Almost three months ago I made one of my best trips ever (in Latin America, where else): the Galapagos Islands. You can find some of my favourite photos here. Did they convince you to go? Good! The Galapagos is a unique place on earth. Let me give you some advice on getting there and touring around.
Let me first confirm what Google has already told you: yes, the Galapagos Islands are expensive – very expensive. Be prepared to spend around $1000 for a week. We spent over twice that amount for 10 days Galapagos, but it was all worth it. How much you will eventually spend really depends on the type of traveller you are and the choices you make. Taking a cruise for a week costs more than going island hopping yourself. And, if you want to do some diving, this will obviously add to the bill. It really helps to do some planning beforehand. If you are a last minute type of person (like me), please do take some time researching your options – you will get a better sense of what’s available which will be useful if you want to negotiate prices.
How to get to the Galapagos?
That’s pretty simple: you will to need fly from either Quito or Guayaquil (we did the latter). While Quito is one of Ecuador’s main tourist attractions – which makes it practical to fly from/to the capital – flights from Quito may make a stop-over in Guayaquil. So if you’re touring Ecuador, it might be useful to fly from Quito and on your way back to Guayaquil. (on a side note: while Guayaquil may have a bad reputation and Quiteños love to highlight all things bad about this city, Guayaquil has improved a lot in the past ten years and does have something to offer: food, drinks, colourful houses on a hill, a beautiful malecón, and above all, kind and wonderful residents. Do go!).
TAME, Avianca and Latam fly to the Galapagos Islands. Flights generally cost between $300 and $450 (we paid $350). The islands have two airports: one on Baltra, which is connected to the main island of Santa Cruz, and one on San Cristóbal. Play it smart and fly to one of the airports and back from the other, so you will make most out of your trip. Though most cruises start in Santa Cruz, some begin from San Cristobal – ours did, and as we had already booked a round trip to Santa Cruz, we had to change our destination which came with a fee (did I mention the benefits of planning?). We found that prices of flights booking them far in advance or a few days before departure did not differ that much.
Once you’re there.. Cruise or day trips?
There are pros and cons to both cruises and day trips, and you’ll find many people advocating either option. I myself was convinced I’d do day tours if I’d ever go to the Galapagos (much cheaper, more flexibility). However, once our flights were booked and I was doing some research, it became clear to me that cruises are the way to go. Yes, they are insanely expensive. And yes, you will be ‘limited’ to an itinerary. But the advantages are incomparable. The main pro is that you really immerse in the Galapagos scenery. You eat and sleep on the boat, which gives your trip a special vibe, and almost every day, you wake up in a new place around the islands. As you often travel over night, this saves time. By being on the water constantly, you also get to see many things people on day trips miss out on. During one of our evenings, for example, I saw two sea lions playing with a yellow balloon fish, and on others, we saw large sharks swimming by. These are animals you will also see on the day trips, but on a cruise you will have much more time on the water and will see more animals. It’s a very special feeling waking up, walking out of your cabin and seeing turtles swimming just a few metres below you while the sun is rising!
If money is your main obstacle for a cruise, remember that day trips are not cheap either. They usually start from $100 or often even $130, and that’s only for one day. Not even a full day: day trips start early (around 6 or 7am), but often end in the afternoon around 3 or 4pm. This includes the time to travel to the island of choice, which be as much as 2-3 hours (one way!). Take out lunch, and only a few hours of snorkelling or discovering the island are left. You will also need to arrange new day trips every time, as well as ferries to take you from one of the main islands to the other (if you want to do day trips based from different islands). I would find the hassle rather annoying.
Aboard on a cruise, a typical day looks like this: wake-up at 6 or 7am for breakfast; early morning activity (hike or snorkelling); come back to the boat for a snack; another activity; lunch aboard; afternoon activity or cruising to another area; afternoon activity and dinner. You can really enjoy the full experience, as you don’t need to worry about arranging tours and food. All food (and coffee/tea/water) is included and your days are really packed with snorkelling, hiking and exploring small islands by zodiac.
So, I strongly advise you to save up some bucks and book a cruise 🙂 Of course, you can also combine the two: do one or two day trips first (to the islands you won’t get to see on your cruise) and then go for the full experience.
Ok, so we’re going for a cruise. How do you choose one and what about the money?
So here is where the planning and researching part becomes useful. There are many boats – from small budget ones to larger luxurious cruises – which have fixed itineraries and dates. The itineraries are roughly divided between the western (and northern) islands, such as Isabela, Fernandina and Santiago, and the eastern (southern) islands like Española, Floreana and Bartolomé. The boats are required to alternate the itineraries so to reduce the impact on the environment. The itineraries last eight days, but there are various hop-on sites, which means that you can also book cruises for five and six days. A warning though: the first and the last day of the cruise are not a full day and only offer one activity, meaning that a six-day cruise really is just four full days. In my opinion, a five-day cruise isn’t worth the money, so I would suggest six or eight days.
The fixed dates of these cruises give you an advantage: you can find out which boats are leaving when, and which boats still have room aboard, and can negotiate more specifically. Of course, you can also book the cruises far in advance. If you only have eight days on the Galapagos and do not want to risk missing out on a cruise, you can arrange your tour months beforehand. But this comes with a price ($3000?).
First step: when you book your flights, decide how long you can stay on the islands. If you really want to do an eight-day cruise, make sure you have some margin and have at least ten days between your flights (or more, if you can). Not all boats leave on the same date, so if you have more time, you are more flexible; reducing the risk of missing out on a boat and having better chances of getting a good price.
After you’ve booked your flights, start mapping out which cruises are available during your time on the Galapagos. You might already start eliminating certain options at this point – some are too luxurious and expensive, or maybe you want to visit some specific islands and you can only do one of the itineraries. Search online which boats are leaving when. Sites such as galapagoslastminute.net, lastminutegalapagosdeals.com and www.galapagoscruiselinks.com give a good overview of the cruises that still have availability – but don’t use them for a ‘last minute’ deal. They are still more expensive than booking the cruise in person yourself in Quito or on the islands, although they can give you some indication of the price. Also make sure to read reviews on the boats, such as on the Tripadvisor Forum, where there is ample information from travellers. This really helped me to assess the quality of the boat and tour guide, and to check what would be a reasonable last minute price (thankfully, some travellers talk numbers!). Have a look at the maximum availability of the different boats, the size of their rooms, their environmental practices, and so on.
Once you’ve narrowed down your options, you can do two things: either you book a cruise when you’re in Quito (or Guayaquil, where there are a few agencies), or you wait a few days more and book it very last minute in Puerto Ayora, the largest municipality where the tour operators and agencies are based. Arranging your deal there usually gives you a better price. I would suggest the latter only if you have enough time or if you don’t have particular wishes regarding the amount of days or the itinerary. We booked our cruise about six days in advance as we wanted to see certain islands and spend eight days on the boat (while only having ten days there), so we didn’t want to run the risk of not being able to arrange a cruise.
There are plenty of tour agencies in Quito that offer last minute prices (though probably not as good as in Puerto Ayora). They sometimes include flights to/from Galapagos, so if you’re in Quito and are very flexible with your time, it might be worth exploring these options. In any case, wherever you book your cruise, make sure to shop around. I made some calls to Quito-based tour agencies a week before departure and got ‘offers’ for our preferred Aida Maria boat ranging from $1850 to $2800!
So let’s talk numbers! We took the Aida Maria cruise for eight days and paid $1700 each. I don’t have extensive experience with the tour agencies in Quito or Puerto Ayora as we eventually booked it through a friend of a friend who was a freelance tour agent. I’m pretty sure we could have paid less if we waited a few more days, but at the same time, our boat was fully booked for most days of the cruise so we could have easily missed out on this one. I asked around, and others on board paid relatively similar prices, around $1400 for six days (or $1300 for five). Most had booked it in Quito and one couple very last minute in Puerto Ayora, but for the same price. There were two others who paid significantly less ($1100-1200 for five days) when they booked it a day in advance in Puerto Ayora. However, out boat broke down for one day (which was their departure date) and while the crew took excellent care of us (they arranged hotels and new boats), the people who booked the cruise very last minute were left on their own.
The Aida Maria is a lower mid-range boat with small but good rooms, decent food and an excellent crew. The maximum number of guests is 16, which I think it just about fine – any more would be too much for me. I was surprised how many people could fit on the boat while still having your personal space. There are cheaper (and smaller) boats as well, but they tend to be fully booked close to the departure date.
If you want to see more than just one side of the Galapagos and are willing to spend money, you can also consider to combine two itineraries on one boat. We met a couple that spent six days on the eastern side (with a cruise), then hopped off and did a few days of exploring on their own, and hopped on again on Isabela island and continued the cruise until Santa Cruz.
What to bring to the Galapagos?
Now that you’ve arranged your cruise, it’s time to think about what you need to bring to the Galapagos. We went in May, which was very hot, but there is a cooler season too (June-November). Make sure to bring the following:
- shorts and t-shirts/tops – you can wash and dry your clothes aboard if necessary
- long but thin pants (if you do get cold or get annoyed by the mosquitos)
- a rain jacket – we got soaked on the zodiac one time
- closed shoes for walking on some of the islands with sharp lava terrain (running shoes or sneakers are fine)
- teva’s! They are perfect for walking around, getting from the zodiac to land (which may include a wet landing) and they are very light. I bought them especially for this trip and I was so glad I did.
- flipflops for on the boat (you are not allowed to wear the shoes you use on the hikes)
- two different sets of swimming clothes
- a hat to protect you from sunburn
- waterproof sunscreen
- mosquito repellent
- a water bottle to refill on board and in ho(s)tels on the island (they usually have free drinking water available)
- optional: a dry sack for your camera
- must: a GoPro or under water camera! We didn’t bring one and I still regret it.
Snorkelling gear is often included, but wetsuits may not be (and you will need on a few or more sights, depending on the season and itinerary). We rented a wetsuit for $10 a day on board.
I hope this post has been useful and has convinced you to go with a cruise. However you discover the Galapagos, make sure to travel conscientiously: refill your water bottle, take your litter to the garbage (and others’, if you encounter any) and do not touch the animals.