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Step-by-Step Guide to Planning Your Galapagos Trip

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The Galapagos Islands are 600 miles from the Ecuadorian mainland and are considered by all who visit to be one of the premiere travel destinations in the world. With just 200,000 annual visitors, a trip to the Galapagos Islands offers an exclusive look at some of the most pristine ecosystems in the world. Nature is at the heart of all Galapagos tours, but beyond that the trips are highly customizable. Knowing what you want out of your Galapagos vacation can help you decide which tours and itineraries are right for you.


 

When to go

There’s never a bad time to visit the Galapagos Islands since its location on the equator makes it warm all year round. However, the wildlife activity and the weather patterns do change from month to month, so having a good idea of these factors can help you determine the best time to visit.

Rainy season vs. Garua season
  • The rainy season extends from December through May and brings with it warmer air and water temperatures but also more precipitation. Expect to see greener foliage in the highland regions but less marine life (though the warmer water is more comfortable for snorkeling and there are still plenty of marine species to be seen). This is also when birds and sea lions are mating and sea turtles are nesting.

  • The dry season - known as the “Garua” season for its light morning drizzles - runs from June through November and features cooler air & water temperatures and bright, sunny days. Divers consider this to be the best time to witness Galapagos marine life since the Humboldt Current comes in, bringing nutrient-rich water that helps sea life flourish. It’s also when you might see humpback whales passing through, albatrosses populating Espanola Island, and the iconic blue-footed boobies doing their peculiar mating rituals.

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    Cruise or Land-based Tour?

    This is one of the most important questions to ask yourself when planning your trip. Traditionally, cruises have been the most popular way to experience the Galapagos Islands, but recently land-based tours are also becoming popular. There are advantages and disadvantages to each.

     

    Cruises

    Advantages Disadvantages
    • You visit sites that are only accessible by boat, including some of the more remote islands.
    • Take advantage of downtime and evenings to cruise to new sites.
    • Generally have all-inclusive itineraries, offering the guides, the activities, the meals, and the lodging.
    • They have a wide range of options, including extraordinarily elegant and luxurious yachts with gourmet chefs and five-star accommodations.
    • Not great for people who get motion sickness.
    • Itineraries are not as customizable, since they are usually designed over a year in advance.
    • Overall they tend to be on the more expensive side (although there are some excellent budget options).

     

    Land Based Tours

    Advantages Disadvantages
    • They are highly customizable, allowing you to determine how long you want to stay, which lodging you will choose, and which activities you do.
    • Your schedule is up to you - certain tours may only be offered during certain hours, but you can decide which ones you participate in, and if you don’t want to do one, then you can simply relax on the beach.
    • Greater selection of restaurants on each island.
    • You don’t have to worry about motion sickness.
    • You will not have access to many of the more remote islands and visitor sites that can only be reached by boat.
    • You will have to do more logistical planning to determine your itinerary (though many hotels offer complete packages).
    • It could add up to be more expensive - even though land-based tours tend to be less expensive, if you are doing three independent activities per day and eating at the best restaurants, this could end up costing more than a cruise.
    • Your guides may or may not be experts- all naturalist guides are good, but not all of them speak perfect English or have university degrees in ecology.

     

    How long should you go?

    If you decide to do a cruise, the options are a bit more limited since the itineraries are already planned, but you can always add more days onto the end of your cruise with a land-based tour if you want to explore more. Cruises tend to be 5-days, 8-days, and 16-days. There are longer options, but these are usually geared more towards diving or conservation tours, one of the itineraries we recommend the most is the itinerary B run by the Natural Paradise Galapagos cruise, a real immersion into some of the highlights of the Galapagos archipelago.

    If you are doing a land-based tour, then you can decide how long you want to stay. Since the best land-based tours visit multiple islands, it’s a good idea to budget a few days on each of the islands where you’re staying so that you have ample time to explore all of the accessible visitor sites.


    What’s your budget?

    If you’re planning a cruise, then your budget will determine a lot. There are boats for every price range, from budget class to luxury, and you mostly get what you pay for:

    • The budget boats will tend to offer smaller cabins, a much more casual setting, and boats that are simpler, including perhaps less deck space, fewer amenities, a limited menu, etc. that help keep the price in check; guides might not speak as fluently or have as comprehensive knowledge of the sites.
    • Mid-range & first class vessels offer comfortable accommodations - though not quite luxurious - more onboard amenities, and overall better guides. This is one of the best avenues for people who want a great cruise but can’t quite afford the luxury options.
    • Luxury yachts are the top of the line Galapagos boats, often featuring on-board amenities like exercise rooms, ample sun decks, a Jacuzzi, and a comfortable lounge. Dining will feature an international and local menu prepared by gourmet chefs. Cabins are all you would expect from a five-star hotel suite, usually including a balcony or floor-to-ceiling windows. And the guides are almost always university-educated bilingual or multilingual naturalists.

    If you’re planning a land-based excursion, then there are hotels and hostels to match your price range as well. On each island you’ll find both hostels and five-star hotels.

    • Hostels will have much simpler, clean rooms that may or may not have a private bathroom with hot running water, depending on where you’re staying; this is a good option if you’re more focused on the activities and don’t mind sacrificing a bit of the creature comforts.
    • Mid-range hotels are on par with normal hotels in the US, featuring private bathrooms, daily maid service, and overall more comfortable accommodations.
    • The five-star hotels are opulent in their luxury, frequently hosting their own restaurant, pool, spa, garden, or Jacuzzi (and sometimes all of them!). Expect room service, fruit & champagne baskets, exclusive beachfront access, and all-inclusive packages for all occasions, from family vacations to honeymoons.
    By Ecuador & Galapagos Insiders
    By Ecuador & Galapagos Insiders
    Ecuador & Galapagos Insiders is a leading travel company based in Ecuador and run by local tour guides and travel specialists, we are happy to provide expert and free trip planning advice, no commitment fee involved.