Most Galapagos travelers witness the vast array of endemic wildlife via 5 to 8 day all-inclusive Galapagos cruises, the most efficient and ideal way to see the most species, islands and landscapes. Lodges combine boat day trips and activities but lack the reach of the ships to access the best, most remote sites.
One thousand kilometers off the South American mainland in the Pacific Ocean, the Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands distributed on either side of the Equator. Officially a part of Ecuador, the islands are most commonly reached by commercial airlines that fly out of Quito, the capital or Guayaquil on the coast. The most visited islands of the archipelago for their spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife are Espanola, Bartolome, Fernandina, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. Airports are located on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal, and the majority of towns, infrastructure and inhabitants are to be found on Santa Cruz Island. A handful of hotels and lodges are located in the Galapagos, most clustered on Santa Cruz, while some are located on Isabela and Fernandina.
The Galapagos Islands are a warm year-round destination. Many species are non-migratory so wildlife is always abundant yet behavior tied to breeding and feeding cycles is seasonal. January to May is warmer and wetter while June through December is drier and cooler. Waters are warmest early in the year, a good time to dive and snorkel.
Galapagos Temperatures (F) & Rainfall (Inches)
Season Day Night Water Average Rainfall
Jan - May 85 - 89 70 - 75 75 - 82 2 - 4.6"
June - Dec 75 - 80 65 - 70 62 - 68 .2 - .3"
Highlights By Season
January to March: Marine iguanas exhibit bright colors. Clearest waters for ideal snorkeling.
April to July: Blue-footed Boobies famous mating dances. Waved Albatross begin to nest on Espanola Island.
March to June: Frigate birds inflate red throat pouches during breeding season.
October and November: Galapagos fur seals breeding season begins. Sea lion pups are born.
Small Ship Cruising
As Charles Darwin discovered, the geographical isolation of the Galapagos Islands gave its creatures the time and space required to slowly evolve into totally unique versions of themselves, giving rise to species found nowhere else on earth. It is this very isolation and remoteness that makes traveling there so rewarding. While a modest amount of tourist infrastructure does exist, such as hotels, lodges, restaurants and water taxi services, most visitors elect to travel via all-inclusive small ship cruises. Large cruise vessels exceeding 140 passengers are prohibited and a feeling of exploration and adventure abounds in small ship cruises.
Quotas for island visits mitigate the Galapagos wildlife impact and are led by a highly qualified Park-trained guides. Guest must go ashore in groups less than 15 person, each with 1 guide per group.
Length of Cruise
A 5 to 8 day cruise is ideal but if a shorter itinerary is necessary, do include the islands of Espanola, Bartolome, Fernandina, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. Shorter itineraries allow add-on destinations, such as a travel in mainland Ecuador, the Amazon, or a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site, Machu Picchu.
A number of lodges have programs that combine day trips by boat and multi-sport options, such as kayaking, hiking and biking. While a good option for some, they lack the reach of the ships to the best, most remote sites.
All Galapagos vessels fall within the small ship category yet a range remains in this category.
Small Sailing & Motor Yachts
Many travelers dream of sailing the Galapagos and while sailing yachts are available, none operate under sail. A small yacht or catamaran may be classic and romantic for some but cramped for others, with an increased sense of motion. These yachts are a choice better for those experienced with them, small charter groups, or for those who prefer fewer land visits and more snorkeling. Shore visits are no more intimate than on larger vessels, due to National Park landing regulations, as groups are almost always present ashore.
Small Ships, mid-size
Holding 20 to 60 passengers, some small ships resemble small cruise vessels, others overgrown yachts, but nearly all fall solidly into the luxury category. Roomier and more stable than the smallest yachts, they afford the quiet and intimacy of a smaller vessel with a greater feeling of comfort and luxury offered by the larger ships.
Small Ships, largest size
The largest of the small ship vessels carry 65 to 100 passengers; have less motion and an increased amount of cabin and public space, with decks, pool areas, interior observation areas, public bars, lounges and libraries. These ships often fall in the First Class category, with better accommodations, service and a wider range of cuisine. Amenities equated with large cruises, such as nightclubs or sports facilities, do not exist. Larger ships often carry up to 5 or 6 guides, providing passengers with a wide range of education, experience and a greater range of activities.
Class of Ship
Deluxe, First Class, Tourist Superior and Tourist
There are 4 main classes of ship in the Galapagos. Only Deluxe and First Class are recommended, for greater reliability and safety. These ships offer an acceptable level of accommodation, safety, service and educational interpretation. Please note that subjective differences remain between ships of the same class and a qualified expert can guide you through the process of finding the Galapagos ship that best suits your needs.
Official guides, Galapagos National Park employees, must accompany all park visits and a qualified guide can enhance your journey. Guides select the companies they work for and the more reputable tour operators draw the best guides. Budget fares may be enticing but may not provide the best guides. Look beyond guide certification levels, a now-obsolete process that changed when the exams ceased to be offered 10-20 years ago. An exception is the level III certification, originally noting the most experienced guides, that shows experience of twenty or more years. Many qualified guides today are stuck at a Level I as they lack opportunities to advance.