Galapagos Vacation Guide
The Galapagos Islands are a fantastic holiday destination – most people visit and leave saying it was their best vacation ever. There are such a huge array of Galapagos Islands cruise boats available it can seem difficult to know which cruise to choose, but here we’ll help you decide. It’s hard to know when to go – have a look at our guide to the seasons in the Galapagos Islands, but bear in find it’s a year-round destination. Do bear in mind the impact of your stay on the local environment. This impact can be lessened by choosing a smaller boat rather than a large cruise ship.
The basic decision one needs to make is what type of cruise you are looking for – a big cruise ship or a smaller boat? The larger Galapagos cruise ships (80 to 200+ tourists) will rock in the sea less than the smaller cruises and they often have lots of first-class amenities on board. On the negative side, these larger boats can’t get so close to shore, and when they do land you are often sharing the island with another couple of hundred or so fellow holiday-makers. The smaller cruise boats (8-20 tourists) offer a more intimate experience of the islands, the service is more personalized but if you’re unlucky, you’ll be spending your dream vacation with a bunch of idiots you can’t stand to be around! Smaller boats also cause less environmental damage. As such, the basic decision you need to make do you want a large Galapagos cruise ship or a smaller cruise boat, and when you’ve decided, you’ll need to check availability. It’s simpler to let a tour operator do this for you, as you’ll need to book your cruise through a tour operator anyway. Just decide – big or little boat?
Galapagos Wildlife & Animals
A vacation to the Galapagos Islands is a wildlife vacation. The animals have no fear of humans are very inquisitive. Your guides will advise you not to get closer than about 10 feet to any of the animals, but they will often walk towards tourists. Undoubtedly, it is the animals of the Galapagos Islands that make it such a unique vacation destination. The most commonly seen animals in the Galapagos Islands include seals, sea lions, turtles, tortoises, penguins, whales (according to the season), sharks and a multitude of birdlife including the infamous boobies.
Most days started before the sun peeked above the horizon with a walk to the boat dock for a slow start to the day. Hundreds of blue-footed boobies filled the sky above us, darting sharply into the sea to pick off their morning catch. Pelicans swooped so low that we sometimes had to duck out of the way of their wings and iguanas started to climb from the rocks into the early morning sun. In the evening, we’d often take a walk to the same spot where seals frolicked in the surf, leaping into the air like dolphins as they played with one another and swam in and out of the wooden pilings.
Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island (connected by ferry to Baltra) is usually the first port of call and the little town of Puerto Ayora contains quaint cafes, small boutiques, dozens of hotels and guesthouses as well as excursions to bays, tortoise farms, beaches and the lush highlands. There’s also a terrific “walking street” which turns into an al fresco dining spot at night serving fresh fish and enormous lobsters at plastic tables and chairs set up on the road.
At Tortuga Beach we rented kayaks as we’d heard it was a beautiful place. Nothing quite prepared me, though, for how beautiful it really was. How the white sand was as soft as flour and how the crashing waves cascaded over rocks, sending white spray and turquoise water in every direction. Nothing also prepared me for the first sighting of a bulky black shape scuttling in the water that turned out to be the first of dozens of the rare dragon-like marine iguana which would soon become commonplace in every location we visited.
In Puerto Ayora, we visited the Charles Darwin Research Station and Tortoise Centre where we watched dozens of these huge, lumbering creatures laze in the blistering afternoon sun.
While it was interesting to see, it wasn’t half as wonderful as seeing them in the wild on a trip to the highlands. We rented a taxi with a driver who had a smattering of English and drove up hilly roads to reach the tortoise farm, after stopping at Los Gemelos (two large pit craters caused by the collapse of empty magma chambers, where we walked – in silence – through lush forests replete with Vermillion Flycatchers and other indigenous birds).
At the lush, sprawling El Chato farm, giant tortoises line the sandy road leading up to the gate and more than 100 gentle giants meander across the grass and laze in the shade of the trees. We sat, drank local coffee and soaked up the experience while we watched a tour group hop off their bus, take some photos and head back out again.
On Isabela, the pace was slow. Very slow. The main street is a broad, sandy passageway with half a dozen little restaurants and a handful of hotels. We hardly ever saw more than four or five vehicles in town (other than at “rush hour” around sunrise when tourists flocked to the departing 6am ferry). We rented bicycles and rode leisurely along sandy beach roads. Emerald green waves crashed on the shore next to us as we passed tiny lagoons with pink flamingoes and cycled on rocky paths leading to iguana-strewn beaches.
We took a tour to the magnificent Sierra Negra volcano where we clambered over jagged black rocks and gazed across the 10 mile diameter of the crater. We spent a morning on a boat with a guide with a masters degree in marine biology to see white-tipped sharks and blue footed boobies, and to snorkel with sea turtles and exotic fish. Doing it this way made it possible to pick and choose when and where we went as day trips were plentiful, most priced between $35 and $55 per person.
There are numerous boats offering Galapagos Islands cruises. Which cruise is the best for your Galapagos vacation? Which yacht is most suitable for you or your family vacation to these splendid islands? Here you find reviews of many of the best cruises to the Galapagos Islands. The boats are listed alphabetically rather than in any order of preference – all are excellent cruises. Cruise reviews follow.
Large Cruise Liners
This luxury cruise ship offers spaciousness, comfort and an excellent range of facilities. The Eclipse cruise is fast and nimble allowing easy access to more distant islands and their small bays. A total of 48 passengers (plus staff) fit into the 27 air-conditioned cabins are both large and spacious, with fine decoration. Amenities include a 6-meter swimming pool (large by Galapagos standards), a video room, shop, observation deck, and al fresco dining. The Eclipse is one of the best cruise ships available. The seven-night cruise departs on Saturdays.
Galapagos Explorer II (2)
One of the larger ships cruising the Galapagos Islands, the Explorer II (2) offers excellent stability and plenty of space to its 100 passengers. The 50 air-conditioned suites (with both twin and double beds) are distributed over five decks and have outside views of the islands. There is a wide range of facilities to entertain vacationers including a library, games room, small pool with Jacuzzi, solarium, massage suite, and occasional shows and discos. The Galapagos Explorer Cruise has quite a cruise ship feel to it (eg. shows are often put on in the evening) and it is one of the cheaper large cruise ships in the Galapagos. The seven-night cruise departs on Saturdays.
The Isabela II is a top of the range first-class cruise liner designed for clients who wish to experience the exploratory spirit of a Galapagos Island cruise on a luxury holiday. The Isabella 2 has a capacity for just 40 passengers. Accommodation is in 21 cabins of four different categories, all of which have air-conditioning and external windows. The cruise’s décor is extremely smart. There is a bar, dining room, spacious sun-deck, library/video room, Jacuzzi and solarium. The Isabella 2 is a glass-bottomed cruise boat that offers an alternative to snorkeling. This seven-night cruise departs on Tuesdays.
La Pinta is one of the newest large cruise ships in the Galapagos (first cruise departure March 2008). La Pinta is a 63-meter motor yacht with 24 cabins. There is also a library and a sun-deck. This seven-night cruise begins and ends on the small island of Baltra, just off Santa Cruz Island.
The Legend is a classic cruise ship offering comfortable travel for its 100 passengers. There are five different cabin types, the main difference being the window size. There is a full range of amenities including a small outside swimming pool. The cruise’s decor is a little bland. This is a more typical cruise – including folkloric shows and dance lessons – it has that “cruise feel” about it. This 7-night cruise departs on Mondays.
the popular and imposing Santa Cruz can accommodate 90 passengers. The 46 cabins range from single to quadruple (this making is an excellent choice for family vacations and single travelers on holiday in Ecuador). Facilities on the Santa Cruz cruise are first class: there is a cozy restaurant, lounge, library, and sun-deck with bar and Jacuzzi. Santa Cruz has a glass-bottomed boat offering an alternative to snorkeling to view the vibrant undersea world of the islands. There are 52 crew and naturalist guides. This is an excellent choice for any vacation to the Galapagos. Departures for the seven-night Santa Cruz cruise are on Fridays.
Small Cruise Boats & Yachts
this graceful yacht, a 46m three-masted staysail cruise, epitomizes elegance. The Alta cruise offers passengers a romantic sea-borne vacation experience in the maximum comfort allowable on a vessel of traditional design. Eight double and twin cabins are quite cozy (each has a square window and en suite facilities). The boat relaxation areas are spacious and comfortable with cushioned seating and loungers on the sun deck. There are eight crew members and one English speaking naturalist guide. This seven-night cruise departs on Saturdays.
A graceful cruise boat with teak decking, the Beagle is a charming option for those seeking a romantic and close-to-nature Galapagos Islands holiday. There are six air-conditioned double cabins and one single (note this single traveler!). There is a friendly dining area with large picture windows and open and shaded deck-space for relaxation. The seven-night Beagle cruise departs on Tuesdays.
A 33m motor yacht designed for those who prefer the intimacy of travel on a small craft while enjoying the maximum comfort possible. Recently renovated, the Beluga cruise accommodates 16 passengers in eight en suite, air-conditioned double cabins. There is plenty of space on the yacht’s deck. There are nine crew members including an English-speaking naturalist guide. The seven-night Beluga cruise departs on Fridays.
This small motor-sailboat offers guests a true seaborne experience at a very good value. The Cachalote cruise accommodates 16 passengers in eight cabins with bunk beds which nevertheless have private facilities and air-conditioning. Meals are taken communally. As this is quite a small yacht and many of the cabins suffer from slight engine noise. There is a crew of six, including an English-speaking guide. The seven-night Cachalote cruise departs on Wednesdays.
Coral (Coral 1 and Coral 2)
The Coral is good value and availability is rarely a problem – it is often available for last-minute Galapagos vacation bookings. Guests are accommodated in compact but bright cabins with lower berths, air-conditioning and en suite facilities and plenty of storage space. There is a spacious restaurant with large picture windows and the spacious sundeck has a Jacuzzi with fine views. This yacht has ten crew members and two English speaking naturalist guides and has a total capacity for 36 passengers. Potential vacation-makers should be aware that in the past it has been common that clients are swapped to the larger Legend cruise ship at the last minute. The seven-night Coral cruise has a Sunday departure.
The graceful Diamante is a brigantine motor-sailer boat. The Diamante carries 12 passengers and will appeal to those who wish to travel the Galapagos in a more intimate environment. Fully air-conditioned cabins are six in total. There is a bright deck house where the comfortable dining room allows guests to enjoy 360-degree views. There are six crew and one English speaking guide. The seven-night Diamante cruise has a Wednesday departure.
This stylish yacht will appeal to those who would enjoy the nostalgia of a 1920s style cruise while benefiting from modern amenities. The cruise ship has an interior reminiscent of an English country house hotel with classic décor and comfortable furnishings. It has a warm and welcoming feel. Facilities include an al-fresco dining area, a small plunge pool, sun deck, observation deck, and bar. The service is excellent and highly personalized. Up to 32 passengers are accommodated in 12 cabins and 4 suites. There is a yacht crew of 18 plus two English speaking naturalist guides. Evolution is one of the best boats cruising the Galapagos Islands. The seven-night cruise departs on Saturdays.
The Fragata is a 25-meter motor yacht that can accommodate 16 passengers in single and double cabins. All of the cabins have en suite facilities and the boat is air-conditioned throughout. Facilities include a sundeck, diving platform, and bar saloon. The Fregata offers a five-day cruise normally departing on Mondays.
The sleek blue and white Lammer Law sailboat has a vast sun deck area and spacious cabins. The eight cabins have plenty of storage space and beds can be configured as doubles or singles. The yacht is fully equipped for diving – the Lammer Law is often a cruise whose main activities will involve scuba diving. The seven-night Lammer Law cruise has Sunday departures.
Letty, Eric & Flamingo
These three identical crafts, the MVs Letty, Eric, and Flamingo, offer comfortable cruising at the top end of the tourist class range. They are not quite first-class Galapagos islands yachts, but very good nonetheless, and are excellent value for money. As such, availability can often be a problem – you’ll need to book this Galapagos cruise well in advance. There are ten cabins on three floors. The sun deck is particularly spacious and the cruise has a lot of emphasis on snorkeling. Departures are on Sundays for this seven-night cruise.
One of the most romantic and beautiful ships in the Galapagos Islands, this is a genuine sailing boat. There are 10 cabins and a maximum of 16 passengers on the Mary Anne meaning it is a spacious boat. The sun deck has covered seating area and al fresco dining areas. One of the best cruises for those seeking a smaller boat, this 7-night cruise departs on Wednesdays.
The Mistral is an ideal choice for those on vacation who prefer the ambiance of a small boat and a more adventurous feel to their cruise. The mistral accommodates 12 passengers in six cabins with upper and lower berths and private facilities. There is a spacious dining room with picture windows and a comfortable sun deck. You can also opt to eat al fresco in the aft deck. There are five crew and a naturalist guide. The boat is well-equipped for diving and adventure vacation departures. The Mistral’s 7-night cruise departs on Saturdays.
A deluxe motor yacht perfect for those who wish to travel around the Galapagos Islands on a relatively small craft but in comfort and style. Equipped with stabilizers, this is one of the smoother cruises – there’s less rocking on boats with stabilizers, and hence this is a good option for those concerned about seasickness (likewise those concerned about their children getting seasick). There are eight cabins accommodating 16 guests. The outside decking area is very spacious. The seven-night Parranda cruise departs on Saturdays.
The Sagitta sailing ship offers passengers the romance of traveling on a sailing ship with more space and comfort than is sometimes found on such craft. There are ten cabins accommodating up to 16 guests. The seven-night Sagitta cruise departs on Wednesdays.
A very good value cruise, the Samba looks more like a fishing boat! The Samba carries 13 passengers in six fully air-conditioned cabins each with en suite facilities and one with an exterior shower and toilet. There are both indoor and al fresco dining facilities, a small bar, and two sun decks. A great option for those on a tighter budget for their vacation. The seven-night Sagitta cruise leaves on Tuesdays.
An 84-foot motor-sailer the Sea Cloud is ideal for those who want to explore the islands as part of a smaller group or family holiday cruise charter. There are four air-conditioned cabins, each with double lower and single upper berths and private facilities with a hot water shower. The 7 night Sea cloud cruise departs on Saturdays.
The M/Y Sky Dancer is a motor yacht with a capacity for 16 passengers, six crew and two dive instructors or divemaster/naturalist. This is a diving cruise to the Galapagos Islands. Accommodation is in eight twin-bedded cabins located on two decks. Specialist facilities include dive gear storage, a photo and video film lab, light tables, daily E-6 processing. The Sky Dancer offers up to four dives per day on a pre-planned but flexible itinerary. The seven-night Sky Dancer diving cruise departs on Sundays.
Tip Top 2, 3 and 4
Offering fantastic value for money the Tip Top boats are often full – book these boats well in advance. The Tip Top boats have a total capacity for 16 passengers and eight-crew including one naturalist multilingual guide. Seven-night cruise departures are on Fridays.
Best Galapagos Islands Hotels
Galapagos Islands vacations typically involve a cruise, which can often be expensive, especially if you are a large family. One of the main reasons to book a hotel in the Galapagos Islands (maybe in conjunction with a shorter cruise) is because it is a much cheaper way to see the islands. A hotel can provide an excellent base for exploring some of the other islands for those on a tighter budget. It also provides an opportunity to simply relax on some of the many excellent beaches in the Galapagos Islands, albeit amongst the wildlife. There are hotels ranging from budget to luxury.
The Finch Bay
A short boat ride from Puerto Ayora, this hotel prides itself on its eco-consciousness. The Finch Bay Hotel has its own private beach and wildlife excursions can be organized to neighboring islands. Yoga is on offer at this secluded hotel. Check if this hotel is offering any promotional rates if you do make a reservation.
Red Mangrove Hote
This is a small but charming hotel near Puerto Ayora. The Red Mangrove is conveniently located just a few minutes from Puerto Ayora and accommodates about 15 guests. It’s a colorful hotel good for a family vacation in Ecuador.
Royal Palm Hotel
This is the most exclusive resort in the Galapagos Islands. The Royal Palm is a first-class hotel with excellent service. Rooms are in individual villas in a beautiful location 15 minutes outside of Puerto Ayora. This is the best hotel in the Islands.
When is the best time of year to visit the Galapagos Islands? What will the weather be like when you visit? Which animals will you see at any particular time of the year? Which is the best month to visit the Galapagos Islands? Generally speaking, the months of April, May, and November are regarded as being the best months to visit, as the following month by month guide explains:
Please note the use of terms such as “good”, “bad”, “better”, “poorer” etc. are all relative here – the Galapagos Islands make a fantastic holiday at any time of the year.
January is the beginning of the rainy season. The rains last until early April but are rarely particularly excessive. This is a good month to see nesting birds, green sea turtles who arrive for their nesting season and colorful iguanas. This is the best time for snorkeling and diving vacations in the Galapagos, and the water and air temperatures stay warm until July.
February sees lots of flamingoes nesting on Floreana Island. Pintail ducks start breeding and the Galapagos dove starts nesting. There are very few penguins sighted on Bartolome Island (though more elsewhere), but plenty of marine iguanas are found on Santa Cruz Island where they start to nest. Masked boobies are coming to the end of their nesting season. The water temperature is at it’s highest (until April) so it’s great for diving and swimming in the Galapagos.
March in the Galapagos Islands sees the rainiest weather – downpours are interspersed with intense sun. You’d be advised to bring a raincoat! The temperature and humidity are their highest in this month. Marine iguanas are nesting on Fernandina Island, the waved albatross arrives on Espanola Island and penguins are still very active. Again, this is an excellent time for diving as the waters remain warm and relatively calm.
April is considered one of the best all-round months to visit the Galapagos Islands. Waved albatrosses arrive in huge droves. You are likely to see the hatching of the eggs of giant tortoises, land iguanas and green sea turtles. The rains have ended, the islands of the Galapagos remain green and beautiful and visibility is still excellent for snorkeling and diving. Great weather, great wildlife, great sea conditions, and beautiful scenery mean April is a fantastic month to visit.
May, like April, is one of the best months to take a vacation or cruise. Blue-footed boobies begin their fascinating courtship dances, sea turtle and marine iguana eggs are still hatching (the latter on Santa Cruz Island) and the waved albatross on Espinola island start to mate and lay their eggs.
June is the start of the Garua season, which sees less rain but more mist. The Garua is a kind of semi-permanent fuzzy haze which means the landscape is not quite so beautiful, as the scenery is less visible. Giant tortoises start to migrate and nest on the islands. The currents become stronger and the waves are larger, so swimming and diving conditions are becoming poorer. There are numerous migrating birds coming from the south and sightings of groups of Humpback whales are common.
July sees sea birds breeding actively, particularly on Espanola Island. Flightless cormorants begin their dance-like courtship rituals on Fernandina Island. On Santiago Island, oystercatchers are nesting. Lava lizards start their mating rituals, which continue until November. Whales and dolphins are more likely to be seen, especially off Isabella Island. The weather is cooler – the water temperature is not more than 21 Celsius. July is a good month for seeing both birds and larger marine animals.
August sees Galapagos Hawks court on Espanola and Santiago Islands. Swallow-tailed gulls and masked boobies start to nest on Genovesa Island. The weather remains cool – the water is at it’s coldest (18 Celsius). The seas are at their roughest, but the Sealion pupping season has started on the western and central Galapagos Islands, ie. baby sea lions are likely to be seen!
September in the Galapagos Islands has the coldest weather as this is the peak of the misty Garua season. Galapagos penguins are particularly active on Bartolome island. It’s a good time to go swimming with the penguins. Sea lions are very active also, with the males constantly fighting – don’t get too close! Most birds are still very active.
October sees lava herons nesting until March. The Galapagos Fur Sea Lions begin mating. Blue-footed boobies start to raise their young on Espanola and Isabella Island and giant tortoises are still laying their eggs. It’s coming to the end of the misty Garua season, and so the weather is not always sunny, though it’s sunnier in the western parts of the Galapagos Islands – if you’re taking a shorter length cruise, make sure it heads West for the best weather!
November still has baby sea lions playing. Brown noddies start breeding and there are more jellyfish at this time of year. The seas have calmed and the water temperature starts to rise again, making this a better month for swimming. On the whole, November has the best weather of all months. Visibility is good for snorkeling and diving, and the sea lion pups commonly play with divers and snorkellers.
December sees giant tortoise eggs hatching until April. Green sea turtles start their mating rituals. The rainy season is only just starting and on the whole, the weather is great.
The weather and wildlife one is likely to see varies according to the months of the year, but the Galapagos Islands are a year round travel destination. Your holiday will be fantastic whenever you visit.