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Allie’s passion for wildlife conservation, photography, and indigenous cultures helps explain her fascination with Latin America, especially the Galapagos Islands. As the former executive director of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association, Allie has a bead on which ships operate sustainably and support local conservation efforts—and which don’t. She can pinpoint the best luxury ship for your needs, and she can even acquire a private guide (for a price) if you prefer private shore excursions. If you’re spending a few days on Santa Cruz Island, she can arrange for you to interact with the one part of the ecosystem that visitors so often miss—the Galapagos’ human inhabitants. Allie helped edit the bestselling guide to the region, The Galapagos Islands: The Essential Handbook for Exploring, Enjoying and Understanding Darwin’s Enchanted Islands, and she served as location scout for the acclaimed documentary The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden.
Ships and Cabins
The Coral I & II. These first-class sister ships carry 20 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 ships 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 and the Theory. A more modern and sleek design makes these identical 20-passenger yachts a top choice among the younger crowd.
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.
Best large ship
The Santa Cruz II. With 90 passengers, the ratio is usually one guide to just 11 guests, and the majority of cabins are inter-connected and have convertible beds (king beds can be made into two twins, for example). There is also a small infirmary on board.
Best ships for families
The Letty, which holds 20 passengers in three cabin categories. The good news for families is that while most ships’ triple-share cabins require expensive upgrades, the Letty’s family cabins are in the least expensive cabin category. The ship also offers sailings specifically geared toward teens or families.
The 100-passenger Legend is one of the few Galapagos ships to offer the elusive quad suite, which holds up to four people.
The Natural Paradise carries only 16 passengers, and several of the suites come with balconies—a rarity on a smaller ship that offer short cruises. The rate includes wetsuits, snorkeling gear, kayaks and the use of an underwater camera.
Cabin worth the splurge
The Legend’s Legend Balcony Suite has one of the largest balconies of any ship in the Galapagos, and amenities include champagne on arrival.
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.) The Petrel, a luxury 16-passenger catamaran, does have one cabin reserved for single travelers with no single supplement. 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
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. If you are interested in seeing a specific wildlife species, I can tell you which itinerary will give you the best chance of seeing it. For example, the flightless cormorant is only found on the islands of Isabela and Fernandina.
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. There are hotels, a medical 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.
La Danesa Hacienda, about an hour’s drive from Guayaquil, makes for a lovely day trip from the city (itself a common but uninteresting gateway to the islands). Host Niels Olsen shares his family’s private estate and estancia with a handful of guests. You will be met by Niels or his estate manager upon arrival, and they will design the day based upon your interests: You might head out for a horseback ride; or perhaps you’ll choose to handpick cacao from their plantation, make fresh chocolate from it, and enjoy it after lunch. Kids can float lazily down the river surrounding the grounds or meet some local children.
Touring by land vs. touring by sea
Recent years have seen more land-based accommodations sprouting up in the Galapagos. Cruises are very efficient, allowing you to visit more islands and see how evolution has affected each ecosystem differently. Land-based tours are better for people who don’t want to sleep on a boat and prefer a bit more independence and beach time—but you’ll definitely want to add day trips to nearby islands in order to see a variety of wildlife and landscapes. I really like the Finch Bay Hotel, a lovely little resort tucked away from the town of Puerto Ayora. It requires a boat ride to get there, plus a few minutes of walking, but it’s well worth the effort for the privacy and access to nearby coves and hiking trails. The Finch Bay is the only hotel on Santa Cruz Island with a beach and a pool (the latter a favorite hangout for the hilarious ducks who like to crash land into it), and they have their own small boats for excursions to nearby islands. This place has just 27 rooms and is quite popular, so book way in advance; only the suites have ocean views. The Galapagos Safari Camp feels a bit like a tented experience in Africa—but instead of elephants and hyenas, you have rare birds and ancient tortoises roaming the property.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.