Exploring The Galapagos
Cruise vs Land-based tour?
As far as bucket-list travel goes, the beguiling, wildlife-filled Galapagos Islands rank high on any erstwhile traveller’s list. Just over 563 miles off the Ecuadorian coastline, the 21 islands that make up the archipelago are famous for being home to a smorgasbord of endemic species. You might know them as the basis for Darwin’s theory of evolution, following his journey there aboard the HMS Beagle – the legacy of which is the Charles Darwin Research Centre, a visitor centre found today on Santa Cruz Island. These magical islands hold special appeal for nature-loving families who want to follow in Darwin’s footsteps and discover unique animal life that exists no-where else on earth!
It’s no surprise that visitor numbers are tightly controlled to ensure these unique habitats and their inhabitants are protected. As a result, we can’t lie – the Galapagos is an expensive destination, so more reason to consider the best way to enjoy what is likely to be the ‘experience of a lifetime’!
What are the options for exploring the Galapagos?
Until fairly recently most tourists boarded a 7-night cruise ship to explore the islands. Today there are about 85 yachts equipped for overnight guests, but an increasing number are offering shorter cruises and a number of hotels have opened up on the inhabited islands of San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana and Isabela. Nowadays, the split of visitors opting for Galapagos land-based accommodation versus a cruise is roughly 50-50, so, whether your sea-legs are sturdy, or a little wobbly, there’s no barrier to visiting. As a tailor-made family specialist, we are adept at helping identify the best options for you and we work with all reputable cruise-operators and hotels in the Galapagos. Did you know we can usually match or better direct rates and you get the advantage of extra holiday protection by booking through a UK-based tour operator?
A cruise is undoubtedly the best way to see the Islands. You can’t reach many outlying islands on a day excursion if you are based on one of the interior islands, so effectively you are limiting your exposure to a wider cross-section of wildlife and habitats. If you want to see the Galapagos albatross nest for example you really need to visit Española, one of the more remote islands. Of the 116 visitor sites, 54 are land sites and 62 are scuba-diving or snorkelling sites so cruises have the upper hand for sheer variety of sites, although there is definitely fertile middle-ground!
Cruises follow set, date-specific, alternating itineraries imposed by the National Park authorities, so can be subject to last minute changes but generally you can expect two island excursions per day (one early morning!) with most travel undertaken overnight. Small groups visit in 2 to 4-hour shifts, to limit footfall, and you have to be accompanied by a licenced Park naturalist guide. There is no option to explore most sites independently but to get the most out of the experience you will really value the insights and experience of your licensed guide – this just can’t be underestimated.
It’s worth bearing in mind that you need to arrive in mainland Ecuador at least 24-48 hours prior to your departure date, to avoid any knock-on impacts of potential issues with International flights. We also recommend you overnight in Guayaquil or Quito post cruise if you are intending to take an International flight home. Some airlines have form for amending flights and disrupting connections. A final recommendation – delayed baggage from an International flight can be a real issue for cruise passengers, so we always recommend particular care is taken with hand-luggage so you are covered if the worst happens.
Choosing a boat
Choose from Luxury Class, First Class, Tourist Superior Class, Tourist or Economy Class. Bushbaby Travel work mostly with Luxury Class and First Class, occasionally Tourist Superior Class. There are many reasons for this and it’s not just about the cabins or amenities on board, as important as these are.
- Luxury Class boats such as Elite and Theory/Origin/Evolve tend to have the most experienced and very best naturalist guides as well as a far better passenger-guide ratio, which means your twice-daily excursions are top notch. The importance of this cannot be underestimated.
- Boat specifications are better; with Luxury class you are looking at impressive navigation and safety features, meaning a quieter, steadier cruise and less time travelling between islands.
- If top-end staterooms and facilities are key, Luxury boats generally offer more spacious cabins, might benefit from panoramic cabin windows and perhaps a private exterior balcony as well as deck facilities such as a Jacuzzi and al-fresco dining spaces. En-suites offer shower rather than bath regardless. If you are happy to compromise a little here, it’s worth looking at First Class boats – they will still offer amazing guides and a great spec, but fittings might be a little older. Letty is a great option here and offers a significant saving over the Luxury Class boats.
- Top-end boats typically supply kayaks, SUPs, wetsuits and snorkelling equipment as standard – and you can expect quality brands, updated, tested kit. Lesser categories are likely to provide snorkelling equipment with supplements payable for any extras and kit quality is often more variable.
- Whilst full board dining plans are standard, the quality of food on offer can vary widely and it’s drinks and extras, such as snacks that you need to consider. On top-end boats, menus feature top-quality ingredients, sourced locally and responsibly wherever possible. Snacks, treats and drinks are often included as standard, although you might need to pay extra for premium bottled brands. Generally speaking, there is more flexibility to accommodate dietary needs and preferences. Sometimes it can be false economy to opt for a lower category if you then have to factor in lots of extras.
There are different types of boat within each category – catamarans are popular for many reasons, but mainly because they offer less rocking and swaying than older single-hulled yachts. Or perhaps you prefer an old-school sailing experience, so want a sailing yacht rather than a motor-yacht where you can get involved with the nitty-gritty of navigation? Or perhaps, an uber-modern, sleek motor yacht is more your thing.
Boats tend to be small (16-20 passengers), medium (40-50 passengers) or large (90+ passengers) – which one you opt for can make for a very different cruising experience. At Bushbaby Travel we favour the small boats – the obvious advantage is that they tend to be more adept and flexible in terms of landings; you might have completed your morning excursion by the time the larger cruise ships have anchored and disembarked passengers. However, there are reasons why a medium or larger cruise might work better for you; there is more space on board, so better provision of social spaces, dining venues and facilities; if sea-sickness is a concern, the larger boats tend to offer greater stability and if travelling with teens in tow, they might appreciate a larger pool of similar-aged passengers, aka new friends. It doesn’t always compute though; a smaller 16-passenger catamaran may offer better stability than a single-hulled yacht, a reputable family-specialist cruise operator will take care to ‘match’ families so children and teens can enjoy similar aged company and some medium-sized boats sleep fewer passengers as they have opted for more deck space and more spacious cabins.
If you’re travelling as a couple or a family of 4, you pretty much have your choice of boats, but if you’re looking for a triple cabin for 3 children and/or interconnecting cabins it can get more tricky to find what you are looking for. Booking early is critical as there tend to be only 2-3 cabins like this available on smaller boats.
Consider that not all cabins are equal – those on lower decks tend to be more affected by engine noise so are priced accordingly and again, booking early means you get first dibs on the best cabins on your preferred deck.
If you’re travelling as a family, it’s well worth booking a ‘family departure’. A Bushbaby Travel favourite, Ecoventura, reign supreme and offer tailored departures, depending on the age of your children. Family departures mean your children are likely to have similar-aged company, an abundance of age-appropriate activities, excursions and that added ‘fun factor’, from fabulous welcome packs for your budding naturalists to special in-room treats and menus.
For diving enthusiasts, bear in mind there are very strict guidelines in the Galapagos and, with few exceptions, you’re really looking at a specialist dive-aboard departure. If your group is comprised of divers and non-divers, Bushbaby Travel can advise on the options you should consider.
The standard Galapagos cruise length is 7 nights, 8 days but a number of operators now offer shorter 3, 4 or 5 night cruises (Elite is one). Obviously the longer the cruise, the more you will see, as islands further away will be included in the itinerary.
Most visitors to the Galapagos are date-driven, in terms of itinerary choice and to be honest, whichever you choose, you’re guaranteed an incredible wildlife experience. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that you can’t see everything in one cruise alone so, if there are certain birds or animals you want to see, you might need to choose more strategically. For example, MV Origin/Theory/Evolve offer Itinerary A or B – each has different highlights in terms of the wildlife you will see, but if you passionately want to see the Waived Albatross on Espanola, you’ll need to sail on an Itinerary A departure. The only way to get around this, budget permitting, is to do 2 cruises back-to-back!
One other point, often overlooked – cruise operators recommend you arrive in mainland Ecuador at least 24-48 hours prior to a cruise – if the are any issues with your International flights it may not be straight forward for you to join an already departed cruise. Also, bear in mind that domestic flights for cruises are determined by the cruise operator and their allocation with a certain airline – it leaves virtually no flexibility. For this reason, we also recommend you stay overnight in Guayaquil or Quito post cruise.
Land-based Galapagos hotels
There are a number of hotel options on the main islands. Why might a land-based Galapagos itinerary work best for you? It really comes down to your family and what your individual needs and preferences are but in our experience the following are the most common reasons
- For clients concerned about seasickness or who are light sleepers, sleeping on terra firma is often non-negotiable. There is a world of difference between sleeping onboard a yacht overnight whilst the boat navigates between islands, and a day excursion where your actual sailing time is far shorter, and you retreat to a hotel in the evening.
- Cruises operate on fixed departure dates with set durations. There are a number of boats that offer shorter duration sailings, but it can still be tricky trying to fit it all in, if your annual leave and/or International flights make it more complex. With a land-based stay, you have full flexibility on dates, duration of stay and flight arrival/ departure times
- For anyone concerned about claustrophobia, the larger cruises are worth a look, but you may be happier on land overnight with day excursions by land and boat – it’s a good compromise for first time visitors
- Perhaps you have teens who appreciate more space to relax and more independence? Somewhere like Finch Bay – a National Geographic Lodge, can work well as it is within easy reach of Puerto Ayora and you have your very own beachfront for activities such as surfing.
- A land-based stay offers up more opportunities to meet the locals and experience island-life; even a trip to the fish market in Puerto Ayora is an eye-opener!
However you choose to experience the Galapagos, the main thing is that you do! It really is like stepping into an episode of Blue Planet and as holidays go, completely unique. With that magical mix of varied landscapes, stunning beaches, fascinating wildlife, plenty of water-based fun and frolics, backed up with insights from experienced naturalists, it really is one of our favourite destinations for families who are curious and appreciate nature.
As a final aside, as incomparable as the Galapagos are, don’t overlook the potential for a pretty fabulous and hugely diverse mainland add-on. Where else can you fit in a stay at a historic hacienda, take a heritage train ride into the foothills of the Andes, straddle the equator and round things off with a stay at the uber contemporary Mashpi Lodge, a National Geographic Lodge positioned bang in the middle of one of our planet’s biodiversity hotspots?
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