Wet & Wild: Three Ways to Visit the Galápagos Islands

By Dave
Unless you have a Bond-villain yacht to sail to the Galápagos Islands on your own, you have three main options to explore the islands:

  • Nature cruise,
  • “Liveaboard” cruise specifically for scuba diving, and
  • Do-it-yourself, land-based day-trips & island hopping.


This post reviews each option generally and compares and contrasts the dis/advantages. Other posts go into greater detail about When to Visit the Galápagos, Nature Cruises, and Land-Based Day Trips. (I mention liveaboards for completeness but won’t address them in detail at this time because (i) I haven’t been on one (yet – fingers crossed) and (ii) they are covered at length on scuba-specific sites.)

How to Visit the Galapagos: Overview

  • Nature cruises may take tourists snorkeling and hiking on certain islands but cannot offer scuba diving. (Photography cruises are a subset of – and for our purposes are essentially the same as – nature cruises.)


  • “Liveaboards” may offer scuba diving but cannot, by law, make landfall on any island. They are the only way tourists can visit Darwin and Wolf Islands, which are the most remote of the Galápagos islands and where you have the chance to see hundreds of hammerhead sharks.
  • Land-based / island-hopping is the most flexible and least expensive option but may limit your experience. Many sites/islands are restricted to nature cruises only, so day-trip operators cannot visit them. Certain islands overlap and are visited by both day trips and nature cruises, but even then, the sites visited are not always identical. Although this official Galapagos National Park site does not appear to have been updated much since 2012, the map is a fairly thorough guide to the various sites of the Galápagos and their restrictions.

Price Differences:

  • Liveaboards are spendy, from $580 per person per day and up. (I haven’t seen any less than that.)
  • Nature cruises have a wider range of prices – from as little as $240 pp/day to upwards of $1200 pp/day.
  • Land-based travel is the most flexible and economical because you can stay in hostels of your own choosing and piece together: (a) day-trips, (b) DIY attractions that you can visit without a guide, and (c) island-to-island transfers. The lowest average cost I’ve read or heard of anyone managing this way is about $215 pp/day, excluding international airfare and airport taxes.

 


Galapagos Travel Options: Pro’s and Con’s

Travel Option Advantages Disadvantages
Nature Cruise
  • Efficiency – travel during down time (while sleeping, eating, or relaxing)
  • Cover more sites in same time
  • Exclusive access to certain restricted sites
  • Can both hike & snorkel
  • More time in the day (must return to boat by dusk, which is faster than returning to a port)
  • Cost ($240 to $1200+ pp/day, plus tip)
  • If you don’t like your guide (or group), it lasts for the whole trip.
  • No scuba diving
  • Fixed itinerary
  • Potential seasickness
Liveaboard
  • Allowed to scuba dive
  • Exclusive access to two most remote islands (Darwin & Wolf)
  • Only way to see deep-water marine life, incl. massive schools of hammerhead sharks
  • Cost ($580-700+ pp/day)
  • Cannot land at sites
  • Even more potential seasickness (because on the open sea longer to get to Darwin & Wolf)

 

Land-based
  • Flexible DIY itinerary
  • More affordable options (as low as $215 pp/day)
  • If guide on day trip is bad, it’s only for one excursion.
  • Minimize seasickness by living on land
  • Less efficient – burn daylight hours in transit. Must return by dusk.
  • Inconvenient – must research and arrange day trips yourself
  • Less time in day (must return to port by dusk, so more time spent in transit)

Due to the restriction of certain sites to certain types of travel, you would really have to experience a two-week nature cruise, a one-week scuba diving liveaboard, as well as some land-based day trips to get the most complete experience of the Galápagos possible. Of course, this is unrealistic for most people both in terms of budget and time, so I hope the information synthesized here will help you choose the option(s) that suit you best. Rest assured, whatever you pick, you can’t go wrong, as any visit to Galápagos is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for anyone who enjoys nature, wildlife, and the great outdoors. The following posts explore in greater detail nature cruises and land-based island hopping.

 

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