The Galápagos Islands, almost 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, have been on our bucket list for awhile. An ever-evolving volcanic archipelago with an abundance of unafraid wildlife both above and below the surface of the Pacific are a must-see for any photographer, conservationist, and wildlife and/or nature lover. Mainland Ecuador is no slouch in the tourism department either (more on this later). No way were we flying all the way to Quito, hopping over to the Galápagos and skipping activities on the Continent! But first, Galápagos planning…
Appropriate planning and preparation will help maximize your time and money -both of which are considerable. We had both types of tourist on our boat -those that studied the itinerary, read up on the islands, the wildlife & history, and those that had no idea where we were going next. My Type A personality aside, I just can’t understand dropping $12,000 on a trip and not fully maximizing said trip by at least spending a a bit of time preparing. Ask yourself the following questions before you start researching to winnow the choices before you really start:
- How do you like to travel?
- Budget (just get me there) vs Luxury (I want a balcony, gourmet restaurants, social activities, and pampering)… or somewhere in the middle
- Comfortable on a boat pitching around or do you want/need as much stability as possible?
- Larger boats and those with stabilizers are going to offer a smoother ride. Catamarans will offer a bit more stability than single hull boats, as well.
- The wet season (Dec-May) offers calmer and warmer seas.
- With how many people would you like to travel?
- Boats range in size from 14-100 passengers.
- On a small boat, you’re with the same 14-16 people for the length of the trip, which can be a great aspect of the journey. You may make new friends from all over the world. Small boats get into smaller areas larger boats just can’t go and you feel like an adventurer on the islands instead of a tour company/herd of cattle.
- Larger boats, however, offer more personalities, ages and activity levels from which to choose. One really annoying person on a small boat will be with you every step of the way with little break. Bigger ships allow for more separation.
- Boats range in size from 14-100 passengers.
- How much time do you have for the Galapagos specifically?
- 5, 8, 12 or 15 days?
- If you want an 8d/7nt cruise, make sure the boat you choose doesn’t just combine 2 shorter itineraries. Time will be taken up by people disembarking and new people joining the tour.
- If you want to see all of the islands, then 15 days is for you. However, if you’re choosing a pretty active tour, you’re likely to be exhausted after the first week.
- Are there specific islands or animals you absolutely must see?
- Waved albatross is only found on Española for a few months of the year
- Penguins are only found on a few of the western islands -Fernandina, Isabela and Bartolomè
- Read a brief description of each island and the wildlife you’re likely to see taking note of specific islands or animals you don’t want to miss.
- Do you want time in a hotel on land or just the cruise?
- A few days on Santa Cruz was part of our package. By the end of the trip, we were pretty tired due to high levels of activity and poor sleep on the boat, so I could take or leave Santa Cruz. It was enjoyable to keep our own pace exploring Porto Ayora, doing some shopping, checking out the beach and sampling the restaurants and food kiosks.
- Isabela, Floreana and San Cristóbal also have permanent populations.
- Would you prefer observation from a panga or experiencing wildlife via snorkeling more often?
- We snorkeled every day, usually twice a day. We routinely would go out in the pangas to get closer to rays, whales, dolphins, sharks, whale sharks, etc. and would inevitably jump in and swim with whatever we found. All itineraries will offer snorkeling, but find out how much to make an informed decision.
Now that you’ve considered the above questions, your research can be much more focused. Start with either the itinerary you want or the class of boat you like, depending on what’s most important to you.
Galápagos cruise boats are broken down into five classes – only 3 of which I would consider: Tourist Superior, First Class, and Luxury. Amenities and size of accommodations improve with each category. Here’s a link to the comparison chart I made.
Keep in mind, although I’ve included prices, they refer to 2017/18. Obviously, the cost will increase as the years go by, but it may jump higher than expected if tourism is additionally limited for conservation purposes.
I only considered a fraction of the available boats because I answered the above questions before delving into the possibilities. Although we ruled out a larger ship early on, I’ve included the Quasar Evolution, National Geographic Islander, NatGeo Endeavor II, and Celebrity Xpedition, carrying 32, 48, 96 and 100 passengers respectively in the chart. I was a bit concerned about seasickness on a small boat, but we really didn’t want to feel suffocated by larger groups when hiking or snorkeling and we wanted to have access to more landing sites. Half the days of our trip we didn’t have a single other boat anchored with us and we only passed 1 group on two separate islands. The feeling of isolation while exploring the islands really added to the trip for us.
We ended up choosing the Samba, a 78′, fourteen-guest, family-owned yacht sailing out of Santa Cruz/Baltra. They only use top notch naturalists and the small crew was fantastic! It wasn’t fancy -the cabins were tiny and there were definitely no frills on board. Having said that, we had a truly amazing experience! It didn’t matter that our room was small, because we were hardly ever in it. It didn’t matter that there weren’t multiple common rooms or restaurants or a fitness center – it just wasn’t that kind of boat, and our experiences were all the better for it. The Samba offered a tight knit community of passengers and crew all working together to make awesome memories. When the crew is just as excited about spotting wildlife and they’re constantly taking turns snorkeling with the guests because the wildlife is just that awesome to see, that’s a trip I want to be a part of.
Something to keep in mind… it’s not just the boat that matters but the tour company you use to book it. The Samba (and most other boats) may be booked via many different tour companies. Choose wisely to get the most out of your dollar (or pound, yen, euro, etc.)
CNH Tours, based out of Canada, rose to the top of the list pretty quickly for us. A pre-trip extension in Quito, Quito-Galápagos airfare included and 2 days on Santa Cruz greatly influenced our decision. CNH offers an Active Galápagos itinerary which greatly appealed to us as well. I was a little worried we would get bored just doing a short excursion in the morning and another in the afternoon.
I can’t speak to any of the other tours but we seriously underestimated the activity level of the NW Active Itinerary. Avid hikers, runners and all-around active people, we were surprised to find ourselves exhausted at the end of every day! Seriously, we’re in our mid (okay, late) 30’s and we were whipped.
If the Galápagos is on your list (it definitely should be), then go as soon as your budget allows. Walking over various types of lava and slippery rocks, pulling yourself into the panga in sometimes not-so-gentle seas, and hiking in 90° heat are a lot easier at 37 than 67. If you’re around retirement age however, don’t let that stop you from going. Maybe just pack a little extra ibuprofen:)
(To fully appreciate everything, you’ll want to pack in as much as possible and definitely snorkel! Although we had one lovely gentleman on our trip who chose not to do any snorkeling, I really think he missed out on a tremendous aspect of the islands and at least half the wildlife.)
This should be a good base to start planning.
More from our Galápagos series…