Choosing a Galápagos Trip
Itinerary Variations, Types of Boats, and Activities
A stunning and astounding place, the Galápagos Islands call to increasing numbers of visitors every year — from a few thousand annually in the 1960s to more than 170,000 today. But even more extraordinary is that despite these numbers, you can rest assured that your travel experience here will be intimate, rewarding, and up-close with the wildlife, landscape, and marine reserve. That’s because the Galápagos National Park regulates the itineraries, boats, and activities in the islands in order to protect the fragile ecosystems of what were once known simply as the “enchanted islands.” And by embarking on a Galápagos adventure, you help to conserve this World Heritage site and marine reserve, too.
In whatever manner you wish to travel through this amazing archipelago, how long you plan to stay, or what activities you want to participate in, one of our IGTOA members will be able to accommodate your preferences.
Cruises in the Galápagos operate on a fifteen-day/fourteen-night schedule. National park regulations allow operators to divide that span of time into a maximum of four segments. Most tour operators split their itineraries into: two, seven-night trips; two, five-night tours and one, four-night trip; two, four-night tours and one, six-night trip; or two, four-night and two, three-night trips. During that fifteen-day timeframe, a boat may not visit the same site twice, with the exception of the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island.
Regardless of the cruise you choose, all boats navigate and operate in a similar manner. The major inter-island transitions (from San Cristóbal to Genovesa, for example) are completed in the overnight hours. When you awake, the boat will already be anchored off the island you’ll visit that morning. This maximizes the use of your daylights hours for exploring the islands.
Occasional transits will be done between the morning and afternoon shore excursions; usually these are to another point on the same island or to a nearby island. Typically they occur during your lunch and won’t impinge on any of your exploration time.
If you do have a strong preference for visiting a particular island or visitor site, however, be sure to select a cruise that will fulfill your desire. Contact one of our tour providers for assistance.
Types of Boats:
The vessel you choose for your Galápagos adventure may be a cruise ship, catamaran, or sailboat. Most visitors, however, opt for some sort of cruise ship (motorboat). Basically, there are five levels of cruises in the Galápagos:
If you prefer to travel with a very high level of service, a luxury cruise ship or yacht will appeal to you. This type of boat may have facilities such as an onboard swimming pool, a gift shop, or a Jacuzzi; and it may carry as many as one hundred passengers. You will have hot water and air-conditioning. If you are extremely sensitive to seasickness, the stability of this type of boat will be a benefit. Cabins are generally located on two (or more) different decks. Because luxury ships are larger, they may visit some of the more distant islands.
Like the luxury-class cruise ships, first-class cruise ships and yachts are spacious and very comfortable, but they differ in that they tend not to have extra facilities, such as swimming pools. You will have hot water and air-conditioning. These boats are also able to make trips to the more distant islands.
Hosting from eight to twenty passengers, tourist/superior-class boats have cabins with ocean views, but some will be below deck. Cabins are smaller, but comfortable. You will have hot water and air-conditioning.
Your cabin on a tourist-class cruise boat or yacht may have a private bathroom, or you may be expected to share one or two bathrooms on the boat. You may or may not have hot water and air-conditioning.
Economy-class boats will save you money. However, be aware that there is usually no hot water and definitely no air-conditioning.
Catamarans (Motor and Motor-Sailing)
Heavy and wide, motor catamarans have sizable cabins and social areas, and they are stable (not as stable as cruise ships, however). Some even have onboard Jacuzzis to relax in after a long day of hiking and snorkeling.
The lighter motor-sailing catamarans are comfortable and relatively spacious, but they lack some of the stability of the heavier motor catamarans.
Sailboats and Motor-Sailers
Active and adventurous Galápagos Islands travelers may enjoy exploring the archipelago aboard a sailboat or motor-sailer (actually, most of the sailboats are motor-sailers, which means that they are capable of navigating with motor power when there isn’t sufficient wind). Long and narrow, these boats are a bit more vulnerable to rocking, even when anchored. Although cabins and social areas are small, they are cozy and provide for an intimate travel experience — something that is harder to obtain on a larger ship.
Typical Daily Schedule
Your days in the Galápagos Islands will be memorable — and busy. If you take a cruise, your daily schedule will be something like the following:
After an early breakfast, a panga will take you to one of the island’s landing sites for a naturalist-guided walk or hike.
|7:00 a.m.||Wake-up call|
|8:00 a.m.||Shore excursion|
|11:30 a.m.||Return to vessel|
After your morning shore excursion, you’ll return to your ship for lunch. Afterwards, you’ll have time to nap, sunbathe on the deck, read, edit your digital photos, or visit with your shipmates as your boat travels to your next landing site (on the same island or a new one).
|1:00 p.m.||Free time|
After your second island adventure of the day, you’ll often have the opportunity to swim or snorkel. Or, if you wish, you may take a direct ride back to the ship.
|3:00 p.m.||Shore excursion; opportunity to swim or snorkel|
|6:00 p.m.||Return to vessel|
Before dinner, you’ll have time to enjoy a cocktail and socialize. Dinner is followed or preceded by a daily briefing that describes the next day’s landing sites and wildlife highlights.
|10:00 p.m.||Bar, music, or stargazing|
Walks and Hikes
The Galápagos Islands and their surrounding waters team with exotic and colorful creatures that have never learned to fear humans. On your daily walks and hikes, you’ll encounter one-of-a-kind, endemic creatures and fantastic plants.
You’ll spend some personal time with ageless Galápagos giant tortoises and commune with mysterious marine iguanas. You may have to move out of the way as a blue-footed booby crosses your path, or step back as a waved albatross launches itself off a cliff for the first time on a journey that will take it thousands of miles away.
Every visit to each island will include an easy or an intermediate walk or hike, lasting from one to three hours. Your expert naturalist guide will lead you along the clearly marked trails and help you learn about all of the wonders your field trip reveals.
The Galápagos Islands are known worldwide for their superb snorkeling experiences. Many visitors come to the islands just for the chance to snorkel in the largest marine reserve in the Americas. It is the only tropical location where sea lions, tropical fish, and penguins meet.
During your expedition, there will most likely be one or two daily opportunities for you to snorkel from either a beach or a panga. Snorkel gear (fins, masks, and snorkels) is usually available on board for your use; however, if you have your own mask and snorkel (and fins, if you prefer your own), bring them with you to ensure better comfort and a proper fit. Since water temperatures in the Galápagos vary from 68 to 76 degrees Fahrenheit, some people like to wear wet suits while snorkeling. Most boats carry a variety of sizes. Check with your tour provider prior to your trip to inquire about gear availability.
Pangas are inflatable Zodiac-type boats that serve as the main transportation method from your Galápagos ship to the various visitor sites. At several times during your adventure, you will have the opportunity to enjoy panga rides in mangrove estuaries, caves, and coves.
This activity is especially productive for photographing Galápagos wildlife on shores and rocky coastlines.
The Galápagos Islands are widely considered one of the finest places on our planet for serious diving. Bonitos, spotted eagle and manta rays, and hammerhead sharks are regularly sighted; while drop-offs and the boulder-strewn sea floor hold strange and wonderful species such as red-lipped batfish, scarlet frogfish, Pacific seahorse, sunset wrasse, and Galápagos clingfish.
However, because there are strong currents, sea swells, upwelling, cool waters, and sizeable marine creatures (such as whale sharks), diving here is not considered advisable for beginner or infrequent divers. Nearly all Galápagos diving spots are recommended only for intermediate to advanced divers.
However, some dive operators in Puerto Ayora have outings that take lower-skilled divers to nearby, less-challenging sites.
Check with IGTOA members to find a special diving excursion and/or cruise for you. Some top-rated dive spots are:
1) Darwin and Wolf Islands
The far northwest Darwin and Wolf Islands are only available for visits by divers (but they, too, are prohibited from stepping on land). Some call these two islands the most exciting and unforgettable dive sites on the planet. Here, eagle rays, Galápagos green turtles, Galápagos sharks, and vast schools of hammerhead sharks are often encountered.
2) Gordon Rocks
The rocks lie a short distance north of South Plaza Island off the east coast of Santa Cruz. A submerged crater, Gordon Rocks consist of two large, crescent-shaped rocks protruding from the water at the north and south rims; and a smaller rock with a channel and three underwater pinnacles. Locally, it is known as the “washing machine” due to the strong currents and surge. Impressive numbers of hammerhead sharks are often seen here.
3) Devil’s Crown
Devil’s Crown is a submerged volcanic crater off Floreana Island. Fish at this location have been described as looking like a moving carpet — so thick that sometimes it’s hard to see the rocks and sand underneath.
4) Cousin’s Rock
This triangular rock is found off Santiago Island and rises about almost thirty-three feet out of the water. Underwater, it is steep on the northern and western sides and sloping on the eastern side. You’ll shoal and wall dive here with frogfish, hammerheads, manta rays, sea lions, seahorses, and whitetip reef sharks. There is a breathtaking vertical wall with black corals and other invertebrates.
5) Kicker Rock (León Dormido)
Rising five hundred feet straight up from the ocean, Kicker Rock off San Cristóbal Island is a remnant of a vertical tuff cone. A mild current passes through a split in the rock, which attracts reef fish and hammerhead and Galápagos sharks. The water at the bottom is cool and clear, and among the boulders you’ll see a variety of angelfish, starfish, surgeonfish, and wrasses.
Quito City Tour
Nestled in a long, narrow valley in the Andes Mountains, between the Pichincha Volcano to the west and the Machángara River Canyon to the east, lies Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. Its spectacular natural setting combines with a mix of colonial and modern architecture to create a fascinating environment.
Catholic missionaries played an important role during Ecuador’s colonial period, and today you’ll see their influence in the city’s numerous churches, chapels, and convents, including the luminous, gold leaf La Compañia Church, constructed throughout the years between 1605 and 1765.
Not only is Quito the nation’s capital, it is Ecuador’s cultural hot spot, with an impressive selection of museums, festivals, and nightlife. Along with the historic sites of Old Town, you may visit hundreds of shops, cafés, and restaurants.
If you’d like to explore Quito as part of your Galápagos Islands adventure, contact your tour provider in order to make arrangements.
Otavalo Market Visit
The world-famous Otavalo Market is a cultural — and shopping — event. The capital of Otavalo Canton, Otavalo is a town of indigenous people in the Imbabura Province of Ecuador. The Otavaleños are famous for weaving textiles, usually made of wool. The locals use market day much the same way as their ancestors did in Ecuador’s pre-Colombian history.
Today’s market serves two functions: a spot for locals to buy and barter animals, food, and other essentials; and a craft market for visitors. The craft market consists of almost a hundred stalls selling a variety of goods, including clothing, hand-painted platters and trays, indigenous costumes, jewelry, leather goods, musical instruments, purses, raw foods, spices, spools of wool, and textiles. Bartering is expected at Otavalo, and — along with photographing the market and its people — is part of the fun.
Your Galápagos tour provider will inform you about opportunities to explore the Otavalo Market at the start or end of your Galápagos Islands adventure.