Tortoises with shells the size of truck tires. Birds with powder blue feet. Enormous lizards that swim in the sea.
Galapagos Travel Guide
The Galapagos Islands are home to a strange and fascinating collection of creatures, many of which cannot be found anywhere else on earth. About 3-5 million years ago, a huge volcanic eruption shook the earth 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The molten lava formed a chain of 19 islands, which remained untouched for millions of years while a diverse array of animals and plants found their way there – and thrived. It’s hard to believe that such a harsh jumble of saltwater soaked lava fields has become so rich with life.
The Galapagos was where Charles Darwin came up with his theory of evolution in 1835, (which he presented in “The Origin of Species”) when he realised that it was possible to tell which island a finch came from based on the shape of its beak. When you explore these islands, it’s easy to see why Darwin was so inspired by the natural wonders he found here. The best way to explore these unique islands is on a yacht cruise.
In this article, you’ll learn all about what to expect on a Galapagos cruise, as well as some important things to know before you go.
Why Visit the Galapagos?
The Galapagos Islands are a one of a kind destination that has fascinated adventurous wildlife lovers for many generations. There are many reasons to visit, including:
|This archipelago is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. It’s located on the confluence of three nutrient-rich ocean currents, creating ideal conditions for many animals to thrive.||The islands are the only place you can see many strange and rare creatures, such as the Galapagos Penguin, the Galapagos Marine Iguana and the world’s only nesting site of the Waved Albatross.|
|There are more than 400 species of fish surrounding the islands, making it a scuba diving and snorkeling paradise.||97% of the islands have been declared a national park.|
|You can spot the iconic giant tortoise, which can live up to 150 years and weigh 595 pounds.||It’s the only place in the northern hemisphere where you can see penguins in their natural habitat.|
|The Galapagos is an archipelago made up of 17 different islands, each with its own unique landscape and collection of wildlife.||It’s also known for the Charles Darwin Research Station, home to the famous giant tortoise breeding programme.|
Wildlife viewing is the main reason to travel to the Galapagos. There’s no other place on earth where you can see so many unique creatures in such a beautiful, unspoiled setting. The experience of swimming with sea lions, walking amongst giant tortoises and seeing baby penguins waddle across the beach is unforgettable.
It is possible to come to the islands and not venture out to see the wildlife – and some visitors do. They stay mainly in highly developed Santa Cruz Island, do a bit of surfing, enjoy the nightlife in Puerto Ayora, visit the local beaches and don’t go much further.
However, we feel that in order to get a true Galapagos experience, you need to venture beyond the main island to see the pristine landscapes and diverse wildlife these islands are famous for. Otherwise, why not just stay in any beachside town in Ecuador? The Galapagos is unlike any other destination in the world – and it’s really all about the wildlife.
► Book an international flight to either Guayaquil or Quito (the capital of Ecuador). You’ll arrive at Jose Joaquin de Olmedo International Airport in Guayaquil or Mariscal Sucre International Airport in UIO.
► There are multiple flights per day to the Galapagos Islands from either of these two cities. (Quito is a larger and more interesting city to visit, with more choice for hotels and dining.)
► On the Galapagos Islands, there are two major airports you can arrive at: Baltra Island or in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island.
► From there, you can take a local taxi or a ferry to the starting point of your cruise. (Some cruises will also offer an airport pickup service.)
There’s no bad time to visit the islands. They are beautiful throughout the year and there is always something interesting happening. There are few migratory species and no need for the animals to wander off in search of food, so you can see the full cast of creatures all year long. The only difference throughout the seasons is their behaviours – so consider whether you want to visit to watch the spectacle of a particular mating season (or see newly born babies!).
In December and January you’ll be able to see the giant tortoise eggs hatching, in February you can watch the penguins migrating to Isabela and Fernandina from Bartolome and in March you can see the marine iguanas making their nests on North Seymour. May is blue footed booby mating season, so you’ll be able to watch their unique courtship dance.
If you are interested in humpback whales, June is the best month to spot them. July and August are ideal for sea lion watching, as this is when they will be breeding and giving birth. If you visit during September and October you’ll have a chance to spot adorable sea lion pups and blue footed booby chicks – and in November you can see whale sharks in the North West.
When it comes to weather, the warmer season from December to June is ideal, as you’ll have sunnier days, calmer seas and better underwater visibility. The June to November season sees the islands transform from green, lush tropical lands to a more barren, desert-like climate.
What Are The Advantages of a Galapagos Cruise?
Why take a cruise trip in the Galapagos Islands, rather than staying in hotels and going on day trip excursions? Here are some of the main benefits that yacht charter experiences can offer.
It’s Easier to Plan
When you book a Galapagos Cruise, all of your tours and excursions are included on the tour – which makes it a lot easier to plan and book your dream getaway. You don’t have to worry about lining up all of your land excursions and arranging your hotel bookings.
You can simply make one booking that will include all of your experiences. With the help of an expert travel concierge, you can even design a unique itinerary that caters to your particular interests.
You’ll Make the Most of Your Time
If you try to see the Galapagos islands on a land based trip, you’ll spend a lot of time getting from your hotel, onto a day-trip boat, out to the day’s destination, then sailing back to your hotel.
When you take a cruise, the boat will move from place to place during the night. This means that you’ll be able to sleep through all of that time-consuming travel time and wake up at a new destination ready for a full day of exciting adventures.
You’ll Get Exclusive Access
Land-based excursions are limited to only the five islands that can be reached in one day. When you visit on a boat, you’ll be able to visit the more remote and distant islands that can only be reached via overnight boat.
This means that you’ll be able to see a more pristine and unspoiled side of the Galapagos wilderness – far from any human development.
Visitor Limits Keep The Experience Unspoiled
In the Galapagos, there are limits on how many people can visit the islands – in order to keep these natural wonders as pristine as possible. There are only a certain number of boats allowed to offer cruises and in order to add a new boat to the fleet, an older one must be removed.
This means that when you cruise the remote islands of the Galapagos via boat, you won’t have to worry about crowds and you’ll be seeing beautiful, unspoiled locations that are quiet and pristine.
On Board the Boat: What to Expect
Most live-aboard cruise experiences in the Galapagos offer 4-8 day itineraries, with set route and departure dates. This is because the routes are dictated by the Galapagos National Park officials in order to control the number of visitors and reduce environmental stress.
Onboard a luxury ship you’ll usually have a larger cabin, sometimes with your own private balcony. The cabins are usually en suite and are compact in their design so that they can maximise living space. However, even on the smallest of vessels you’ll usually find a sun deck where you can stretch out and relax and watch wildlife, as well as a dining area and lounge.
|Here’s what a typical cabin with a private balcony looks like on a 16 guest yacht. On a luxury cruise you may also have other amenities such as hot tubs, saunas, libraries and a cinema.|
|Here’s what the sun deck (with Jacuzzi!) looks like on a 16 guest yacht.|
What will the food be like on your Galapagos cruise? It depends on the boat you book your tour on, but you can rest assured that on a luxury cruise you will be fed well. (Keep in mind, the smaller and more high end the boat, the better the food – as the head chef will be cooking for 16 guests rather than 100)
Since you’ll be in one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world, you can rest assured that the seafood and fish will be wonderfully fresh and tasty. One of the most famous dishes is ceviche, made with lobster, shrimp, fish, squid or octopus marinated in a tangy, citrus brine.
Many of the dishes on board will be inspired by traditional Ecuadorian cuisine – which features rice, Andean potatoes and meat. Of course, there’s also the delicious tropical fruit. You can expect to feast on guanabana, naranjilla and other yummy local produce.
Plus, nearly every Ecuadorian-style meal you will have on the Galapagos Islands will come with plantain – a fruit similar to banana that is served fried, mashed or made into chips.
If you are content with viewing wildlife from the deck of the boat and not venturing much further than that, then a Galapagos trip could suit travelers of any fitness level. However, in order to truly get the most out of a visit to this unique island archipelago you’ll need to be able to hike to the more remote spots. Many of the hikes involve walking up volcanoes and hiking uphill in the dry heat.
Plus, you’ll also need to be physically prepared to swim and snorkel in the Pacific Ocean. After all, it would be a shame to miss the chance to see turtles and penguins close up. So, it is recommended that you have at least a moderate level of fitness in order to enjoy this trip to the fullest.
Flying through mainland Ecuador to reach the Galapagos Islands is very safe. According to the State Department, there are no travel warnings for Ecuador and the only advice is to “exercise normal precautions.” The Galapagos Islands are even safer than the mainland – so as long as you’re aware of your surroundings and you listen to any safety advice from your tour guide, you’ll be fine. (For example, be cautious around certain types of wildlife such as sharks and male sea lions.)
One of the major safety risks you’ll need to worry about when you are on a Galapagos tour is sunburn and heatstroke. Because you will be very close to the equator, the sun’s rays will be stronger and you’ll need to take extra care to protect yourself. Even if the air feels cool, the sun can still be quite strong. Bring along coral-reef friendly sunscreen, a hat with a brim and a skin to wear during snorkeling excursions.
Also, take care when swimming in the Pacific Ocean – as there can be many hidden currents and riptides. Your guide will advise you on where you can safely swim.
In case of an emergency, the boat is equipped with first aid supplies, a satellite phone, life vests for all passengers and emergency flares. The boats are all regularly checked to ensure that they are safe for passengers.
If you suffer from seasickness, book a cruise on a larger boat as it will experience less movement. You can also bring along seasickness medication. On most boats there are emergency medical services on board and on the larger boats there might even be a pharmacy. It also helps to sit out on the open deck where you can breathe the fresh air and see the horizon.
Ecuador does not require visitors to have any specific vaccinations. However, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you are vaccinated for typhoid and hepatitis A. Malaria and rabies precautions are recommended by the CDC as well, but check with your doctor before you travel.
If you are taking any form of medication, make sure that you have your prescribed supply for the duration of your trip – as you can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to find your specific drug in one of the pharmacies on the islands.
All ships in the Galapagos have to bring a certified naturalist with them. The Galapagos National Park provides training and strictly regulates the guides who are allowed to work on the islands. The guide course is very long and detailed, which ensures that all guides are well-educated. Usually, the more luxurious the ship the more experienced and professional the guide will be.
However, you can’t necessarily assume that all guides will speak English – so it’s something to check before booking a tour. The main duty of your guide will be to accompany you on all land excursions and tell you about the animals, plants, geology and history of each of the islands you visit.
Galapagos Cruise Activities
These are the types of activities and excursions you might expect on a typical Galapagos yacht cruise.
Hiking through the surreal and beautiful volcanic landscape of the Galapagos is a great way to see the natural beauty of the Galapagos Islands up close.
Take a hike around the rim of the Volcán Sierra Negra, the second largest active caldera on earth and the only one volcano on the islands that visitors are allowed to hike. The trail has a gradual incline, so it is manageable for those with moderate fitness (although you should bring plenty of water as the equatorial sun can be strong.)
The 9 km wide, 91 metre deep crater is a truly spectacular site, especially with the views of the ocean in the distance. Be sure to bring an expert guide with you on this 5 hour hike, so that they can tell you about the flora and fauna as well as the history of the landscape.
Another one of the most popular Galapagos activities is snorkeling. Peer beneath the surface of the water to see the incredibly diverse marine of the Galapagos. You might even spot turtles, hammerhead sharks, golden rays and parrotfish.
Some of the best snorkeling spots in the Galapagos include North Seymour Island, James Bay on Santiago Island and Punta Vicente Roca on Isabela Island. Your yacht charter cruise will provide you with flippers, a mask and a snorkel – but you can also bring your own if you have them.
The great thing about snorkeling is that you don’t have to have any special training. Anyone can do it – as long as you know how to swim. At the beginning of your cruise trip, you’ll receive a snorkeling orientation from your guide – who will teach you what to look out for and how to avoid damaging the delicate coral.
The Galapagos Islands are considered one of the best scuba diving destinations in the world. There is excellent diving throughout the year, but June-December is exceptional – as this is when hammerheads, whales, rays and other large marine creatures come out to play. Some of the best diving destinations are Wolf and Darwin Islands – which can only be visited by boat.
Typically, diving in the Galapagos is for more advanced divers who feel comfortable in deep cold water with potential for strong currents and low visibility. So, make sure that you have the appropriate training and experience level before attempting to scuba dive in the Galapagos.
With thousands of miles of rocky shorelines and secluded coves, the Galapagos Islands is ideal for exploring via kayak. Kayaking is a great activity during your Galapagos cruise, as it allows you to get up close with the wildlife and see remote spots that cannot be reached any other way.
Of course, the Galapagos National Park Service carefully regulates sea kayaking in the marine reserve, so you’ll need to make sure you have booked your tour with a company that has been granted special kayaking permissions within the park.
Remote Islands Only Accessible By Boat
One of the huge advantages of taking a Galapagos cruise is that there are certain islands that can only be reached by boat. Only four of the islands in the Galapagos are populated – Santa Cruz, Isabela, Floreana and San Cristobal. The rest are unspoiled nature preserves that are teeming with wildlife. Here are a few of the islands that you can only access via boat on a Galapagos cruise:
Bartolome Island stands out due to it’s Pinnacle Rock, a striking asymmetrical shape that stands vertically on the shore of the island. It’s a landmark feature that cannot be missed. You can hike to the peak of the volcanic summit and admire the views of the sunken crater and the lava fields on Santiago Island.
This island’s unique name comes from its shape – which resembles that of a traditional Chinese hat turned upside down. If sea lions are on your must-see list, you can spot them here – lounging on the sea-salt-licked rocks of a secluded cove.
As you hike along the beach of this island, keep your eyes open for the unique American Oystercatcher – a shoreline bird with a very distinctive orange beak. Also, if you snorkel in the calm, clear waters here you’ll have a chance to see a spectacular range of marine life including white-tipped reef sharks.
At just over 4,640 square km, this is the largest island in all of the Galapagos. Named after the Queen of Spain, it’s home to six volcanoes – many of which are still active. The island has very different vegetation than the rest of the archipelago, thanks to the abundance of volcanic activity. It’s one of the best islands for bird-watching, as it is home to pelicans, boobies, flightless cormorants and more.
One of the tiniest islands in the Galapagos, Darwin (named after Charles himself) is little more than a piece of eroded volcano with colonies of sea birds perched on it. You can see many different bird species here, from the swallow-tailed gull to the red-footed booby to the darwin mockingbird.
It is also known as one of the best dive sites in the Galapagos and under the water you can see sailfish, scorpionfish, deep sea turtles and even the Galapagos shark. Note: Boats cannot land on Darwin – you can only view it from the boat or visit it on a scuba diving excursion.
The youngest island in the archipelago, Fernandina Island is home to the La Cumbre volcano that only erupted a couple of years ago. One of the unique aspects of this island is that there are no non-native species that have been introduced here, so it remains completely pristine and intact.
This is one of the best places to see the flightless cormorant, one of the rare unique species of the Galapagos. It’s also a whale sanctuary, so you’ll have a chance to see bottlenose dolphins, Bryde’s whales and many more.
Located two hours from San Cristobal, Española is the southernmost island in the Galapagos archipelago and one of the oldest. It has an incredibly dry climate, with only a few inches of rain per year.
This spot is one of the only know nesting sites in the world for the Waved Albatross. If you want to see these clumsy birds take over the island, be sure to visit between April and December. Española is also home to many other bird species, including blue footed and nazca boobies.
Although this island is small (only around 5 square miles), it packs in a lot of intriguing unique geographical features.
There’s saltwater Lake Arcturus, with sediments that are around 6,000 years old. You can also climb Prince Philip’s Steps, a steep path that will lead you up to lively, squawking seabird colonies. Genovesa is home to the most important red footed booby colony in the Galapagos and it is also one of the best islands for birdwatching.
Believe it or not, Floreana island was where the Galapagos had its first post office. It was simply a barrel where those who passed through the bay would leave mail, or take any that they could deliver.
Today the tradition is still alive – you can take send a letter from Post Office Bay or pick up one that is directed to where you live.
Rabida Island (also known as Jervis Island) is one of two small islands south of Santiago. It is a small island, but it is unique because of its crystalized rock and lava forms. You can see an array of domes, lava flows and cones – as well as rocks that are approximately one million years old and bright red sand that contrasts with the clear, blue water.
Bright pink flamingos make their home in a salt pond formed between these cones and feed on the brine shrimp that live in these saline ponds.
Frequently Asked Questions About Galapagos Yacht Cruises
What is the currency?
The official currency of Ecuador is the U.S. dollar.
Do I need a visa to enter Ecuador?
Citizens of nearly any country are allowed to visit Ecuador for up to 90 days, so there is no need to obtain a visa in advance. You’ll simply need to show a passport that is valid for at least 6 months.
Will there be ATMs there?
There are ATMs on San Cristobal and Santa Cruz islands. However, they can sometimes run out of cash, so it is a good idea to bring some cash with you just in case. Also, credit cards are accepted at many of the larger shops and restaurants. However, keep in mind that many cruises do not accept credit cards and purchase on board (such as tips, drinks, wetsuit rental, etc.) must be paid in cash.
What should I wear on my feet?
If you go on any hiking excursions, be sure to wear sturdy closed-toe walking shoes with a good quality, durable sole – as you can be walking over jagged volcanic rock. On the boat, you can wear sandals or flip-flops. Leave your heels at home – you won’t want to be wearing them on the narrow, steep stairways of the boat!
What should I NOT bring?
It’s important to avoid bringing any outside species to the Galapagos, as this can threaten the delicate ecosystem. Inspect any outdoor gear and the soles of your shoes for seeds or spores before bringing them to the islands.
Can I drink the water?
It is not recommended to drink the tap water on the Galapagos Islands. Purified bottled water is best and is sold in many of the local shops and mini-markets. Your ship will usually provide drinking water in the dining area, so you can bring along a refillable water bottle of your own.
Any More Questions About Your Galapagos Yacht Cruise?
We hope this guide has answered your questions and given you a better idea of what to expect from your Galapagos yacht cruise.
If you have any more questions when planning your trip, feel free to leave them in the comments below or contact us directly.