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Galapagos Islands: Insider’s Guide

WendyPerrin.com | August 30, 2017
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Ships and Cabins

Best-value ships
The Coral I & II. These first-class 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.

The Origin. A more modern and sleek design makes this 20-passenger yacht—one of the newer ships in the Galapagos—a top choice among the younger crowd.

Both of the above ships have a guide-to-guest ratio of 1-to-9 or 1-to-10, compared to the 1-to-16 ratio on most ships.

The Xperience (formerly known as the Eclipse) is one of a handful of all-inclusive ships now sailing in the islands. Rates include all meals and activities, plus gratuities, Wi-Fi access, and use of VIP airport lounges.

Best large ship
The Legend. “Large ship” means something different in the Galapagos than it would in, say, the Caribbean, where a 2,000-passenger ship is considered small. Here, you’re not even allowed  onto the islands with a guide unless your group is smaller than 16 people. With a capacity of 100 passengers, The Legend is a rarity in the Galapagos, but it’s a favorite for its experienced guides, plentiful public deck space, wide array of cabin categories, and top-notch service. The ship’s connecting suites and rooms are particularly good for families.

Best ship for families
Eric 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.

Cabin worth the splurge
The Legend’s Balcony Suite. 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
The Galapagos National Park has chosen the most appealing visitor sites on the islands and assigns 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 many 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 snorkel with marine iguanas, play with sea lions, and tread next to a bunch of bobbing penguins near the iconic Pinnacle Rock. And after climbing more than 300 steps to the top of Bartolome, you will have the best views of Santiago Island and its amazing alien-looking landscape—you’ll swear you’re on the moon! Isabela, one of the largest islands in the Galapagos, 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.

Spring break, Christmas and New Year’s are by far the most sought-after travel dates of the year. I highly recommend booking at least eight months or more in advance to get the widest choices of ships, cabins and travel dates. For spring breakers, start planning as soon as you have the school schedule.

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 major 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.

Airport Intel

We highly recommend that you arrive in Ecuador at least two days before your Galapagos cruise departs. That way, if your flight from the U.S. is delayed or cancelled, you have an extra day to make up the time so you won’t miss your connection to the Galapagos on the morning of your cruise.

If you want to see both the Galapagos and northern Ecuador (including Quito and Otavalo): Start with a cruise to the Galapagos, flying directly into Guayaquil (GYE) from Miami. Most hotels are just a few minutes away from the airport, and most departures to the Galapagos are nonstop, lasting 90 minutes. Then book your return flight from the Galapagos into Quito.

If you’re flying to Quito (UIO) from the United States, try to arrive no later than 10pm. The airport is roughly 45 minutes from downtown, and it will take you at least an hour to collect your luggage and go through customs. Note that many Galapagos flights originate in Quito before stopping in Guayaquil, so you may have a pre-dawn pick-up on the day your cruise starts.

On your way home: The Quito airport doesn’t have any airline-specific VIP lounges, but you can use the airport’s private lounge for about $35 per person. This is a comfortable way to kill a few hours if you are flying back from the Galapagos around dinnertime but have to check in at 9pm for your midnight flight home. Those with longer layovers, or who need to overnight for a morning flight, should consider the Wyndham Gran Condor, just five minutes away.

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