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Galapagos Islands: Insider’s Guide

Allie Almario | September 30, 2014

The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands: Allie Almario of Myths and Mountains.

Trusted Travel Expert
Allie Almario

Allie’s fascination with wildlife conservation, photography, and indigenous cultures has taken her on adventures spanning all seven continents and 70-plus countries, but for the past 26 years a strong focus has been wildlife and cultural tours in Latin America. As the former executive director of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association, she’s got more than a dozen trips to the Galapagos Islands under her belt.  In fact, she’s currently editing and consulting on the newest version of the best-selling guide to the region, The Galapagos Islands: The Essential Handbook for Exploring, Enjoying, and Understanding Darwin’s Enchanted Islands.

Travel arrangements start at $500 per day for two travelers. This is the minimum you should expect to pay.
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Ships and Cabins

Best-value ships
The Coral I & II. These sister ships carry 24 and 36 people, respectively, and the range of cabin categories and cruise lengths helps the budget-conscious. Don’t book any ship lower than superior tourist class unless you want iffy service and less-experienced (and less English-proficient) naturalist guides.

Best ship for a splurge
The MV Grace. Used by Princess Grace and the Prince of Monaco for their honeymoon, this small, luxurious ship holds a maximum of 18 passengers. The staff pampers but doesn’t cosset, which makes the ship feel elegant but adventurous.

Best large ships
The Legend. “Large ship” means something different in the Galapagos than it would in, say, the Caribbean. Here, you’re not even allowed out with a guide unless your group is smaller than 16 people; it’s very rare to see ships with more than 100 passengers cruising the islands. So this 100-person ship is on the bigger side, but it’s still a favorite for its experienced guides, array of cabin categories and top-notch service. The ship’s connecting suites and rooms are particularly good for families. The Eclipse. A close runner-up to the Legend for the same reasons: great guides and service plus a range of cabin categories. But it’s smaller, with room for 48 on board.

Best ship for families
Eric, Flamingo, or Letty. Each of these identical sister ships holds 20 passengers in three cabin categories. The good news for families is that while most ships’ triple-share cabins (which can sleep four) require expensive upgrades, these ships’ triple-shares are in the least expensive cabin category. The ships also offer sailings specifically geared toward teens or families.

Best-value cabin  A junior suite on the Legend. Pay a few hundred dollars extra and you’ll get a big upgrade in cabin size and amenities: You could get more space, a balcony, or bigger windows.

Cabin worth the splurge
The Legend’s Balcony Suite Plus. This room has two balconies, and it’s one of the few totally wheelchair-friendly cabins on any Galapagos ship.

Tip for solo travelers
Since most of the Galapagos’ small ships operate on very thin profit margins, it’s almost impossible to find bargains as a single traveler. (In a ship with only a dozen or so cabins, an empty bed can mean operating at a loss.) Ask for a ship that offers a “willing-to-share” program and you’ll be matched up with another traveler of the same sex. If you’re lucky and no one else signs up, you won’t be charged a supplement. This requires flexibility, sure, but it can save you thousands of dollars.

Where to Cruise

Baby Sea Lion, Galapagos islands

Baby sea lion, Galapagos Islands. Photo courtesy Melinda Zitin.

Need to know
Ships have absolutely no say in the islands they go to. The Galapagos National Park gives each ship an itinerary meant to maximize the variety of landscapes and wildlife seen—while minimizing human impact. Still, 99 percent of the time we know which islands each ship is going to in advance. Once travelers narrow down their ship choices, I give them sailing itineraries with a caveat: due to weather conditions or national park rules, the plans may change while they are there.

Don’t-miss port
Puerto Ayora. On the only inhabited island on most itineraries (Santa Cruz), the Galapagos’ largest village is a practical pit stop. You can pick up supplies, get cash out of an ATM or check emails or make phone calls in an Internet café. There are hotels, a clinic, handicraft shops, restaurants, grocery stores, banks, and the Charles Darwin Research Station.

Best shore excursions
My personal favorite excursions are on Bartolome and Isabela islands, both of which most ships call on during their weeklong itineraries, but on short cruises (four or five days) you may only visit one or the other. Bartolome Island is where you’re most likely to paddle with marine iguanas, play with sea lions, and tread next to a bunch of bobbing penguins. And after climbing more than 300 steps to the top of Pinnacle Rock, you will have the best views of Santiago Island and it’s amazingly alien-looking landscape—you’ll swear it’s the moon! Isabela, one of the Galapagos’ largest islands, is ideal for short trips because you can do and see a lot. You could, for instance, hike to the top of Sierra Negra, one of the most active volcanoes in the world and home to the world’s second-largest caldera (an almost six-mile-long ridged crater). Or you could snorkel amid baby fish and sea lions in the mangrove-shaded La Concha de Perla Bay, which is calm and shallow—perfect for nervous first-time snorkelers.

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Best Times to Go

The water is warmest in the Galapagos from December through March, so that’s the best time for swimming and snorkeling (even though it can be a bit rainy). Spring break weeks and June and July are best if you’re traveling with children, since you’re most likely to meet up with other families at this time of year. As for wildlife, you’ll see breeding, mating, or birthing no matter the season. I can give you a list of what you’re likely to see during various times of year.

Best Time for a Deal

Last week of November, first week of December, or first week of January. I’ve found that Galapagos cruises that depart during these three “secret” weeks are often a bargain because they’re before or after holidays and demand is low.

Worst Time to Go

August and September. There’s no bad time to go to the Galapagos, but since the waters are choppiest in this period, the seasick-prone should steer clear. Many ships take September off, so availability is limited.

For those adults who don’t want to travel with lots of kids, avoid the spring break weeks that can range from late March to mid-April.

Minimum Cruise Length

I don’t recommend anything shorter than a five-day cruise. Bear in mind that this gives you only three full days to sightsee: You won’t board the ship until lunchtime on the first day, and you’ll disembark in the morning on your last day.

Best Shipboard Activity

Stargazing. Since you’re on the equator, you can see the stars from both hemispheres. And since you’re cruising through one of the least-populated places on earth, there is zero light pollution. The skies are clearest from April through June.

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