So, you want to go to the Galapagos. It’s that spot on everyone’s bucket list. It’s gorgeous brightly coloured birds and giant tortoises seem to be posing on all of the glossy travel magazines. It’s the closest you can get to living the Jurassic Park experience without the risk of being eaten by a T-Rex!
Baby Sea Lions, Blue-footed Boobies with their turquoise toes, animals that look photoshopped who are completely oblivious to you as they go about their lives on Mars-style terrains. Those are the images that come to mind when you think of the Galapagos. Powdery sandy beaches and live volcanoes in the same setting. It’s unbelievable, it’s evocative, it’s powerful, and nothing can prepare you for the natural beauty of these islands. But planning it? Ah. Well, that’s another story.
Having visited the Galapagos islands a matter of weeks ago, I decided this guide was needed, mainly because I couldn’t find any of the answers to the questions we had before going. I had no idea where to start with my planning. I hadn’t a clue about what I needed to know; which questions I should ask ahead; what the distances were like; whether cruises or day trips between the islands were better. I didn’t even really know how to get there! Do you need a cruise to get to the Galapagos islands? When is the best time to visit? What are the differences between ALL of the options? And yes, there are so many options!
It’s easy to be overwhelmed when planning a Galapagos trip. There are a number of things that need to be considered when planning your adventure; the most important two factors being time and budget. These are the two largest factors as they impact everything else.
This post will focus upon Galapagos cruises, rather than day trips, given that as mentioned in my last post, I don’t believe you can really see the Galapagos islands properly if not on a boat.
Once you’ve figured out your approximate duration and total budget, then this guide can be your holy grail to help you decipher the Galapagos jargon, and plan what is sure to be the trip of a lifetime.
Where should you go?
The Galapagos islands are an archipelago of 13 main islands and 7 islets. Only four of these currently have accommodation (Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana).
Largely, your time, budget and class preference will determine which of the many islands you see. A good cruise itinerary should involve at least one of Isla Española, Isla Fernandina or Isla Genovesa. For a cruise of 3-4 nights, one of these islands would be good, for a cruise of 4-9 nights you should aim to visit at least two of these.
These are islands, which you cannot get to on a day trip from the four islands with hotels mentioned above. These islands are further away and typically a cruise will travel overnight to take you to these.
The Western islands, such as Fernandina, are those closest to the initial volcanic eruption that created the Galapagos archipelago. As such, these islands still have lots of volcanic activity, and thus more fertile ground, vegetation and free-roaming animals such as Giant Tortoises. The South Eastern islands, such as Española, are some of the oldest islands and are easier to access on shorter cruises and have lots of endemic species that are unique to these islands. The North Eastern islands, like Genovesa, are sometimes considered the most beautiful.
Each of these islands has different wildlife so if there’s a specific animal you’re desperate to see, research ahead, as the distances are vast and different itineraries will show different options. For instance, whilst you may see many Blue Footed Boobies in many of the Galapagos Islands, their Red-Footed counterparts are much more rare and more likely to be seen on Isla Española or Genovesa.
When should you go?
We were advised that May and November are the best time to go as these are when the seasons are transitioning so the days are warm and dry. We went in November and absolutely loved it; there were hardly any mosquitos and the sea waters were not too choppy. Each day we had sunshine and warm weather but the water was very cold and so we needed a wetsuit when snorkelling. The warmer season in the Galapagos is from November to June, and this time is meant to allow for the best visibility and calmer seas.
How do you get there?
Flights to Galapagos usually fly to either Baltra or San Cristobal airports and go via Guayaquil (on mainland Ecuador), with airlines LATAM, TAME or Avianca airlines. We were surprised to find that you can’t just hop on a cruise to the Galapagos directly from mainland Ecuador, given the long distance (and really it is incredibly far!), so the only way is to fly in. Flights can be expensive so it is worth booking them ahead of time. We booked our flights around two months earlier and found prices to be reasonable.
It’s worth noting that some cruises begin on one island and end on a different island – this can sometimes require you adding half a day or so to allow for travel to your departure airport. If you are limited on time, it may be worth booking flights between the islands or checking with your cruise provider before booking flights to ensure you’ve sufficient time.
Should you take a cruise or hop between islands?
Unless, like Brad Pitt, you’re chartering an entire boat for your visit to the Galapagos, there are two main options. Us mere mortals have the option to either take a cruise or to stay on the larger Galapagos islands (e.g. Santa Cruz, the most populated of the islands), and take day trips to explore more. Ideally, you could combine both options and spend a few days exploring the larger islands of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal yourself before embarking on a cruise.
We flew to Baltra airport, stayed on Santa Cruz for one night and then took a cruise which included some of the more remote parts of San Cristobal as well as Isla Española. Scalesia Lodge on Isabela island, is a seriously luxurious safari-style hotel, who organised some fantastic excursions so we could explore this island too; that’s where we ended our trip. I found this balance worked well for us but there are lots of options so do research what works best for you. If you may be interested in ending with a luxury hotel definitely check out my post here.
A cruise allows you to travel MUCH further. The boat works for you whilst you sleep, travelling for hours to get you to the more remote islands, where you can see even the rarest of animals and most unique scenery. For the majority of day trips, your travel time on a speedboat could be take up to eight hours, and it would be impossible to make day trips to some of the most interesting islands, which are furthest away.
Through bracketing our cruise with time on Santa Cruz and Isabela islands, before and after the cruise, we were able to explore the more easily accessible parts of the islands independently. This was a good compromise as our cruise was only for 4 days, however, I would recommend spending a full week on a cruise if possible.
What extra costs do you need to know about?
As well as the obvious costs of travel and insurance, there were a few more costs we weren’t aware of. Here’s a subset below to give you an idea so you can ensure you have the cash to hand! All prices are per person, in US Dollars, as this is the currency used in Ecuador and were correct when we travelled in November 2017.
- Ecuador mainland departure tax: $20
- Galapagos entry tax: $100
- Bus from Baltra airport to dock at Baltra island: Complimentary with most airlines
- Water Taxi from Baltra island to Santa Cruz: $1
- Transfer from Santa Cruz dock to Puerto Ayora by taxi: $25
- Transfer from Santa Cruz dock to Puerto Ayora by coach: $2
- Public ferry from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal or Isabela: $30
If you opt for a cruise, some of these costs may be included but these vary from cruise-to-cruise so it’s definitely worth checking when booking.
In part 2, I’ll go into all the juicy details about how exactly to choose your boat, what each of the boat types actually mean, the difference between the high end most luxurious options and the cheaper alternatives, as well as what you should be looking for, when to book your cruise, how to book it and alternative options if the very best Galapagos cruise isn’t quite within your current budget!
Head over to see part 2 now!
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