Booking my trip to the Galapagos Islands was a ridiculously stressful process. There are so many things to consider, especially when parting with so much money, to ensure that your trip is as amazing as it should be.
Here I hope to take you through the booking process I went through in order to make your experience that little bit easier and your decision making more informed.
When setting off for South America I put aside enough money to do the Galapagos properly. However I am always looking for ways to save money and The Galapagos offers great opportunities to save big. Although it is tempting to satisfy those organisational needs and have everything planned and booked well in advance I would recommend, if you have any flexibility, waiting until you are at least in Quito. Even though we arrived during the peak travel season where availability was low, we still managed to save 50% on our trip.
There is more scope for saving money if you are willing to pay by cash as most card transactions incur a 20% charge, in order to avoid carrying large amounts of cash with you travel agents allow you to pay deposits over a number of days. Just make sure you get receipts and confirmation. For this reason and also in order to ensure you get the right trip for you it is necessary to give yourself 3-5 days in the town of booking.
You have three options of where to book in Ecuador; Quito, Guayaquil, or on the Galapagos islands. Whilst the latter two are likely to save you small amounts of money, I would recommend booking in Quito.
Quito is a friendly safe city, it is surrounded by a number of incredible day trip opportunities to keep you entertained and fill the time whilst you are waiting to travel. I would recommend Cotopaxi, Quilotoa Crater Lake, and also at least 2 days around the cloud forest of Mindo.
Guayaquil is an industrial town, less catered for tourists and with much less to offer in terms of surrounding entertainment. Whilst I never experienced any trouble here, I heard many stories of people less fortunate.
Galapagos is the final option and a great option if you are there at an offpeak time of year. Whilst you wait for the perfect trip to come around there is plenty to keep you entertained on the islands. However many of the day trips from the islands will be covered in your cruise. Also if booking during peak times of year you may find all accommodation on the island of Santa Cruz either fully booked or very expensive.
Other things to consider whilst booking, you will need to fly to the Galapagos, if you are waiting to book and are travelling during the peak seasons I would recommend leaving 5 days in order to ensure availability on flights.
Like it or not, haggling is part of the culture in South America. Most agencies will be selling the same deals so a very easy way of haggling is by simply playing agencies against each other. Ask one agency for their lowest price and then ask the next agency to beat the deal. There are several charges additional to your trip costs which you will be expected to pay once on board the vessel. If you don’t have a wet suit, fins or snorkel combined these will set you back up to $100 per person per week. Most agencies will happily include this in your price if you ask. What I would say is make sure you get all of this in writing. Several passengers on board our vessel, had made deals with agencies which were not communicated with the ships crew, this resulted in large amounts of complications for the passengers, which could have been sorted with some simple paperwork.
This is something you need to consider strongly. Some people don’t have the luxury of being able to pick a particular time for their visit. The wildlife at the Galapagos Islands is incredible all year round and I guarantee you will love it whenever you visit. However, if you are flexible, there may be specific species you wish to encounter depending on your interests and you may wish to time your trip to coincide with these species. I thought it would be helpful to put all this information together.
Best Island To See Them
Red Footed Booby
No Set breeding season
Blue Footed Booby
All around but breed on Genovesa, North Seymour, Daphne, San Cristobel, Isabela
Aug-Nov (tower island) Nov-Feb (Espanola)
West Galapagos although small colonies also at Bartolome, Pinzon and Floreana
Magnificent and Great Frigatebirds
North Seymour, Genovesa
Swallow Tailed Gull
Most Islands inc, Genovesa, Isabela, Espanola
Breed in small numbers around most Islands -Genovesa, South Plaza
Galapagos Fur Seal
All year (Breeding Aug-Dec)
Galapagos Sea Lion
All year (Breeding July-Dec)
Present year round but peak season Dec-May
Can be seen all over however best chance at Gordon Rocks diving, and Kicker Rock snorkelling
Best place is on liveaboard dive vessel to Darwin and Wolf
Gordon Rocks, Punta Vi cente Roja
Most numerous when mating (Dec) and Nesting (Jan-May)
June-November peak season sightings throughout year at darwin and wolf,
Isabella, gordon rocks, Seymour, Kicker Rock
Lay eggs early year
Most Islands, Farms on Santa Cruz Very good
Other dates to be aware of are that the best visibility tends to be between January and March. The Dry Season is June – December. And the water temperatures are warmest between February and April.
If you are trying to save large amounts you may have been recommended to stay on the islands and book day trips. This is definitely an option and you can go on some great trips. However I think that having decided to do the Galapagos you should experience everything it has to offer. Here are some useful things to consider when making this decision.
With the exception of Isabella and Saint Cristobel day trips set off at 730am and return the same day. This immediately limits the distance that you can travel around the islands. As a result there are many islands that you are not able to visit on day trips. For me, these are the islands that offer the most. Espanola, Fernandina, Genovesa and Floreanna are the 4 most highly rated islands according to me and everyone that I spoke to around South America. Of these Floreanna is the only one that you can access on a day trip.
Another thing to consider is that many of the islands are wide spread and involve long boat crossings. The cruise schedules are designed so that you make most of long notoriously bad crossings over night when you are sleeping. You are also on board a larger vessel and therefore the motion is less exaggerated. Finally, if you are on a day boat, all passengers are confined to a small area so if someone is very annoying or violently sick, you are stuck next to them for the duration of your crossing. So it may be a good idea to take headphones and a few spare sea sickness tablets.
There are a few hostels around, however for what they offer, they are not very economic. When you consider for a day trip you are paying $110-$150 a day plus evening meals and accommodation, you don’t save much compared to a cruise.
Having completed a cruise followed by a day trip I have to say I found the latter experience comparatively underwhelming. However the experience is still incredible.
If you do opt to go for day trips. I would recommend the following.
Snorkelling here is amazing, you will spend an hour within a cove used by huge quantities of sea lions which as long as you keep your hands to yourself are always inquisitive and keen to play. I promise you will not forget these guys!
The landing also has a lot offer; sea lions can be found loafing all over the island tops, both marine and land iguanas are here as well as the Galapagos hawk and the Santa Fe mockingbird.
Snorkel Kicker Rock – from San Cristobel
This is a snorkelling day trip to a submerged islet. Water around the islet varies between 5-15m and offers spectacular snorkelling. You will see huge shoals of bait fish and as a result the area is used by good numbers of black and white tip reef sharks, Galapagos shark and if you are lucky hammerheads also. We were also lucky enough to see double figures of green turtles, spotted eagle rays, golden cownose rays and sea lions.
North Seymour –
If the frigate birds and blue footed boobies are breeding this is a must do. Watching the Frigate Birds displaying is like nothing you will ever see again and the blue footed boobies are also stunning animals.
If you are based from Santa Cruz this trip offers the best opportunities for seeing the Galapagos penguins. You will also visit a mangrove area which is used as a hangout for white tip reef sharks and on your way back you will stop within a cove used by good numbers of green turtles.
Day Trip Around Santa Cruz.
There are many activities available on the main islands of Santa Cruz and these can be done very economically. Many of the tour companies around the islands will try and sell you a package where you visit 4 of these in a day and pay a lot of money. For me, this is a rip off. Whilst walking through the town you will see white 4x4s everywhere, these are taxis. If you decide on which activities you want for the day you can ask a driver to chauffeur you between these venues over the course of the day. This allows you to prioritise which activities you want to do and also saves you massive amounts of money.
I would recommend visiting one of the Giant Tortoise reserves, Las Grietas and the Lava Tunnels. For me, the twin craters are just holes in the ground.
This is a decision generally based on time and price. Boats are constantly working on heavily regulated 15day cycles designed to ensure that the quotas for visitors per islands are not exceeded. Vessels pass Santa Cruz and Saint Cristobel (both of which you can fly to) on various points during this cycle and it is possible to jump on and off at these points. For most people 8 days is a good compromise of time and money.
Your two basic 8 day trips, starting and ending in Santa Cruz are as follows.
A week covering the east, north and south islands. My recommendation.
Of the 4 most unique and recommended islands this should cover Floreanna, Espanola, and Genovesa. Both Espanola and Genovesa are inaccessible by day trips and offer incredible biological splendour and diversity on the land. They are also the breeding grounds for waved albatross and red footed boobies respectively. Whilst the snorkelling with the sea lions of Floreanna is magnificent. You also visit Saint Cristobel and Kicker Rock, which, with good visibility, offers the best snorkelling the Galapagos has to offer.
A week around Isabella and Fernandina
Isabella is a huge island with an active volcano, it offers some great snorkelling and a days good hiking, which if the weather stays clear can give you some great views. The cruise will take you west of this island to Fernadinha, also inaccessible by day trip. Here is your only opportunity to see the endemic, flightless cormorant. On top of this, this area around Isabella and Fernadinha is where 80% of the Galapagos penguins can be found and therefore offers you the best chance of sightings.. However there are small populations around Bartolome and Floreana and Pinzon.
As touched upon earlier, it is possible to join at slightly different points of the cruise for different periods of time. My recommendation would be to pick the itinerary that allows you to visit the most of the following: Genovesa, Floreanna, Fernandinha, Espanola and Kicker Rock.
There are 4 classes of yacht available for cruises. Differences in price can be huge between these. You are effectively paying for comfort of living as the itineraries run, are the same. One thing to consider when booking is that tour guides around The Galapagos are designated classes of yacht they can work on based on their experience and skill. So better yacht = better guide
If you are an experienced diver and love megafauna then this offers some of the best diving in the world.
First thing you need to know is that at present tour cruises are not allowed to offer diving as part of their service. If you want to dive you have two options Cruise on the Specific Dive Liveaboards or Dive on day trips from San Cristobel or Santa Cruz.
Dive liveaboards are the only vessels that are allowed to visit the famous Darwin and Wolf islands. These offer magnificent diving with a huge array of species including mega shoals of 100-200 hammerheads, manta rays and also whale sharks. However by choosing a diving trip you are sacrificing the landing aspect of your cruises since you will spend the majority of your time around Darwin and Wolf which prohibit landing.
It is possible to dive from Santa Cruz and also San Cristobel. This offers much of the same quality diving just to a slightly lesser extent, depending on which trips you opt for. I dived with Academy Bay Dive Centre, in Puerto Ayora, and had an incredible diving experience. Day packages included a safety check dive prior to two dives with lunch and snorkelling during the dive interval.
If you are diving from Santa Cruz, I would recommend diving Gordon rocks. Even though decent in the currents was slightly tricky conditions at the bottom were calm. I completed 4 dives here with highlights including 46 Hammerheads on one dive, 2 sunfish (outside of season), sealions, manta and spotted eagle rays, white tip and Galapagos shark as well as good numbers of large silver fish (tuna and amberjack) and bait fish.
Other popular dive sites are Floreana for its seals and seahorses and North Seymour for its White tip reef sharks and rays.
As a result of strong currents, cold waters and variable visibility, diving around The Galapagos can be very technical and hard work at times. To anyone who hasn’t dived in a while, I would recommend a refresher before you visit The Galapagos, to re-familiarise yourself with everything and to remove any cobwebs/nerves.
Due to the location of the islands, temperatures fluctuate massively between sites, as a result of different oceanographic currents. On average water temperatures are approximately 15 degrees centigrade. So for those of you used to diving in the tropics, be prepared to be a little cold!
After a long overnight cruise we arrived at one of the most northern islands, Genovesa. This island is ridiculous. Everywhere you look there is wildlife, before we even landed we had seen Galapagos Sea Lions loafing on exposed rocks, endemic swallow tailed gulls fighting over scraps of unlucky crustacean and three species of boobies surveying the coastal waters for fish. The island itself is unbelievable, it is absolutely covered in nesting seabirds. Unique to this island are the red footed boobies and the Genovesa mockingbird but the supporting cast of breeding, masked and blue footed boobies, frigate birds, Short eared owls, tropic birds and Galapagos storm petrels weren’t half bad either.
The east side of this island is absolutely swarming with storm petrels. You could spend hours here watching the tropic birds trying desparately to navigate safe passage through the awaiting frigatebirds to their nests. Whilst I was doing just this, we were lucky enough to see a Short Eared Owl grab a Galapagos storm petrel out of the sky with so much agility and ease. What made this even more spectacular was when this owl set about devouring its prey it was clear to see that it only had one eye.
After returning to the boat we had a quick turn around before getting into the sea for our first snorkel. Unlike many of the worlds most famous diving sites, visibility around the islands is frustratingly turbid at times. When you focus on what is causing this turbidity you realise that its not sand or pollution but billions of tiny organisms called plankton. This plankton is here as a result of oceanographic systems and is responsible for feeding the incredible diversity of life that is found both in and out of the water around the islands. Highlights on our first snorkelling trip included, a shoal of golden cownose rays, hammerhead sharks, and a single Galapagos shark.
For the afternoon we moved around to Darwin bay for more of the same. Highlights of the landing trip were white morph red footed boobies and their prehistoric chicks, baby sea lions and also a couple of very obliging night herons. The snorkel was slightly less uneventful although a number of white tip reef sharks were cruising within the bay.
The best dive site I visited was Gordon Rocks. I had four dives here in total and saw hammerheads on three of these including 46 on one dive. I also had breaching Mola Mola around the boat during a surface interval and two sightings in the water. Other highlights included a Sea Lion eating a barracuda, Galapagos and White Tip Reef Sharks,
Be prepared to be overwhelmed! The diversity and the abundance of animals is absolutely breathtaking. There are two snorkelling sites I would recommend one for this diversity and the other for a particular species. The first of these is Kicker Rock which is situated off San Cristobel. Here you will see crazy numbers of turtles, sharks, rays and bait fish but with the water here being deeper and more exposed, visibility can vary greatly. The second snorkelling experience for me was at Sante Fe Islet, with the Sea Lions. Here, you anchor in a sheltered cove where hundreds of sea lions haul out. When you approach in the water the inquisitive ones are quick to surround you for a play.
Best Wildlife experience
Espanola is very similar to Genovesa in that it is used by large densities of breeding seabirds. I went to the Galapagos preying for my first good views of Albatross but was told that the very best I could hope for was maybe flight views of any recently fledged individuals still lingering in the wider area. During the peak breeding season Espanola is home to 25-30 thousand breeding pairs of waved albatross. However this was mid January after the last birds should have fledged.
The island was still great with huge numbers of Nascar Boobies some with chicks born that day as well as mockingbirds, blue footed boobies and a Galapagos Hawk. When we reached the island top I was shocked to see a fat still, partially downy, Albatross chick looking at me, right beside the pathway. I then went on further to see a pair of incredible adults performing their courting bill tapping behaviour. What the hell these guys were still doing here, I don’t know but I don’t care! It was more than I could ever have hoped for, and to top it off, when we returned to the yacht, we were followed back to Santa Cruz by another adult.
No matter how confident you are in your sea faring abilities take sea sickness tablets. The trip is incredible but you don’t want to risk anything as manageable as sea sickness ruining it.
Buy sun cream in advanced of travelling to Galapagos. Shops have very limited supplies on offer for extortionate prices
Take snacks – Snorkelling is hard work and even the most restraint of our team were craving snacks by the end of our cruise. A snickers on Galapagos will set you back $4 in places so take your own!
Trip Advisor before paying for anything! It is not possible to review every tour provider and trip however there is a lot of helpful information on trip advisor, especially with regards to the safety of certain scuba diving providers.
If you are taking a waterproof camera, look into buying a red filter for your lens!