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HX Santa Cruz II next to Isabela Island in the Galapagos (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

Visiting the Galapagos Islands? Here Are 8 Cruise Tips You Should Know

HX Santa Cruz II next to Isabela Island in the Galapagos (Photo: Marilyn Borth)
Dan Askin
Assistant SEO Editor
Marilyn Borth

May 29, 2024

Read time
9 min read

Visiting the Galapagos Islands is a science fiction adventure, the ship a time machine transporting its passengers through a prehistoric land of volcanic eruptions, swimming iguanas, flightless birds and tortoises of lumbering immensity. A Galapagos cruise lets visitors efficiently trace evolutionary variations from island to island, making it the most immersive way to see the destination in a three- to 14-night stretch.

Given the Galapagos National Park's "sunrise to sunset" rule, the cruise experience is highly structured (though you can always opt out of any activity if you so choose). Wake up at 7:00 a.m., breakfast at 7:30, first landing at 8:30 and so forth until you hit the pillow after a pre-dinner briefing and dinner.

So what else should you expect prior to your long-awaited Galapagos cruise? What do you need to know to best prepare yourself for the cruise of a lifetime? Here is our list of the 8 must-know cruise tips for visiting the Galapagos.

1. Don't Expect to Relax Much on a Galapagos Cruise

Nature Walk on Floreana Island in the Galapagos (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

As mentioned above, the daily schedules are quite intense, so don't expect much downtime during the day. There are typically two excursions per day -- sometimes even three or four -- and if you participate in every hike and snorkel, expect limited down time onboard. Anticipate being enthralled by your adventure but quite exhausted by disembarkation day. However, it's certainly a sacrifice worth making.

2. Book Your Sailing at the Best Time for Galapagos Islands Cruises

Sally Lightfoot Crab in the Galapagos (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

The Galapagos is a year-round destination, and nature-loving visitors can expect to be stunned by the Galapagos flora and fauna in any month. Still, there are two main "seasons," each of which has its draws and drawbacks.

High season in the Galapagos is considered mid-June through early September and mid-December through mid-January. From June through November, the Humboldt Current brings colder, nutrient-rich water and (slightly) cooler land temperatures. Average highs are typically around 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Winds and seas tend to be a bit rougher. Skies are often overcast, but rain is uncommon.

The change in water quality attracts fish and sea birds, including the Galapagos penguin, making this a fantastic time to snorkel. Given the colder water temps -- sometimes in the low 60s -- wearing a wetsuit is a smart move for snorkelers hoping to stay in the water longer. This is also the mating season for the blue-footed boobies and waved albatrosses.

December through May, the air and water temperatures are typically warmer, in the high 80s, and seas are calmer. Light rain falls for a short period of time each day, but the spritz is balanced with strong sunshine. Sun-worshippers may be tested in February and March, which is when equatorial heat scorches. Land vegetation flourishes, with flowers coming into bloom. Several species of birds mate during this period, and sea turtle nesting also occurs.

All things considered, choose the right time for your preferred weather and your schedule.

3. Set and Match Your Expectations with the Appropriate Galapagos Islands Cruise Line

HX Santa Cruz II (Photo: HX (Hurtigruten Expeditions))

The biggest names in the region are Celebrity Cruises, Metropolitan Touring, HX (Hurtigruten Expeditions), Lindblad Expeditions, Silversea Expeditions, Quasar Expeditions and Aqua Expeditions.

Though all vessels are fundamentally utilitarian -- nature takes center stage -- there is a huge difference between the "economy class" and the "luxury class." Luxury class options like Lindblad, Celebrity Cruises and Metropolitan Touring, for instance, feature lounges, hot tubs, several social areas and well-appointed cabins.

The higher-end ships also feature Level III guides, the highest designation afforded by Galapagos National Park. These guides will have university degrees in biology, tourism or a related field; six-plus years' experience guiding in the Galapagos; fluency in English; and will have passed the Park's Level 3 training.

Budget or economy options, many of which can be booked last-minute in the Galapagos at a substantial discount, feature cramped quarters, fewer amenities and sometimes even bunk beds in the cabins. Guides in this category are usually Level II.

4. Select the Ideal Galapagos Islands Cruise Itinerary for You

Male (left) and female (right) Galapagos giant tortoises in the Galapagos (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

All vessels basically follow the same protocol, regardless of itinerary: Island visits and water-based activities are done during the day, and the majority of navigation is done overnight.

All cruises begin or end at one of two islands with an airport: Baltra, a U.S. military outpost during WWII turned Ecuadorian air base, or San Cristobal, the Galapagos' second most populated island and home to the capital of the province, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.

Because the approach to cruising has been standardized, picking the right itinerary has a lot to do with cruisers determining which visitor sites are on their must-visit lists. Port research -- particularly photo searching -- is key.

There is one main exception: "Liveaboard" boats carrying experienced divers are the only craft to visit the northern islands, Darwin and Wolf, which are prime spots for scuba enthusiasts. At Darwin, where there is no landing site, schools of hammerheads are known to congregate.

Galapagos cruises are often paired with land-based visits pre- or post-cruise to places like Peru's Machu Picchu, the Ecuadorian rainforest or other South American hotspots. Most passengers will at least spend a day or two exploring Quito or Guayaquil. It's basically necessary, given the flight logistics.

5. Consider the Specific Galapagos Islands You'd Like to Visit

Grinning Marine Iguanas and Santa Cruz II in the Galapagos (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

Every one of the Galapagos' official visitor sites has something unique to offer, but travelers will be able to experience the greatest hits -- sea lions, marine iguanas, land iguanas, endemic birds -- on the majority of islands. Here are some of the most popular islands to visit in the Galapagos and what they offer.

Santa Cruz features the Galapagos' most populous "city," Puerto Ayora, and is the island chain's main tourism hub. The island offers visitors the only chance to experience the Galapagos' interior highlands, one of a few places to spot giant Galapagos tortoises in their natural habitat.

The Charles Darwin Research Station, a visit to which is included on every cruise, is also located there and educates visitors on how the Galapagos Giant Tortoises are raised in captivity there prior to release at three years of age.

Champion Islet's waters transform into an aquarium teeming with life during September and October, when the water temperatures drop. Sea plants thrive, bringing in the marine creatures, which in turn brings in the sea birds. Sea lions, especially the curious juveniles, often zip past and around the awkward humans in fins and masks.

South Plaza encompasses less than one-tenth of a mile in area and is one of the Galapagos' smallest visitor sites. But the tiny island, which was formed by volcanic uplift, makes a powerful impression with its color-changing ground vegetation, sea birds and colony of Galapagos land iguanas.

Rabida makes a bold statement when you arrive at its iron-rich red beach. Just inland is a brackish lagoon where visitors frequently see flamingos, heads plunged underwater to spoon up crustaceans and algae with their beaks.

Espanola is the southernmost island, home to the famed waved albatross with its eight-foot wingspan. According to the Galapagos Conservancy, every year the entire world's population of adult Waved Albatrosses returns to Espanola during the nesting season from April to December. "Spiritual experience" is a common descriptor.

Fernandina, the Galapagos' youngest and westernmost island, is best known for its frequent volcanic eruptions, the most recent of which in March 2024. It's situated at the locus of the "hot spot" that created, and is still creating and shaping, the Galapagos. As visitors step across lava flows and around the huge population of land iguanas, they gain a first-hand understanding of the geological origins of the islands.

Floreana is home to the Galapagos' famous barrel-cum-mailbox at Post Office Bay. For centuries, those visiting the famous Ecuadorian isles relied on the unspoken duty of fellow pirates and whalers to get letters to an intended destination. A mariner would leave a dispatch, then pick through the stack for missives he could personally deliver (travel schedule allowing). The tradition continues today; cruise passengers visiting the site can leave and take postcards from a (modern) barrel.

Isabela is the largest island in the Galapagos -- and is four times larger than all the other Galapagos islands combined. Shaped like a large seahorse, Isabela is easy to spot on the map and offers plenty for visitors to witness in various locations: lava fields, stunning beaches, blue-footed boobies, sea lions, fur seals, lush sea life and beyond.

6. Pack the Right Clothes, Sun Protection and Other Gear for Optimal Comfort (and Safety) in the Galapagos

Zodiac and MS Santa Cruz II in the Galapagos (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

Pack quick-dry shirts and shorts, Ziplock bags to protect equipment and a hat to fight the strong rays from the equatorial sun. Don't also forget sunblock and aloe vera.

The Galapagos' omnipresent lava is unforgiving to the feet. Whatever you pick for footwear -- hiking boots or rugged sandals -- ensure they're solidly built and comfortable. There are two types of landings -- the wet landing and the dry landing. The wet landing might involve hopping off the panga (or Zodiac) into a foot of water, so water shoes would be your best bet or waterproof sandals. Going barefoot is an option usually as well.

While pests typically don't pose much of a problem during high season, bug spray will come in handy during the potentially soggy months of January to March. (There is an exception: wasps, an invasive problem in places like Post Office Bay, are a problem year-round.)

7. Bring Along Seasickness Medicine on Your Galapagos Cruise

Wildlife in the Galapagos (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

The wind-drawn Humboldt Current can bring with it nauseating, choppy waters from July to December, so be sure to bring motion sickness medication like Dramamine. (Ships will likely carry the stuff too, but better to have more than to have not.) Some passengers go with the motion sickness patch as well.

8. Bring a Camera (and Waterproof Gear) to Perfectly Capture Your Unique Galapagos Experience

Sea lion sleeping on the beach on Fernandina Island, Galapagos (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

Though the wildlife remains bizarrely apathetic to encroaching humans, a telephoto lens can still come in handy. Bring along a quality gadget to gather your photos and videos. A smart phone may be just fine for some, but a state-of-the-art camera may do best for others, so be sure to pack the best one for you.

Ships anchor offshore of visitor sites, and passengers are then tendered to the landing site in pangas (Zodiacs). The likelihood of getting a little wet (but not drenched) is high during wet landings, so make sure to have something to waterproof your gadgets.

Updated May 29, 2024
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