you choose to only stay at one or the other, you can still experience the best of both the highlands and the coast.
Which island should I stay on? The same rule applies to which of the Galapagos Islands you should stay at – why limit yourself to just one? Island hopping is a great way to experience the most visitor sites and partake in the most activities, and several of the lodges on each island have sister lodges or hotels on the other islands, so you can still enjoy the all-inclusive package without feeling confined to just one hotel.