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.
Much Better for Photographers
A lot of visitors to the Galapgos are keen photographers. These people will know that lighting is a big part of taking good pictures. Under a bright sun there are big contrasts between shaded and non-shaded areas, making it very difficult to obtain well balanced pictures. On a cruise, you will be among the wildlife much ealier in the day, when the lighting is much softer (and when animals are at their most active). Similarly, you'll be at visitor sites much later in the afternoon. In both cases, with the early or late sun, the light is much more amenable to taking great shots.
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.
How to Prep for A Cruise Vacation to the Galapagos Islands
Tips and Tricks to Help You Make the Most of Your Trip
Whether you’re a newbie or a weathered cruise veteran, preparing to embark on a cruise thousands of miles from home can be overwhelming. What to wear? What to pack? Is there anything I shouldn’t bring?
Thanks to their mild weather patterns and unrivalled wildlife, the Galapagos Islands are becoming hugely popular as a year-round travel destination. The Galapagos is also known as the cradle of evolution; famed explorer Charles Darwin came up with his theory of natural selection in part thanks to his observations there back in 1835. And what better way to experience this iconic site than on a cruise tour?
Cruises are the most efficient, convenient and, of course, the most Instagrammable way to tour the Galapagos Islands. A cruise allows you to see more of the islands with the least amount of hassle, and they often provide on-site guides and specialists to help you make the most out of your trip.
Great! Now that it’s been decided, it’s time to move onto the part that so many people dread the most: Prep time. Whether this is your first cruise to the Galapagos, or your first cruise ever, we’ve got the best tips and tricks to help you prepare for your trip off dry land.
Make sure all your travel docs are in order
Your travel documents and tickets should arrive a couple of weeks before the big day. If you bought them online, you might be able to print your tickets from home. Make sure you get these documents sorted out well ahead of time, so you won’t have to stress about them on the day you leave.
Before you do anything, do a thorough check to ensure the information is correct. Mistakes aren’t common, but they do happen, and it’s better to sort that out with plenty of time to spare. Make sure your passport is up-to-date and ready to go (it needs to be valid to 6 months beyond your date of arrival in Ecuador), then plan a safe place to keep it for the duration of your cruise. Remember to print out your:
- Boarding pass
- Luggage tags
- Cruise paperwork
Keep these important documents in a safe place with your passport until it’s time to leave. Pack them in your carry-on so you can keep them handy. Before you head out, do a last-minute check that you're ticketed for the right dates, from the right airport, and to the right destination.
Notify your bank and credit card company of your trip
Nothing ruins a vacation like a credit card mishap. If you don’t let your bank and credit card company know you’ll be travelling and they notice your card being used half-way around the world, they’ll flag it as theft or fraud. Many cruise destinations are on fraud lists and are more likely to be flagged than others. Your bank will immediately put a hold on your account, leaving you stranded at sea with no cashflow. A quick phone call a week or so before your departure will keep this cruise disaster at bay.
Make any special requests to your cruise (allergies, etc.)
If you have allergies, medical conditions or disabilities your cruise staff should know about, it’s best to call in, or send an email to let them know at least 30 days ahead of time. You can also bring it up again with staff once you arrive – especially relating to dangerous food allergies. Most cruise lines are happy to make the appropriate accommodations with a little notice.
Plan your trip to the airport/coming home (car drop off, car service, uber, bus schedule, hotels, etc.)
Remembering to plan a ride to and from the airport often slips through the cracks when there are so many other things to remember during your vacation prep. This little ‘oops’ may seem like no biggie. But when you’re stuck outside the airport in your swimsuit, in the middle of the night, in freezing weather with no ride home, you’ll definitely be kicking yourself! Plan for a car drop off, contact a car service, consult the local bus schedules, plan to take an Uber or taxi, or look into booking a nearby hotel.
Get to know the ship - ask for information, research, reviews, etc.
Since you’ll be spending quite a bit of time there when it’s not docked for an excursion, you may want to learn a little bit more about your ship. Read reviews, browse passenger chat boards and social media reviews and take a peek at the ship’s deck plans and cabin layouts. This is also a great opportunity to go over the ship’s safety features, electrical specifications (will you need an adapter for your phone charger?) amenities and menu. Thankfully in Galapagos, ships don’t have much of a dress code. On higher-end ships, you might feel out of place if you go to dinner in an old t-shirt and shorts, but generally, as long as you show respect for your other travellers, a clean t-shirt and shorts are just fine.
Be realistic about your Wi-Fi and cellphone expectations
Only higher-end ships have wi-fi, and even there, it’s quite spotty. Cell-phone service is available only when the ship is within range of towers – meaning typically, about 30% of the time. Be ready for a screen-free holiday!
Pack your essentials in your carry-on
Aside from your passport and travel documents, there are some other essentials you should probably keep handy in your carry-on. Your phone charger, daily medications, a toothbrush, facial wipes and other toiletries, a weather-appropriate change of clothes (and underwear) for when you arrive, plus any valuables that you don’t want to leave with your checked baggage should be in there. It also helps to bring a collapsible water bottle in your carry-on, which can be filled after you’ve gone through customs.
Only the higher-end cruise ships have a luggage service that brings your suitcase from the airport to your room onboard the ship. This means you likely won’t see your luggage – or anything in it – until the evening. This is why it’s also important to include everything you might need for the first day of your cruise in your carry-on.
Pack your own pharmacy
If this is your first cruise (or your tenth, for those of us who just never found our sea legs), you’ll quickly find out that seasickness and sunburns are sometimes occupational hazards of taking a cruise. Medications for constipation/diarrhea, motion sickness, allergies, bug spray and sunscreen should all be brought from home because they can cost quite a bit more at the ship’s shop.
Pack laundry soap
Depending on how many outfits you plan on packing, you may need to do some laundry over the course of your cruise. Some cruise lines offer free detergent, but in some cases, it can be expensive. Since there are no liquid restrictions on cruise ships, you can bring your own detergent and hand-wash your clothes in your cabin’s sink. Most in-cabin showers even include retractable clotheslines so you can hang your laundry to dry. This allows you to pack lighter and leaves more room for souvenirs!
Pack the right clothes and shoes
On many visitor sites in the Galapagos, expect to be walking on sandy, rocky and uneven terrain and be sure to pick the right footwear. A decent pair of running shoes will work, as will a sturdy pair of closed-toe sandals if you’re sure-footed. Some guides just walk about in flip-flops, but we don’t recommend that for first timers. You may also consider water shoes – as you will be disembarking from zodiacs onto a wet beach from time to time. Many ships suggest that you go barefoot while on board.
Protection from the sun is another consideration. Light long-sleeved shirts and trousers might be a good idea, particularly if you are prone to sunburn. Wide-brimmed hats are also useful (or even a parasol that can double up as a walking stick). Between about June and December, evenings can be fresh and warrant a sweater/fleece jacket.
Pack for your hikes
You’ll be going on two hikes a day. These are generally short, but because you’re taking your time, you may be on the trail for up to 2 hours. A day pack with a water bottle, sunscreen, bug spray and other handy items will be useful.
Save some room in your luggage for souvenirs
For those who love to shop, the Galapagos Islands offer a variety of local shops that sell one-of-a-kind souvenirs to bring home for family and friends. To avoid getting caught up in astronomical overweight baggage fees on your way home, remember to pack lightly!
Be smart about your wardrobe – only pack what you need, and roll your clothes instead of folding them to save space. Shoes and electronics are some of the heaviest things you can pack, so be strategic about what you really need to bring with you. Most cruises offer soap, shampoo and conditioner, so you can generally leave those behind, too!
Weigh your suitcase multiple times before you leave for the cruise, so you know exactly what you’re starting with. When buying souvenirs, keep their weight in mind. If possible, weigh your suitcase periodically during your cruise as you add items, to avoid any nasty surprises.
Get travel insurance taken care of!
As much as we wish everything always went exactly as we want it to, there are always things that can go wrong. For the most part, you’re out at sea, which comes with its own limitations.
If, for any reason, you miss the boat, need to leave the ship early or be medically evacuated, or if your cruise is unexpectedly cancelled, it helps to have travel insurance to help get you out of tight spots. Not to mention, it provides that added peace of mind to help you fully relax and have a blissful time.
Checklist: The Essentials
- Are your passport, boarding pass, cruise tickets and other travel documents accounted for and easily accessible?
- Did you purchase travel insurance?
- Did you notify your bank where and when you will be travelling?
- Did you plan a ride to and from the airport?
- Have you packed your medications, sunscreen, bug spray, etc.?
- Did you pack your phone charger and, if necessary, an adapter?
- Did you pack a lightweight and breathable hiking outfit with the appropriate footwear?
- Will you need snorkelling equipment, a swimsuit, water shoes and a towel?
- Do you have laundry soap and all the toiletries you’ll need?
- Did you pack a backpack and a water bottle for your excursion?
No matter how thoroughly you prepare, the best way to make the most of your trip is to get to know the Galapagos Islands before you go. We all love the idea of going on a cruise, but it definitely helps to be well-prepared. We guarantee you’ll also fall in love with the Islands themselves, their rich histories and their unlimited potential for an unforgettable cruise experience.
How to Book a Last-Minute Cruise to the Galapagos
Love to Live Spontaneously? Here’s Your Spur of the Moment Booking Guide!
Nothing feels more exhilarating than that split-second decision to leave your responsibilities on land and embark on a spontaneous cruise vacation.
If you’re looking for a last-minute escape the Galapagos Islands may be the perfect destination, whether you’re itching to walk the same path Charles Darwin took when he was inspired to dream up his theory of evolution, sample the unique combination of international and Ecuadorian cuisine, observe the rare and abundant wildlife or simply zone out and take in the sun, sea, sand, and overall sense of place here on this remote volcanic archipelago.
Galapagos cruises are ideal for the last-minute traveller who wants to pack as much into the trip as possible without the stress and added preparation required for the logistics-heavy island-hopping approach. Unfortunately, convenience comes at a price: cruises are usually more expensive than land vacations.
However, for those with a bit of flexibility, last-minute cruise offers can end up coming in at the same price - or even lower - than a land-based trip. But bargain hunters beware – finding an 11th hour deal on a cruise can be tricky, and last-minute bookings don’t always mean savings.
When and how to book:
Understand the booking window: Last-minute prices are usually offered no earlier than 60-90 days before sailing
Cruises are a little more difficult to book last-minute than a vacation on land. Most cruise lines have policies requiring them to submit their guest roster to the coast guard within a certain timeframe.
However, the general rule of thumb is that guests can cancel their cruise reservations up to 60 days before it sets sail. This gives the cruise line – and last-minute deal hunters – a more concrete look at how many rooms are left with plenty of time to spare. If the 60-day deadline has passed and there are plenty of rooms available, you may be in luck for scoring a great deal! Of course, the longer you wait, the better the potential deals – but in exchange, you might find that there are no deals left if you wait too long!
Shoulder seasons tend to be cheaper
During the off-seasons in April, May, September and October, and early December there is less tourist traffic in the Galapagos and cruises try to amp up extra clientele by offering deals and cheaper packages. These are the best times to try and snag a last-minute deal. Less traffic means it’s not as likely that the cruise you want has already sold out, and there will be plenty of rooms available at a discounted rate.
Be flexible on your dates
You may want to consider booking closer to 90 days beforehand if you have a specific activity or type of cruise in mind. During peak travel times, Galapagos cruises will usually sell out long before you’ve even had the idea to go! This destination is usually busiest from a few days before Christmas to March/April (northern hemisphere winter) and June/July and into August (northern hemisphere school holidays). The more inflexible your plans are, the earlier you will want to book.
Don't wait too long to book (don't hold out hope for deals)
Though cruise prices may continue to drop as you near the sailing date, availabilities will also become rarer. It’s a game of chicken to wait and wait for an even better deal, against the risk of ending up with nothing that will suit your needs. Unless you are totally flexible and unless you don’t mind missing out on a cruise should it come to that, it might be better to book earlier, securing the best cruise for you, rather than risking losing out altogether for the sake of saving $100 or $200.
Don't forget travel insurance
Going on holiday to distant lands comes with its own risks. What if you get sick while away? What if you get sick before you go and find yourself having to cancel? What if a flight is cancelled and you miss your cruise? It’s never a bad idea to consider comprehensive travel insurance.
As soon as you book your ticket, the very next thing you should do is to get some decent travel insurance (unless you’re totally not a risk-averse type of person). Travel insurance is the security blanket you’ll need in case your spontaneous vacation has any nasty surprises in store.
Haven't had enough? Consider extensions
A Galapagos cruise is an incredible vacation in itself, but while you’re there, why not extend your trip by taking advantage of the luxurious extension tours offered by many cruise lines? You’ll have the opportunity to spend more time at your favourite visitor sites, and some even take you to the most exciting regions of mainland Ecuador. Extension tours can last from 5 to 15 days, allowing you to push real-life to the back of your mind for just a little while longer.
The Bottom Line:
When you see a deal that meets your requirements, don’t hesitate. Prices can change in a split second, and last-minute deals don’t like to hang around. If you plan smart and act fast, a killer deal could be just a click away. Now there’s nothing left to do but do some research and get packing!
Contact us to help you book the last-minute trip of a lifetime to the wonderfully unique Galapagos Islands!
The 5 Best Rated Snorkelling Sites in Galapagos
Get the Most Out of Your Underwater Adventure on These Islands!
Some people will argue that Galapagos under the sea offers even better wildlife observation opportunities that what you can find on land. Recognized as a World Heritage site in 2001, the Galapagos Marine Reserve is one of the largest in the world and covers an area equivalent to the size of Greece.
There are good reasons for this.
Fishing is solely permitted to locals, and only artisanal fishing practices are allowed. The large international tuna fleets are kept out, operating just beyond the limits of the marine reserve, 65 kilometres / 40 miles out from the nearest land point. As a result, you’ll be hard-pressed to find more pristine ocean waters anywhere else. It is worthwhile to perfect your snorkelling skills before starting your Galapagos vacation to ensure you get the most out of your time in the islands.
We asked 12 Galapagos naturalist guides who have worked a combined total of 231 years to evaluate all the snorkelling sites accessible to visitors (39 in all). They rated them from 0 to 100. Here's what they found:
Champion Islet - Score: 96%
Located just off the island of Floreana island in the southern part of the archipelago, this small island’s eastern side is bathed by ocean currents, which bring up rich nutrients from deeper waters. Naturalist guides rate the snorkelling around Champion as the best in Galapagos. Sea lions, sea turtles, white tip sharks, sea horses, schools of tropical fish - and if you're lucky, hammerheads, giant manta rays dolphins and eels can be spotted here.
Score Punta Mejia - Marchena Island: 94%
Located on the northern edge of the main group of islands, this rarely visited snorkelling site is rated as among the top snorkelling sites in Galapagos. Deep, calm and clear waters of the northern archipelago along with jagged topography of the place give the feeling of witnessing the first years of our planet and its underwater world. In addition to a wide variety of fish, snorkelers often see stingrays, sea turtles, reef sharks and from time to time, some marine mammals such as false killer whales and pilot whales.
Devil's Crown - Floreana Island: 91%
Coral formations can be found in this flooded volcanic crater. They attract other marine animals, making it one of the best snorkelling spots in the Galapagos. You can see sea lions, sharks, stingrays, tropical fish, eels and sea turtles or watch a blue-footed booby as it dives into the water to catch their prey. The outer rim of the crater is a paradise for birds, including boobies, pelicans, frigates and red-billed tropical birds.
Score Punta Vicente Roca – Isabela Island: 90%
Located off the northwestern coast of Isabela Island, the waters here are bathed by the nutrient-rich Cromwell current. You’re likely to see mantas, sea turtles, marine iguanas and sea lions. The famous mola mola (ocean sunfish), a very large, unusual fish might be spotted. With some additional luck, you could actually see a whale shark cruising by (more likely between June and November). You’ll almost certainly see penguins. Above the waves, onshore, blue-footed and Nazca boobies preen alongside an occasional flightless cormorant.
North Seymour - 86%
This is the only one of the 5 best snorkelling spots that can be visited by land-based visitors (via a full day trip). North Seymour is located just off Baltra Island (a.k.a. South Seymour) – where the main airport in Galapagos is located. You’re almost certain to swim along with white-tipped reef sharks and with as are a variety of other tropical fish such as angelfish, stingrays, parrotfish and sea lions – who are like underwater puppy dogs.
The waters of the Galapagos are the warmest from January to May and the coolest from August to November. People used to swim in cold waters can do without a wetsuit at any time of the year, but generally, at least one shorty is appreciated from June to December, and most should be able to do without a wetsuit between February and April.
The Five Most Photographed Visitor Sites in the Galapagos Islands
From Breathtaking Landscapes to the Wonders of Wildlife
Though most people would consider Galapagos to be a wildlife photographer's dream destination (they would not be mistaken), the archipelago also offers a wildly diverse range of land and seascapes. Created by a volcanic hotspot under the Earth’s crust, Galapagos consists of a dozen larger and many smaller islands and islets formed by continuous volcanic eruptions during the last 5 million years. The most recent islands to the west are still subject to occasional eruptions. The island of Fernandina is the youngest of all, and 90% of its surface is mostly made up of recent and very arid lava fields, with only a few places sheltering plant and animal life.
All of this volcanic activity has left a legacy of unusual landscapes, volcanic cones, expanses of pahoehoe lava fields, sulphur fumaroles, lava tunnels, one of the largest sunken craters on the planet, pristine beaches with multi-coloured sand and more.
But the 85 sites designated for visitors to the Galapagos National Park Service do not represent equally impressive landscapes. To help visitors better plan their trips and embark on a superior cruise itinerary, we hired 12 naturalist guides who together have worked for a total of 231 years on the islands to assess the extent to which visitors are impressed by what they see or how much time they spend taking pictures of the landscapes at particular sites. Ratings range from 0% (no interest / few pictures taken) to 100% (everybody is impressed / taking pictures). The following is the result of their work.
Bartolome Island: 98%
Bartolome Island has two sites for visitors, which usually combine into one visit. The first includes a swim and snorkel off a beautiful beach around the well-known Pinnacle Rock; the undersea world is very impressive. You’ll be sharing the waves with sea turtles, penguins, rays, white tip reef sharks and a variety of tropical fish. The second site is accessible by a long staircase, which leads to a breathtaking view from which you can see graphic evidence of recent volcanic activity both on the island of Bartolome and beyond the neighbouring island of Santiago.
Punta Espinoza on Fernandina Island: 91%
Barely a few hundred thousand years old and with no invasive species, this is probably the most pristine island you will ever see in your life. Its central volcano dominates the terrain, extending its rugged lava fields to the shore. One of the island’s iconic species is the flightless cormorants, which nest there, along with “lizard city,” which is, in fact, one of the highest densities of marine iguana, penguins and, if you're lucky, the Galapagos falcon. Big Pacific swells often come crashing ashore here – creating a powerful spectacle.
Sierra Negra Volcano, Isabela Island: 91%
The Sierra Negra volcanic caldera is the second largest in the world. A 45-minute drive from the main town, followed by a half-hour walk or a horse ride will take you to the edge of the caldera. From here, you can follow the path for another hour. It is divided in two: to the west, it heads towards an old sulphur mine; to the east, the path leads to the Chico volcano where one of the most recent eruptions took place (2019). Magnificent views of Alcedo, Fernandina and Azul volcanoes in the distance can be had on clear days.
Gardner Bay on the Spanish island: 91%
Considered the best beach in the Galapagos where you’ll find sea lions and cheeky mocking birds (they will peck at your shoelaces), this long stretch of pristine white sand is what you expect to see in travel magazines under the caption “Beautiful tropical beach.”
Tagus Cove - Isabela Island: 88%
This is a deep-water cove frequented by whalers and pirates, as evidenced by old shoreline graffiti. A short steep walk leads to Darwin Lake inside a volcanic cone. With beautiful views in all directions, you’ll be bumping into Galapagos finches, Galapagos hawks, yellow warblers, Galapagos flycatchers and more. Walk along the path to the end to enjoy a wide view north toward the Ecuador volcano, 35 km (21 miles) in the distance. A small boat ride along the cliffs can get you up close to flightless cormorants, Galapagos penguins and Galapagos sea.