When planning a trip to the Galapagos Islands you’ll need to make important decisions about how to spend your money and your time. We’re here to help with answers to the 5 top Galapagos travel questions about Ecuador’s most famous (and trickiest) destination, including land-based vs boat-based, when to go to the Galapagos, how to keep the price tag in check, and more.
You’ve got Galapagos travel questions, we’ve got answers
When people learn that we’ve visited the Galapagos Islands three times and spent nearly six weeks reporting and photographing in the archipelago they start asking questions about planning their own dream trip to this archipelago of islands that was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978. Here are the 5 top questions that we get asked about Galapagos travel along with our answers.
1. Should I plan a land-based or a boat-based adventure?
One of the first decisions Galapagos travelers need to make is whether to explore the archipelago via day trips from a home base in a hotel or other type of accommodation on one of the inhabited islands or whether to explore the archipelago during a multi-day cruise during which the boat is your base. We’ve done both types of trips and here are the pros and cons of each.
- Choosing to be based on one of the main inhabited islands (San Cristóbal Island, Santa Cruz Island, and, to a much lesser extent, Floreana and Isabela) and booking individual day trips from there can be cheaper than many boat-based options. It’s also easier to make sure that your travel dollars are going to local owners of local businesses because many (but not all) of the cruise boats in the Galapagos are owned and operated by foreign corporations.
- A land-based approach also gives you more of a sense of the culture and day-to-day rhythms of life for locals.
- You will spend a lot of time traveling to and from nearby sites and destinations during day trips. Also, some of the most spectacular areas of the archipelago are just too far away from the main inhabited islands to be reached during day trips.
Insider Galapagos travel tip: When you are crafting your land-based trip, be sure to book a hotel that’s located near the harbor so you’re close to where many day trip boats depart from and return to. There are many budget and mid-range options available near the port on San Cristóbal Island and on Santa Cruz Island.
Here are our splurgy recommendations near the port on each island.
The Angermeyer Waterfront Inn, right on Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, is a history-and-hospitality-filled place to stay. Their newest room has been cleverly fashioned inside a beached wooden boat.
The 21-room Golden Bay Galapagos is situated right on the harbor of San Cristóbal Island. You can watch sea lions cavort on a small beach directly in front of the property, and day-trip boats leave from a dock that’s no more than a three-minute stroll away. Book the corner suite, which features a living-room bathtub and glass walls that slide open to eliminate all barriers between you and the nature outside.
The Finch Bay Galapagos Hotel, set in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, is a mini-resort with a pool, a spa, and style to spare.
- Assuming you’re not averse to the notion of being on a boat for multiple days, boat-based travel in the Galapagos is the best way to explore a wide range of landings and destinations on islands that are simply too far away to be reached during day trips from an island base.
- Another point in favor of a boat-based adventure in the Galapagos is that because the cruise boats travel between stops at night and moor near the next day’s first landing spot, it’s possible to arrive early in the morning to beat the heat and the crowds. For example, when we visited Genovesa Island during our cruise on the M/Y Grace, our wake up call for the excursion was 6:15 am and the early alarm was worth it. The morning light on the island was lovely and great for photography, temperatures were still low, and we had the whole island to ourselves because no other tourist groups arrived until we were leaving.
- Generally speaking, all but the shortest and most bare-bones boat trips are more expensive than land-based trips.
- As we mentioned above, many of the boats in the Galapagos Islands are owned and operated by foreign corporations. However, travelers who want to spend their money with local operators do have some excellent Ecuadorean-owned options including Ecoventura and Metropolitan Touring.
- And while many cruise boat itineraries include some land activities on San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz Islands, you’re less likely to deep dive into island culture than travelers who base themselves on one of those islands.
2. Should I book a cruise on big boat or on a small boat?
If you’re decided on boat-based travel, the next Galapagos travel question you need to answer is whether to book a cruise on a big boat or on a small boat. There are about 100 boats authorized to take tourists around the Galapagos Islands and they range in size from around 16 passengers to a maximum of 100 passengers.
Small boat pros:
- One benefit of traveling on a smaller-capacity vessel is a more intimate onboard experience. You’ll really have the chance to get to know the crew, guides, and fellow passengers. We still stay in touch with many of the people we met on cruise boats in the Galapagos.
- Passengers on smaller boats also benefit from faster transfer times between your main vessel and the exploration spot. All island landings must be done in small rubber dinghies/zodiacs which transfer small groups of people from their main boats. Imagine the logistics and time it takes to transfer 100 passengers from a large boat vs. transferring 16 passengers from a small boat.
- Smaller boats also tend to have more character and history. For example, the 18-passenger M/Y Grace was a wedding present from Aristotle Onassis to Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III. The newlywed couple honeymooned on the boat, and some say their daughter, Stephanie, was conceived on board.
- Another consideration when weighing ship size is guides. Galapagos National Park rules require that there be a minimum of one registered Galapagos naturalist guide for every 16 passengers. This means that if you book a boat with an 18 passenger capacity, for example, there will be two guides on board resulting in a higher guide to guest ratio.
Small boat cons:
- Smaller vessels usually don’t have much extra space or a ton of extra amenities like a spa, fitness room, ship doctor, or onboard guest speakers.
Big boat pros:
- Some travelers claim that larger boats are more stable. The larger boats also tend to have more space for larger cabins and common areas and more amenities including a spa, fitness room, doctor on board, and guest speakers. Some boats also have glass-bottom boats, karaoke nights, and formal evenings in the dining room.
Big boat cons:
- As noted above, transferring passengers from a large boat to the day’s exploration sites can be a much more complicated and time-consuming process than it is for passengers on smaller boats.
- Also, big ships that carry 100 passengers are no longer allowed to visit some areas of the archipelago. *Maybe stress more, there are many landing sites, including many we did that large boats can’t do.
Insider Galapagos travel tip: No matter what size boat you’re considering, read previous passengers’ reviews of the food on board and be sure the boat’s operator can accommodate any personal food requirements you may have before booking.
3. Which route is best?
The first thing to know is that companies operating cruise boats in the Galapagos don’t create their routes or itineraries. Routes are dictated by Galápagos National Park officials so that they can mitigate crowding and environmental stress by ensuring that not all of the boats are at the same place at the same time.
In broad terms, your boat will offer a northern or southern (sometimes called eastern or western respectively) itinerary and those two itinerary options will often alternate more or less weekly. Both routes include wonderful land excursions, plenty of time in the water, and ample opportunities to see the famous flora and fauna of the Galápagos.
If you’re set on seeing a particular species in the Galápagos, talk to the tour operator and let them help you pick the month and itinerary that will give you the best chance for a sighting. Some species are seasonal, and many exist only on specific islands. For example, the waved albatross is not a full-time resident. These birds just show up on Española Island for the mating season (April to December) and then they’re gone until the following year.
4. Can I travel to the Galapagos Islands on a budget?
There’s no getting around the fact that a trip to the Galapagos Islands is pricey. It’s a coveted destination (hence often a seller’s market) and everything has to be brought to the archipelago from mainland Ecuador so that jacks up prices too.
However, it is possible to take steps to visit the Galapagos on a budget. As a general rule, boat-based travel is more expensive than a land-based trip during which you can choose the most affordable hotels, meals, and day trips.
The boat trend in the Galapagos is toward more and more high-end vessels, however, a few mid-range and lower-cost boats still exist. Research those options carefully, keep an eye on special offers, and even contact the boat companies directly to ask about discounts, especially in non-peak seasons (you never know). And pay close attention to reviews from passengers. In the Galapagos, you really do get what you pay for.
If you can be flexible, consider arriving in the Galapagos Islands with no boat booked so you can troll the local tour companies looking for the best deal. Choosing a shorter itinerary is another way to shave down the price tag.
5. What’s the best time to go to the Galapagos?
There’s no bad time to visit the Galápagos Islands. No matter when you go, the adventure is unique and wonderful. But to answer this Galapagos travel question and choose the best time of year for your visit to the Galapagos, you need to consider three main factors: weather, water temperature, and animal behavior.
Weather in the Galapagos Islands
There are two seasons in the Galapagos. Dry season is June through December when there is cooler and drier weather (though showers are still possible) and a higher chance of cloudy or gray skies. During the wet season, between January and June, expect warmer, more humid, and wetter weather with clear blue skies. March and April tend to be the hottest and wettest months, while August tends to be the coolest time.
Water temperatures and conditions in the Galapagos Islands
Water temperatures in the Galapagos Islands vary throughout the year because of the powerful ocean currents in the archipelago. In the dry season (June through December), the colder currents dominate and the water temperature drops. A wet suit (usually provided on your cruise boat or by your day trip tour company) may be required for snorkeling during these months. However, the upside of the cold currents is that they bring in huge quantities of plankton which attracts more marine life.
Guides have told us that September can be the roughest month and, generally speaking, the seas are calmer and the water is clearer in March and April.
Animal behavior in the Galapagos Islands
While you are almost certainly guaranteed to see full-time species in the Galapagos including marine iguanas, sea lions, boobies, and much more, some species only visit the archipelago during certain months. Wildlife behavior also changes based on annual mating seasons, etc.
For example, green sea turtles begin laying eggs in places like Cerro Dragon on Santa Cruz Island in January. Humpback whales migrate through the archipelago between June and the end of September. You are most likely to see sea lion pups in August. The short-eared owls on Genovese Island begin nesting in June. Whale sharks are most likely to be seen by SCUBA divers in the Galapagos between June and December.
Bottom line: we’ve explored the Galapagos Islands in December, March, and May in a wide range of weather, water, and wildlife conditions and each trip was spectacular with adventures and experiences that consistently exceeded our already-high expectations.
More Galapagos travel tips
Use our Galapagos Islands Travel Guide index post to quickly navigate through the entire series, or choose specific posts below.
- Part 1 in our Galapagos Islands Travel Guide series gives you the facts you need to plan your trip to the Galapagos Islands.
- Part 2 is our Santa Cruz Island Travel Guide including what to do and where to sleep on this tourist hub island.
- Part 3 tells you what to expect during boat trips to landings around Santa Cruz Island.
- Part 4 covers highlights from North Seymour, South Plaza, and Daphne Islands.
- Part 5 is our San Cristóbal Island Travel Guide.
- Part 6 covers what to expect during boat trips to Cerro Brujo, Punta Pitt, and Kicker Rock around San Cristóbal.
- Part 7 reveals highlights of visiting Santa Fe Island.
- Part 8 tells you what to expect on Genovesa Island.
- Part 9 gives you travel highlights from Fernandina Island.
- Part 10 helps you explore Isabela Island.
- Part 11 takes you around Santiago Island.
- Part 12 tells you what to expect on Floreana Island.
- Part 13 reveals what makes Española Island so special.
- Part 14 tells you how to take the best travel photos in the Galapagos.
- Part 15 brings you all the adventure of SCUBA diving in the Galapagos Islands.
- Part 16 help you pack like a pro for the Galapagos.
- Part 18 reveals our favorite shots of wildlife in the Galapagos.
- Part 19 reveals our favorite shots of landscapes and sunsets in the Galapagos.
Here’s more about travel in Ecuador
Here’s more about Island Travel
Here’s more about Galapagos Travel