Planning Your Trip
Should I take a cruise or a land based tour?
This is a big question and we will bluntly answer - CRUISE. Here's why we think this way: The Galapagos islands are world-famous for their unique wildlife and for the fact that many animals display a total lack of any concern over anyone approaching them. The islands are famous as the source of inspiration for Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Galapagos is one of the only places on Earth where reptiles still dominate the landscape. On top of all this, the islands are graphic manifestations of geological processes that have shaped the earth - with volcanic peaks emerging out of the sea, some still active, particularly on the west side of the archipelago.
All these factors combined give Galapagos a bit of an "ends of the earth" feel - traveling among the islands is almost like traveling back in time, beyond the known world and away from all the usual routine reference points of your life. We feel that if you are going to go through all the trouble and cost of getting yourself to Galapagos in the first place, you might as well do what it takes to experience the full "mind trip." It takes time to let go of your usual concerns and cares and to let your senses and spirit adapt to a new environment. The only way to develop a sense for Galapagos is to spend as much time out on the sea and amongst the islands as possible.
The only way to do that in Galapagos (unless you're a scientist in a field camp) is to be on a ship, for several days. You won't be coming back to the hustle and bustle of human settlements, with bright lights and traffic every night. You can see the sun set, and rise, over the Pacific and marvel at the brilliant starry skies and check for bioluminescence in the sea. A cruise-based visit will have you on shore, starting your excursions earlier in the morning, before the sun gets too hot and while the animals are at their most active.
How do I choose a "good" itinerary?
It depends on what you are looking for in a cruise. All ships follow a Park-approved circuit through the islands, coming back to the original point of departure every two weeks. On a standard cruise (7 nights, 8 days), you will generally get exposed to roughly half of the archipelago during that time. If you take a full 14-night / 15-day cruise, you'll see just about all there is to see.
Lower-end ships might have less adventurous itineraries, sticking close to home and visiting a disproportionate number of settled islands. Some people are very keen to see particular species - like the giant tortoise, the red- footed booby, the penguin, the flightless cormorant, or maybe the waved albatross - some of which are more common, or even only present in more distant visitor sites.
What cruise length should I choose?
… it depends! It depends on your time, budget and passion. If you've been dreaming about going to Galapagos all your life, then do the full 15-day itinerary. The majority of people take a 7-night / 8-day cruise - this gives you a good opportunity, particularly with a good itinerary, to see the diversity of landscapes and life forms in Galapagos. Some people are pressed for time (and/or money) and opt for shorter cruises - as short at 4 or 5 days. But remember, a "5-day" cruise is really only 3 full sailing days. (The first and last days have you embarking after midday, and disembarking before midday.) Given the fixed costs of going all the way to Galapagos in the first place (both in time and money), we recommend at least a 7-night / 8-day cruise.
What is the difference between the 3-night/4-day, 4-night/5-day and 7-night/8-day tours?
When the cruise business got going in Galapagos in the 1970's and 1980's, the 7-night / 8-day cruise was the standard length simply because there was only one flight a week to the islands! The 7-night itinerary is pretty much the standard today, but several ships started offering shorter cruises for those people more pressed for time. The first and last days of a cruise typically consist of one short land visit (for example, after passengers have flown to Galapagos and embarked, there is little time for cruising on the first day; and in order to get passengers to the airport on time for their flight out, there is little time for cruising on the last day.) So an "8-day" cruise consists of only 6 full cruising days. Similarly, a 5-day cruise consists of only 3-full days.
When considering a longer cruise, you might want to ascertain that your ship is not dropping off / picking up passengers who are on a shorter cruise. When poorly executed, this can result in too much down time for the ship in the middle of your longer cruise and a sense that you are wasting precious hours in Galapagos, waiting around.
What are the typical demographics of cruise ship passengers?
Demographics vary from ship to ship and from month to month. The largest ships (90 - 100 passengers), typically marketed on the usual international cruise ship networks, may attract a more conservative, established clientele. Smaller, lowest-end ships will attract a more diverse group of bargain hunters, while middle-range ships, or smaller higher-end ships may attract people who are bit more adventure-minded, yet settled enough to be able to afford the cruise in the first place. Given the price of a Galapagos cruise, it's common that people who've had the chance to establish themselves financially tend to go on cruise ships. That's often people who are a bit older, with perhaps 70% of passengers in their 50's, 60's and even 70's, though there still are many adventurous younger folks as well. You may also bump into more families with younger children during the school holiday period - typically the Christmas period, a couple of weeks in March and June/July/August.
What are the pros and cons between a large ship and a small ship?
Small ships (8-20 passengers) are more common in Galapagos and offer a greater diversity in terms of comfort and design. Roughly 40 ships fall into this category. They come in different comfort classes, from the most rudimentary to luxury. Some have small cabins with bunk beds and little public space, while others have ample decks, salons and spacious cabins. There are monohulls and catamarans. Small ships carry fewer people and tend to have more flexibility while sailing - e.g. if whales are spotted, the ships can more easily maneuver or linger among them. If dolphins are riding the bow wave (not uncommon), it's possible on most small ships to go to the bow and watch them from just a few metres away. (See an example here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBOxcoPucbc). You can't do that on a big ship. Small ships are a bit less intrusive as well. When you wake up after a night cruise, and you find yourself moored in a remote bay, all alone, on a small ship, you might feel more in harmony with your surroundings. On the downside, small ships will feel choppy seas more than a larger ship does - so if you're particularly sensitive to that kind of thing, it could be a consideration.
Large ships (49-100 passengers) tend to come only in the higher comfort-level classes (you'll be hard-pressed to find a lower-priced cruise on a large ship). There are about 7 large ships. They have more public space and are more stable on the water. They might be a good consideration if you're considering going to Galapagos from July - November, when seas are a bit choppier, particularly if you don't handle ship movement too well.
Finally, there are about 15 middle-sized ships (21-48 passengers) that combine some of the pros and cons of both the small and large ships.
How do I decide what ship to choose?
That is one of the toughest questions to answer! It depends on your own interests/budget. There are nearly 70 ships plying Galapagos waters, from small converted fishing boats (just 2 or 3 of these left from the old days) to large luxury ships (100 passengers is the maximum allowed capacity in the islands). There are catamarans, monohulls, ships with sails... different ships follow different itineraries, there are low-end and high-end ships. And once you find a ship, you might want to consider which of its itineraries you want to join it for (e.g. 4, 5, 7, 11, 15 days?).
Can I take a sailing cruise?
Though several ships sport masts, few of them actually hoist sails during a cruise; or if they do, it's just for a few hours. But if you're keen on that, it can be worth it. Winds are notoriously fickle in Galapagos, and trying to do a regular 8 day, motorized itinerary using wind power alone could take 2-3 months. Charles Darwin spent more than 50% of his time in Galapagos sailing from one island to the other - imagine his frustration! If you are intent on a ship that can hoist sails, you should confirm with the owners if indeed they will do so during your cruise, and for how long.
Is a Galapagos cruise a good choice for solo travelers?
Why not? The shared feelings of wonder and the revival of one's sense of discovery while on a Galapagos cruise is a great ice breaker. Most ships will not charge a single supplement if you are willing to share a cabin with someone else (of the same sex of course). Some ships even have dedicated single cabins, or have more cabins than the number of allowed passengers (e.g. a 20-passenger ship allowed to embark only 16). See the "solo traveler friendly" filter on the ship finder page for ships that either have single cabins with no single supplements, or have more cabins than their maximum allowed capacity can use.
Do cruise rates include international flights?
Only those complete "from beginning to end" travel packages, typically offered by international travel agencies, would do that. But each cruise is sold in many different ways by different agents - some will include the flight from continental Ecuador to Galapagos in the overall price, some will sell only the cruise. You need to know exactly what you're paying for before you buy.
Do cruise rates include internal flights and/or hotel before or after the cruise, or the park entrance fee?
Some do, some don't - depending on who is selling the cruise. Be sure to pin these things down before buying.
Can I spend a few days on land if I want to?
Yes. There are four human settlements in Galapagos, and each offers a range of land-based activities focusing on the local attractions accessible by foot, bicycle, taxi, or ship-based day trip:
i) Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. This is the largest (accessible via Baltra Island airport, a 1.5-hour trip by land and ferry) and has the most services in terms of restaurants, shops, bars, dance clubs, scuba outfitters and hotels. The Charles Darwin Research Station is located here.
ii) Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, on San Cristobal Island. This is the seat of the provincial government and comes across as more of a government town. It has all the necessary infrastructure for visitors, but is about ¼ the size of Puerto Ayora. Access is by San Cristobal airport, just 3 minutes away by taxi, or a 15-minute walk down the road! The town is also connected to Puerto Ayora via a 3 hour ferry "speed boat" ferry service.
iii) Puerto Villamil, on Isabela Island. Sand roads, a fairly quiet little town, ¼ again the size of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno but located close to many good natural visitor areas. Hotel and restaurant options are more limited here. Access is by boat from Puerto Ayora or via small inter-island plane service.
iv) Puerto Velasco Ibarra, Floreana: A tiny settlement, with only 110 residents, and extremely limited hotel/restaurant options. You can't just show up - make sure you plan ahead. Access is by boat from Puerto Ayora, but service is not regular.
When is the best time of year to visit the Galapagos?
…. it depends! If seeing the waved albatross in full courting behaviour is a must, then you'll have to go no earlier than late April and no later than mid-June (and make sure your ship itinerary takes you to the one spot in the islands where this can be seen!). Or if you like to see baby sea lions, just born, then the months of November - December are ideal. You'll have a better chance to see giant tortoises in the wild if you go between January and May. Galapagos is a wonder all year long. There is always something happening, but the variety of criteria people consider when choosing a time of year makes it very difficult to identify a best time. Regarding environmental conditions, the seas tend to be warmer and calmer from January to May, coinciding with the hot and rainy season. See the FAQ on climate for more details.
What is a typical day of sightseeing like on a Galapagos cruise?
Typically, you get up early, have a coffee or tea, admire the early morning seascape, look for breaching whales, dolphins, leaping manta rays, seabirds…. Have breakfast and ready yourself for a morning land-based visit. Some of the more zealous ships will have you on land before breakfast on occasion, to take advantage of the early morning light, and animal activity. You take the panga (small motorized skiff or Zodiac) and disembark. You might spend 1-2 hours walking around at a leisurely pace, doing some wildlife observation with the help of your naturalist guide. Depending on the visitor site, there may be an opportunity for a swim, or a snorkel prior to lunch, or perhaps a panga ride along the rugged shoreline to look for birds and other creatures. Over lunch, when the sun is at its highest and hottest, the ship might sail a short distance to a new visitor site. You typically have time for a little siesta. The afternoon follows a similar pattern, with a site visit and possible snorkel/swim. If you like, you can dive off the ship's stern for a refreshing swim - just ask the guide. Happy hour can be had on the deck as you watch the sun sink into the Pacific, or behind a volcano and watch the brilliant starry sky make its appearance (something you don't see very well in town). Dinner is served and a short briefing on the next day's activities is provided shortly thereafter. People are often happy to call it a day fairly early.
Can I go anywhere I want?
No. 97% of the land area of Galapagos is within the Galapagos National Park - and people are only allowed to go to designated visitor sites, and only in the company of a certified naturalist guide. In the remaining 3%, located on the 4 settled islands, there are attractions that can be visited independently.
What are the best visitor sites?
That's a bit like asking "what's the best colour?" or "what's the best day of the year?". A survey of past visitors will result in a wide variety of answers. One site might get you an encounter with a rare species seen nowhere else, but not much else. Another might be good for swimming, and you'll see a large school of spotted eagle rays swim below you - a sight you'll never forget! One site in April could have a lot going for it, but 4 months later, be little to remember. You may be very interested in some of the intriguing human history of the remote towns of Villamil or Floreana, but your fellow travellers may not.
You'll have to do your own research and find an itinerary that best suits your tastes. The only way to get the full diversity of sites is to take a 15-day cruise in May, and again in October - which is beyond the reach of many in terms of time and money, further underscoring the need to plan ahead.
How physically fit do I have to be to enjoy a Galapagos trip?
You don't have to be an Olympian. People of all ages, some into their 90's, have been to Galapagos. You have to be able to get into a panga (small motorized skiff), disembark, and negotiate trails that can be a bit uneven at times, with rocks, or tree roots, or on sand. Some people bring a walking stick. Hikes are rarely more than 2.5 km in length (1.5 miles), usually with little elevation gain. Hikes are done at a slow pace - because it's all about observing nature, not about establishing speed records. Although not mandatory, it's good to know how to swim with mask and snorkel because the underwater life is so spectacular. If you're not yet comfortable with that, we recommend taking the time to develop a level of comfort with it before you go - you will not be disappointed. Crews and guides are experienced in working with people of all ages. If you want to sit out a particularly hike, you can stay on the ship; or in some cases, an alternative outing can be proposed. Some cruises or charters are specifically designed for more active people - see www.cnhtours.com/active-tours/classic-active-on-the-samba for an example.
Are these trips suitable for children?
Of course! It's best if kids are comfortable in the water and using a mask and snorkel - if not, it's worth investing the necessary time before the trip to ensure they are. Several ships offer "family departures," encouraging people to bring their children, thus ensuring that the kids get to have fun with other kids while on the cruise and perhaps giving the parents a bit of a reprieve in the meantime. We recommend not taking children who are under 7 years old out of concern that they may require too much supervision on the part of parents, resulting in a frustrating time for all. Some ships have age restrictions and may not accept toddlers or younger children - check to be sure.
How are the naturalist guides classified?
Depending on their level of training and education, guides are classified into three classes:
- Speaks only Spanish; little or no post-secondary education
- Speaks a language other than Spanish with a good degree of fluency
- Has a university degree in biology or natural sciences
- Speaks a language other than Spanish with a good degree of fluency
We know many guides personally. Though the classification system above provides some general indication on guide training, it provides no indication whatsoever on the real quality of a naturalist guide. At the end of the day, a "good" guide is a whole lot more than someone with a degree in biology and speaks English fluently! So there are top quality class I guides out there and very average class III guides. A good naturalist guide will make a big difference in your Galapagos experience. In the end, there are rarely any guarantees - but as a general rule, higher end ships tend to guides that are at least competent and professional.
Does the guide accompany us on each island?
Yes, and in the water as well. Most visitor sites in Galapagos are off limits to people, unless accompanied by a certified naturalist guide (these are certified by the Galapagos National Park Service after they have completed a guide's course). Cruise ships must hire at least 1 naturalist guide for every 16 passengers.
On the Ship
Is there a dress code on board?
The first thing to remember is that a Galapagos cruise is not like one of those classic transatlantic crossings you see in the movies. There is no "black tie / evening gown" night and conditions are very relaxed. There may be people on board who prefer to dress up a little for the evening meals, particularly on the larger, higher-end ships, but dining in a (relatively clean) t-shirt and shorts is equally respectable in Galapagos.
How much should we tip the guide and crew?
Tipping is often a controversial subject but shouldn't be. Though no one is forced to leave a tip, in Galapagos and on cruise ships, it is expected of you, just as you are expected to leave a tip when dining in a restaurant in the USA. If satisfied, each passenger is expected to leave about +/- 3-4% of the total price paid for the cruise (cruise portion only, don't include flights etc...). You do this once for your naturalist guide and once again for the whole of the rest of the crew (e.g., the total tip budget could be from 6-8% of the cruise price). Most ships have a system of envelopes which make it easier for you. You should not feel coerced into doing so - there are stories of lower-end ships nearly holding passengers hostage in order to get tips! Of course, if you found that a particular crew member went the extra mile for you, feel free to leave something extra for them. Crew members often appreciate a good t-shirt, an exotic ball-cap or other paraphernalia you're happy to leave behind.
What are the accommodations like?
You get what you pay for - from basic bunks in a small berth below the waterline with a small porthole to spacious luxury cabins with a private deck. All cabins have private bathrooms and showers, with hot water and air conditioning. It can be a challenge to find storage space for your luggage in the smallest cabins - you should consider bringing soft-sided bags so that once empty, they can be rolled up and stuffed in a nook, out of the way. In the end though, you spend relatively little time in your cabin - a consolation for those in the smaller cabins!
What are the meals like?
You get what you pay for - though generally, even on basic ships, the food is hearty. Fish, chicken, veggies, sauces, rice and fruit are typical fare. Higher-end ships will of course have a more refined menu. Remember, unless you are booking a luxury class ship, you will not be on a luxury Caribbean cruise ship with 24-hour all you can eat buffets on hand. Besides regular meal times, a variety of hot and cold snacks are usually provided after each land visit (mid-morning and mid-afternoon).
I’m vegetarian / vegan / don’t eat pork etc... - will that be a problem on the boat?
Ships can handle most kinds of diets and dietary requirements. You can imagine that over the years, they've received people with many different dietary restrictions. Of course, some do it with more style than others. Before you book, make this clear and ask if / how your needs can be accommodated.
Can I bring my own bottle of wine / spirits on board?
Though most ships like to improve their profits by selling alcohol on board, they will generally turn a blind eye to people bringing along a bottle of their preferred drink. This might be particularly true for medium- to lower-end ships. You should try to be a bit discreet and not expect the crew to mix your drinks in such cases.
Are the Galapagos boats equipped with snorkeling equipment?
All ships provide snorkeling gear - some provide it free of charge, others for a small fee. You may want to bring your own gear if you like.
How common are wildlife sightings in the Galapagos?
Wildlife cannot be avoided in Galapagos.
Do all ship offer snorkeling activities?
Yes - the underwater experience is one of the major highlights in Galapagos. The marine reserve was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. Only Galapagos fishermen, using small scale fishing practices, are allowed to fish in this huge reserve. As a result, the underwater life is about as close as you can get to pristine these days. All ships give you the chance to spend time observing underwater wonders. If you're not comfortable snorkeling, it's worth practicing in your local pool to develop a greater comfort level, so you can get the most out of your Galapagos trip. If you really like snorkeling, let your naturalist guide know so that you can enjoy it as much as possible.
Can I scuba dive from the boat?
A very few ships will offer one or two scuba diving options while on board. In the "filters" section, check the "possible scuba outing" option to find ships that offer this. Typically, while the rest of the guests partake in a site visit, you will be whisked away by a local diver operator to go on a dive. Otherwise, you can arrange for a two tank scuba diving outing with land-based outfitters before or after your trip. To do this, you'll have to extend your stay in the islands by one or more days - or arrive a day or two before your cruise departure.
Do you cruise between islands in the daytime or at night?
A bit of both, but mostly at night, depending on the itinerary. Typically, the ship is motoring for a total of about 6 - 8 hours a day on average. It may motor for up to 12 hours for longer journeys, and maybe a few hours in the day, often during lunch time.
Are boats equipped with life vests and life rafts?
All ships must meet typical safety standards and are regularly inspected by authorities to ensure they do so. Safety certificates are provided and must be renewed regularly. For this reason, ships all carry life vests, life rafts and smoke detectors.
Can you smoke on board?
Ships have designated smoking areas outside. Smoking is not permitted on official visitor sites and other park lands.
How are the cruise ships equipped for electricity?
Ships accept US style plugs and offer both 110V and 220V outlets in the cabins, in general.
How will I do laundry during on a cruise ship?
You'll have to do it the old-fashioned way, in the sink of your bathroom and then hanging things up to dry. All ships have a dedicated communal clothesline for drying. Some of the larger or higher-end ships may have a dryer. You can use shampoo or hand soap for the wash.
What telephone service is there on the cruise ships?
Ideally, to really get into the Galapagos state of mind, you will turn your phone off. But sadly, we realize that this is not always possible in modern life. Mobile phone service is likely to be available for most of your itinerary, though you may be out of range for a few days, particularly if you're sailing in northern or western waters. Otherwise, the ships are in constant contact with the mainland using their radios and can be reached via their office in an emergency. You might want to check on the compatibility of your mobile phone service with the Ecuadorian service, and on any possible additional fees beforehand.
Can I use my cell phone?
Cell phones have been around in Galapagos since 2001. Coverage is reasonably good in the towns and inhabited islands. As long as your ship is within range of cell phone towers located on the inhabited islands, you will have access to your phone. However, some ship itineraries take you to the far western shores of the archipelago or to the more northerly islands. You will not have cell phone coverage here - and depending on the itinerary, you could be out of range for up to 3 days at a time. Before leaving, you should also check with your service provider in terms of roaming fees and how to connect with the Ecuadorian providers.
Can I extend my stay?
Of course - you can stay longer on a ship if they have room for you (and if you can pay for it!), or you can stay on land in Galapagos. There are 3 main settlements in the islands (and a 4th tiny one), each with hotels, restaurants and mom & pop tour operators who can help you organize activities - or you can just do your own thing.
Do ships have kayaks? Glass bottomed boats?
Most ships have at least one kayak. The Park Service allows kayaking only in a limited number of areas. Only a small number of ships, usually the higher end ones, will have a glass bottomed boat. The "reduced mobility friendly" filter on the SHIP FINDER page will select for ships that have either a glass bottom boat and/or cabins on the same deck as the dining room.
What are wet / dry landings?
These terms refer to the nature of the disembarkation from the small skiffs or Zodiacs (which they call "pangas" in Galapagos) that take you from your cruise ship to an island. Sometimes the skiff beaches itself, and you get out in calf-deep water - a "wet" landing. Sometimes it alights next to a rocky outcropping, allowing you to disembark directly onto dry land - a "dry" landing.
Does the ship provide soap / shampoo?
Most ships will provide at least soap, and unless you are in a "backpacker's special" boat. As for shampoo, typically, higher-end ships will provide that. If you bring your own, consider bring bio-degradable versions.
Health & Safety
Are there biting insects?
Depending on where you come from, you might find Galapagos relatively free of biting insects, or infested with them! Typically, you'll run into a few mosquitos or more rarely, horseflies that bite a little harder. The mosquitos come out in the evenings and are worse on land - but can still make it around a moored ship. The usual insect repellant should do the trick - complemented by long pants, socks and long-sleeved shirts.
Should we be worried about the zika virus?
The zika virus is spread mostly through the bite of the Aedes mosquito, which is present throughout most of subtropical South, Central and North America (e.g. including south of a line that goes roughly from southern Maine to Central California). This mosquito does not exist in higher altitudes (e.g. there are none in Quito). In Galapagos, it is present, but as the climate there is mostly arid, mosquito numbers are relatively low. Lower numbers of mosquitoes combined with adopting the usual precautionary measures (longs sleeves, trousers, mosquito repelant), make the risk of contracting zika in Galapagos very small.
According to the CDC:
"The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week after being bitten by an infected mosquito. People usually don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, and they very rarely die of Zika. For this reason, many people might not realize they have been infected. However, Zika virus infection during pregnancy can cause a serious birth defect called microcephaly, as well as other severe fetal brain defects."
The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports (August 2016) that zika is now being locally transmitted in Florida. The "take home" from zika is that, unless you are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant around the time you might be exposed, it is not a big concern.
For more information, we recommend you consult the CDC website.
Are there any poisonous insects or animals such as snakes?
Notwithstanding some bees and wasps, the only poisonous land species in Galapagos are scorpions and centipedes. There are two Galapagos scorpion species - the Hadruroides maculatus galapagoensis, which occurs on most of the major islands and the Centruroides exsul, which occurs on Española, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Pinta islands. You will likely not see them unless you have a good guide who knows how to find them. None has a particularly dangerous sting, though they may cause a bit of pain. There is also the Galapagos centipede, Scolopendra galapagoensis, which can grow up to 30 centimetres (12 inches) long, and has a wonderful pair of venomous pincers which can deliver a painful, poisonous bite but not deadly.
How about sun protection?
By far the most common (if not the most serious) health concern arises from the effects of the powerful equatorial sun. You'll be under its strong rays for a few hours each day. Many of you will be coming from the northern hemisphere winter, your skin having lost any natural protection gained from recent exposure. We all have different tolerance levels to the sun, depending on skin type; but regardless, you should be very careful. Bring lightweight long-sleeved shirts and pants, good sunscreen (SPF 30 or 40, anything much above is windowdressing only), a wide-brimmed hat, or an umbrella (cooler for your head, good for rain, and can be used as a walking stick!). Bring some water for your land visits as well! Good polarizing sun-glasses are also much appreciated.
Do I have to worry about food safety?
Though no one is immune to the occasional bout of "turista" or "Montezuma's revenge" (maybe "Atahualpa's revenge" in Ecuador - look him up), the cleanliness standards are generally very good on Galapagos cruise ships and in most island restaurants. On the ships, you shouldn't have to worry about anything (again, there is always the exception that proves the rule!). Ship tap water, though technically potable, is usually not recommended; but there is a permanent supply of fresh drinking water in the dining rooms. Concerns grow when you are in a back-alley mom & pop eatery, looking for the lowest-priced eating options, or booking the very lowest-end ships.
How about altitude sickness when passing through Quito?
One reads a lot about concerns over altitude issues for visitors to Quito. Frankly, we think these are mostly unjustified. Quito is at 2,800 metres (about 9,100 feet). For the sake of comparison, Cusco in Peru (a major tourist destination) lies at 3,400 metres (11,150 feet) and that doesn't stop tens of thousands of visitors from going there every year. Typical effects for those living close to sea level include a mild headache for some, a less restful sleep for others and maybe a bit more huffing and puffing when climbing stairs. Some recommend avoiding alcohol as an extra strategy to mitigate any altitude effects.
Are there any immunizations or vaccines required or recommended?
Galapagos is a remarkably benign place with few serious health concerns, though there has been an occasional minor outbreak of mosquito-borne dengue among a few people in the local population. Having said that, doctors recommend being prepared for most eventualities. Galapagos Advisor is not a doctor and cannot be responsible for your decision in this regard - though a good starting point is the following:
Recommended for all travelers
For travelers who may eat or drink outside major restaurants and hotels -
Measles, mumps, rubella (MMR)
Two doses recommended for all travelers born after 1956, if not previously given
Revaccination recommended every 10 years
Is the water on board safe to drink?
The drinking water provided by ships is safe to drink. The ship tap water, while not necessarily toxic, may not be advisable. There is always a supply of drinking water readily available on ships - perfect for filling your water bottles before heading off to a new visitor site.
What if I have a medical emergency on the cruise ship?
The largest and higher-end ships (3-4 of them only) will generally have a medical professional on board to deal with immediate medical needs. Otherwise, most ships rely on the naturalist guide who is trained in basic first aid and survival skills. You can be far away from a hospital in Galapagos - if your ship happens to be in a more remote part of the archipelago, it may take over 12 hours to reach the nearest island hospital. If more advanced care is needed, a flight to the continent will be necessary - which could be up to 24 hours away. Everyone travelling to Galapagos must be fully aware of and accept the fact that you will be in a remote area and at times far away from professional medical attention. There is now a helicopter in Galapagos. Its main duty is not tourist rescue; but in extreme cases, it has been known to be of service.
Will I get seasick?
We have been surveying hundreds of our clients over the years on how they managed in terms of seasickness. On a scale of 1-5, where 1 was "not affected at all" and 5 was "it really kept me from enjoying my trip!," the average response is between 1-2. Most people report having brought some type of motion sickness remedies with them, just in case. Beyond such remedies, if you are particularly worried, you can consider traveling when the seas are at their calmest (Jan - May) or book on a larger ship. It's interesting to note that those most prone to seasickness are adolescents and young adults.
Is a catamaran better than a monohull ship in terms of seasickness?
We approached two US naval architects based in Japan (Nigel and John) to get an informed answer to this question. Their answer was not a straight "yes" or "no." They used the term "seakeeping ability," which is a measure of how well suited a ship is to conditions when underway. John said it depended on the speed of the ship, the ratio of the wavelength to ship hull length, the angle the ship was sailing in relation to the direction of the waves, and the length-to-beam ratio (long and slender vs. short and wide). He indicated that long, slender monohulls generally had better seakeeping ability but that catamarans could perform well. John's final verdict remained equivocal though: "A fast fat monohull is going to be worse than a fast slender catamaran or a slow slender monohull is better than fast fat catamaran, and so on."
Nigel piped in, relating John's comments to the crux of the matter: Seasickness. We quote him:
"So what causes seasickness? There are lots of scientific papers on this subject but to summarize: It's the queasy feeling brought about by a ship's heaving motion (up and down) mostly rather than roll (side to side). So in a long swell with a wave length from crest to crest several times the length of the boat it really does not matter what form the hull takes. The boat will ride up and down like a cork. A ship's roll is distressing to people unaccustomed to the sea. So too is violent pitching and slamming in very rough seas. This may produce lots of screaming, but it's not the cause of seasickness.
Another contributing factor is age. It's not the old or babies who are most vulnerable but teenagers and, to a lesser extent, people in their 20s and 30s. In shorter seas like you described the Galapagos chop as being, the motion becomes dependent on resonance. Monohulls tend to roll more (side to side), catamarans tend to pitch more (up and down). It also depends where you sit. The best place is aft of amidships and low down. And how fast you're going and the direction of travel in relation to the waves. Both catamarans and monohulls heading into oncoming waves is worst. If you turn downsea everything goes quiet. I don't think there is much overall difference between catamarans and monohulls in terms of sickness but I know a lot of people have very firm, if opposing views!"
Climate & Sea
What is the climate like?
We lived in Galapagos for 4 years. We liked to say that "weather in Galapagos needs a good cup of coffee"... e.g., there are no storms, no major winds, and any weather changes are gradual. We suppose that's why they call it the "Pacific" Ocean. For a summary, we've included the short table below:
January to May
Jun to Dec
Transition from cooler, dry but misty, to warmer, rainy season.
Hot season, peaking in March/April, occasional tropical downpours. Ironically, skies are sunnier during the rainy season.
Transition to drier, but mistier weather (morning and afternoon mist, or low clouds).
Cooler season, light sweaters in the evening, though still very warm under the sun. No rain, occasional light mists.
Cool waters but warming, some chop but on average getting calmer.
Warm waters, wetsuits not needed in some places, more so in March and April. Seas at their calmest, but occasional chop still happens.
Transition back to cooler and on average more choppy seas.
Seas at their coolest, and chances of chop are greatest. Peaks in October.
How about El Niño or La Niña?
Every few years-perhaps every 15-20 years, maybe more--the El Niño phenomenon makes a dramatic apparition in Galapagos. The last significant El Niño was in 1997-98. We were there on the tail end of that one. El Niño conditions in Galapagos are marked by plenty of rain, very warm temperatures, very warm seas and high humidity. Conditions manifest themselves from about the month of May (e.g., the cooler season does not arrive) and last until the following May. Typically, land plants and animals do very well during an El Niño (plenty of rain, meaning lush plant growth and more insects to eat), whereas all creatures depending on the sea for sustenance suffer tremendously, including marine iguanas, sea lions, penguins, and sea birds (very warm waters drive away plankton and kill algae). Visiting Galapagos during an El Niño event is quite spectacular - if a bit depressing -- as you will see many of these animals dying, or dead, or you may not see them at all. That's the cycle of life, and El Niño is one of those natural events that push species to evolve.
The flip side of an El Niño is La Niña. A little more common perhaps but also less notable - a La Niña generally consists of dryer than normal weather, with slightly cooler waters.
The 2015-2016 El Niño, considered a severe one, largely by-passed Galapagos, having had no significant effects on the ecosystems there.
Before you Leave
Will we have to exchange any money before we travel to Ecuador or once in the country?
Ecuador's national currency is the US dollar. Due to the incompetent and corrupt nature of much of Ecuador's banking class in the 1990's, locals lost confidence in their currency (the Sucre) and increasingly sought out dollars. The country was forced to abandon its currency and started using the US$ in 2000.
How much should I budget for a cruise to the Galapagos Island beyond the international airfare to Ecuador?
A cruise to the Galapagos is in the same price range as a good African safari and close to the price of an Antarctic cruise. These places are remote; and the logistics of providing visitors a safe, enjoyable and comfortable experience are very complex, involving long supply chains. Similarly, cruise ships in Galapagos are small, ranging from 8 to 100 passengers, meaning the costs involved in running a cruise ship here have to be shared among a smaller number of passengers. For these reasons, the price of cruise to Galapagos is generally higher than for most other cruise experiences, with the notable exception of Antarctic cruises. Per person, per day, you should be prepared to budget from at least US$325 for a basic tourist-class ship to as much as US$800 or more on a high-end ship. You also have to factor in the park entrance fee, the flight from the continent, additional hotel costs, tips... You generally get what you pay for. There are a few cheaper deals to be found, either through last-minute offers or by considering the small handful of the very lowest-end ships available.
How far in advance should I book?
We all have a different tolerance level for these kinds of things. Some people want to firm things up two years in advance, while others don't start thinking about their next major holiday until a few months or weeks ahead of time. Of course, the sooner you book, the likelier it will be that all options will be open to you. If you wait too long, your options will be more limited, or there may be nothing at all available for you.
If you follow the recommended booking times in the table below, you should be able to still have a wide range of options from which to choose. If you're looking to charter an entire ship, consider adding another 6 months to the time frames below.
Desired cruise period
Recommended booking time
Christmas, US Thanksgiving (end November), March break
12 - 18 months ahead
September, October, November (outside US Thanksgiving)
6-8 months ahead
1st half of December
3-4 months ahead
8-12 months ahead
If you're a happy-go-lucky person, with a very flexible schedule and not worried about whatever ship you end up on, there can be some significant savings to be made by booking at the last minute (e.g., within 1 or sometimes 2 months of the departure date), particularly in the lower-end ships. See www.galapagoscruiselinks.com for what's on offer right now.
What should I pack?
There are many Web-based packing lists for a Galapagos cruise - we won't go through the details here. But generally, you'll be on a small ship with limited amenities. You'll be in a hot tropical climate with no need for warm clothing (though light sweaters / windbreakers for the evenings between June - December are appreciated). You'll be under the hot tropical sun - with the risk of sunburns ever present. The dress code is very informal and, on many ships, you may have little storage space.
Should I bring a wetsuit?
Wetsuits are pretty much mandatory during the cooler season (June - December), unless you are some type of iron man/woman. It's not impossible to go swimming without one; but after a few minutes, you can start getting cold. During the warm season, they become more of an option (though many people like to have them). We see no need for wetsuits in March / April. Depending on your sensitivity, you may opt for just a shorty or the whole thing. Most ships will lend you / rent you a wetsuit, and, usually, you should let them know your size through your agent before you leave. They don't always fit like a glove but usually do the job. You can of course bring your own - but these can be bulky.
Any basic tips for photography?
Of course, Galapagos is a wildlife photographer's paradise. You can get up close and personal (e.g., within 2-3 metres) with some of the animals - this affects the type of lens you'd want to bring. The challenges lie in practicing your art while having to be in a group during site visits; in the lighting (high contrast on sunny days); in the risk to your equipment in a salty, dusty environment; and in how to manage your picture files.
Generally, groups move about at a very leisurely pace, giving you ample opportunity to take all kinds of pictures (you won't be alone in taking them!), though setting up and using a tripod can be a challenge in such situations. A "monopod" might be more practical. Ideally, it's nice to get on land as early as possible in the morning to take advantage of the better lighting. That's also when many birds and animals are out and about, doing things - they tend to lie low under the noonday sun. The same goes for staying on islands until just before sunset. (No one is allowed on the islands before sunrise and after sunset.) There's lots to shoot underwater as well - but flashes are not permitted (either on land or underwater). Let your naturalist guide know about your passion (you won't be the first!) and ask that he/she help make things easier for you.
For more informaiton, see these "Tips for Amateur and Professional Photographers in Galapagos" by clicking here.
Is there a "recommended reading" list?
There are many such lists posted all over the internet - you'll find them easily. One of our all-time favourites is David Quammen's "Song of the Dodo". Though not specifically about Galapagos, it tells the story of islands, evolution and extinction, and follows the work of interesting people and scientists all over the world, including Galapagos. It's very well written, enjoyable, funny, gripping, sad, enlightening - and a great foundation to help you understand why Galapagos is so special.
Where does a Galapagos cruise start?
Typically, when you book a cruise, your agent should also be booking your flight from continental Ecuador to Galapagos, where you embark. You may embark at either one of the two island airports (Baltra or San Cristobal), or you might embark at the Puerto Ayora harbour, on Santa Cruz island (about a 1.5-hour journey overland, and by a short ferry ride, from the Baltra Island airport). It's very important that you get on the flight that corresponds with your cruise ship's departure time - your agent should ensure that happens. You need to get yourself to either Quito (the capital, in the Andes, a UNESCO World Heritage site) or Guayaquil (on the coast, the main commercial hub in Ecuador). Both are common international airline destinations. It's from either of these two cities that you take your flight to Galapagos.
Some people may head off to Galapagos independently before their cruise. In that case, you have to ensure you know where to be and when to be there, so that you can embark.
What type of aircraft is used between the mainland and the Galapagos Islands?
The usual Boeing 737 or Airbus 320 type of plane.
How long is the flight from Ecuador to the Galapagos?
Quito - Galapagos, non-stop
Quito - Galapagos, Guayaquil stopover
2.5 hours total travel time
Guayaquil - Galapagos
This is the time from take-off to final landing. It does not include check-in times (add 2 hours approximately).
What are the Galapagos flight departure times?
Flights depart from the mainland in the mornings, starting from about 8AM to 11AM. They leave Galapagos back to the mainland between about 10:30 AM and early afternoon, getting you back into Quito or Guayaquil in mid- to late afternoon.
Are there luggage restrictions on the airplanes?
20 kg (44lbs) for checked baggage. You can take one carry-on (e.g., small suitcase with wheels, medium-sized backpack). Technically, overweight checked luggage will be charged - though if it's not too much, there is often no problem. These limits might change - check with your agent.
How do I get from Baltra airport to Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz Island?
Any local living in Puerto Ayora knows this trip well. Baltra airport is on … Baltra Island, a small island that lies just a few hundred metres from Santa Cruz Island. There is a bus service that takes you from the airport to the channel that separates the two islands (apx. $5), then a small ferry boat (apx. $1.50) that takes you across. On the other side, you can take a bus (apx. $4) or a taxi pick-up truck (apx. $15) for the 40-minute drive to Puerto Ayora on the other side of the island. Pick-ups can take up to 4 passengers - so if you can pair up with enough people, you might want to consider them over the bus and save about 20 minutes of travel time while not paying any more. If you're met at the airport by your cruise staff, they'll handle all of this for you-no payment needed. Just listen carefully, follow instructions, and keep an eye on your naturalist guide.
Are there any discounts available?
Some ships might offer discounts as the sailing date nears and if there are berths available. There are many "last minute" websites, offering various deals for people with very flexible schedules and not too concerned about the ship / itinerary they may end up booking. www.galapagoscruiselinks.com puts you directly in touch with ship owners, for example. It's important to understand what you are getting into before you book on any ship. You should not feel pressured to buy until you are comfortable with what you are buying.
Should I bring cash or Traveler's checks? Are ATMs available? Can I use credit cards?
Travelers' checks are a thing of the past. They are more of a bother than anything and will cost you time and money to exchange. ATMs are available in Ecuador and readily use bank cards from around the world. There are a few ATMs in Galapagos. But cash is king - and it's always good to have some cash on hand for paying tips, the park entrance fee, and other incidentals. Credit cards are accepted only in higher-end establishments. There is often a surcharge of up to 5% applied for their use.
Should we get travel / medical insurance?
This is always a personal decision - and depends on the amount of risk you are willing to take. Some packages (e.g., sold via a tour company) insist that you get medical / cancellation insurance, while others leave it entirely up to you. There is medical insurance to cover medical fees (which are not that expensive in Ecuador compared to some countries, particularly the USA), emergency evacuation / repatriation, and trip cancellation insurance. Insurance can be expensive - but it gives you peace of mind and can save you lots if you end up needing it. Your call. It's always important to read the fine print carefully, especially about what isn't covered for trip cancellation. Some policies don't cover much of anything and some cover a surprising number of events (e.g., political riots, earthquakes, etc.)
Do I need a visa/passport?
Ecuador lets citizens from most countries enter for up to three months with just a valid passport (North and South America, Europe etc...). To be sure, check with the Ecuadorian embassy in your country. Passports from most countries must be valid for 6 months beyond the date of your arrival in Ecuador.
What time zone are the Galapagos Islands?
This may come as a surprise, but Galapagos is located due south of …New Orleans! That puts it in the GMT - 6 hours time zone. That's Chicago / New Orleans time or one hour behind New York City. They don't do daylight savings time, though; so during those months, it is in the Denver time zone or two hours behind New York City. Continental Ecuador is 1 hour ahead (GMT - 5). To avoid confusion, some ships operate on continental time.
What is the National Park fee?
Established in the "Special Galapagos Law," this fee raises much needed money to help cover the costs of park management. (The park and its marine reserve are nearly equal in surface area to the state of New York or a bit larger than Greece!) The fee is currently $100 for adults and $50 for children under 12.
The money is shared between the Galapagos National Park Service and Marine Reserve (45%), three municipal governments (20%), the Galapagos island governing council (10%), the Ecuadorian national parks service (5%), the National Galapagos Institute (10%), the Quarantine and Inspection System (5%), and the Ecuadorian Navy (5%). For example, the municipal governments have tapped into these funds in the past to implement dog and cat sterilization campaigns to reduce the number of street dogs and cats.
What is the Transit Control Card (also called the INGALA card or Tourist card)?
In an effort to conserve the islands, immigration to Galapagos is tightly controlled, even for Ecuadorian residents! To avoid massive population movements to the islands, where living conditions are a bit better than on the continent, the government has set up a system to monitor the arrival and departure of people, be they Ecuadorian nationals or foreigners. At the airport in Quito or Guayaquil, you will need to get a card, with your name and date of travel to Galapagos. The cost of $20 helps make the system self-financing. Some travel companies can arrange to have the card pre-issued to you. Once you have it, keep it; you'll need to show it again when you leave Galapagos.
Do I have to pay an exit fee to leave Ecuador?
Exit fee, airport tax... call it what you want, but there is generally some type of fee attached to using the airport. Because it changes regularly, both in amount, how it's applied and what airport you are using (it seems to be increasingly incorporated directly into your ticket price), we won't go into the details. You might just want to be sure you have $30 or $40 on hand, just in case.