Last updated 13 Jan 2020

There's no escaping it: a visit to the islands isn't the cheapest (or simplest) trip you can take. But it needn't break the bank, or be excessively complicated. Here's how to narrow down the options and choose the best Galapagos trip for your group.

Step aside, humans. The protagonists of the Galapagos Islands’ history are the rare and endemic species that populate this far-flung chain of volcanic islands in the Pacific.

As Charles Darwin discovered on his famous voyage on the HMS Beagle in 1835, the natural history of these dynamic islands reveals the fits and starts of evolution itself.

Humans only arrived on the scene fairly recently, all too often as the villain of the plot. 16th century Spanish explorers were appalled by the stark volcanic landscape, calling the islands a hell on earth. Pirates and whalers used the islands opportunistically, capturing and killing wildlife en masse. Most recently, habitats have been threatened by invasive species introduced by humans, as well as the strains of a growing resident population and tourism trade.

As part of the carefully-managed tourism model, guests are accompanied by local, certified naturalists guides. These guides bring the natural and human history of the islands to life. Visitors learn about their own complex role in the Galapagos narrative.


How a typical Galapagos trip works

Arrival and departure

The Galapagos Islands are only reachable by flight from mainland Ecuador.

Flights from Quito usually stop in Guayaquil to pick up additional passengers. The flight time between Quito and the port city is about 30 minutes. The stop in Guayaquil is about 30 minutes (do not deplane).

Flights from Guayaquil fly directly to Baltra (main Galapagos airport) or San Cristobal (secondary Galapagos airport). The flight time is about 1.5 hours. Most tour operators will insist on a full day in either Quito or Guayaquil before your flight to the islands, in case of delays on international flights -- the cruise ships won’t wait for anyone!

Quito or Guayaquil?

When choosing which airport in Ecuador to arrive at, keep in mind the following:

Quito is a gem of a colonial capital city, worth spending at least a day and a night in. It has a thriving art, music, and restaurant scene, as well as a bevy of historic sights to discover. However, its new international airport is far from the city centre (45 mins to one hour drive), adding airport transit time to the itinerary.

Guayaquil is a more industrial-looking port city, without the charms of Quito. Advantages are more direct flights to the Galapagos and easier access to the airport.

When shopping for international flights, compare fares to both cities. A good combination is to arrive in Quito and depart from Guayaquil, or vise versa

How to choose your Galapagos tour type

There are three broad categories of Galapagos trip. Which you choose depends on your preferred travel activities and flexibility:

Cruises are organised in itineraries of eight days, five days and four days. Longer cruises have the benefit of reaching farther, less-visited sites. Shorter cruises are easier to combine with a land-based experience of the Galapagos and other travels in Ecuador and South America.

Hotel-based/land-based trips on Santa Cruz Island are often organised as packages as well. Package length is more flexible, but usually start at four days/three nights. The hotel will organise daily excursions such as speedboat trips to neighbouring islands and guided trips.

Island hopping allows you to stay at lodges on various islands linked by short flights or speedboats. Only four islands are inhabited: Santa Cruz, Isabela, Floreana, and San Cristobal. Lodges on the less-populated islands of Isabela and Floreana tend to be more simple, with fewer amenities. Isabela is less populated than Santa Cruz and San Cristobal, giving you the chance to relax and discover the island’s visitor sites without the crowds.

010 Galapagos Charles Darwin Research Station

The Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz island.

Galapagos cruise vs land tour

The Galapagos Islands present an important choice when planning a trip; do you take a land-based tour or cruise? Both styles of travel have their advantages, choosing the best trip for you depends on your personal tastes and travel style.

Galapagos by cruise

Galapagos by land

Fixed schedule. Cruises take the guesswork out of the equation with set itineraries. Small motorboats (called ‘pangas’) shuttle small groups of passengers at set intervals, with an expert guide in the boat to point out the creatures of the region while making sure that the trips goes smoothly.

Flexibility and freedom. When staying on land at the hotels that dot the landscape of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isabela, guests dictate the schedule. Day trips are arranged to the nearby islands by boat in the morning, leaving the afternoon and evening free for doing your own thing.

Cover more ground. Boats travel at night, and drop anchor off of the shores of a new destination each day. This gives passengers a broader view of the islands.

Zoom in. Land-based trips put you side by side with the local communities by exploring towns and tagging along with fishermen on the morning’s journey.

Fine facilities. Luxury cruises have opulent amenities and attentive top-notch staff, but space is limited.

More room. Land accommodations give guests the room to stretch their legs at the end of the day.

Caution: wet landings. Inflatable motorized boats take travelers from the ship to the shore. Visitor sites have dry and wet landings; wet requiring wading through knee high water to disembark.

Caution: small speedboats. When island hopping, shuttle-style speedboats ferry passenger between islands. The journey is often choppy and it’s wise to come prepared with Dramamine.

A final consideration when choosing between land and sea options is the footprint you leave after the trip is done. Cruises add to the pollution of the Galapagos’ waters (although many are eco-certified and mitigate their impact). Hotels on land encroach upon the natural habitats of the creatures that surround them. Pay attention to each option’s certifications, awards, and ecological credentials.

010 Coral Galapagos Yacht

Life on board a Galapagos cruise

For travellers choosing a cruise-based trip, the type of boat and facilities on offer plays a big part in their decision-making. However, many simply think about where the boat will be docking and what they’ll do on-shore. Here’s what life is like on board a Galapagos cruise.

Your Galapagos cruise

Life onboard cruise ships revolve around early starts. Mornings consist of wake up calls, breakfast buffets and gearing up for trips to the uninhabited islands. On some ships there are pre-breakfast excursions or fitness classes to get you ready for a day of exploring.

Travel from ships to shore is done via pangas (small, motorised rubber boats) that are swift and used for both wet and dry landings.

The majority of the day on a cruise is spent exploring different islands. Normally there are activities including hikes and snorkelling in the morning, followed by lunch on the ship, and trips to other parts of the island where you are anchored in the afternoon.

After spending most days out exploring, evenings are reserved for relaxing. There is usually a briefing in the evening with your guide to go over the next day’s destination. Depending on the boat these can detail activities for the next day, be presentations about the islands, activities geared towards children, dancing, or time to talk about the day’s events.

Accommodation and lodging

Accommodation standards vary depending on the level of boat you stay on. The deluxe cruises go all out with luxury rooms, balconies and amenities you would expect in a five star hotel. Others maximise space with more rooms and more passengers. On most ships, there is an inherent trust and things like locks on doors don’t exist. Theft isn’t a concern in the islands, but consider bringing bags with locks for valuables if you’re worried.

One thing to consider when choosing a cruise is where the rooms are located. Rooms lower in the water are calmer when it comes to the open sea and can reduce the risk of seasickness. The other side of the coin is they are also closer to the engine room.

Food and drink

Breakfast and lunch are normally buffets with an ample choice of international and Ecuadorian food to choose from. Breakfast includes fruit and juice, while lunch gives you chicken or meat dishes and Ecuadorian-style seafood along with salads and vegetarian options.

Dinner is normally a more formal affair with a choice of main course and pre- and post-dinner drinks with other guests. Some of the boats include your bar tab in the price, but typically you can expect to pay for alcohol, tips and any other extras.

Dealing with bad weather

When the weather gets rough the crew decides the agenda for the day. Typically storms only last a short time. If you are out exploring and rain sets in, your guides might decide to head back to the ship until the weather subsides. If it clouds over and is only a light storm, you might be given the option of going out to the islands with appropriate gear.

At times the sea can be choppy, and many passengers take sea sickness pills as a precaution. Normally after a few days people have adjusted. If seasickness is a major concern for you, catamarans are the steadiest crafts that operate in the islands.


Rules and regulations

As a Unesco World Heritage site that has suffered from unsustainable tourism in the past, it is vital that you choose responsible partners when visiting the Galapagos Islands, as well as leaving as small a footprint as possible. Here are some tips on how you can keep the Galapagos Islands thriving.

Tour companies and guides

Tour companies in the Galapagos Islands run the gamut from luxury operators on boats with first class amenities to budget options that use every bit of space for cabins and equipment.

The important things to look for is a commitment to the islands and their preservation, staff that understand the intricacies of international travel and a level of service that takes into account the needs of individuals.

All trips, whether by land or by sea, are required to have certified guides accompany guests. On some boats, these guides are accompanied by naturalists. On others, guides with certification are responsible for entire groups.

A rule of thumb to consider is that you get what you pay for. If you are looking for a deal, make sure you vet the company beforehand to avoid any surprises once on your adventure.

Commitment to conservation in the islands is often more talk than action. As such, ask companies what they are doing to ease their footprint on the archipelago. Finding out details about how they deal with waste, specific projects they support, and plans in place for sustainable travel will give you a better picture of who you are dealing with.

Galapagos National Park rules and fees

New rules from 2018 require that you must have reservations for a hotel, land-based trip, or cruise before going to the islands. To facilitate this, there is an online form to enter your travel details. Other new rules state that all visitors must have travel insurance and show proof before leaving.

The online form is found here by clicking on the Pre-Registro Individual from the left hand menu. It is in Spanish, and a break down in English is available here.

When planning a trip, be aware that the Galapagos National Park has tight regulations in place to help protect the islands. These include carefully screening bags before and after your flight and a regulation that each boat can only visit each visitor site once in a 15-day period. This can make things difficult for those who want to visit specific islands during their trip, so make you sure you check your itinerary.

Before your flight for the islands leaves the mainland, you need to buy a transit control card for $20. This card helps to track the visitors on the Islands. It is returned at the end of your trip. Once you arrive, you pay a $100 national park entrance fee in cash. The fee helps with conservation projects around the island.

Travellers in the Galapagos Islands are expected to stay six feet away from wildlife, even when approached. You also may not feed the animals and flash photography is prohibited.

Local economy and what to buy

Supporting the local communities is the Galapagos means buying locally. Souvenirs are on every corner and Main Street in places like San Cristobal and Santa Cruz islands. Buying products from local artisans including coffee and chocolate helps sustainable tourism in the archipelago.

There are plenty of products that are available for travellers to buy including Galapagos coffee, chocolate, art, and souvenirs. On Santa Cruz Island, jewellery shops sell products made by local artisan women using recycled materials. Artisans also come on board boats visiting the port. This helps to both boost the income of the local people, and tackle the problem of waste on the islands.

Banned products are those that use the natural resources of the islands, such as coral and sea shells. Remember that taking anything from the Islands is illegal -- even a small stone.

Beyond your Galapagos trip

For those who want to make an impact that helps protect the islands after a trip, organisations including the Charles Darwin Foundation, the Galapagos Island Trust, the Galapagos Conservancy and Children of Galapagos have direct donation links that support ongoing programmes.

010 Galapagos Multisport

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