The Galapagos Islands are on many people’s bucket list. This unique group of volcanic islands lies 1000 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador (to which they belong) in the Pacific Ocean. The wildlife on these mostly uninhabited islands is tame, and often found nowhere else. Moreover, each island harbours unique species of birds, iguanas, and other animals, which led Charles Darwin to formulate his theory of evolution in the mid-19th century.
Travelling to the Galapagos is not cheap, no matter how you cut it. This article describes the different ways to travel here, as well as the decisions you must make. These in turn will determine the cost of your trip and the type of experience you will have. I just visited the Galapagos with a friend last March, as a special birthday celebration trip, and we enjoyed it tremendously. (Watch the video below for a peek.)
Here are the different factors to consider when planning a trip to those unique islands, followed by some tour company recommendations, and resources for further research.
Boat or land based
Most foreigners visit the Galapagos on an organized boat tour. This lets you reach more islands, especially on a one-week tour, since some of the islands are four to seven hours apart. The price of these tours varies depending on the type of boat, the guide, and of course the length of the tour.
You can also organize a land-based trip, where you stay in hotels in one or more of the towns, and do day trips overland, or by boat, from your accommodation. Five of the islands are inhabited: Baltra, Floreana, Isabela, San Cristobal and Santa Cruz. Except for Baltra (where the main airport is located), these islands have at least one town with hotels or guesthouses. The total population in the Galapagos is around 30000, and the largest town is Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz. The majority of Ecuadorian visitors opt for land-based trips because they are cheaper. You can book the flights and hotels yourself, but G Adventures offers a land-based tour if you would rather go that way.
Type of boat
There is a large number of boats plying the islands, of vastly different sizes and levels of comfort. You get what you pay for. Although it is possible to save some money by booking a Galapagos tour once you arrive in Ecuador (if you have an extra week to spare), be aware that the better boats and guides are booked many months in advance. We booked our cruise with Enchanted Expeditions over six months in advance and got the very last cabin on the 16-passenger boat, for the date we wanted.
The boats vary from smaller yachts and motor sailors (sailboats) of 8 to 20 passengers, to 90-passenger cruise ships with all the amenities. Comforts that add to the price of the cruise are things such as private bathrooms and air conditioning in the cabins, as well as size of the cabins. And of course the level of expertise of the guide.
If you are really interested in learning about the wildlife and geology of the Galapagos, you’ll want a guide with a higher level license. There are basically three levels of naturalist guides. Level 3 are the most knowledgeable: bilingual guides with a college degree in biological sciences, who undertook an extensive course given by the Galapagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Research Station. Level 1 guides usually lack training, knowledge, and English-speaking ability. Level 2 guides are generally decent but don’t have the same depth of knowledge as Level 3.
Length of the trip
The length of an organized Galapagos trip usually varies from three to seven full days in the Islands. Beware that the length listed by tour companies includes the day you fly in and out of the Galapagos, and possibly a number of days spent on mainland Ecuador. Read the description carefully to ascertain exactly how many days you will have in the Islands themselves. For me, spending seven days cruising around the Islands is a good length of time. Three days is definitely too short. A few companies offer longer trips, up to 15 days in the islands (for example Galapagos Travel). The price of the trip is of course directly proportional to the length of the cruise.
An other option to spend more than a week without breaking the bank would be to combine a one-week cruise with some days on land staying at a hotel.
Time of year
The Galapagos can be visited any time of the year. The animals you see (or don’t see) depend on the month you visit. June to December is considered the “dry” season, when it rains less, with cooler air and water temperatures. The sea is rougher during these months, which you may want to consider if you get seasick easily. Although it rains less, it is usually more overcast and often shrouded in a mist called garúa. January to May is the wet season, even though it is sunnier than the dry season. It is also hotter, the sea is calmer, and you probably won’t need a wet suit to snorkel. I know, it’s confusing!
To give you an idea, we went in early March, and only had a rainstorm on the first day. The rest of the time it was mostly sunny and very hot.
The following video is a little long, at five minutes, but it will give you a good idea of our experience.
- Enchanted Expeditions: Company based in Quito (with an office in Miami) specializing in tours to Ecuador and the Galapagos. Very good pre-trip service, two different small boats, naturalist level-3 guides.
- G Adventures: Company based in Canada. One of the first to offer small-group adventure tours to South America. Various boats and itineraries, including a land-based tour, and land-based “add on”.
Are you planning to visit the Galapagos some day? Share in the comments.