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Santiago Island, the Galapagos Islands

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Planning your Galapagos expedition cruise: how to choose your vessel

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Cruises

By Audley specialist Michael

Out of all my time in the Galapagos, one moment stands out for me. We were crossing open waters and I was lying on my back on the boat’s top deck, making a video of the frigate birds flying above. Suddenly, one swooped down low, just inches from my face, making me jump. It was a reminder that the wildlife is uninhibited here; even on board a boat, surrounded by ocean, you’re not in your own world.

Expedition cruises are, for me, the best way to experience the Galapagos archipelago — although other options exist if you prefer to be based on terra firma. In this article, I cover the questions you need to ask yourself when considering your cruise options.

What is your preferred vessel size?

Small, medium or large?

Cruise yacht at anchor in the Galapagos

Cruise yacht at anchor in the Galapagos

Small vessels carry 12 to 20 passengers, medium 24 to 48, and large 90 to 100 at most.

Small vessels are ideal when you want to meet like-minded people, as over the course of your cruise you’ll inevitably become a close-knit bunch. If you’re a solo visitor (as I have been), they’re a good option, as everyone sits communally at mealtimes.

Medium vessels offer a good compromise between the intimacy of a smaller vessel and the anonymity of a larger one. You have more opportunities to find a quiet spot on deck and have time to yourself. They’re also a good mid-ground if you’re a little less confident about sea travel, as they offer more stability in the water.

Seaman Journey, Galapagos

Seaman Journey (16 passengers)

Silver Galapagos, Galapagos Islands

Silver Galapagos (100 passengers)

As you’ll see from the number of passengers, a ‘large’ vessel in the Galapagos is hardly gargantuan. They can be a good choice for families, as you’re more likely to encounter family groups. Many have built-in stability ballasts, so seasickness is less likely to be a problem. Large vessels typically offer more amenities and activities on board as well.

It’s worth knowing, too, that a larger vessel doesn’t inhibit access to any islands — most islands are uninhabited and don’t have docks. All vessels, regardless of size, will moor offshore, and you’ll journey to the islands in Panga boats.

I’d rather be land-based

It’s possible to explore the Galapagos without staying on a boat. You can base yourself in one of the main towns (most likely Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz) and take day trips to different islands. Alternatively, you can island-hop, dividing your stay over two or three islands. Bear in mind you’ll still need to travel by speedboat to explore most sites.

Land iguana, Santa Cruz Island

Land iguana, Santa Cruz Island

How long do you want to go for?

Vessels have set routes, allocated by the Galapagos National Park authorities several years in advance, and cruises can last from 3 to 14 days. Our specialists are able to explain the many routing options. A seven-night cruise is a good option, as it ensures you’ll see a wide variety of wildlife and geology across a handful of different islands without seeing the same species too often.

When do you want to go?

In September the Humboldt Current sweeps through the Galapagos from the south, bringing with it cooler water temperatures. This can make the ocean choppier at this time of year, so larger vessels can provide more stability.

Are there any specific species you wish to see?

Red-footed boobie

Red-footed boobie

Most wildlife can be seen all year round, and at a variety of sites — marine iguanas, for example, inhabit several different islands. One notable exception is the waved albatross, found only on the island of Española in the south of the archipelago from April to November. If you’re a birdwatcher, consider including a visit to the northerly island of Genovesa — home to a variety of avifauna, including red-footed and masked boobies.

How active would you like to be?

Diving

Inquisitive sea lion

Inquisitive sea lion

Normal expedition vessels aren’t permitted to run diving trips in the Galapagos. If you’re a serious and experienced diver, your best bet is to choose a live-aboard cruise, which will take you to diving sites at the far-flung, minuscule islands of Wolf and Darwin. Here, you’re likely to see creatures such as giant manta rays and hammerhead sharks. The flip side is these cruises offer few dry landings: you need to be committed to spending the majority of your time diving. Another option for would-be divers is to stay at an island hotel at the beginning or end of your trip, and go out for a day’s diving with one of our recommended diving outfits.

Snorkeling

Snorkeling at Pinnacle Rock

Snorkeling at Pinnacle Rock

In the Galapagos, the underwater world is just as engrossing and varied as the world above. You may also be surprised by the amount you see while snorkeling — on occasion, sea turtles and sea lions have swum right underneath me.

Snorkeling is a major component of Galapagos Islands cruises, so if you don’t snorkel, be aware there will be several sites you can’t access. Some of the larger ships do have glass-bottomed boats, but these only sail at certain sites, and they aren’t always a ready alternative to snorkeling.

Kayaking

Some, but not all, boats have kayaks on board, and kayaking is permitted at certain sites only.

Some practicalities of Galapagos expedition cruises

  • The Galapagos is a highly protected national park, and as such there are many rules governing how visitors can access sites: there’s no flexibility once you’re exploring in situ. Be prepared to stick to paths set by the guide and follow his or her instructions. 
  • As part of the national park regulations, all boats must have a scheduled stop at a town. This is usually combined with a visit to one of the Galapagos giant tortoise breeding stations, which I recommend you visit. They’re your best chance of seeing one of the creatures, and you’ll get a sense of the history and science behind these projects. The giant tortoises are habituated into the wild once they’re old enough to survive on their own.
  • Galapagos cruises can be challenging for anyone with serious mobility constraints. Outside the main towns, you’re walking over rocky, uneven, constantly changing terrain: a smooth, sandy beach can soon turn into a track over sharp lava. You’ll also need to be able to step over any wildlife lying in the way, and be able to step into and out of Panga boats.
  • At the same time, the Galapagos isn’t a destination reserved for the super-fit. There are no route marches or lengthy hikes, and you just need to be sure on your feet.
  • No matter which cabin in which vessel you choose, you’ll always hear anchor and engine noise to some extent — light sleepers should bring earplugs. Likewise, while there are certain seasons that typically offer calmer seas, it’s always a good idea to be prepared for unexpectedly rough seas with seasickness pills, bracelets or patches.

Start planning your cruise in the Galapagos Islands

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They’re just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.

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