Cruises to the Galapagos Islands
Be you bucket-lister or wildlife buff, the idea of the Galapagos pulses with animal magnetism. A visit to the Ecuadorian islands is a science fiction adventure - ship as time machine visiting a prehistoric land of volcanic eruptions, alien cactus trees, swimming iguanas, flightless birds and tortoises of lumbering immensity. A cruise, which lets visitors efficiently trace remarkable evolutionary variations from island to island, is 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, almost military-like (though you can opt out of any activity without threat of pushups). Wake up: 0700. Breakfast: 0730. First landing: 0830. And so forth until you hit the pillow after a post-dinner briefing and pisco sour.
There are typically two excursions per day, and if you participate in every hike and snorkel, expect limited down time - and expect to be enthralled but slightly exhausted by debarkation day. It's a sacrifice worth making.
Best Time for Galapagos Islands Cruises
The Galapagos is a year-round destination, and nature-loving visitors can expect to be stunned by the flora and fauna in any month. Still, there are two main "seasons, " each of which has its draws and drawbacks.
High season, when families often push occupancy levels to the max, 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, 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 80's, and seas are calmer. Light rain falls for a short period of time each day, but the spritz is balanced with potent sunshine. Sun-worshippers may be tested in February and March, when equatorial heat scorches the lava. Land vegetation explodes, with flowers coming into bloom. Several species of birds mate during this period, and sea turtle nesting also occurs.
El Nino, a weather phenomenon made famous on SNL by Chris Farley, can upend weather-related expectations, bringing a tropical feel to the surroundings at unexpected times.
Galapagos Islands Cruise Lines
The biggest names in the region are Celebrity Cruises, which runs 98-passenger Celebrity Xpedition; Metropolitan Touring, which operates three boats, 40-passenger Isabella II, 48-passenger La Pinta and 90-passenger Santa Cruz II; Lindblad Expeditions, which stations 48-passenger National Geographic Islander and 96-passenger National Geographic Endeavor in the region; and upscale line Silversea Cruises, which introduced the 100-passenger Silver Galapagos in fall 2013. The balance is smaller, privately owned and operated vessels typically carrying 10 to 20 passengers. Charters are also common.
Though all vessels are fundamentally utilitarian - nature takes center stage - there is a huge difference between the low end, referred to as "economy class, " and the high end, called "luxury class." Luxury class options like Lindblad, Celebrity Cruises and Metropolitan Touring, for instance, feature lounges, hot tubs and well-appointed cabins. Almost half of Silver Galapagos' cabins have true balconies, a rarity in the region, and all passengers have butlers. Budget options, many of which can be booked last-minute in the Galapagos at a substantial discount, feature cramped quarters and fewer amenities. Some choices in this class will lack hot water and air-conditioning.
The higher-end ships also feature Level 3 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.
Galapagos Islands Cruise Itineraries
Every licensed vessel sailing the Galapagos follows a 15-day route established and approved by Galapagos National Park. During that period, a boat may not visit the same site twice, with the exception of the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz. How lines segment the 15 days can vary, but four-, five- and eight-day options are the norm. Passengers can often combine these segments into 11-, 12- and 15-day cruises.
All boats 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. Keep in mind that the longer the cruise, the farther west the ship will reach. That's not to say the western islands are better - it's a matter of personal preference. When you cruise is also an important consideration (see below).
There is one main exception: "Live aboard" boats carrying experienced divers are the only craft to visit the northern islands, Darwin and Wolf, prime spots for scuba enthusiasts. At Darwin, where there is no landing site, schools of hammerheads are known to congregate.