Galapagos cruise or do-it-yourself island hopping?
If you are wondering what is the best way to visit Galapagos Islands and you are undecided between choosing a Galapagos Islands Cruise or staying on the islands and taking day tours from there, I feel your pain.
My friend and I were in the same situation and as we started to look online at the cruise options and seeing the outrageous prices, we were about to give up on our dream to visit the Galapagos islands.
They looked extremely unaffordable, for me especially, as I am traveling full time, living on my savings. So, even the tourist category option (about 1200 USD for 5 days) would have been too much for me, besides the fact that I believe that to get the best out of a cruise, you need to chose at least a middle-range category or up and will tell you why in a bit.
Also what I couldn’t make peace with, was the thought of spending 1400 to 2000 USD for just 5 days or 7. That would have meant 250 to 400 USD per day, and this if we had found a last minute discounted cruise. I really couldn’t accept it, even though in the end we had actually spent more because we stayed longer.
Then, we found information on traveling from one island to the other and it looked much cheaper while you could still cover a lot, so we opted for the budget option to stay on different islands and do day tours from there.
However, we stayed for 3 weeks and spent almost the same amount of money but with an average spend of 100 USD per day. I loved the idea to be on the islands and familiarize with the local life as well, really getting the feeling of it after 20 days, it almost felt like home. That feeling that I love so much when I travel.
However, it is not my intention here to discredit cruises, by all means. On the contrary, I promised myself and my friend, that we would go back to the Galapagos and next time it will be on a cruise, to try a different experience, to live completely in the water and to visit remote islands that you can only visit if you are on a cruise.
Here below I summarize the pros and con of both worlds:
The pros of traveling on a cruise
- you see many isolated and enchanted spots and wildlife species that are only reachable by cruises
- you don’t have any contact with other human beings besides your cruise companions and the guide (chose small boats)
- you don’t have to worry about food, transportation, and hotel hopping, as everything is taken care of
The cons of traveling on a cruise
- it has a higher cost if you consider a daily average spend
- you don’t get to know most of the islands life so your experience is limited to the cruise program and the guide
- you will be in a group for the entire time and will be told what to do and where on a fixed schedule. (I think I could freak out by day two, but I still want to try)
The pros of a DIY trip
- you are free to make your own schedule at your own peace
- it’s cheaper
- you can eat in different places
- you can experience the local lifestyle
- if one day you decide you just bask in the sun doing nothing, you can do that.
The cons of a DIY trip
- there are many islands where day trip cannot go either because they don’t have permission or because they are too far. Unfortunately, some of those islands are where you can see endemic spices that you cannot see anywhere else. Such as the red-footed boobies that you can see only in Genovesa Island, a remote island only reachable by cruise, and, if you are lucky, in Punta Pitt a San Cristobal. We were not.
- you have to hustle and organize the entire trip, transfers, meal, tours, which can be tiring although I enjoyed it.
There is no better or worse way to visit the Galapagos. Both ways are amazing experiences, just different. It all depends on what you like and what kind of trip you want to have and chose accordingly. That’s all. I enjoyed my stay on the Galapagos Islands but I can’t wait to go back and enjoy a cruise experience. I will book through Liveaboard.com as it’s the specialized tour operator that I found with the best cruise options and with lots of great deals. I will talk about it in the next section.
If you opted for a DIY option I have crafted 3 sample itineraries that might help you organize your own. Click here to check them out
HOW TO CHOSE A GALAPAGOS CRUISE
Ok, so, you have decided that you are up for a cruise vacation more than a do it yourself thing. So what’s next? how do you decide and search? No matter what kind of budget you have. The following information that we have found during our research will help you find the perfect boat for you.
Disclaimer: I haven’t been on a cruise myself, so what I am sharing here is the information I found during my research (a long research).
A view from Bartolome’ island while returning from our hike. You can see far away one of the cruises.[/caption]
Here is what you should know about Galapagos cruises
- There are many different cruise categories and prices, just like for hotels, which I will summarise here below. For what I have understood
- Economy – This is the cheapest option, but for a reason. The economy cruise in the Galapagos are smaller and will small common spaces, usually not very comfortable and most of the time with shared bathrooms. Food is not going to be the best quality but you will have a professional nature guide as well even though of a lower level of experience. Also, the low-end cruise would be on a smaller boat which moves a lot when the ocean is choppier, normally from June through November. So you should take it into consideration if you are prone to seasickness. However, if you are not interested in the perks of the luxury experience and you are traveling on a budget this would be the best option for you. Budget cruises price range from $900 to $1,200 per person for 5 days; $1,500 to $1,800 per person for 8 days.
- Tourist – Tourist or superior class are the best options if you are not keen on splurging and all the luxuries are not your main priority. You still have a good level of comfort though, even if the cabins are smaller or sometimes have bunk beds, but with your own private bathroom. If you are traveling alone you might be required to share the cabin with another solo traveler. The food will still be good and you will get the full Galapagos cruises to experience anyway. Especially if your primary goal and interest are about the Galapagos wildlife and nature. You will be just fine. Also, you will still have your Level 2 certified Nature guide. Mid-range cruises price range: $2,000 to $3,000 per person for 5 days; $3,500 to $4,500 per person for 8 days
- First class – First Class cruises in Galapagos are on top class boats with very similar service as luxury cruises. However, the cabins are smaller and the guides are still high level (2 or 3 bilingual guides) Food is also delicious although not gourmet. First Class cruise price in the Galapagos can range between $3,500 to $5,000 per person for 5 days and $5,000 to $6,000 per person for 8 days.
Luxury – as you can imagine Luxury cruises in the Galapagos has it all, the best of everything: top experienced guide (Level 3 of Nature Guide Certification) spacious and design cabins with all the comfort and premier amenities, gourmet cuisine. Some luxury cruises in the Galapagos also include transfer to the airport and VIP lounges. Price range goes from $4,000 to $6,000 per person for 5 days and $6,000 to $8,000 per person for 8 days.
Prices are approximate and can change with season and availability. On Liveaboard, a site specialized on cruises that we loved, we found an amazing 50% last minute deals that I would have taken if we hadn’t booked already our stay.
- Whatever class of cruise you chose you will experience the same amazing landscape of the stunning volcanic islands and local wildlife, snorkeling adventures and more.
- If you look at last minute cruises either online or directly on the islands, you can find a lot of great deals even up to 50% discounts.
- Sometimes are early birds deals, so if you book with good anticipation you get great deals, like this one for example
- Many of the Galapagos wildlife species that can only be seen in specific islands only reachable by cruise
- The best diving spots at the Galapagos are Darwin island and Wolf island and they are only reachable by Diving Cruises. They are so remote that it’s impossible to reach them by daily excursions. Dive cruises are the most expensive. But they also have good deals, such as this one.
- THE MOST IMPORTANT TIP for me: consider that being a marine park and protected ( I would say SUPER protected) areas, few people at a time are allowed to disembark and visit, be it for snorkeling or walking/hiking). Therefore if you are on a big cruise with more than 16 passengers you will have to deal with a lot of waiting, which to me is unbearable. I would choose a small First Class or Tourist (or higher) cruise to get the best experience.
- There are tons of cruises available with many different itineraries. You should check first what you can see in all the included stops before deciding your itinerary. For example, if your main goal is to see the funny Red-footed boobies you should consider including Genovesa Island in your itinerary, where you can find the largest colony, besides many other feathered friends besides hammerhead shark. You can see them on other islands but with less chance.
- Following point #7, it’s really important to know what you want to see where you can see and then look for a cruise that includes it, or most of it.
GALAPAGOS NATIONAL PARK RULES
There are common sense rules that we should follow all the time, not only in the Galapagos National Park. I was happy to see that these rules are strictly implemented with a lot of controls, with the help of the local nature guides and people involved in conservation.
- Don’t touch the animals
- Don’t litter
- Stay at about 6 feet from the animals
- Don’t feed the animals
- Don’t use flash when photographing
To know about all the rules you can check out this official website on Galapagos conservation.
It would be great if we get the habit and will continue to follow these instructions on how to respect the environment and live in peace with nature.
As usual, before visiting a country, I like to explore what’s my option in the literature as I like to know about the local culture before going or have something to read during my stay.
This time the only thing I have read was the Lonely Planet as I wanted to make sure I was covering all the most interesting stuff. However, I have found other interesting books that might be of your interest, if you love to know about the natural history of the islands. Here below my choice.
OTHER USEFUL POSTS ABOUT THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS
ISLANDS AND SPOTS THAT ARE REACHABLE ONLY BY CRUISE
While we were already on the islands and were touring around travel agents to see how to reach our favorite places, we realized that there were many spots that you can reach only by cruise. Each boat has its own itinerary on specific dates.
In fact, as I was mentioned before there are many different itineraries covered by different boats. This is why, before deciding which cruise you book, you need to know which spots you really want to visit and which ones you are ok to give up. It’s very difficult to find a cruise that covers everything you really want.
For example, we wanted to see Rabida Island and Genovesa Island and Canal Bolivar but there is no cruise that includes the three spots in one itinerary.
Here I will tell you what are the islands and spots that you can reach by cruise only so that you know what Galapagos cruise you should look for.
Located just 5 km off Santiago Island, this little rocky island is famous for its reddish beach where Sea lions have their home and pelicans nest. The lucky ones on a cruise that includes this island can enjoy a 750mt trail that leads to a viewpoint and a great snorkeling spot at the end of it.
This is a tiny island located close to Santiago Islands. Visitors can enjoy amazing snorkeling around a cave where a colony of sea lions hangs out all the time and there are great opportunities to see penguins. Of course, the omnipresent marine iguana won’t be missing out.
Located right opposite to the northwest coast of Isabela, Fernandina is one of a kind island, the only one where you could have the chance to see an eruption as the last one was in 2017.
It’s the youngest island and also the third largest.
It’s one of the few places of the Galapagos where no external species have been introduced.
Fernandina Island is home of endemic species such as flightless cormorants, lazy iguanas, Galapagos penguins, and, of course, sea lions. From the only visitor point, Punta Espinoza, right opposite to Isla Isabela, you can easily admire them all hanging out together in an unexpected impressive tolerance. Hawks can be spotted hovering over the breathtaking scenery.
The fourth largest island, Santiago Island has many different visitor sites, where many cruises and daily tours stop to admire its incredible lava formations and an abundance of wildlife that can be easily spotted.
Here we find Puerto Egas, on the west side, where black lava pools formed by the shoreline are home of a great variety of fauna, including marine iguana basking in the sun, hundreds of Sally Lightfoot Red crabs, herons, fur seals that will swim with you and an abundance of marine life including tropical fishes, moray eels, sharks and octopuses.
At Puerto, Egas you can also have a 2 km walk to the Sugarloaf volcano and your walk to the spectacular view will be delighted by the sights of lava lizards, Galapagos doves, and Darwin finches besides the majestic Galapagos hawk. Other bays are Sullivan bay on the east coast, a spectacular site, especially for a geologist, for the variety of lava formations that you can admire.
Espumilla beach is another beautiful spot south of Puerto Egas for snorkeling and where you can occasionally see flamingoes.
Buccaneer Cove in the northwestern side of the island is where many spices of seabirds come for nesting.
This is where we really wanted to go but, too far for a day tour. In fact, it makes sense. Here you can easily spot red-footed boobies that go there to nest, and, if you are lucky you might be able to spot the Galapagos Owl.
On this side of the archipelago, it’s easy to swim with hammer-sharks and fur seal or see whales passing by. Other birds sights can include, Nasca Boobies, Frigatebirds, red-billed tropic birds, swallow-tailed gulls. This is to me, an unmissable spot when I will go on a cruise.
The sources for this information include the Lonely Planet and my investigations while in the islands.
GALAPAGOS PACKING LIST
So you are ready for your trip and you are unsure about what to bring?
Here I am showing you how your Galapagos packing list is the shortest you have ever had! 🙂
You don’t really need much.
It’s a very laid back place and even if you are staying e in one of the few luxury hotels, they have still a quite casual ambiance.
So here is the list of things you cannot do without:
- Shorts and T-shirts. I found these kinds of shorts very practical, especially during the boat tours where you can get wet very easily, as they dry fast.
- Swimsuits. Here some swimsuits ideas if you wish to buy a new outfit for this special occasion.
- Hat (if you use it, I didn’t)
- Ecological Sunscreen
- Windbreaker or a jumper, evenings and boat rides can get chilly. I love my North face 3 seasons, but I have an older version. This one is the new model, which is much cooler and in nicer colors. I find it quite practical because you can take in and out the internal layer according to the temperature.
- Reusable water bottle. Lifestraw is what I am going to purchase as soon as I get to a place for a while where I can get deliveries from Amazon. While on the road it’s difficult to shop online :). Life Straw is what I have been raving about as it has a filter on it so you can get tap water and drink good purified water. Perfect when you travel either for saving money and to look after your stomach! 🙂
- Underwater Camera or GoPro or similar: you will want to take some turtles and sharks back home with you, at least in pictures. I got the GoPro 4 when it came out and paid it a fortune. I can see that they have accessible prices now. The latest model is GoPro hero7 and on Amazon is less than 400 USD. But if you are not a super pro and still want good resolution video, the GoPro 5 works amazingly as well and it’s only 237 USD.
- Camera with a zoom, you don’t want to miss capturing the spectacular wildlife. I have a Canon 6D, a grand angle Canon 16-35 f/2.8 LII, which I love for landscapes, but I stayed on the cheep for my zoom lens and a Tamron 75-300 f5.6.It was not exactly ideal, or what I wished I had, but it worked well. Also because the wildlife in the Galapagos is extremely friendly and fearless, so you can get very close, as you can see from my pictures.
- Flip flops, I always go for Hawaianas, although I admit they left me barefoot a couple of times in the middle of the road. It was embarrassing but I always make a laugh about my embarrassing adventures. At least I have something funny to tell.
- Gym or hiking shoes. I have these Merrell and I love them. I have been wearing them almost every day for 2 years and are still good although a little worn out.
- Wet suite and snorkeling gear if you have your own, otherwise you can rent it anywhere (it’s normally 5 USD for short wetsuits and 10 USD for long per day and the snorkeling gear 10 USD per day. If you want to have your own, it is understandable. I don’t like the long one but I don’t even like to be cold. I was in Galapagos during the coldest season and the short one was good enough, although my friend still preferred the long. It’s a very personal choice. You will also need to check on the thickness. They normally go from 3 mm to 7 in very cold water.
- Binoculars. I am not an expert on binoculars, so I will leave you this general link to a page with a variety of brands and prices.
- Dry/waterproof Bag. This is one of the best gifts I have ever received. Too bad I left it in a hostel, like many other important stuff I have left behind. I missed it in several occasions. So if you have space in your bag you should get one. Here a link to my choice.
- Motion sickness pills, if it’s really unbearable. I prefer to avoid it and just sit back in the open air and watch the horizon, but I know for many it’s not enough.