Galapagos Islands cruises

Cruising the Galapagos Islands can sometimes feel like exploring the land that time forgot. The wildlife here, which played a major role in Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, thrives under strict environmental protections and has no fear of humans. This means you can get excitingly close, but the rules (and watchful guides) ensure you never get too close.

On shore excursions, you’ll see penguins diving off the rocks, walk alongside lumbering giant tortoises, hear sea lions bark, and snorkel with rays and sharks. As our Galapagos cruise reviews prove, this is one of the planet’s greatest wildlife watching destinations.

Our Galapagos cruise holidays guide fills you in on the advantages of travelling the archipelago by boat instead of staying on land, as well as what to expect from your holiday, how to choose a cruise, and the best time to go.

Why go on a Galapagos cruise?

Holidays in the Galapagos Islands are either cruise or land-based, and there are advantages to both depending on your preferences or requirements. Cruise holidays tend to be popular for the following reasons:

Time-saving

Since you sail by night, you can disembark for your activities straight after breakfast every day, with no early morning speedboat transfers required. This also means that you can explore more remote islands that land-based tours rarely reach, such as Genovesa or Fernandina, and consequently you’re going to see more wildlife too.

Convenience

All meals and most activities are typically included in the price of your cruise, whereas land-based trips usually mean organising your own evening meals. Cruises also mean less time spent packing and unpacking since you’re in the one cabin the whole time.

However, as well as generally being more expensive than land-based holidays, Galapagos cruises mean that you need to be on board with boat life. Schedules tend to be more rigid, there’s less downtime to relax, and limited space to enjoy that downtime in. For this reason, while cruises are a fantastic experience, families with younger children might prefer a land-based Galapagos tour.

What does a Galapagos cruise involve?

Galapagos cruises vary in length and many will also include time on the mainland – perhaps a few days in Quito or even venturing further afield on a multi activity holiday. The optimal duration is probably around seven days, keeping in mind that the first and last days will be dominated by travel arrangements with perhaps a short activity too if there’s time. From Quito, it’s around a three-hour flight to the Galapagos Islands with a short stopover in Guayaquil.

Since the Galapagos Islands are so carefully protected, cruise ship tourism has to be strictly regulated to prevent environmental damage. The maximum number of passengers on a ship is 100, so after a week you’ll recognise everyone, while on a smaller ship you’ll likely know all your fellow passengers by name within a few days.

Galapagos cruises are usually full board. As well as hiring their crew and guides on the islands, a lot of the food they serve will be locally sourced. This is a seafood paradise and you can also expect a lot ceviche and fish stew accompanied by cassava and plantain.

Cruise itineraries vary but you’ll be out on excursions every day, with lunch boxes provided. Activities are wildlife-focused, so you could observe albatross mating rituals on Isla Espanola or green turtles nesting on Floreana, walk alongside giant turtles on Santa Cruz, or snorkel with manta rays, sharks, sea turtles and shoals of fish. A typical day might find you stepping into a glass-bottomed boat, kayak or pair of hiking boots, so it pays to spend at least a few hours reading about the different activities holidays offer.
Travel Team
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Galapagos family cruises

It probably goes without saying that the Galapagos Islands is one of the great family adventure destinations, and kids aged around 10 and up will have some amazing experiences here. The more child-friendly cruises include optional activities such as kayaking, snorkelling and walks – not very physically demanding, so younger children should have little difficulty in keeping up.

Advice on choosing your cruise

There’s a wide range of cruise itineraries and vessels available to choose from – everything from 12-berth catamarans and yachts to larger ships. However, even at the budget end you’ll be perfectly comfortable, as cruise holidays are right at the top of their evolutionary scale in the Galapagos Islands, and you can always expect a high level of amenities onboard. The bigger ships especially can get very luxurious, with everything from mini swimming pools and saunas to organised activities for kids, along with hot tubs and libraries.

The maximum number of passengers that a ship can carry in the Galapagos Islands is 100 and, generally speaking, the bigger the ship, the better equipped and more stable it is (useful to know for anyone who suffers with seasickness). They also tend to be subject to tougher environmental regulations than smaller boats.

But there are also disadvantages to booking a larger ship. For one thing, they can’t dock at every island, whereas smaller vessels have no difficulty. For another, it can take longer to disembark for excursions in the morning.

David Orrock, from our partner Pura Aventura, recommends picking a smaller ship: “Many people feel they should go on larger boats because they’re better for seasickness, but I just think you lose a kind of intimacy with the experience. In a small boat with 16 people you get to know all your fellow passengers. You certainly spend less time getting on and standing around waiting to disembark, which is an issue on bigger ships.”

“But there's also a romance with a smaller ship,” David continues. “You feel like the first pioneers who went to Galapagos. It’s such a special place and it’s all about getting up so much closer to nature than you normally would. If you’re in a massive group you lose that to an extent. Of course, they’re good ships – you have more facilities, more space... but having done it both ways, I’d always go with a smaller boat."

Other requirements you should consider when choosing a Galapagos cruise include whether you want to be on a family-friendly cruise ship or not, as well as your physical fitness when it comes to the itinerary and getting around the ship (steps between decks on larger vessels can be steep).

All cruises have naturalist guides aboard that have been trained by the national park. However, the best Galapagos cruises will also be accompanied by experts in specific fields, from marine biology to conservation. They may facilitate discussions on treks or give talks in the evenings, and will be available to answer any questions you may have.

When to go

There are only a few migratory species in the Galapagos Islands, so this is a rare year-round wildlife watching destination. That said, behaviours shift depending on the time of year. For instance, come early in the year to observe green turtles laying their eggs on the beaches, or in December for the best chance to see baby giant tortoises hatching from their eggs.

Blue-footed boobies perform their charming mating rituals in spring, while between June and November, divers braving the rougher and colder sea can be amazed by the sight of penguins and other seabirds rocketing in to feast on plankton.

Weather-wise, June to November is the cool and dry season in the Galapagos Islands, while December to June is warmer and wetter. But showers are usually short, and the sea is typically calmer for cruise ships. The warmer weather also heralds the season of l’amour in Galapagos, and the wildlife is at its most active.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Deb Dowd] [Intro: A.Davey] [Why go?: Rein Ketelaars] [Families: Jeremy T. Hetzel]