In the Galapagos nature cruises are probably the most time efficient way to explore the archipelago. This post explains why and goes into detail about different itinerary options, classes of Galapagos nature cruises, and how to pick the right one for you. For information on other options for getting around the Galápagos, check out Wet & Wild: Three Ways to Visit the Galápagos Islands. If you’re curious about more budget-friendly ways to see the Galápagos, you’ll find more details about free attractions, hostels, and day trips in Visit the Galápagos Islands: Land-Based Day Trips In Depth.
Overview of Galapagos Nature Cruises:
Galapagos Nature Cruises include food (alcohol is a separate tab at the bar), activities and snorkel gear, your nature guide, and, of course, transport from island to island on the cruise ship, which doubles as your floating hotel. (I suppose that makes these literally “live-aboards,” too, but that term is usually reserved for scuba diving vessels. Go figure.) There are typically two excursions per day: one in the morning, one in the afternoon. Generally, one is a marine site (snorkeling or a ride in a rigid inflatable boat a/k/a “RIB” or “panga,” as locals call it) and the other is a land site (nature walk). The exception is when you visit an island like Santa Cruz and both morning and afternoon excursions are terrestrial.
Duration and Itineraries:
Galapagos nature cruises last anywhere from 4 to 15 days. Itineraries roughly run north and south, north and west, or south and east, with the longer itineraries consisting of a combination of the shorter itineraries. For example, a 7-day itinerary is made up of a 3-day and a 4-day itinerary. Accordingly, you may book the entire 7 days but others might hop on or off in the middle. The first and last days are half days, so a 4-day/3-night cruise is really only two full days. So if you do take a cruise, I would recommend at least 8 days/7 nights to get the most out of it.
Ecuadorian laws governing the Galápagos allow operators to repeat routes only every other week. Not visiting the same sites two weeks in a row minimizes the ecological impact of increased tourism to the islands. To see the most, you would have to take two 7-day cruises back to back with complementary itineraries. For most people this is impractical, so you will have to choose essentially between east or west, combined with a jaunt north or south. Both general kinds of itineraries cover most of the same central islands because this is where the airports and re-supply points are.
Except for 15-day itineraries where you would visit pretty much every tourist-accessible island, Isabela and Fernandina (west) are typically not on the same itinerary as Española (east). Similarly, Genovesa (north) and Floreana (south) are usually on different itineraries. If a company puts Floreana on its “western” itinerary, then the other is probably on their eastern itinerary. (I say “probably” and not “always” because I did find one Galapagos nature cruise that went to both Genovesa and Floreana on an “eastern” itinerary, but at the time of writing, it isn’t common.)
Highlights of major itinerary differences:
“Western” Itinerary: In the west, the main attractions are Isabela and Fernandina, the two youngest and most rugged islands. This is where you’ll see fuming volcanoes, penguins, and flightless cormorants (which can be observed only on these two islands). Although Galápagos penguins are present all year along the west coast of Isabela and Fernandina, mating season is May to January, when you may see nests on shore. As the only island with no known introduced species, Fernandina is the most pristine and is home to the largest single marine iguana colony in the islands. Although rarely sighted, the west is also where you may see Galápagos fur seals, which are endemic to the islands. (I read, however, that one small colony has been spotted in northern Peru.) June to November is whale shark season, when they migrate past the west of the Galápagos.
“Eastern” Itinerary: If there were only one highlight of the eastern islands, it would be Isla Española, which is home to the greatest number of species endemic to the Galápagos. From April to December, it is the only place to see the Waved Albatross in the islands. (I did, however, see a couple of stragglers at Punta Suárez in January.) Although there are sea lions in the west, there are far more in the east, so on the eastern itinerary, you will have more opportunities to snorkel with them (which is something I never got enough of) or take selfies with them on the boardwalk/beach in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, where hundreds of them lounge. On an eastern Galapagos nature cruise itinerary, you’re also more likely to see all three types of boobies – Nazca, Red-footed, and Blue-footed.
Genovesa v. Floreana:
Genovesa is a bird-watcher’s paradise. Here you can find well-camouflaged short-eared owls, Galápagos doves, Darwin’s finches, night herons, and breeding colonies of frigate birds and all types of boobies (red-footed, blue-footed, and Nazca). Access to El Barranco, a/k/a Prince Philip’s Steps (named after a royal visit in the 60s), is limited to nature cruises of 16 passengers or less. You approach by panga along the foot of looming cliffs and after landing climb up a short set of steep stairs to a walk along the dramatic cliff-tops where you’ll come face to face with Nazca and red-footed boobies around their nests (and possibly their chicks).
Floreana Highlights: (i) the Devil’s Crown, one of the best snorkeling sites in all of the islands. It is the nearly submerged volcanic crater (bearing resemblance to a crown jutting out of the water), which attracts a stunning amount of wildlife into its former caldera; (ii) Post Office Bay, a unique historical landmark where 18th-century whalers set up a barrel as an informal “post office” and modern tourists continue the tradition of sorting through the mail and selecting postcards to hand deliver back home; (iii) Cormorant Point, known for its lagoon of flamingos and distinctive green sand beach; and (iv) Mirador de la Baronesa, an historic viewpoint where you learn about the Baroness who lived on the island with her three lovers and the ensuing murder mystery.
Classes of Galapagos Nature Cruises:
Although travel agencies name their cruises whatever they want to make them sound fancy, there are basically four classes of Galapagos nature cruises (from low to high):
- Economy / Budget Class
- Mid-Range (Tourist / Tourist Superior Class)
- First Class (e.g., the Tip Top)
- Luxury (e.g., National Geographic).
Prices, quality of guides, and comfort scale accordingly, but after having been on a mid-range cruise myself and talked to my guide, travelers who’ve been on other cruises, and other cruise operators, I would recommend booking a First Class cruise if you can afford it – even if you can afford a Luxury cruise – and here’s why: First Class level cruises have the best combination of small group size and quality of guides.
First, the Luxury-level cruises, like the National Geographic Islander and Endeavour II , tend to be much larger ships that carry around 100 or more passengers. This means you’ll spend more time queuing to dis/embark the pangas, which hold only about 8 people at a time. Accordingly, the experience is less intimate and can make you feel more like tourist cattle. Finally, cruises that carry more than ~40 passengers are restricted from visiting certain sites.
Second, as with any tour, your guide largely determines how good (or bad) your experience is, and the quality of guide increases, of course, with the level of the cruise. In fact, the Ecuadorian government requires higher training and educational qualifications for higher-level guides. Depending on what kind of knowledge you want your guide to have, it’s important to note that the top two levels of cruises require guides to have science degrees; the rest do not. For example, my guide on the mid-range cruise was very knowledgeable about the human history of the islands (especially as a second generation Galápagueño); however, he was not a scientist and was unable to answer specific questions about particular animals or geology. In fact, he sometimes seemed annoyed when we asked questions like that. Moreover, he neglected to stay current on even popular science writing about the Galápagos (let alone technical publications). I discovered this when I mentioned some recent research I learned about from a pop-science book about the Galápagos published the year before I went, and he had never heard of the book or the research. Therefore, with a First Class cruise, you would get the benefit of a higher-qualified guide with scientific education in addition to a smaller group (perhaps as low as 16 passengers), which strikes me as the best of all worlds.
Beware also that there are Galápagos guides who – irony of ironies – don’t believe in evolution, but they show up in the lower level cruises. Since they understandably tend not to be scientists, you shouldn’t encounter them at the First Class level. For more on this curious phenomenon, refer to my Recommended Reading & Viewing list.
Recommended Cruises/Operators by Class:
|Class||Vessel or Operator|
|Economy||Andando Cruises (also has 1st class and luxury vessels)
|Mid-Range (Tourist & Tourist Superior)||Yacht Daphne
Yacht Eden & Aiden Maria (same operator)
|First Class||Enchanted Expeditions
Aggressor 3 (liveaboard)
Tip Top III & IV
|Luxury||Lindblad (holds the National Geographic license in Galápagos)
Xpedition Cruise (a Celebrity brand cruise)
Where and when to buy:
If you have time and flexibility, the best way to get a good deal on a Galapagos nature cruise is to go to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island and look for a last-minute deal. Puerto Ayora is the largest human settlement in the Galápagos, so the most operators are found there. This strategy works best in the low season, if you’re flexible on departure date and duration of the cruise, and with fewer traveling companions. (If you have a family of four, for example, there’s a higher risk you wouldn’t find anything to accommodate so many people.)
Of the sites that are open to both Galapagos nature cruises as well as day trips, most allow tourists to have the same experience. For example, you go to the same places on Seymour Norte and Bartolomé whether you visit via day trip or a Galapagos nature cruise. That being said, there are exceptions – notably on Floreana.
If you go to Floreana on a day trip, you do not go to any of the highlights mentioned above. Instead, you go to a black sand beach, drive through a scalesia forest for bird watching, see land tortoises being reintroduced to the island, hike to the only source of fresh water on the island (which is of obvious importance in the human history of the island), visit some caves used by pirates / early settlers, and snorkel / swim. It sounds like a pretty good trip (and it is) – if you didn’t know that you were missing the best of what the island has to offer.
Conclusion: Cost vs. Efficiency
If you can afford it and don’t need to scuba dive, a Galapagos nature cruise is the way to go (with the longest itinerary you can afford) because it offers the best combination of access to restricted sites, number of sites, and efficiency. Nature cruises often travel from location to location at night or while you’re eating or otherwise resting between excursions, so although you’re paying a premium for the convenience, it is probably the most time-effective way to explore the islands. In contrast, if you island hop and take day trips, (1) you’ll burn more daylight hours in transit on a bumpy speedboat, and (2) your day will be cut short because day trips have to be back at port by dusk – all time you could’ve spent chilling out on a beach, snorkeling with a sea lion, or sipping cocktails in deck chair.
 This mid-range level is sometimes broken out into two categories of “tourist class” and “superior tourist class,” but the price range is similar, more and more websites lump the two categories together, and the official Galapagos site also appears to put them in the same middle category.
 This information is based on discussions with locals “in the know,” for example, my local guide who’s been working in Galápagos tourism for 10+ years, tour operators in Puerto Ayora, divemasters, hotel owners, and independent research.