Galapagos Travel Advice

Galapagos Travel Advice

Most nature and wildlife lovers dream of visiting the Galapagos Islands at least once during their lifetime. At NEI, we’ve been arranging Galapagos adventures since the early 1980s and were one of the founding members of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association. In this post, we share some detailed advice on how to plan the best possible experience in the islands.

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS – Background

Located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the remote Galapagos Archipelago offers a unique opportunity to observe and study an incredible variety of wildlife and intriguing flora in one of the Earth’s greatest natural laboratories. In a stark, volcanic landscape, millions of sea birds, land and marine iguanas, fur seals and sea lions, and the endangered Galapagos tortoise make their home, largely unaffected by and unafraid of humans (because of the islands’ lack of predators).

The Galapagos Islands are world-famous for their incredibly fearless wildlife and exotic vegetation. Ninety-six percent of the reptiles, 47% of the plants, and 37% of the fish are found nowhere else in the world. Well known for the part they played in helping Charles Darwin to formulate his theory of evolution, the islands still provide unlimited possibilities for exploration and discovery.

 

As a visitor, you’ll spend your days hiking (easy), photographing and studying wildlife, snorkeling with sea lions and penguins, kayaking or simply relaxing. Our naturalist leaders, who are highly trained at the Darwin Station and certified by the National Park service, will provide nature interpretation during the day and informal lectures in the evening.

GALAPAGOS – PLANNING ADVICE
Scrutinize any proposed Galapagos Itineraries very carefully because there are huge differences between the islands, in terms of the wildlife, activities and topography. Some islands are impressive to almost everyone (e.g. Genovese/Tower), whereas others may impress relatively few people. Some islands (e.g. Espanola) are amazing but only for certain months of the year (April to December, when waved albatross are present). Some islands offer hiking, others mainly snorkeling. Some have dry landings, others wet landings.
Some itineraries include too many excursions on the same island. Some focus only on the central islands, missing most or all of the outlying islands that are often very impressive. Also remember that cruise itineraries change week to week even for the same ship! (usually the module itineraries repeat themselves every two weeks). Bottom line: do your homework and, if you feel a bit overwhelmed, then consult with an expert you trust. For a sample high quality itinerary, please refer to this link. Cruises are generally the best way to explore Galapagos; however, we only recommend cruises of 4 nights or longer. In our opinion, three night cruises do not offer good value because visitors have only two full days in the islands, and much of the arrival and departure days are consumed with travel logistics. Given the substantial fixed costs of reaching the islands (internal airfare of $500pp and national park fees of $120pp), it makes sense to spread these costs out over more days in the islands. Four nights is often enough for the generalist traveler, whereas 7 nights is perfect for nature travelers.  

 

If seasickness is a concern, you have several options. First, you may cruise between January and early July, when the winds are low and the waters are calmer. Second, you may cruise aboard a midsize or larger ship (i.e. 48 or 90 passengers) instead of a smaller ship (16 to 20 passengers) as the larger ships are more stable. Third, you may do a land-based tour, staying at a hotel (usually on Santa Cruz), exploring the island, and doing short boat excursions to nearby islands.

 

Avoid 3 star rated ships as they are often unsafe. They usually do not meet the SOLAS standards and a number of ships have capsized over the years.

 

Deluxe 5 star ships do not usually have better guides or itineraries than First Class 4 star ships. The main difference is the size of the cabins, the décor/amenities, and exclusivity.

 

Smaller ships (16 to 20 guests) offer a more intimate experience and they often have a lower guest-to-guide ratio (i.e. 10:1 instead of 15:1). On the other hand, they seldom have a physician aboard and they can be less stable. Midsize and larger ships are more stable, and larger ships usually have a physician aboard.

 

When comparing cruises on the basis of value, make sure to factor in all costs — internal airfare (approx. $500pp), national park fees ($120pp), any applicable fuel surcharges, and any applicable wetsuit rental fees.

 

If you prefer a longer cruise (e.g. 7 nights), then you should know that some ships have 7 night “continuous” cruises, while others combine 4 night and 3 night modules. Combining two shorter modules has the slight disadvantage of the ship having to return to one of the two islands with an airport so that they can let some travelers disembark and pick up new passengers. Fortunately, those guests who will be continuing on a longer cruise will still enjoy excursions on the transition day. Prospective travelers should, however, make sure that the excursions on these transition days are high quality and not “filler” excursions. The continuous 7 night cruises do not have to deal with this issue.

Plan on arriving in Quito or Guayaquil a day or two nights before the cruise – even if you do not want to explore mainland Ecuador. This will provided you with an important “safety cushion” in the event that your international flight is cancelled or severely delayed due to bad weather or mechanical issues. Otherwise, if you are unlucky, you may easily miss the morning internal flight out to the Galapagos islands.
Mainland Ecuador is well worth visiting if you have the time. Quito is a delightful highland capital that retains the old-world Spanish colonial atmosphere with golden cathedrals and cobblestone streets. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Otavalo offers one of the very best markets in all of South America. In addition, the Otavalo region offers great opportunities for cultural immersion and scenic horseback riding excursions. La Mirage in nearby Cotacachi is one of South America’s most charming inns. Other areas of interest include the beautiful Spanish colonial city of Cuenca, the cloudforest reserve of Mindo and the Amazon rainforest.
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