A cruise around the Galapagos is a bucket list worthy travel experience. It’s without a doubt the best way to see the Galapagos Isles off the coast of Ecuador. The amount of wildlife you can see on the relatively untouched islands is amazing. That’s just what’s on land as when you step off the gorgeous islands you’ll find deep blue Pacific water abundant in marine life.
It’s a place unlike any other on earth and it’s easy to understand how the islands provided inspiration for Charles Darwin. However “unlike any other places on earth” usually come with a high price tag, and the Galapagos is no exception. We’re here to cover all the details and help you decide whether a cruise around the Galapagos is for you.
Getting to the Galapagos Islands
The majority of flights into Ecuador arrive via the capital city of Quito. That’s not a problem as Quito is a fantastic colonial city and the first city to be listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site in the world. It’s a city that you should absolutely explore for a day or two on your way to the Galapagos. Trust me – it’s worth it – especially if you have never been to South America.
From Quito, several South American airlines offer flights to Baltra and San Cristobal, the main airports in the Galapagos. We flew with LATAM to Baltra with a thirty-minute layover in Guayaquil for $495 a person roundtrip. Quite honestly, we hated our LATAM experience. It was every bit the same as a Ryan Air, Jetstar, or a Spirit Airlines flight, but at a much higher price point (They don’t even provide free coffee on a flight was four hours with the layover). However, we had no choice as the flight times coincided with the departures of our boat. If you have the option book with Avianca who offer a direct from Quito we suggest you go with them. (We heard Tame was worse than LATAM, but have never experienced them).
When you depart from the brand new Quito Airport you’ll need to get your Galapagos immigration card, this costs $20 per person. At check in they will direct you to the counter, it’s pretty self-explanatory so don’t worry! Make sure you don’t have any fruits or vegetables on you as they are not allowed on the Galapagos and your bag will be checked. Once you arrive in the Galapagos you will have to go through their immigration process and pay another $100 cash per person in National Park fees as 97% of the islands are a protected park. From the airport, many cruiselines and tour companies, like ours will pick you right up from the neighboring port. It was a short 10-minute bus ride followed by dingy to board our vessel.
For those on their way to the main inhabited island of Santa Cruz and port of Puerto Ayora, you’ll need to catch a bus to the ferry and to another bus. It’s typically not a very pleasant journey as buses on the island are run down and without A/C, and packed full as passengers from your flight fill up the seats. However, the journey only costs a couple of dollars.
What is the best time to visit the Galapagos?
With their location on the Equator, the Galapagos Islands don’t see a wide range of seasons. Temperatures year round are in the 70-80s F (21 – 26C). The islands are mostly dry, but see a small rain season from January to April. While air temperatures do not change much throughout the year, water temperatures can vary a fair amount.
Water temperatures vary due to the Humboldt current that is strongest in September and October, the result is rougher and colder water. The water temperature then drops to around 60 degrees from 70-degree Fahrenheit. Generally, you can visit any time of year, but it’s best to avoid summer holiday time, and the holidays as prices are higher and options book up quickly.
The Santa Cruz II with Metropolitan Touring
We toured around Ecuador with the oldest Ecuadorian tour operator, Metropolitan Touring. They’ve been providing tours to the Galapagos since the sixties and were one of the first local operators to run a cruise ship around the islands in 1969. So we were in well-seasoned hands who knew the ins and outs of tourism in the Galapagos.
Our vessel during our journey was their latest boat the Santa Cruz II. The vessel happens to be one of the largest cruise boats in the Galapagos with enough room for 90 passengers. There is a limit on boat size, but we’ll get into size details later. This was actually the first cruise Tasha and I have ever taken together and probably the largest in size we’ll ever go.
The ship was very spacious even though there were 81 people on board along with plenty of crew. We never had a problem finding some deck or lounge to tuck away and watch the islands pass by. They had a deck for everything whether it was soaking in a hot tub, a fitness center, sundowner drinks, or even star gazing.
When it came to our room it was spacious enough for the two of us to sleep comfortably. The ability to slide our suitcase under the bed also came in handy as we would never have survived without killing eachother if not. Our bathroom while not spacious was clean and had biodegradable shampoo, conditioner, and body soap (but no lotion so be sure to bring some!). I have to say the hot water pressure was better than most hotels we stay at so we were super happy to have that on a boat at sea, kudos!
It’s been said the best way to keep people happy is to keep them full. Breakfast and lunch both consisted of large buffets full of a variety of options from omelets to pancakes and ceviche to roast beef. The wide selection of options ended up being our favorite meals of the day, especially lunch. Dinner is a full-service dinner with waiters delivering a starter, main, and dessert. They were even able to cater to dietary needs and improvise dishes for everyone.
Staff was friendly, attentive, and professional. Above all what impressed us most about the ship was how well things seemed to run at sea given the isolation of the cruise ship. Despite being world famous the Galapagos is not some well-developed chain of tropical islands like the Caribbean or Hawaii.
What’s the best Galapagos cruise itinerary?
We don’t like to consider anything the best, but there are certain highlights that we’ve been advised to seek. No matter what itinerary or boat you go with you’ll likely see plenty of Galapagos wildlife as it is everywhere. It’s pretty tough to miss seeing sea lions, iguanas, and blue-footed boobies as they’re abundant. When it comes to daily itineraries they are very similar from ship to ship as they are regulated by authorities.
The biggest difference you’ll see with itineraries are the islands that are visited. Central islands are the most popular as they’re easy to reach but that means a less natural environment with dispersed wildlife. The outer islands are more remote and only a number of vessels travel to the islands. Islands that you should look out for are Fernandina, Isabela, Genovesa, Española and North Seymour.
We visited Fernandina and Isabela which were easily the highlight of our Galapagos trip. Fernandina is the youngest island in the Galapagos with a still active volcano, that erupted all of five days after we left. (Sad we missed the light show and once in a lifetime photo chance). Isabela is considered the best area for spotting turtles, and that could not be truer as we saw maybe 100 in an hour while snokeling. On our trip to Isabela we found ourselves swimming in a group so large you had to dodge them! The Western Islands are also the only ones where you can spot the flightless cormorant – one of the Galapagos Big 15.
What to expect on a Galapagos cruise?
Like an African safari, a Galapagos cruise is not a leisure holiday, but it is an amazing one that is not easily forgot. To give you an idea of the average day here is what our first full day on board looked like. As you can see it’s a pretty busy day, so save your book reading for flights and before bed if you have the energy.
- 07:30 – Wake up call
- 08:00 – Breakfast
- 09:00 – Boat ride around the coastline to spot birds and marine life
- 10:30 – Back on board to change into swimsuits
- 11:00 – Deepwater snorkeling or glass bottom boat
- 12:30 – Lunch and Siesta
- 15:00 – Afternoon tea and coffee
- 16h00 – Hiking on an island
- 18:00 – Return to the boat and evening drinks
- 19:00 – Evening briefing
- 20:00 – Dinner time
- 21:00 – Relax
Wildlife in the Galapagos
We’ve talked a lot about Africa’s Big Five animals, but Galapagos has their own list called the Galapagos Big 15. Here are the few of animals you may see and a few experiences to have.
- Swimming with a massive flotilla of sea turtles – fun fact, a group of sea turtles is called a flotilla.
- Playing with sea lions in the water. They’re super curious and love to swim directly at you and blow bubbles inches away into your face. If you keep your nerve they may even touch you – I ended up playing a game of chicken with one sea lion.
- Penguins attacking the blinking light on our GoPro
- Manta Rays doing backflips out of the water
- Eagle Rays beneath your kayak
- Fernandina island full of marine iguanas
- Blue-footed boobies always make our day better
- Darwin’s Finches, the inspiration for natural selection!
- A frenzy of Galapagos sharks one night attracted to the lights of the ship. It was literally hundreds of sharks with a few brave sea lions hunting fish attracted to the lights.
- Flightless cormorants dreaming about flying
Top Activities on Board
If you come to the Galapagos with leisure in mind you may have picked the wrong destination. While the Galapagos are stunningly beautiful you want to see all the islands have to offer so be prepared for early starts and busy days. While on the cruise you have a wide variety of things on offer.
This was fantastic! We love snorkeling and the Galapagos easily ranks up on our list of best places in the world. It’s the only place that you can snorkel with turtles, marine iguanas, penguins, sharks, and sea lions all in one place! Most cruises in the Galapagos offer several options to go snorkeling if not daily. On our Western Itinerary, we went snorkeling three times and loved every experience.
While the shallow water snorkeling may be more comforting for the less experienced we do encourage travelers to try the deep water as it provides a much better experience in terms of large marine life. It’s possible to spot sharks, whales, manta rays, and sunfish in the deep water. You have the option to wear a wetsuit for a charge as the water is a little chilly, but it adds buoyancy. We gave them a skip and we’re happy we did as we got to play with the sea lions in the water.
Glass Bottom Boat
While not everyone on a cruise feels up to snorkeling that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the marine life. Our cruise had two opportunities to provide those not confident swimmers, the elderly, or young children the ability to view the marine life underneath the boat. We skipped out on this activity since we’re competent swimmers, but heard from others they had a great time spotting sharks, turtles, and plenty of fish. Just be mindful to take Dramamine if you’re prone to seasickness as you’ll be staring down the whole time.
A few cruises carry sea kayaks on board the vessel including the Santa Cruz II. There were two opportunities for us to go kayaking and we’re happy we enjoyed it in Tortuga Bay while on Santa Cruz island. It’s a great way to get some sun, relax, and spot marine life from the comforts of your own boat. We were lucky and spotted sharks, turtles, and spotted eagle rays.
This was a short experience, but for those who like to get active, there was a fun bike ride while on the island of Santa Cruz. The majority of the islands are a no bike zone considering it’s a national park, but on the largest inhabited island we were able to take a bike ride along paved roads to a chocolate farm.
The growing craze of stand up paddle boarding has made its way on to cruise ships in the Galapagos. We gave this one a skip as we wanted more time to snorkel, but if you’ve never given it a try it’s hard to think of a better place than the Galapagos!
This will be something on offer almost daily as you explore the island via foot. All boats in the Galapagos are required by law to divide into groups of 16 so many boats will operate with that as their max capacity. Larger boats like the Santa Cruz II employ a handful of guides who lead the smaller groups around the islands. Hiking is the best way to spot the birdlife and understand the geology that has created the Galapagos.
We love taking photographs so a place like the Galapagos is a photographer’s haven. It didn’t take long for our guide to realize we were always the ones hanging behind in the group snapping lots of photos while staring at a pair of finches in the tree. Sorry Enrique, we just really love wildlife. Our ship had a presentation on board giving photography tips and insights for those budding photographers. You can take a photo specific journey with some of the smaller cruise lines. If it’s your first time photographing wildlife check out our post on safari cameras to pick out a camera and learn the basics.
Not all boats offer scuba diving as you need to be PADI certified for most dives in the marine national parks. However, there are a number of smaller boats that offer dive specific cruises around the islands.
Most cruises make a stop at the main port of Puerto Ayora. The small town is home to the Darwin research center and a number of wildlife sanctuaries for the famous tortoises.
Gratuities on Board
As with everything tips are at your discretion. However, we do very much encourage you to tip your guides and boat crew. They do a tremendous job and work around the clock to ensure an amazing cruise. On board our ship there was a box at check out and they had the option to tip on a credit card with the reception.
Generally, tips range from $10 – $20 per day per person with more going to the staff. We tipped our guides $50 a person and the boat staff $75 a person for a four-night five-day cruise ($100 and $150). They use US dollar in Ecuador so that made cash for tips easy. ATMs around Ecuador dispense USD so no need to bring in outside currency – read our post on travel banking if you need information on how we manage finances abroad.
What to look for in a Galapagos cruise ship
This will have the largest impact on the kind of trip you have. There are two options in regards to the boat size – big expedition ships like we did or smaller yachts. Both types of ships offer similar itineraries but vary in the cost, comfort, and space. The larger ships generally have more deck space and are stable in the open seas around the Galapagos Islands. We were happy for the more stability because even with our large ship guests were still experiencing mild sea-sickness. Larger boats are also able to offer multiple activities (for example you can pick between snorkeling or a glass bottom boat). The big boats generally cost more too. While the smaller boats tend to be more intimate, luxurious, and you feel a little less like a number.
We talked about itinerary earlier and again I suggest looking for an itinerary that includes the more remote islands. You must have a licensed guide, break into groups of up to 16 and only 100 people can visit an island at a time. So, smaller boats often see other boats in the bay while they visit an island, but large expedition ships will be the only one in the area. Even if you book a small boat don’t think it will only be your group in an area.
Our ship employed well-educated Ecuadorian guides who were knowledgeable and passionate about their islands. All guides in the Galapagos are required to be residents and from the islands. They used to break the guides into three categories of I, II, and III. III is considered the highest with guides who speak multiple languages and have a university education.
Our guide Enrique on the Santa Cruz II was fantastic. He was personal, polite, knowledgeable, and good at sensing the mood of our group. We’ve been on a countless amount of safaris and tours with a lot of guides and he stands out as one of the best. Every boat in the Galapagos is required to have one guide for every 16 guests. Larger cruise ships will break you into groups. We got lucky with our “Dolphins” group as we all got along very well!
We always like to go with more experienced companies. This means the little details that might trip up smaller or new companies won’t cause any headaches. Luckily there are a number of operators with good experience in cruising around the Galapagos. Metropolitan Touring is definitely one of those companies.
Price vs. Length of Galapagos Cruise
We’re not going to lie to you and say that a cruise around the Galapagos islands is an affordable travel experience. It’s expensive and anyone who gets to go the incredible trip is very fortunate. The price points for cruises are proportional to the number of days on the boat. You’ll find itinerary based on several of the following day options.
This is generally too short as your first and last days are used for flying so you only get two full days, which does not feel like enough. To top it off the price difference between longer itineraries is not vast when you add in flights and logistics.
This is the cruise we took on the Santa Cruz II. It was three full days and four nights on board the vessel. It felt like enough to take a bite out of the islands but still left us clamoring for more. They are amazing!
A lot of travelers opt for this cruise length when booking the Galapagos. I’d say we’d be jealous of anyone fortunate enough to spend eight days. The longer itinerary also makes costs when broken down daily the best value.
There are a few boats that offer 15 days itinerary that do a complete circumnavigation of the Galapagos islands. It will be pricey, but if you have the time you won’t be disappointed.
Do to strict regulations on boat numbers, visitors, and itineraries only about 75,000 people a year get to take a Galapagos Islands cruise. That means if you’re able to take a cruise around the islands you are in the minority and one the few lucky enough to see these incredible islands.
Plan Your Visit to the Galapagos
We rely on a few trusted websites that help save us money and time when booking hotels, flights, and car rentals. Check out some of our preferred partners below:
- Travel Insurance: We never travel without travel insurance with World Nomads. Natasha is a bit of a worry wart and would rather stay safe than sorry. World Nomads is ideal for flexible and great plans!
- Water: Bring a water bottle so you save on plastic waste.
- Read: Galapagos: A Novel
- Watch: A Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden