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Galapagos Cruise or DIY trip? How to visit the Galapagos Islands

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If you wonder what the best way to visit Galapagos Islands is 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 and I want to help you make the right decision for you.


ECUADOR ENTRY REQUIREMENTS AND COVID PROCEDURES

Mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, have officially reopened! So If the Galapagos were on your bucket list you should take advantage of these weird and difficult times and take a break from stress and uncertainty, while enjoying this wildlife sanctuary.  

The local authorities and operators are going beyond their ways to create a safe environment for locals and visitors alike, and protocols are in place and strictly followed.

Now, the Mainland and the Galapagos islands have slightly different entry requirements, which am explaining here below. 

MAINLAND ECUADOR ENTRY REQUIREMENTS:

As of mid-July Ecuador’s international airports reopened, and flights have resumed with the following requirements:

  •  Proof of a negative COVID PCR (PCR test only) test within 10 days of arriving in Ecuador,
  • Not presenting any symptoms of COVID on arrival
  • If the above conditions are met there is no need for self-quarantine, on the contrary, passengers must self-quarantine in a designated hotel at their expense for 14 days and then take the test again. 

GALAPAGOS ENTRY REQUIREMENTS:

  • For the Galapagos islands, policies are a little stricter, as follow:
  • A negative COVID PCR test within 96 hours of arrival in the islands (please note only PCR tests are accepted)
  • Proof of Travel Insurance, including medical coverage for COVID-19,
  • Proof of confirmed itinerary in the islands.
  • Entrance requirements for Ecuador and Galapagos are subject to change.

TEST TIMING AND LOGISTIC

Please note the timing difference. That means that if you don’t want to take the test twice you need to make sure to enter the Galapagos Islands within 96 hours from when you took the test before coming to Ecuador. So make sure you do the maths. 

Timing can be stressful. I had a similar situation when I crossed the border to Guatemala from Mexico. If you want to avoid stress, you can just take your time and arrange another test in Quito before getting to Galapagos. There are around 20 clinics in Quito where you can take it, and the cost is around 85 to 105 USD. You will have your results in 12 hours.

SECURITY PROTOCOLS IN ECUADOR

Both on the mainland, and in the islands, in all public spaces, including hotels, airports, yachts, and transportation, there are social distancing measures in place and new sanitation procedures.

My friend and I were undecided, too, and as we started to look online at the cruise options and after seeing the outrageous prices, we were about to give up on our dream to visit the Galapagos Islands. We would eventually find out that you can find cheap Galapagos cruises. You just need to know how to search.

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 choose 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.


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THE PROS OF TRAVELING ON A CRUISE

  1. you see many isolated and enchanted spots and wildlife species  that are only reachable by cruises
  2. you don’t have any contact with other human beings besides your cruise companions and the guide (chose small boats)
  3. 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

  1. it has a higher cost if you consider a daily average spend
  2. you don’t get to know most of the islands life so your experience is limited to the cruise program and the guide
  3. 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 DO-IT-YOURSELF TRIP

  1. you are free to make your own schedule at your own peace
  2. it’s cheaper
  3. you can eat in different places
  4. you can experience the local lifestyle
  5. if one day you decide you just bask in the sun doing nothing, you can do that.

THE CONS OF A DO-IT-YOURSELFTRIP

  1. 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.
  2. you have to hustle and organize the entire trip, transfers, meal, tours, which can be tiring although I enjoyed it.

FINAL THOUGHTS

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.

Check out my Galapagos Travel Itineraries.

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).

EDIT: One year after this trip I started working for Liveabord.com, as a customer service agent so I know the company very well and I can totally vouch for her. Booking a trip with Liveaboard.com is definitely a guarantee of quality.

Here is what you should know about  Galapagos cruises

  1. There are many different cruise categories and prices, like for hotels, which I will summarize below. From what I have understood
    • Economy – This is the cheapest option, but for a reason.  The economy cruise in the Galapagos is smaller and will small common spaces, usually not very comfortable and with shared bathrooms. Food is not going to be the best quality, but you will have a professional nature guide, even though of a lower level of experience. The low-end cruise would also be on a smaller boat that moves a lot when the ocean is choppier, normally from June through November. So you should consider it if you are prone to seasickness. However, if you are not interested in the perks of the luxury experience and are traveling on a budget, this would be the best option. 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 comfort level, 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 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 very much qualified (2 or 3 bilingual guides). Food is also delicious, although not gourmet. First Class cruise prices in the Galapagos 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 have it all, the best of everything: top experienced guide (Level 3 of Nature Guide Certification), spacious and design cabins with all the comfort premier amenities, gourmet cuisine. Some luxury cruises in the Galapagos also include transfers to the airport and VIP lounges. The price ranges from $4,000 to $6,000 per person for 5 days and $6,000 to $8,000 per person for 8 days.
  • 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 many great deals, even up to 50% discounts.
  • Sometimes are early birds deals, so if you book with good anticipation, you get great deals.
  • 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.
  • 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 essential 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.

Among others:

  • 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.

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.

Rabida Island

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.

Chinese Hat

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.

Fernandina Island

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 to 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.

Santiago Island

The fourth-largest island, Santiago Island, has many different visitor sites. 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 to 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 you can admire.

Espumilla beach is another beautiful spot south of Puerto Egas for snorkeling and where you can occasionally see flamingoes.

Buccaneer Cove on the northwestern side of the island is where many spices of seabirds come for nesting.

Genovesa Island

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 seals or see whales passing by. Other bird sights can include Nasca Boobies, Frigatebirds, red-billed tropicbirds, 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. 

WHERE TO BOOK A GALAPAGOS CRUISE

I suggest booking a cruise with a reputable company that can guarantee professional and outstanding service. You don’t get to go to the Galapagos so often, and maybe it’s your once in a lifetime trip, so you want to make sure to put yourself in good hands when it comes to book an expensive cruise.

That’s why I partner with two companies only, which I know are reputable and trustworthy, G Adventures and Liveaboard.com.

G Adventures

G Adventures is a Canadian-based company that provides adventure cruises and tours in the most amazing destinations in the world.

Explore the Galapagos cruise options and check out the Galapagos entry policy on G Adventure site.

Liveaboard.com

A company I have proudly worked for, and for which I would still be working if it was not for the pandemic. They partner with the greatest boats all over the world, specializing in Diving cruises but also offering exclusive naturalistic/adventure cruises on the best luxury and budget boats all over the world, including the Galapagos.

Explore the Galapagos cruises on Liveaboard.com site

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS MAP


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