Planning a Trip to the Galapagos

N Seymour frigate with chick (5)So you wanna go to the Galapagos? Of course you do!  I took my trip two years ago come July, and it was a once in a lifetime adventure.  But a lot of planning went into it, so I’m passing on some of that knowledge to you.

The three most important things to think about as you begin planning your trip are:

  1. What you want to see
  2. What you want to do
  3. How long do you want to go

What You Want to See

Santiago Sullivan Bay penguins (16)There are so many species of wildlife in the Galapagos, and not every island contains every species.  Galapagos tortoises a must? Your tour should include Santa Cruz.  Marine Iguanas?  You have to go to Fernandina island where they amass by the hundreds. Penguins? Fernandina or Isabella should be on your itinerary. Frigate birds? North Seymour is your island. Are you a birdwatcher?  Go to Genovesa, which is smothered in birds such as blue-footed boobies, red-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, frigate birds and other species. In fact, you will only see the red-footed boobies here, and they are a must see! Espanola is a must for the waved albatross.

In addition, some wildlife is easier to see only at certain times of the year.  Do you want to see the giant tortoises? Then don’t go prior to June (I went in July and they were abundant).  Whales are best seen in July through September (I saw a couple on my trip). The waved albatross won’t be on land from January through approximately April.

What you Want to Do

Most people want to snorkel in the Galapagos, so look for a tour where you’ll snorkel with the wildlife you want to snorkel with.  My tour had us snorkeling with sea lions, sea turtles and penguins.  I met one couple who snorkeled with sharks.Santiago Puerto Egas snorkeling sea lion (25)

You may also want to kayak, so look for boats that have sufficient kayaks for your use.  Of course, you’ll hike on most tours as well.

Some tours offer other unique adventures.  I also had the opportunity to stay overnight at a tortoise camp on Santa Cruz Island.  Santa Cruz is also the only island that offers shopping in the Galapagos, if that is a must do.  The Charles Darwin research station, where you can see tiny tortoises before they grow up, is also on Santa Cruz island and may be a worthy stop.

You may also want to do more than visit the Galapagos. If so, look for companies that offer extensions to the trip.  For example, want a tour of Quito?  Or a visit to Otavalo Market in Ecuador?  How about adding on a whole different country?  My tour offered a day tour of Quito, plus extensions to the Amazon or Peru.  I took advantage of the Quito tour and the tour of Peru, which cost less than if I did it as a separate trip.

How Long Do You Want to Go

N Seymour male frigate birds (8) 2This will determine which islands you end up visiting, as longer cruises will go to more farther-flung islands, and shorter cruises will hit the highlights.  When looking at a tour, look at how much time is spent on the cruise, as opposed to time on mainland Ecuador. My trip was a 10-day trip, but we really spent only about seven days on the cruise.

Now that you know what you want to see and do, what islands you want to visit, and how long you want to go, how do you pick the right tour company?

Pick the Boat

baltra xploration (2) 2Each boat has its own itinerary.  So when you decide on a specific company, you still have to select the right boat.  The Galapagos National Park determines each boat’s itinerary, including route, islands stopped at, and time of day the island is visited. They also regulate when and where you can snorkel or kayak.  Itineraries for each boat change annually.

The good news is that you don’t see a lot of other boats on your cruise.  Generally, there were three to four boats of comparable size anchored in each area we visited, and only one other boat visited the same island at the same time we did (the other two boats visited another island or another part of the same island, then we’d switch in the afternoon).

Larger boats are easier in rougher waters, but with smaller boats, you spend less time waiting to get onto the islands.  And most transitions are overnight, so you sleep through the worst waters. A couple of the overnight transitions on my yacht were rough, but most people on my cruise walked around with patches behind their ear and no one ended up seasick.

Maybe you’d prefer a land-based tour if you’re worried about sea sickness. There are those as well, but you don’t get a chance to get to some of the outer islands that are farther away (such as Genovesa).

Some questions to ask:

How many guests does the boat carry?  If you want a small-group tour, don’t sign up for a tour with a boat that will carry 100 guests.

Does the boat have enough kayaks (if that’s your thing) and do you have to share snorkeling equipment or is there enough for everyone?Isabela Urbina Bay (497) 2

How many pangas do they have?  Each panga (raft) carries between 8-10 people and you will use a panga to reach every island from the boat.  Think about how many people are on your boat, how many pangas they have and how long it will take to get ashore!  My yacht held only 16 passengers and with 2 pangas so we reached shore quick.

How much time do you spend on the island?  The park service also regulates time on the islands, only allowing visits between 6 am and 6 pm.  Find a boat visits the island early and stays late.  The Galapagos is one hour behind mainland Ecuador time.  Our boat stayed on mainland time throughout our cruise, so when we set foot on an island at 7 a.m. boat time, it was actually 6 a.m. island time and we were the first people there and the only people for a while.  The second boat didn’t generally arrive at the island until 7 or 8 a.m.

What is a typical day like?  Since visits to the island are regulated, days are typical – morning visit, return to boat for lunch and snorkeling or kayaking (or transition to a new island), late afternoon visit to a new island or a new part of the same island, back for dinner and evening talk about what we saw that day/what we’ll see the next day.  You’ll want to ask to find out how active your trip is or do you have a lot of downtime for afternoon naps?

Bartholome view at the top (13) 2

What is the background of your naturalists and how many are on my boat?  Each boat should have well-qualified naturalists who know the islands and its inhabitants.  Look for a small naturalist to guest ratio, as it will be easier to hear what they say about the wildlife, plants and landscape.  It is required to have at least one naturalist per 16 guests.  My tour had two naturalists for 16 guests.  Both naturalists were born and lived in the islands. In fact, we visited one of our guides’ homes, which was a self-sufficient, energy-efficient house. Naturalists should be certified, and if you ask them, you’ll find out all the training they have to take to become certified.

Santa Cruz tortoise camp (40) fix 2What amenities does the boat have?  The size of the cabin and whether you have a window, or air conditioning may be important to you.  Do you want a jacuzzi, swimming pool or spa?  No, you don’t!  You won’t have time for any of that!  Our boat had nice large outer cabins for everyone with air conditioning (not needed), private baths, a bar, a clean water source for drinking (a must), a nice lounge and dining room where we could all congregate, and that’s really all you need.

When my research was completed, I chose Natural Habitat’s Classic Galapagos trip and it was everything I wanted and more:

Now get planning!

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