Most people have Galàpagos on their bucket list. But when they start to look at all the different ways to see the islands, it can be a little overwhelming to figure out the best plan.
And for a once in a lifetime trip, you want to get it right.
Don’t worry, we have a solution for you!
The first thing to assess is whether you are very prone to seasickness. If yes, your trip planning is simple. Fly to Baltra airport, stay at a Santa Cruz island hotel (though you can puddle jump to Isabella island; as well as fly from the mainland to San Cristobal island). Then book a few day tours, though be aware that most of these involve a boat too …
If seasickness is not a major issue, then you can plan the best way to see Galàpagos: first a cruise, then a few days at a hotel.
Why a cruise?
There are only a few populated areas in Galàpagos and though you will see animals there, most fauna is spread out throughout the islands and in places only accessible by boat. Yes, you can see some by day cruise. But the islands are very spread out. To really see Galàpagos’ diversity (and remember, that’s how Darwin came up with evolution — because the animals on each island were so different from each other!), you need to see a number of islands.
A live-aboard cruise which allows you to sleep in comfort while the boat takes you between islands is really the only way to do this. We recommend Haugan Cruises.
Why cruise first, hotel second?
The schedule on a Galàpagos cruise is pretty rigorous. While there are certainly opportunities to relax, you’ll be up early, going on probably three excursions a day (walking, snorkelling, kayaking, panga/zodiac tour), and each evening will have a discussion and slide show with your on-board naturalist. Your eyes will be strained from the bright sun and from squinting into your camera to try to capture the incredible flora and fauna your guide will show you. And your brain will be overwhelmed with trying to remember all of the information you’re learning about one of the most unique places on earth. After your cruise, not only will you want to explore a little more on your own, you will need a rest!
Ok then … how long a trip?
Well, the longest you can, of course! There is an immense amount to see here. I would suggest: 2 or 3 nights in Quito; a 5-7 night cruise; and then 3-5 nights in a Galàpagos hotel. Yes, you could do shorter, but you’ll feel like you’re missing out, and you’ll be exhausted. And of course if you can go longer you’ll get a much richer experience.
When is the best time to go?
Galàpagos is nice year round. The busiest times are school holidays (mid June to early September) and the month surrounding Christmas, so you’ll need to plan further ahead if these are your only windows.
The air and water are slightly warmer from December through May (Haugan Cruises provides wetsuits for snorkelling regardless), though there’s often a brief daily rain shower too. March and April are the warmest and wettest. The Humboldt Current brings colder water and slightly cooler weather from June to November, but this current also brings lots of nutrients and plankton, and therefore an abundance of fish and birds. Bigger fish like sharks and rays are more likely to be seen at this time too. The skies are cloudier (you’ll still need sunscreen), and there is some wind which can make the seas rougher.
If you have you heart set on seeing a particular animal or animal behaviour, check the government’s Ecuador.Travel website for mating and birthing/hatching seasons. The albatross, for instance, is on Española only from about May to December.
Alright, how do I choose my cruise?
The cruise ships in Galàpagos are categorized as economy, tourist, first class and luxury.
The biggest differences between the top two categories: quality and availability of food, cabin size, whether you have a balcony, the inclusion of snorkelling and kayaking gear, and whether there is a jacuzzi on board. The luxury ships also have the best guides with the best English skills. Haugan Cruises has three ships in the luxury category, one new in 2015. We tested out the Ocean Spray and were very impressed, particularly with naturalist Javier’s knowledge.
The national park restricts boat size to 100 passengers, so you’ll never be aboard a mega-ship. But, especially in a delicate place like Galàpagos, fewer people is better.
You’ll want the personalized service of a smaller ship, and logistics on board will be smoother and easier with fewer passengers to get fed, equipped, and off on their excursions. Bigger ships tend to have more sedate passengers than smaller boats, which might mean you’ll need to adjust your pace for walking tours and wait for stragglers.
A 16-passenger ship is ideal: the right size to get to know your fellow passengers, for your guide to get to know you, and to allow for flexibility if you see a whale or want to catch one more photo of that blue-footed booby in the perfect light. A boat of this size should have two pangas (zodiacs) to shuttle passengers back and forth.
Galàpagos waters can be a bit rough, especially when you’re travelling between islands. Choose a lower mid-ship cabin to minimize the motion. A cabin with a balcony lets you quickly get some fresh air and sit with your eyes steadily on the horizon, a good seasickness cure. Pick up some Gravel and fabric pressure point bracelets at your pharmacy, and perhaps a seasickness patch — why take chances?
Haugan offers a range of itineraries. A longer cruise will mean the opportunity to see more sites and animals, and have different light for photographing them. Some animals are found only in a few places, so if you have a favourite, choose your itinerary accordingly (e.g. penguins are on the westernmost islands; flightless cormorants are only on Fernandina and Isabella).
Which island should I visit after my cruise?
Stay tuned … more on this to come!