Where to start when planning a trip to the Galapagos Islands.
By Jonny Livingstone, Latin America Specialist
Planning any holiday can be a minefield, but the Galapagos Islands are a destination we get asked about more than most. Nowadays there is so much to consider when planning a visit to the enchanted islands, but to ease the process we have put together a few initial suggestions to help start the planning.
How do I get there?
The Galapagos Islands are found in the middle of Pacific Ocean, 2 hours by plane off the coast of South America. They’re part of Ecuador, which means flights to the islands only depart from Quito (Ecuador’s capital, in the Andes) and Guayaquil (its largest city and on the coast). Flights to Ecuador from Europe and the US arrive the same day, normally from the mid-afternoon to late at night. A minimum of one night is needed on mainland Ecuador before flying to the Galapagos, but we recommend longer to avoid and complications and give you chance to see Ecuador.
When should I go?
The short answer is you can visit the Galapagos at any time of year. There are two distinct seasons, a hot and wet season at the start of the year and a cooler drier season the second half of the year. The wildlife is active throughout the year, although some species like the Waved Albatross can only be seen at certain times so if you want to see them you should plan a trip accordingly. Also consider that accommodation will be busier and prices higher over holidays.
Should I take a cruise or stay on land?
Both have their merits and could even be combined, but staying on board a boat does allow you to visit the more remote islands and those which aren’t inhabited. The more islands and visitor sights you can get to, the greater the opportunity to see wildlife and differing landscapes and fauna. Land based itineraries have the obvious advantage of not sleeping and spending a huge amount of time on a boat, so they’re ideal if you suffer from seasickness. They’re often cheaper than booking a cruise too. Staying on land means you are restricted to staying on the inhabited islands though, but you can ‘island hop’ and combine two or three islands in one stay. It's possible to take day trips to the different islands with a naturalist guide. Combining both works very well too, as time on the boat is quite busy with the different activities, so it’s nice to have a few days relaxing at a hotel after a cruise.
Nowadays there are a huge variety of boats which operate in the Galapagos. The smallest can accommodate between twelve and twenty passengers and the largest over a hundred. The national park restricts group sizes to a maximum of sixteen when one naturalist guide is present, so most boats will take guests in multiples of sixteen. There a couple of exceptions though and some of the higher end boats will include an extra naturalist guide on board, which is a real advantage as group sizes will be smaller. Boats vary in style from the super modern to the more traditional, some offering cabins with portholes, others with windows and some even have cabins with their own private balcony (you’re most likely to find this on a catamaran). Small boats offer a more intimate experience but tend to offer less privacy as fewer people on board mean it’s harder to avoid people! They also have the advantage of faster disembarkation from the boat for the activities. The larger boats have many advantages too including greater stability at sea, smaller group numbers for activities (often less than sixteen) and a greater number of naturalist guides on board which means they can offer a variety of activities, all at the same time. This works particularly well for young families and less active guests, who may want more flexibility when deciding which excursions they do each day (for instance, if you don’t want to snorkel, you may be able to go with a guide on the glass bottom boat instead).
How long should I go for?
Cruises vary in length from three days to a fortnight, but the majority of boats will operate a standard seven night itinerary, visiting either the western or eastern islands. Land based tours of the Galapagos have the advantage of being completely flexible, so you can stay as long or short as you like. With either option it’s important to consider the arrival and departure from the Galapagos. Flights to the islands arrive around lunch time, which if on a cruise means lunch on board and an afternoon activity (often to one of the visitor centres on the island you have flown to). On the departure day the flights leave at lunchtime, but you will disembark the boat after breakfast and often go straight to the airport (a few boats include a short excursion in between). In short, it means the arrival and departure day doesn’t include a huge amount of activity, so it’s worth bearing in mind how many days of excursions you actually have. It’s also important to consider the cost of the flights, national park fee and tourist card when arriving into the Galapagos. All three have a fixed price and won’t change whether you stay for only two nights or a month.
What to expect?
The Galapagos are truly unique which means answering this question is particularly difficult! Wildlife, incredibly varied landscapes, fantastic snorkelling and a fascinating history are things which immediately spring to mind. It’s import to remember that not all of the islands feel completely isolated though - parts of the archipelago are inhabited and in the towns you’ll see supermarkets and buses as well as sea lions and marine iguanas. The fragile ecosystem also means it’s not a destination you’re free to explore independently. Guides from the National Park accompany 99% of activities, but this is one of the main reasons why the islands are so well preserved today. The cruises can be quite ‘full on’ as you will often have 2 or 3 different activities each day, as well as lectures on board, but after a good meal and glass of wine you’re ready for bed and to do it all again the next day.
Finally, speak to someone who has been.
Whether it is a friend, colleague or destination specialist at the Ultimate Travel Company, it’s always a good idea to discuss your plans with someone who has first hand experience of the islands. At the Ultimate Travel Company all of our specialists have been fortunate enough to visit the islands (many of us on more than one occasion!) and have experienced staying on land and on a boat. Please do get in touch and we would be happy to help plan your own bespoke trip – it really is a magical place that everyone should visit once in their lifetime.