What is it about Galapagos that makes it different from so many other tropical island holiday destinations?
Galapagos Islands – the birthplace of Darwin’s Origin of Species
Before you decide to spend a fair amount of hard-earned cash and to take a fairly big chunk of what might be your limited holiday time, it’s critical that you are clear on your own personal motivations for going all the way to this remote volcanic archipelago. It’s important that you understand why Galapagos is a world-renown destination, on par with the Serengeti and Antarctica. To avoid wasting your time and money, to avoid being disappointed, you want to be sure that your expectations are properly aligned with what the Galapagos can best deliver to you.
Here’s a hint: What sets Galapagos apart from any other tropical seaside holiday is not the local culture, not the night-life, not the beaches, not the hiking, not the shopping opportunities nor the available tourist activities. Though you can enjoy these things in Galapagos, you can find much better beaches, local culture, food, hikes, shopping and other tourist activities in dozens of other tropical islands, likely closer to home and more affordably priced at that.
No. Galapagos is world-famous as the place where, in 1835, Charles Darwin came upon some early insights into a major question that had been nagging him: “Where do species come from? What is their origin?”. On arriving in Galapagos, he quickly concluded that underwater volcanic forces led to the creation of the Galapagos in fairly recent geologic times, much more recently than mainland South America. He also remarked that species there closely resembled those on mainland South America, but were slightly different. He also noticed that these species were different from themselves, depending on what island in the Galapagos they lived on.
Charles Darwin’s early observations in Galapagos eventually led him to publish a book “On the Origin of Species”, 24 years later – after a lot of deep thinking and evidence gathering. The book completely shattered the commonly held belief at the time that God had created the earth and all species, and that nothing ever changed. It’s hard to understand today what an existentialist challenge this revelation presented to people all over the world in those days – but it was HUGE!
So, what Galapagos has to offer is a chance get into Charles Darwin’s headspace – to see the unique species of the islands, to see how they resemble each other, how they resemble species from the mainland, but to see how they’re different and to feel what he felt when he came upon his AHA! Moment.
Imagine walking through dense forests for days and days, and all of a sudden, in one final step, coming up the rim of the Grand Canyon – seeing a vast, deep canyon, seeing for miles. Imagine the sense of wonder and awe you would feel – it would be almost frightening. That’s what Charles Darwin felt when he realized that species changed, that they evolved, that humans had also evolved from earlier species. Going to Galapagos should help you feel what Charles Darwin felt and it should re-awake your sense of awe and wonder.
Of course, as an excellent secondary benefit, the species you’ll see in Galapagos are for the most part completely unafraid of humans. Beyond feeling Charles Darwin’s “mind trip”, you should also expect to have the time of your life getting up close to birds, giant tortoise, swimming with sea lions, penguins, sea turtles and shark, chasing mockingbirds away from nibbling at your shoelaces, watching hundreds of dolphins swim across the bow of your ship, and more. Some have had the chance to swim with dolphins, and even with orcas!
What’s the best way to visit the Galapagos – Expedition cruise or Land based tours?
Galapagos Cruise or Island Hopping—A Look at the Pros and Cons of Each Tour Option
Now that you’ve established your motivations for going to the Galapagos Islands, it’s time to start planning your trip there. For most people, this is a one-shot deal – they’ll go once and never come back. It’s critically important that you take the time to consider your options and ensure you experience Galapagos in the way best suited to your needs and interests.
There are two main ways to discover the islands—by expedition cruise, where you have your private cabin on a ship and have meals on-board, or by land-based island-hopping, where you sleep in hotels and eat in restaurants.
To help you figure out which option is best for you, here’s a look at the pros and cons of each tour method.
Pros of Island-Hopping
Usually Costs Less Than a Cruise, particularly if you are OK with lower-end services
Hotel-based tours allow visitors to choose their accommodations from a range of prices—budget, mid-range, first-class, and luxury. With the most basic of accommodations going at what you might expect to leave as a daily tip on a first-class ship, you can clearly spend time in Galapagos at a much lower cost by staying on land. But if you like more comfortable hotels, the price differences can quickly disappear.
Similarly, you can spend very little on a back alley meal of rice and beans with a piece of chicken, but if you like nicer places, prices go up as well.
Finally, to get out and about the islands and to visit the wild places where Galapagos shows off its best attributes, you need to book day trips. These vary in price but can add up to be close to the price of what you’d pay onboard a ship, depending on the comfort class.
At the end of the day, unless you’re into low-end accommodations and meals, the price of a land-based based trip is not necessarily much lower than that of a decent mid-range cruise ship experience.
Leisurely and Flexible, Go at Your Own Pace
There is a wide range of activities for those staying at hotels – many can be organized for free, or don’t require advance bookings. Visiting the local beach, local swimming holes, or a highlands farm where giant tortoises roam, for example. Land-based visitors can build their own schedules, making this a more flexible option compared to following a cruise’s set itinerary. Having said this, spaces on day trips to remote visitor sites are limited and unless these are booked in advanced (e.g. up to several months if during the high season), there may be no space left for you.
Arguably better for People with Seasickness
If you are very prone to seasickness, you can choose a land-based visit – but unless you have no intention of visiting sites off the island on which you’re staying, you’ll invariably have to spend a good deal of time on a boat. Day trip boats are smaller and faster – and trips on these have been qualified as “bone-jarring”. You can spend up to two hours each way on such ships while visiting remote sites.
Cell-phone Reception Almost Wherever You Go
If you must have cell reception because you can’t live without being connected with your phone, then land-based tours are probably better for you (though Galapagos mobile data and internet is 15 years behind the times). Typically on a ship, you’ll be out of cell-phone range 50% of the time.
More Time Spent On Land
Those staying at hotels will spend more time on land, browsing shops and eating at local restaurants. So they will get to know the local communities better. However, as we note above, if that’s your main interest in a tropical island holiday, Galapagos is not the ideal place to go.
Cons of Island Hopping
Inconvenient to Go from Island to Island
The ferries taking you between the main inhabited islands consist of uncomfortable speedboats. People regularly report that passengers are often sick and that the ride (2.5 hours typically) can be “bone-jarringly rough”. Though the journey is relatively short at 2.5 hours, moving from one inhabited island to another typically will take up a big part of a day. By the time you pack, check-out of your hotel, get to the docks, wait around for the other passengers, travel, arrive, find your new hotel and check-in, you’ll have little left of the day to enjoy. For those who have only a limited time in the islands, this is a consideration.
More Time Spent in Transit on Day Trips
Day trips will have you get up early, find your way to the town docks, wait around for other passengers and then head off on a fast, possibly bumpy boat ride to your destination. At the end of your visit, you’ll have to go home again. In all, you might end up spending 6 of the 12 daylight hours in transit.
Though at the end of the day, you might be spending less money, you are also spending less time enjoying what the islands have to offer.
Miss Out On Several Sites, Won't See as Much of the Islands
Since only three of the main islands can easily accommodate visitors, your itineraries and site visiting options will be limited to sites within easy reach of these islands. You will be visiting the most visited sites, where wildlife is most disturbed by tourists.
Timing is poor for wildlife observation
Land-based tours will have you arrive at visitors sites after 10 AM (as per park regulations). By then, the equatorial sun has risen quite high and has become quite hot. Most wildlife species are active at sunrise when things are cooler. This is when you’ll see the best displays of various behaviours, such as feeding, courting, mating, fighting. By the time things get hot, most animals find shade and rest until later in the afternoon – by which time a land-based tour is required to have left the visitor site.
Pros of Cruise Tours
More Efficient Itinerary, See More In the Same Amount of Time
Most cruises have diverse itineraries, visiting two sites per day, at which you can expect to go on a hike, snorkel, kayak and more. Ships do most of their travelling during meals and downtime (e.g. overnight) so you can spend more time visiting the islands during the day. Typically, on waking up early in the morning, the ship is already anchored at a remote visitor site. Some ships will even have you disembarking at sun-rise, a full 4 hours before any land-based visitor is allowed to do so, just when conditions are ideal.
See More Islands & Experience More of the Galapagos
A typical 8-day cruise will have you visit 20 or more visitor sites. A land-based visit would require nearly 3 weeks to do the same but necessarily limited to sites near inhabited islands.
Logistically much simpler
The only challenge in organizing a ship-based visit to Galapagos is finding a ship most suited to your needs and interests. Once that is done, there are no more concerns. Unless you purchase a package organized by a tour operator, you’ll have to deal with the daily logistics of organizing your Galapagos visit while on a land-based tour. Which hotel to choose, which restaurant, what day trip to book, how to catch the ferry to another island. All this can be quite time consuming and can distract you from enjoying what Galapagos is all about.
Only Unpack/Pack Once
If you’re like most people, you probably don’t enjoy packing and unpacking or checking into and out of hotels at all. With island-hopping, you’ll have to unpack and pack your luggage at every hotel you visit. But with a cruise, you will only need to unpack once and pack once for the duration of your stay. Something to consider if you’re travelling with children as well.
Quick Access to Guides and Specialists
A naturalist guide will lead all of your tours with a cruise booking. And you’ll also have experienced crew members on board to take care of your needs, including medical needs in case of an illness or injury.
Zero Hassle, Worry-Free Experience
Having everything taken care of for you during a cruise makes for a stress-free vacation. You don’t need to worry about a thing, freeing you to focus on what you travelled so far to enjoy.
Stars and bio-luminescence
Galapagos is on the Equator, in the Pacific Ocean. The stars there are brilliant – far from any light pollution. For visitors from the northern hemisphere, it’s the first time they ever see the Southern Cross, while those from the south get to see the Big Dipper for the first time.
The sea is also full of bioluminescent plankton. On a ship, out at sea, you’ll have the chance to marvel at these “underwater fireflies”. The brightly lit towns in Galapagos prevent you from enjoying such spectacles of nature.
Cons of Cruise Tours
Though there are land-based trips that will be pricier than a ships based trip of equal length, typically, an expedition cruise is more costly. While a decent mid-range cruise my cost about $550/person/day, a well-organized land-based trip (not counting all the time invested in organizing it) using accommodations and eating out at similarly rated places could go for about $350 /person/day.
For those with a bit of flexibility, last-minute cruise offers can result in savings from 10% to as much as 40%, or even 50% (rare). Under such circumstances, the ship-based experience can come in at the same price, or even lower than an equivalent land-based trip.
If you need to work (which we don’t recommend during such a beautiful vacation!), you can expect to have cell-phone reception about 50% of your time at sea – and don’t expect top service.
Can Cause Seasickness for Those Who Are Prone
Though many people are concerned about seasickness, surveys of returning passengers have shown that fewer than 3% reported it having negatively affected their trip. Typically, you might feel it a bit during one particular crossing. Or you might feel it a bit on the first day, then you get your sea legs and are fine for the rest of the trip. There are excellent medications that are commonly used to control it.
While land-based Galapagos vacations are more suited to some, if you cruise around the Galapagos Islands, you’ll truly get the most out of what this iconic archipelago as to offer in your limited time there. The places you’ll visit, the time you’ll save, and the hassle-free living makes a Galapagos Islands cruise tour an exceptional experience.
A Traveler’s Guide to the Galapagos Islands
Tips for Travel to the Galapagos Islands
Whether this is the “bucket list” trip of a lifetime for you or a return visit, travelling to the Galapagos Islands is a special experience that will create lasting memories, either as a solo traveller, a couple or as a family adventure travel holiday. The quirky and tame wildlife and the awe-inspiring landscapes are sure to reawaken your sense of wonder.
To make sure you’re prepared so you can make the most of your vacation, here’s a short guide on how to travel around the Galapagos Islands, including what you need to know about the islands, culture, customs, norms, cruise-life, and more.
You may be wondering: Where are the Galapagos Islands and how many islands are there?
The Galapagos is a volcanic archipelago comprised of a dozen larger and nearly one hundred smaller islands and islets. The archipelago is spread over a wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean, right on the Equator, 600 miles (1,000 kilometres) off the coast of Ecuador. Three of the islands have a substantial human population (between, 1,500 and 15,000 people) while a fourth is home to just 100 long-time residents.
How to Visit the Galapagos Islands
The only way to travel to the Galapagos Islands is by taking a commercial flight from the Ecuadorian mainland - either through the coastal city of Guayaquil (1.5 hours one way) or through the capital city in the Andes, Quito (2.5 hours one way, usually with a stopover in Guayaquil). On arrival in Galapagos, you have a choice of either embarking on an expedition cruise ship (widely considered as the most effective way to get the most out of what the islands are all about), or by a land-based visit (usually less costly, but requiring more time and logistics and limited to sites nearest to human settlements). Since 97% of the islands are protected as a national park and UNESCO World Heritage site, you will be required to be accompanied by a Park certified naturalist guide to access most of the visitor sites.
What Species Live There?
The Galapagos is home to rare, protected wildlife, with several species you won’t find anywhere else in the world. These include the iconic giant tortoise, the marine iguana (the only iguana that feeds underwater), the flightless cormorants, the diminutive Galapagos penguin, playful sea lions, land iguana and more.
On a good trip to the Galapagos Islands, you are likely to see the following species:
- Waved albatross
- Flightless cormorants
- Darwin’s finches (several species)
- Green Sea Turtles
- Giant Tortoises
- Red- and blue-footed boobies
- Galapagos penguin
- Sea Lions
- Sea horses
- A variety of non-dangerous sharks (white-tipped reef sharks, hammerheads) and rays
- Whales (possibly orcas, humpbacks, blue, sperm)
- Lava lizards
- Many unique birds and plants
In many cases, these animals will have no fear of you and you’ll be able to get very close to them… or they will come very close to you.
The Galapagos islands were uninhabited until the 18th century. As recently as the 1950’s fewer than 1,000 people lived there. In the past 40 years, there has been increased migration from various parts of mainland Ecuador – you’ll encounter people from the mainland coast, from the Andes, along with various indigenous groups. As a result, the local Galapagos culture is a mix of what you’ll find on the continent. Gradually, a distinct island culture is forming, but the process is still in the early stages.
What is the Food Like?
The food in the Galapagos is a mix of international and Ecuadorian cuisine. So you will be able to try all types of foods on the islands, and will likely find a variety of foods you’ll enjoy and are familiar with. Ships will serve a variety of dishes, and depending on the comfort level of your ship, meals will be more or less elaborate. In town, a variety of mom & pop restaurants will serve basic rice & beans with a piece of chicken, while around the corner, you’ll find sushi, pizza and craft beers.
Galapagos National Park Regulations
There is a long list of regulations to keep in mind when entering the Galapagos. One of the main conservation concerns is the prevention of the arrival of non-native species. You’ll be checked for any fresh fruits and vegetables before embarking on your flight to the island – please don’t try to bring any with you.
On arrival, you’ll need to pay the $100 park entrance fee (subject to change) – giving you access to the park, which covers 97% of the land area of the islands. You’ll need to be accompanied by a naturalist guide for most of the places you can visit in the park. Guides will ensure that you follow all additional regulations while in the park (e.g. keeping a minimum distance of 6 feet / 2 meters from the animals, no food).
While the Galapagos Islands are generally very safe for visitors, be aware that the animals can respond aggressively if provoked. So respect the wildlife, and they will respect you. It’s against the regulations to touch any animal. Marine wildlife (sharks, rays, sea lions) can be the most impressive. While shark bites have happened in the past (4 recorded shark bites in the past 40 years), this is extremely rare.
Things to Do
Galapagos is world-famous for the unique diversity of wildlife, both above and below the sea. Your primary motivation for going to Galapagos should be to get to see and experience as much as the wildlife as possible, as close as possible. Otherwise, it would be like going all the way to Paris and spending your time there bowling.
Galapagos is also famous as the place where Charles Darwin first started wondering about the origin of species. It’s here, in 1835, that he started asking questions about how species came to be in different parts of the world. Going to Galapagos is an opportunity to better understand how groundbreaking Darwin’s thinking was at the time.
On a typical expedition cruise, you’ll have the chance to do some:
- Kayaking, paddleboarding
- Sunbathing on the beach
For those keen on scuba diving and sports-fishing, you would need to stay on in the islands after your cruise and make specific arrangements. Your cruise representative can help you with that.
If you’re thinking of going to Galapagos to relax on the beach and enjoy the local culture and nightlife – you should reconsider and choose another destination. You’ll save a lot of money – as Galapagos is much more expensive than mainland Ecuador (and many other places). Going to Galapagos for such reasons would be like going all the way to Paris and spending your time there bowling. Sure, they have nice bowling alleys in Paris – but you can likely find nice ones much closer to home.
Booking Your Cruise and Travelling
When booking your trip to the Galapagos, consider the following tips.
To save money on your trip, consider travelling during the off-season (September to early November / early December). Also, keep these estimates in mind when planning your budget for your cruise (prices are subject to change):
- $20 for the transit control fee
- $100 for the National Park entrance fee
- $500 (approximately) for a return flight to the Galapagos Islands (if not taking a boat from the mainland)
- $10 to $20 per day for tips to i) your tour guide and ii) crew
- $300-$1,300 per day for an expedition cruise, depending on comfort level, season, and notwithstanding possible last-minute prices
Land-based or expedition cruise
An expedition cruise is a superior way of getting the most out of your time in Galapagos. Your ship will travel at night, and you wake up at dawn, anchored next to a pristine island, watching the sunrise while perhaps a pod of dolphins slowly swims by. You disembark on a remote visitor site early in the morning, when the sun is not yet unbearably hot, and when the animals are most active. You’ll enjoy a nice hike through various ecosystems – observing a variety of wildlife – a Galapagos tortoise, land iguanas, Darwin’s finches coming right up to you, and more. By the time the sun starts getting too warm, it’s time for a swim, a snorkel, kayak or paddleboard. You’ll swim with playful sea lions (underwater puppies), see penguins daring about you chasing little fish, spot some disinterested sharks and rays. The ship will sail to another visitor site while you have lunch and maybe a little siesta, and you’ll repeat the kinds of activities you did in the morning. Happy hour is at sea, watching the sunset behind a volcano in a remote part of the archipelago, far from the noise and lights of Galapagos towns.
A land-based trip is usually more budget-friendly – but is also more logistically taxing. You’ll need to check out of/into hotels as you move around, taking taxis/water taxis. You’ll have to meet a group for your daily excursions, often waiting around impatiently for stragglers (unless you’re the straggler…). You’ll spend up to 2 or more hours travelling to your designated visitor site, often arriving later in the morning, when the sun is high and hot and animals have sought shade. You’ll need to head back to town by mid-afternoon, finding that you spend most of your day just getting to and back from your visitor site.
We recommend that if you think an expedition cruise is too expensive, then you should hold back and take the time to save so that you can enjoy Galapagos in the best possible way when you’re ready to do so.
How long should I go?
The typical expedition cruise is 7 nights / 8 days. Please be aware that the first and last day of a trip to the Galapagos islands includes the travel time from and to the continent – resulting in only short days on the ship. If you’re short on time, several ships offer shorter cruises – but remember, a 5-day cruise will give you only 3 full days on the ship.
Best Time to Book
Wildlife in Galapagos offers a regular variety of spectacles all year long. There is not an ideal time to go in that regard. For those who don’t like very warm weather, the months of June to December will offer relief from the tropical heat you’ll feel from January to May. The sea during the cooler months can on average be choppier and waters cooler – though there are never any storms in Galapagos.
Christmas and Easter periods are the busiest – it can be harder to find a last-minute Galapagos cruise during that time – when many ships can be fully booked months in advance. The lowest season is from September to mid-December – though the U.S. Thanksgiving week (end November) can also be booked up.
The Galapagos environment is surprisingly benign. The chances of getting anything serious are minuscule. But it’s always better to be safe than sorry, and as most of you will be spending a bit of time on the mainland, where there is more going on (particularly in the coastal areas and in the Amazon) – it’s recommended to visit your doctor for traveller’s vaccinations at least six months before your trip.
What to Pack
Ideally, you will only pack the essentials since many boats have limited storage space and baggage restrictions.
Here’s a list of must-pack items for your trip:
- Camera with a zoom lens and an underwater camera
- Insect repellant
- Hat (light, wide-brimmed)
- A light sweater (particularly for the June – December period)
- Pants and shorts – the kind that dries easily
- Light shirts – short and long-sleeved (protection from the sun)
- Windbreaker rain jacket
- Sturdy waterproof sandals
- Light hiking boots/shoes
- Medication to prevent seasickness (motion sickness)
- Reusable water bottle
- Waterproof bag in which to transport your camera while going ashore
- First Aid kit with ibuprofen, Pepto Bismol, and diarrhea medicine
The U.S. Dollar is the official currency in Ecuador. Not many places in the Galapagos take credit cards or $100 bills, so be sure to bring enough cash before travelling. You will need it when buying food and drinks and tipping.
Things to Ask Your Travel Agent or Cruise Representative
- What's the itinerary? A good itinerary will have you spending less time visiting towns.
- How many passengers are on board?
- What's included/not included in the trip?
- Are there any additional costs? What are they?
- Is the equipment included? (eg. snorkelling, wet suit)
- Do you have solo pricing? What if I’m willing to share?
- Can you accommodate my particular dietary restrictions?
Going Through Customs/Immigration
Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months after your departure date from Ecuador.
Visitors are given a 12-x tourist visa upon being granted permission to enter the country, which is valid for 90 days. You cannot have a flight that leaves Ecuador later than 90 days after your arrival.
When arriving at the mainland airport for your flight to Galapagos, you will need to present a domestic round-trip air ticket. Though current regulations require that you have cruise reservation prior to flying to the islands, at the time of publishing, it is not being enforced and never has been. Technically, if you cannot show these, there is a chance that you will not be allowed to visit the Galapagos Islands.
If you get sick or injured during your trip, you will need travel insurance to avoid spending potentially thousands of dollars on health care. Travel insurance isn’t expensive, so it’s worth buying before you travel. Just make sure you understand what it covers, including the activities you might be taking part in.
Life on an Expedition Cruise Ship
Ships in the Galapagos carry between 12 and 98 people. The vast majority of the approximately 65 expedition cruise ships carry 20 or fewer passengers, with perhaps 4-5 carrying more than 48. The size of ship you opt for will depend on your personal preferences. Smaller ships provide for a more intimate experience with the islands – allowing you to observer dolphins riding the bow-wave, for example, or making it easier for the captain to alter course to get close to sperm whales. Larger ships will ride the chop more easily (though you will still feel the swell) and have more deck space. Luxury ships can be found in both the small and large category, budget / mid-range ships can only be found in the smaller ship category.
Most people express concerns about seasickness. It has been our experience, after surveying retuning visitors for several years, that fewer than 3% of visitors felt that seasickness affected the enjoyment of their trip. In most cases, the feeling will be short-lived as your body grows accustomed to the motion. Also, the use of modern medications and patches can make a big difference.