THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO CRUISING THE GALAPAGOS
The Galapagos Islands are without doubt one of the most diverse and captivating places on our planet. Very few regions on earth allow visitors to experience nature so closely and no one leaves a Galapagos cruise disappointed.
Because of the island's popularity, there are numerous cruises and boats to choose from. So much so that it can sometimes feel a little overwhelming deciding on your perfect cruise. That's where we come in - we have designed this page to help you through the process.
We discuss boat types, costs, wildlife, best places to visit and much more. Although we'll discuss expedition-style cruises in depth, there will be information on standard cruises also.
Please use our quicklinks below if you know what section you wish to read.
Galapagos Cruises: The Complete Guide
Making up part of the Republic of Ecuador, the Galapagos is an archipelago of volcanic islands that are known for their vast array of endemic species. Made famous by Charles Darwin during his second voyage, the Galapagos was a central pillar in his theory of evolution by means of natural selection. "A little world within itself' was how the famous naturalist described them.
The islands are one of the few parts of the world not to have an indigenous population. Even today there are only 25,000 residents living on only five of the islands. Most are still uninhabited to protect the wildlife.
Nowadays the Galapagos is a haven for both wildlife and tourists. With the exception of perhaps Antarctica, no where else on earth is the wildlife so unconcerned with humans. You can literally stand next to seals, iguanas and giant tortoise without any change in the animal's demeanours.
However, whilst the wildlife on the islands is unforgettable in itself, it's beneath the waters where the real magic happens! Swim with sharks, sea turtles, seals, penguins and much more without even diving! All you need is a good snorkel and mask.
Because the wildlife of the Galapagos is so important, most islands have heavy restrictions on them and you cannot visit without a certified guide. You are also restricted in what you can and can't do and how many people are ashore at one time. This fact means that cruises to the Galapagos are hugely popular as you will have a certified guide with you at all times to show you the best spots.
There are literally countless itineraries, agencies and ships to choose from in the Galapagos. Although having a wide range of choice is good, it can also feel a little daunting. Below we have answered all the questions you need to make the right choice.
Best Time To Cruise The Galapagos
Unlike other parts of South America, such as Patagonia, the Galapagos is blessed with year-round warm temperatures. This means you can cruise during any period.
Unlike many other islands, the wildlife on the Galapagos are generally not migratory and stay all year.
Despite these facts, there are clear differences between the cooler ad warmer seasons and the chances you have of seeing certain wildlife. Below we explain this in a little more detail.
January through to May is considered the warm period in the Galapagos. During this time temperatures tend to stay around the 80-90 degree mark.
Although warmer, this is also the wetter period and short daily showers are fairly common. During the summer the seas are more calm, and for people who suffer from sea sickness, this can really make a difference.
Sea temperatures are also warmer, making snorkelling extremely pleasant. Diving is slightly better during this period also as the calmer waters means better visibility.
Much of the Galapagos use February, March and April as their breeding season. Giant tortoise eggs hatch during this period and sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. Blue-footed boobies are doing their courtship dances, and the magnificent frigate birds are inflating their large red sacs to attract mates.
The cool season in the Galapagos runs from June through to December and is actually the drier season of the two.
Temperatures range from about 70 - 85 degrees, making land-based activities like bike riding and hiking very comfortable.
Trade winds during this period mean that the ocean is slightly rougher and underwater visibility can be reduced sometimes. This is not a major factor as most stops are within protected bays.
The cooler Humbolt Current during this period allows the plankton to thrive. This in turns attracts the larger marine species such as whale sharks, humpback and even blue whales! Ideal for serious divers wanting epic encounters.
Baby sea lions are born in October and you can swim with them in November when their finding their sea legs.
Types of Cruise Ships
Because of heavy restrictions (which more places should have), mega ships are not allowed within the Galapagos. Only ships carrying less than 100 passengers can sail the islands.
There is also land restrictions with only 20 people allowed ashore at one time. These restrictions are essential in protecting the wildlife that lives here.
Because of this restrictions, cruise goers have three choices when it comes to ship type - small yachts, motor yachts, and expedition ships. Below we discuss each.
Small yachts and sail boats generally carry no more than 16 passengers.
Because there are so few passengers, there will be hardly any queuing time to get ashore. This means you'll get maximum time on the islands which is a great.
However, smaller sail boats obviously have far less space which can feel a little constricting. Your cabin will be smaller, bathrooms tighter and there will be less public space and private areas.
Saying this, many people love the tight-knit atmosphere and getting to know their fellow passengers.
Be aware that smaller boats will feel the motion of the sea more, especially when sailing to another island across open water.
Moto yachts are the next step up and carry between 16 and 20 passengers.
Often a good trade-off between the larger ships and small sail boats, motor yachts are now very popular as they provide intimacy without compromising hugely on space.
Although each class of Galapagos ship offers boats from rustic/basic style, through to luxurious, motor yachts tend to have the most luxurious options.
The La Pinta and Isabela II and the National Geographic Islander are probably three of the best. Each offer class and elegance with excellent guides and activity options.
Expedition ships operating within the islands carry between 40-100 passengers.
Expedition ships offer plenty of cabin space, public facilities and home luxuries.
These ships are as close as you'll get in the Galapagos to main line cruise ships (although still far smaller).
These ships are great for families because of the space and options for adjoining cabins. They're also the go-to ship for people who suffer from sea sickness as the motion is considerably less.
The Santa Cruz II, the Legend, and the National Geographic Endeavour II are very popular options.
Galapagos Cruise Cost
Obviously with so many ship types, itineraries, and operators, costs can vary quite significantly.
You will also need to consider how long the itinerary is as this will invariably increase or decrease the price. Once on-board though, everything is all-inclusive and there are very few other costs.
For a budget cruise on the shortest itinerary possible (4 days), you should expect to pay between $800 - 1,200. For the same itinerary aboard a luxury boat you will be looking at around $1,700.
For longer itineraries the price increases. For 7 night itineraries, prices start around $2,000 and go up to $3,800 for the luxury options. For 2 week itineraries, you will have to pay at least $4,000 for a budget boat. If you want the ultimate 2 week luxury experience then you'll be looking at atlas $6,200.
We find the most popular itineraries are generally the 7 night options aboard mid-range vessels. For this you'll need to pay between $2,000 - 3,500. We seriously suggest looking at itineraries before looking at prices. It's always worth paying that little bit more if it get you the itinerary of your dreams!
Other Cost Considerations
Beside the main cruise cost, there are also a number of other cost factors to consider.
Many of the larger vessels will have solo options, however, you will likely have to pay a supplement fee. Obviously this is not ideal and it's generally cheaper if you can find someone to share with you.
Some operators will be happy to share you with another solo traveler of the same sex. You will need to check this prior to booking.
The Galapagos islands are not particularly easy to reach and this can seriously add to the costs of your trip.
You'll first need to take a flight to Ecuador in either Guayaquil or Quito. You then need to take an internal flight to the Galapagos.
How much this costs you really depends on where you're flying from and how early you book your flights. Click here for more information.
Visa and other Misc. Expenses
There is a $100 entry fee to the Galapagos for ALL tourists. You will also need to factor in Eqcuadorian visas and vaccinations (should you need them).
Other costs to consider are hotels either side of your cruise, airport transfers, laundry expenses, tips, and general spending ashore.
Last Minute Deals
Like many cruise destinations, the option of grabbing a last minute deal can be very enticing.
There is certainly no denying that last minute cruises to the Galapagos are offered frequently. They can often save you 20-40% on your cruise cost. HOWEVER, last minute cruises are a nightmare to plan around as you won't know until the last minute which ship and itinerary you'll be on, let alone the dates of your cruise. You'll also need to be able to drop everything and fly to the Galapagos.
Personally, we believe last minute cruises suit people who are taking a land-based holiday to the Galapagos and decide on the spot to take a cruise on top of their holiday. Otherwise, it's just too risky and difficult to plan. Click here for more information.
Your cruise guides are actually a very important element to consider when choosing your cruise and can have a major impact on your enjoyment. Although the Galapagos strictly regulate and train their guides, many do not actually speak English which can put a slight dampener on the shore excursions.
Guides also vary considerably in their knowledge levels and their ability to communicate their knowledge. You'll often find it's the guides with charisma and ability to communicate ideas that are the best, even if they don't have an encyclopedic knowledge base.
Of course, like everything, the best guides tend to work on the most expensive boats. People like National Geographic only employ the best, but the prices reflect this. Make sure your guide speaks English and has a good reputation. Click here for more information.
The wildlife of the Galapagos is without doubt the reason behind the archiplego's popularity. More curious than frightened, most species will happily be within close proximity of humans, including seals, penguins, giant tortoise, iguanas, and sea birds.
For wildlife lovers and photographers, this is a real dream. Your guides will show you these best spot, give you information on the species and make sure that everyone follows the guidelines and has a great time.
Below is a list of the star species and where to see them.
Types of Wildlife
Numerous species of whales can be seen throughout the Galapagos including humpbacks, whale sharks, orca, sperm, mine and blue whales.
Humpback are the most commonly seen whale and is commonly seen around the islands of Bartolome and Española.
Galapagos sea lions are a favourite of many cruise passengers. Their playful nature means that they often interact with you whilst snorkelling.
Many of the islands play host to sea lions, however for the best encounters we recommend Fernandian and san Cristobal.
A number of shark species can be seen in the Galapagos including reef sharks, lemons, tiger sharks, Galapagos sharks, and hammerhead sharks.
Most shark species can be seen literally anywhere, however, for hammerheads you'll wan to visit Darwin Island or Wold Islands.
5 species of dolphin can be spotted in the Galapagos, however, it is the bottlenose and common dolphin that is mostly seen. Great creatures to swim with.
These fun creatures can be seen anywhere during your cruise. They often ride the bow waves and you'll see the large pods from quite a distance. Pinta Island and wold Island are popular spots.
A number of sea turtle species live and breed in the Galapagos. These gentle giants are often seen when snorkelling and are fantastic to watch.
Common throughout. Can be seen on many of the large islands including Santa Cruz, Bartolomé, Floreana, and Santiago.
Because the waters are so rich, there are plenty of topical fish to see including parrot fish, angel fish and everyone's favourite - the clown fish.
Can be seen anywhere.
The blue-footed booby and the red-footed booby are very charismatic creatures and their mating ritual dance is a pure joy to watch.
For red-footed boobies, we recommend Española Island, Darwin Island, San Cristóbal and Genovesa Island. For Blue-footed boobies we suggest North Seymour Island, and San Cristóbal.
The magnificent frigatebird is a real star of the Galapagos.The male birds are best seen when enlarging their red throat sac to attract mates.
North Seymour Island is ideal. Also good is San Cristobal, Darwin Island, Genovesa Island, and Wolf Island.
The Galapagos penguin is a real beauty and the only penguin that lives north of the equator. Often seen on ashore and swimming.
Best seen on Bartolomé Island, FernandinaIsland and Isabela Island.
Everyone loves a good flamingo! These lovely looking birds can be seen on a number of islands throughout the Galapagos.
The best spots are North Seymour, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Rábida, and Santiago Island.
Sea iguanas can be seen almost everywhere throughout the islands. The yellow land iguanas are less common, but very beautiful.
Sea iguanas can be seen everywhere. For land iguanas you'll want Isabela Island or North and South Seymour Island.
The giant tortoise is the flag-ship species of the Galapagos. These large creatures are totally amazing to stand next to due to their size!
Giant tortoise can be seen on most main islands. However, the best spot is probably the highlands area on Santa Cruz.
Things To Do On Your Galapagos Cruise
Because of the lovely weather, blue waters and outstanding wildlife, there is a whole host of activities on offer during your Galapagos cruise. Below we have listed the top activities.
Probably the most popular extra activity on board your ship is kayaking. Super fun, kayaking allows you to explore rivers and inlets that your ship can't. It also allows you to get closer to some of the wildlife that lines the shore. Kayaking is generally included as part of your cruise. Click here for more information.
A fair amount of your cruise will be taken up with simply watching the amazing wildlife. Dancing boobies, swimming iguana, playful seals and lumbering tortoises all make wildlife watching super fun. Make sure you bring an awesome pair of binoculars though!
The Galapagos is probably one of the best dive sites in the world for marine life. You'' have a chance to whales, dolphins, sharks, seals, rays, sea snakes etc. Generally costs slightly more and you'll need to be a certified diver with a number of previous dives under your belt. Click here for more information.
Incredibly popular for obvious reasons. Most cruises will offer daily snorkelling excursions which will get you super close to all the marine life. Mask and snorkel will be proved, but if you own your own good pair, then bring them! Click here for more information.
Photographers will be in their element in the Galapagos. Obviously the wildlife is the main draw card, but the rugged landscape and blue waters mean that landscape photographers won't miss out either.
Most cruises will included several hikes per day, often in the region of 2 hours. These give you a chance to stretch your legs and meet the wildlife up close! You can also take special hikes like climbing the Sierra Negra volcanoes for epic views!
Best Islands To Visit In The Galapagos
Bartolome Island is one of the most photographed islands in the Galapagos thanks to the iconic Pinnacle Rock. Snoreling around the rock is incredibly good with most visitors seeing penguins, green sea turtles, tropical fish, and white-tipped reef sharks.
The capital island of the Galapagos, Santa Cruz is the starting point of many cruises and land-based tours. Las Bachas Beach is great for bird watching and sea turtles, whilst the highlands are the best place to see giant tortoise. Also visit the Charles Darwin Research Centre here.
Over 4 million years old, Espanola is one of the oldest islands in the Galapagos. Its also the archipelago’s southernmost island and offer a variety of wildlife unsurpassed in the region! Without doubt the best place to see albatross nesting and taking flight.
One of the most fascinating islands thanks to its rich wildlife and even richer history! Murderers, pirates, aristocracy and more make the human history of this island come to life. Its also one of the best places to snorkel - expect to see sea lions, penguins, and rays. There is also a great giant tortoise reserve.
Often termed 'Bird Island', Genovesa is a lovely island thanks to its nazca and red-footed booby colonies. You can also spot mockingbirds, Darwin finches, frigatebirds, and red-billed tropicbirds. Genovesa is also a great spot to swim with hammerhead sharks should you wish it!
The oldest of all the archipelago's islands, San Cristobal has the only other airport in the Galapagos. It's also home to some beautiful bird colonies including red and blue-footed boobies and large friagtebirds. Surfers and beach lovers will also love this island.
Santa Fe hosts the largest forest of Opuntia cactus in the archipelago. More commonly known as the Galapagos prickly pear, these forests are perfect for a unique hike. The island is also home to sea lions, manta rays, sea turtles, and giant iguanas.
Isabele Island is the largest island within the Galapagos and the second most volcanically active place in the world thanks to it's 6 volcanoes. Swim with marine iguanas and penguins or Hike across the barren lava fields - maybe even climb one!
North Seymour Island is a paradise for bird lovers. Wander along the dirt paths and see frigatebirds and blue-footed boobies nesting in the barren rocks. Beautiful yellow land iguanas and pink flamingos are very common here and you can also snorkel with sea turtles.
Choosing The Right Galapagos Itinerary
Because there are so many operators and itineraries, it can be a nightmare deciding which cruise is the best option! You'll first need to decide how long you have. Galapagos cruises range from 4 - 4 nights and this will affect your itinerary significantly.
Because of regulations implemented by the Galapagos National Park, you must choose an itinerary over 10 nights to see all the islands. Shorter cruises can not visit all the islands and habitats on offer.
You'll see many Galapagos cruises named different things like 'Wild Galapagos' or 'Classic Galapagos'. However, you need to look at the map to see where the cruise goes as pretty much every Galapagos cruise can be separated into four categories - North, South, East, and West.
The only variations on these come when you do a super short cruise or a very long cruise. Below we discus each in more detail. Click here for more information.
The Northern itineraries cover islands such as Santiago, Rabid, Bartolome, North Seymour and Genovesa. The longer cruise will also visit the northern parts of Isabela and Fernandina. One of the most popular regions thanks to Bartolome and North Seymour.
The Southern itineraries cover the islands of San Cristobal, Santa Fe, Floreana and Espanola. Shorter itineraries in this region often don't visit Santa Fe or Espanola. Great for people wanting to swim with sea lions, rays, sharks etc.
The Western itineraries generally cover Isabela and Fernandina islands. Because both a quite large (especially Isabela), there is more than enough to see on both. Longer itineraries will often include Santiago and Floreana. Isabela is a fantastically diverse and volcanic island than visitors absolutely love.
The Eastern itineraries cover the islands of Santa Cruz, Genovesa, Santa Fe, San Cristobal, Baltra Island, and Espanola. The longer itineraries will include all the islands, whilst the shorter ones tend to leave out either Genovesa or San Cristobal. Eastern itineraries are great for land iguanas and giant tortoise.
Most regions also offer what is called 'Brief itineraries'. These are generally 4 nights long and visit 2 or 3 islands, depending on region. Some of these cruises visit just as many islands as the longer itineraries, but you won't get to explore as many spots. Perfect for people with not a lot of time on their hands.
Although most itineraries stick to one of the four regions - North, South, East and West, there are a number of longer itineraries that combine several regions or more. Some of the longest itineraries visit all the main islands which allow passengers to get a wonderful sense of the habitat and species of the islands.
Galapagos Packing List
Although the weather in the Galapagos is very good all year-round, you'll still ned to consider what you pack quite carefully.
You'll need to take into account things like extra activities, temperature, swim gear and lots more.
Below we have given a quick rundown of each packing list element to think about prior to leaving.
Items To Consider
Clothing: The weather will be quite warm no matter the you travel. Make sure you wear lightweight, breathable clothing. Also bring a lightweight rain jacker for this common Summer showers.
Swimwear: You'll be snorkelling every day during your cruise, so make sure you bring some comfortable swimmer. Wetsuits are generally not needed, unless you really feel the cold.
Sunglasses: Wearing a good pair of polarised sunglasses is going to make it far easier to spot wildlife!
Footwear: You're going to make a number of wet landings during your Galapagos cruise. We suggest bringing some good-quality water boots with you. Good for snorkelling also.
Bags and Daypacks: When ashore you'll want access to your camera, water bottle, towel, snacks etc. Make sure you have a good quality day pack with you.
Important Accessories: Remember to bring earplugs, water bottle, suncream, flippers, kindle, sunglasses, extra electrical sockets etc.
Galapagos Cruise Insurance
Insurance is highly recommended on all cruises to the Galapagos. Please use the quick calculator below to get a quote with our recommended specialist. For a detailed page on cruise insurance, click here.
Galapagos Cruise Video
Below is a short video by DicEncounters, demonstrating some of the delights to be seen in on a Galapagos cruise.