The Galápagos Islands: By Land or By Sea?
Updated: Dec 22, 2022
Ask any outdoor & wildlife loving world-traveler to name their life's top-ten dream trips, and there's a good chance that Ecuador's Galápagos Islands are near the top of the list. Known as the "enchanted islands" (a term bestowed by 16th century navigators given some of the lower lying island's tendency to disappear with the tides), the Galapagos are indeed as magical as they appear. A natural laboratory of wonder, where a variety of charismatic and entirely unique animals strut, flap and flop about, completely uninhibited by human observers.
But the Galápagos have also been highly commercialized and increasingly regulated - essential to protect the fragile environment from being loved to death by tens of thousands of annual visitors. That volume of visitors, combined with the strict rules can tarnish the magic sheen and feel more like a mass tourism swindle, especially upon first impressions when you arrive en masse to the Baltra airport, ferry across the channel and spend a (let's be honest here, not always the most inspiring or interesting) morning the Charles Darwin Research Center outside of Puerto Ayora.
There's no one-size-fits-all single best way to experience the Galápagos. But from our personal travels to the Galápagos, relationships with boat and lodge owners on the islands and 17 years of designing custom travel to Ecuador and the Galápagos, here's what you should consider when evaluating the experience that best aligns with your travel style.
Land-Based Galápagos Island Explorations
If you value flexibility, free-time and privacy, are traveling with younger children, aren't a die-hard birder or nature enthusiast with a checklist, or have travelers in your group that are concerned about sea sickness, a land & lodge-based trip to the islands might be perfect for you.
First, most of the lodges that we work with are located in the highlands of Santa Cruz island, surrounded by endemic Scalesia trees and a world away from the hum of Puerto Ayora or the (necessarily) rigid schedule of a cruise. They offer peace and tranquility, space to leisurely sip you coffee in the morning while listening to bird song, incredible dining, a pool for your kids to splash in when they need to chill out. Many are within the seasonal migratory path of Galápagos Giant Tortoises; it's pretty fun to hear a scuffle outside your door and realize it's a giant, prehistoric-looking creature ambling by!
If you go the land-based route, a stay of 4-5 nights is recommended, allowing two or three days to explore the highlands, beaches, hiking and biking paths of Santa Cruz, and two days to venture to nearby islands as part of a small group boat trip. The boat trips are scheduled in advance, and permits to visit different islands are allocated to specific days of the week. But regardless of which islands you visit, each day trip by boat includes the interpretation of an expert, official naturalist guide, plus ample opportunities to learn about and observe the iconic wildlife of the Galápagos while hiking or snorkeling. Usually your time on Santa Cruz will be privately guided, and then you will be part of a small group experience (16 people) while on the boat.
By choosing a land-based trip, and maybe opting to dine in Puerto Ayora one night or just spend more time at the beaches and parks that locals frequent, you also get a small sense for what it's like to live on these islands, and develop an appreciation for the adventurous and curious spirit that led humans to settle here in the first place. Travelers looking for an even more immersive land-based trip can combine Santa Cruz with a lodge on Isabela Island. Isabela is the largest of the Galápagos Islands and home to incredible hiking, volcanic craters & lava tunnels, the flightless cormorant and a mysterious human history that is almost stranger-than-fiction. (Watch The Galápagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden for more)
LODGES WE LOVE
Galápagos Safari Camp: Our top recommendation to experience these islands in a way that is appropriately luxurious, inherently sustainable and close to nature. Inspired by remote, luxury safari camps in Africa, GSC owners Michael & Stephanie followed a similar under-canvas model in the Santa Cruz highlands, and constructed 9 spacious, elevated tents, complete with ensuite bathrooms, hammocks and private decks + a two-bedroom family suite. They also raised their young children on-site, making the GSC staff and experience well suited to younger explorers. Their guides are some of the best in the islands for families, yet adult travelers are catered to as well, with delicious casual-elegant dining, a wonderful wine list, sunset cocktails at the Viewpoint and special small touches (like an invitation to put your cell phone to sleep and fully engage your senses).
If you do a boat cruise through the Galápagos, we often recommend winding down with a couple of nights at Galápagos Safari Camp before blasting back to reality. Trust us on this one! Check out a typical day at the Galapagos Safari Camp in the video above.
Montemar Villas: For larger families or private small groups who want to spend time exclusively together, Montemar Villas is a great option. Born out of the love for protecting the natural habitat of the Galápagos Giant Tortoise, Montemar consists of two villas for a total of 12 guests, beautifully appointed and fully sustainable, located on 43-acres of private land in the Santa Cruz highlands. Hosts Reyna and Roberto created Montemar with sustainability at the core of their project – the property produces most of its energy, harvests rainwater, supplies from its own organic farm, and has the lowest environmental footprint on the islands. There is no pool for humans here, but tortoises frequent the pond on property.
Enchanted Lodge: This quaint but comfortable & charming boutique lodge is owned by longtime Galápagos resident Judy Carvahal (one of the first female naturalist guides to be certified in the Galápagos more than 40 years ago) and her husband Rodolfo, whose family pioneered Swiss cheese-making traditions in Ecuador. The main lodge and rooms are surrounded by fruit trees, part of a larger farm cultivated by the owners to supply the lodge with much of its produce. Up the hill from the restaurant you'll find the home of El Queso Chueco, the first artisan aged-cheese producer in the Galápagos. Down the road is El Trapiche, where a local resident turns sugar cane into liquor and sweets.
Pikaia Lodge: A Relais & Chateaux property, Pikaia is the most traditionally luxurious lodge on the island. Sitting atop carved lava rock with an enviable view over the surrounding hills and sea, large air-conditioned rooms have sliding-glass doors and covered balconies, where finches like to perch in the morning. The infinity pool is a dream, as is the gym & wellness center + upscale dining options that change daily. Pikaia Lodge has its own yacht for just their guests, so if you head out to sea with Pikaia, you also enjoy a private stateroom onboard, a nice perk for those who would rather nap during the crossings between islands.
Finch Bay: Across the bay from the main dock at Puerto Ayora, Finch Bay is the only lodge with direct beach access on the island. They offer 27 rooms and suites and are often used by small groups embarking or disembarking on their boats - Isabela II, La Pinta and Santa Cruz II - as all are under the same ownership. Its a great option for families who want beach access or travelers heading out on day-long dive trips. The entire property was newly renovated within the past few years, with a focus on wellness experiences for adults.
Boat-Based Galápagos Island Explorations
If you have specific out-lying islands on your must-visit list (like Española, Genovesa, Pinta or Fernandina), are a devoted birder or photographer, enjoy the camaraderie and fast-friendships of small group travel, and want to maximize your time exploring different sites and seeing as much wildlife as possible, a boat-based exploration of the islands may be for you. Most boats cruise at night, so your daylight hours are spent hiking on islands, kayaking, birdwatching or snorkeling with sea lions rather than moving from place to place. This prioritizes visiting as many islands as possible - usually 5-7 in a week with two "landings" at visitor sites each day, but schedules are tightly controlled by the National Park so there is little opportunity for spontaneity or downtime.
There are many different boat sizes, styles and trip lengths to choose from among the hundreds of combos that you'll find online. We are partial to 5-7 night-long trips on a small boat with 20 or fewer passengers. Boats of this size often retain the best naturalist guides and have simpler logistics to maximize everyone's time off of the boat either kayaking, snorkeling, swimming or hiking. (The National Park limits group size at each landing site to 16 pax + 1 naturalist guide at a time. Larger boats often boast of a better guide to passenger ratio, like 1:12, but even if you explore in a smaller group or have more activity options, you still are confronted with the time consuming logistics of moving more people on and off of a boat.) But for some travelers the onboard amenities and flexibility of a larger boat may be more attractive. Following are our recommended boats, based on size and level of accommodation.
LUXURY SMALL YACHTS & CATAMARANS
Boats in the luxury category have top tier naturalist guides and the largest cabins. Expect big picture windows, cabin options with step out balconies and onboard amenities such as small fitness centers and wellness services. Many have glass bottomed boats in addition to pangas, kayaks, SUPs and top of the line snorkel equipment and wetsuits, the use of which is included in your cruise rate. There's a full bar and dining onboard is unstuffy but elegant, a mix of plated multi-course dinners mixed with outdoor BBQs and a la carte breakfasts.
Origin & Theory: Pictured above, these 20 passenger sister yachts are, in our opinion, the finest experience you can have aboard a ship in the Galapagos. They are family-owned and operated by Ecoventura, a longtime reputable and respected Ecuadorian leader in travel to the Galapagos. Onboard cabins and social areas are supremely comfortable and tasteful and as part of Relais & Chateaux, the culinary program is unmatched. Double occupancy rates are $8950 per person in 2022 and $9450 per person in 2023. Each week-long cruise is accompanied by 2 Naturalist Guides, and begins and ends on the island of San Cristobal as opposed to Santa Cruz. They also offer designated Family Weeks that coincide with school holidays and have discounted rates for children 17 or younger. (SCUBA divers will also love their dive-specific boat, The Galapagos Sky. This boat cruises a specific week-long itinerary that includes 19 dive sites and 3 full days at the remote northern islands of Wolf and Darwin – often regarded as among the best dive spots in the world and famous for the huge gatherings of hammerheads and other sharks.)
Endemic / Elite / Ocean Spray: These three boats are mega catamarans, providing the largest interiors of any boat in the Galapagos combined with the smoother ride of a twin-hulled motor catamaran. Each boat offers 8 spacious cabins with king or twin configurations and step out balconies. The cabins on the middle deck are particularly good for folks with mobility challenges as they are accessible without interior stairs. Cruise lengths vary from 3 to 7 nights. Prices for the 7-night trips start at between $7550 - $8590 per person based on double occupancy cabins. (And, while this may not be a selling feature, we love that this fleet of boats has a 60% female crew and is controlled by an entirely female board of directors, both rarities in the maritime world!)
Aqua Mare: New this year, the Aqua Mare debuted in July as the first super yacht in the Galapagos, refurbished and operated by Aqua Expeditions which has pioneered luxury small-boat expeditions in the Amazon, Indonesia, the Mekong and now Galapagos. The boat offers 2 guides for 16 guests, exceptionally large suites (230 sq ft), jacuzzi, sun lounge and outdoor fitness space. 7-night cruise rates start at $9450 per person for 2022 departures based on double occupancy.
La Pinta: With 24 cabins and a capacity of 48 guests, the recently refreshed La Pinta is an excellent choice for travelers who want a slightly larger boat with more onboard social areas or daily excursions options when exploring the islands. The vessel’s 24 cabins are divided into two categories: the one- or two-passenger standard Luxury Cabin and the larger Luxury Cabin Plus, which features a comfortable sofa that sleeps one additional guest, great for families of 3. There are also four pairs of cabins that offer interconnecting rooms, a great feature for family groups. La Pinta offers 4 and 6 night itineraries, great for a shorter stand-alone cruise or booked in tandem with a few nights at a lodge. The 6-night trip starts at $7001 per person in 2022 and $7562 per person in 2023.
First class boats have extremely high quality naturalist guides but generally fewer onboard frills than luxury boats. Some may have a small hot tub but no wellness offerings or fitness center. Onboard dining is quite tasty but not the center of attention. Cabins are spacious and comfortable. Several of these boats headlined the luxury category for many years and were only recently eclipsed by a new generation of luxe yachts.
Integrity: The 16-passenger Integrity is a solid choice for a first-class yacht. The boat is family-owned, with excellent, scholarly guides who have devoted their lives to scientific research in the Galapagos Islands, and a great crew. Integrity is older, but impeccably maintained, with spacious cabins and one owner's suite. The top deck features a small jacuzzi and shaded lounging and dining areas. Cruise length is one week and 7-night rates start at $7595 per person for one week in 2023.
Passion: Originally built as a private luxury yacht, the M/Y Passion was completely refurbished in 2015 while retaining many of its original elegant features such as its rose-colored marble bathrooms and teak wood decks, luminous interiors and a jacuzzi on deck. The yacht boasts an exceptional amount of space for only 14 passengers and is ideal for charters by smaller groups. A partnership with Wild Aid ensures that a portion of each trip aboard the Passion protects marine reserves, supports anti-poaching efforts and works to reduce the impact of climate change. In the Galapagos WildAid works to stop illegal fishing which threatens the livelihood of the local community, the sustainability of its fish stocks and the health of its marine ecosystems. Trips are 4 or 7 nights in length and week-long trips start at $6130 per person in 2023.
Isabela II: The Isabela II is great for travelers who want the stability and amenities of a slightly larger vessel. She carries up to 40 guests in 20 cabins with a crew of 26. Two of the cabins are "Family Cabins" and include 2 twin beds or queen bed plus small fold-out twin bed that can accommodate a child for triple use, making the Isabela II a fairly economical way for a family of 3 to experience a Galapagos cruise together. Other thoughtful touches include a 24-hour snack station with snacks, coffee and tea, a small gift shop offers accessories like hats, windbreakers and sunscreen and a glass-bottom boat so that non snorkelers can enjoy the underwater world. The Isabela II cruises two different 5-day itineraries and a 7 night option covering the Central Islands. 7 night trips start around $5400 per person in 2022 and $5600 per person in 2023.
Superior boats are budget-friendly options for travelers who place more value on the quality of the guiding and crew than the on-board aesthetics of the boat. The cabins are generally small, but most of your time will be spent off the boat exploring or up on the sun decks. Food is fine and plentiful with meals typically served buffet style. Many boats in the Superior Class charge an additional fee for wet suits and some don't offer kayaking. You won't find hot tubs, wifi or top-deck bars on these boats but their guide and crew quality is solid.
Beluga : A 16 passenger, 110' motor yacht, the Beluga is a wonderful economical option known for excellent guiding and great itineraries. All cabins on board are the same price, but with different bed layouts (two twins or a queen) and either port or large picture windows. There is one triple cabin on board with 2 lower beds and one bunk style bed that can accommodate a young family, though its a tight squeeze! All interior spaces are fully air-conditioned and both the lounge and sun deck are spacious and welcoming. There are a handful of kayaks on board and wetsuits & snorkel gear is included. Cruise options are 5 and 7 nights, starting at $4850 per person in 2022 and $5300 per person in 2023 for the 8 day trip.
Cachalote Explorer: At only 88' in length, the Cachalote is a snug and nimble 16 passenger vessel that can nose into smaller coves where larger boats can't anchor. Originally a fishing boat built in 1988 in Vancouver, Canada, she was made for rough seas and is extremely stable and seaworthy. There are three different cabin categories starting at $4000 per person for week-long 2022 itineraries. Cabins can accommodate 3 or 4 guests making the Cachalote is a great option for families and multi generational charters. Wet suites, snorkel gear and kayaks are included.
Both the Beluga and Cachalote are owned by the same family who owns Enchanted Lodge in the Santa Cruz Highlands.
Ready to start planning your own custom trip to the Galapagos? Reach out to Jeff or Kirsten at email@example.com to get started!