Galapagos cruise guide: Best itineraries, planning tips and things to do
The Galapagos Islands are a seasoned traveler's dream — a bucket-list vacation that allows you to observe exotic animals and plants and experience Ecuador's hospitality.
From your pre-cruise stay in Quito to optional post-cruise visits to a nearby cloud forest, you'll marvel at the variety of species, foods and climates you'll encounter in just a week or two on a Galapagos cruise.
Because the islands are largely a preserved national park, the Ecuadorian government limits the number of visitors. That translates to an unspoiled environment that's a far cry from touristy.
Most people who visit aren't novice travelers. However, they're likely first-timers to this remote destination. If a Galapagos cruise is new territory for you, this planning guide will provide the overview you need to prepare for your foray into one of the world's most untouched, undeveloped areas.
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Why cruise to the Galapagos?
The Galapagos Islands are remote and largely undeveloped, so they're perfect for travelers who prefer destinations that are more difficult to get to or ones that aren't overcrowded with tourists.
Additionally, the islands are home to many plants and animals that you can't find anywhere else, offering a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see them up close.
A Galapagos cruise can also offer a hassle-free way to tour the islands compared to a land-based trip. The cruise booking may cover many travel logistics, including pre- and post-cruise hotel stays, land-based adventure extensions and meals.
Additionally, when you cruise, you don't have to worry about transportation from island to island, hiring a guide (official Galapagos National Park guides are required to accompany all travelers on the islands) or where you'll spend each night. Most of the islands are uninhabited, after all, which means there are no human-made structures — including hotels.
However, be warned: A cruise to the Galapagos isn't particularly relaxing. Expect at least two excursions per day with little downtime. The bright side is, with someone else handling all of the planning and execution, you'll have the time to truly enjoy and absorb all you're sure to see.
When do cruises go to the Galapagos?
Cruises to the Galapagos operate year-round, which means there's no universal "best" time to visit. The best time for you and your travel companions to go will depend on your priorities and preferences.
During the hot, rainy season, which runs from December to June, the weather is warmer and cloudier, but the snorkeling and diving conditions are also better. It's an ideal time for anyone who doesn't mind heat but might want a bit more protection from the sun, particularly if they enjoy underwater sports.
On the flip side, the dry, cool season — July to November — offers more blue skies but also colder water temperatures. Although you can spot wildlife in the Galapagos all year, this season tends to attract more fish, mammals and birds because of the nutrients and plankton that become available as water temperatures cool.
If you'd like to time your trip to see certain animals or animal behaviors, below are some timeframes to keep in mind.
January — March
In the early part of the year, sea turtles lay their eggs ashore, and giant tortoise eggs continue to hatch. Many types of birds — including flamingos, Galapagos doves, mockingbirds, finches and Nazca boobies — begin their mating and nesting rituals, as do land and marine iguanas.
By March, frigate birds prepare to mate as they puff out their bright-red throats, and Galapagos hawk chicks hatch.
April — June
In the second quarter of the year, sea turtle, land iguana and marine iguana eggs hatch, and the mating seasons for blue-footed boobies, albatrosses and Galapagos sea lions begin.
Whales also start moving through the area as they migrate to the equator. By midyear, whale, dolphin and whale shark sightings become more common.
July — September
Frigate bird eggs start hatching, and flamingos and flightless cormorants initiate the mating process during this time of the year.
When August rolls around, Galapagos hawks — the islands' rarest birds — begin the courtship process. In September, Galapagos penguins begin a months-long mating ritual.
October — December
In the final stretch of each year, giant tortoise eggs start hatching, and sea lion pups begin to mature. Young albatrosses begin to develop their wings.
Best Galapagos cruise ships
Due to government restrictions, it's not easy for cruise lines to break into the Galapagos market. A few well-known brands have done it, including Avalon Waterways, Celebrity Cruises, Hurtigruten Expeditions and Silversea Cruises. However, they don't always own the vessels they operate.
In the case of Celebrity and Silversea, the lines built their ships specifically for the destination. However, Avalon, Hurtigruten, National Geographic and Abercrombie & Kent charter ships that are owned by other companies that are already established in the region.
Because of that, it's common for more than one travel company or cruise brand to sell sailings on the same ship. If you're confused about which ship to book or how to book it if it's offered by multiple companies, go directly through your favorite cruise line, or contact your travel agent.
If you're used to mainstream cruising, Galapagos vessels won't be what you're accustomed to. Each has one small restaurant for meals, at least one bar and lounge that often doubles as a lecture or briefing room, limited self-service laundry facilities, hot tubs, outdoor seating, a guest services desk and maybe a small store for sundries.
There is also likely to be a water sports platform and equipment storage area with outdoor showers or hoses for rinsing off shoes and feet when you return from landings ashore.
What you likely won't find on board are theaters, casinos, large fitness centers, organized exercise classes and spa facilities. Your vessel might have an open-bridge policy, though; check it out to see if you can catch a peek inside.
Don't be surprised if you don't receive a room key. On many expedition sailings, passengers aren't issued keycards because the line doesn't want travelers taking their cards ashore and potentially losing them there. Almost everything is included in the fares, so there's no need to charge anything with a card. Cruisers leave their cabin doors unlocked when they aren't in their rooms, which some people find uncomfortable. (Don't worry. Your stateroom will have a safe for small valuables.)
Galapagos-based ships are required to hire locally, so most of the crew on ships in the area are Ecuadorian. That lends itself to a more immersive experience, both on board and ashore. Food is often traditional and sourced as locally as possible, and crew members happily answer questions about the culture and customs in Ecuador.
Ultimately, if you'd like an experience that's closer to what you'd find on a mainstream cruise or if you're set on a more upscale vibe on a newer vessel, go with Celebrity or Silversea. If you'd prefer a small group and aren't overly concerned with your onboard surroundings, you'll want to avoid Silver Origin and Celebrity Flora, both of which are larger vessels.
Below is a more extensive breakdown of the ships you can sail under each company in the Galapagos.
Abercrombie & Kent
With more crew than passengers, service on Abercombie & Kent voyages is top-notch. The Galapagos is no exception.
The line charters all of its vessels, which means it doesn't own the ships. When you sail with A&K, you'll be on one of four ships, depending on the specific itinerary you choose.
La Pinta is a 48-passenger vessel owned by Metropolitan Touring. Refurbished in 2019, it offers modern touches without too much excess.
Three other ships — Origin, Theory and Evolve — are luxury expedition yachts rented from Ecoventura, part of the Relais & Chateaux family of luxury brands. Each carries just 20 passengers in a plush, high-end atmosphere that contrasts beautifully with the Galapagos' rugged terrain.
Aqua Mare joined the Aqua Expeditions fleet in 2021 and underwent a total overhaul to bring it up to the standards of the luxury line, which operates four other yacht-style ships.
The vessel plies the waters of the Galapagos, offering space for up to 16 passengers across seven cabins. Highlights include marble bathrooms, sustainably sourced food and a 1-to-1 crew-to-passenger ratio.
If you want to sail with Avalon Waterways, known mainly for its European river cruises, you'll find yourself on board one of two vessels chartered by the line in the Galapagos.
Treasure of Galapagos is a yacht-style motor catamaran that carries up to 16 travelers. What's interesting about the ship is that it's also marketed and sold by other operators, including Galapatours, Audley Travel, Rainforest Cruises and Vaya Adventures.
Avalon's other charter, Delfin Amazon Cruises' luxurious Delfin III, can hold up to 44 cruisers. Voyages on this vessel take passengers for a sail on the Peruvian Amazon in addition to making stops in the Galapagos. Unlike most other Galapagos expedition vessels, the ship boasts a spa and a sun deck with a plunge pool.
The newest ship sailing expedition cruises for Celebrity, 100-passenger Celebrity Flora is also the only ship in Celebrity's fleet built specifically to sail the Galapagos.
The ship has a nature-focused theme and features neutral colors and wooden accents. Unlike other bare-bones vessels that sail the region, Celebrity Flora offers modern, cushy touches, including a small fitness center, a massage room, cabins outfitted with TVs, water fountains and refillable bottles, complimentary mini-bar setups and spacious bathrooms.
Also sailing to the Galapagos for Celebrity are 48-passenger Celebrity Xpedition and 16-passenger Celebrity Xploration. Much smaller than Flora, they don't offer the same high-tech amenities like fast Wi-Fi and touch-screen in-cabin temperature controls. However, that's often just fine for adventurous travelers who know the focus is on the destination and not the ship.
G Adventures runs a few ships in the Galapagos; your chosen itinerary will determine which ship you sail. Yolita, which has room for 16 people plus crew, features eight cabins, each with a queen bed or side-by-side twin beds.
Sixteen-passenger Eden is also equipped with eight cabins, seven of which sleep two people in twin-bed configurations and one of which offers a queen bed.
Reina Sylvia Voyager also carries up to 16 cruisers across 10 cabins, including two for solo travelers. Only two of the rooms lack balconies, which means most accommodations offer fresh air. One nice touch is that the ship also has a dedicated barbecue area.
Metropolitan Touring's 90-passenger Santa Cruz II is operated in the Galapagos by Hurtigruten Expeditions, which owns 25% of Metropolitan Touring.
The vessel is bright and modern but with only the most basic in-cabin comforts. (There are no TVs or bathtubs — showers only.) Although all cabins are outsides (no balconies), the ship does have a small fitness center, two lounges, a small selection of books and a game and movie room.
Lindblad Expeditions, which has partnered with the National Geographic brand for several years, operates two vessels in the Galapagos. The first, National Geographic Endeavour II, has room for up to 96 passengers across 52 outside cabins, some connecting to accommodate groups.
Billed as a cross between a luxury hotel and a scientific research center, it offers underwater cameras and video microscopes that provide additional wildlife-viewing opportunities.
A second vessel, National Geographic Islander II, began sailing for Lindblad in 2022 and accommodates 48 passengers in 26 staterooms. It features light, bright and modern decor with marble double-sink bathrooms with rain showers. It also offers a heated marina, indoor and outdoor dining and a 1-to-1 crew-to-passenger ratio.
The smaller of Quasar Expeditions' two ships is Grace, a 16-passenger vessel with an interesting past. Aristotle Onassis presented it to actress Grace Kelly as a wedding gift in 1956 when she married Prince Rainier III — hence, its current name. Since Quasar adopted it into the fleet, it has been modernized with touches that have helped it age gracefully.
Evolution carries 32 people plus crew. Built in 2005, it isn't as old as Grace, but it still features an art deco style that creates a nostalgic but luxurious ambiance. Amenities include a promenade deck that runs completely around the vessel and a large Jacuzzi tub.
Silversea originally purchased a 30-year-old vessel, Silver Galapagos, to operate its voyages in the region. However, when expedition cruises began to soar in popularity, the ultra-luxury line sold the ship and built one specifically designed for the Galapagos.
With a capacity for up to 100 passengers, Silver Origin, which debuted in 2021, is arguably the most luxurious vessel sailing in the region. Its list of uncommon amenities — butler service, a fitness center, salon and spa — might just make you forget you're not on a larger ship.
Getting to the Galapagos
Making your way to the Galapagos can be a bit of a trick. Your first goal will be to reach either Guayaquil or Quito, the capital of Ecuador, both of which serve as jumping-off points to Baltra or San Cristobal, where you'll board your ship.
For North American travelers, the journey will require a minimum of two flights — one to Quito or Guayaquil and another to Baltra or San Cristobal, depending on where your sailing departs. However, if you're unable to find a direct flight from your hometown to Quito or Guayaquil, it's possible a third (or even fourth) flight could be necessary.
Plan an extra day or two of travel on either side of your cruise to account for any flight connections.
Best Galapagos itineraries
The Galapagos — which comprises about 100 small islets and 19 larger islands, only four of which are inhabited — can be difficult to break into regions, particularly since itineraries vary by cruise line.
Not all lines offer visits to all of the islands, and there can be some overlap, with islands showing up on itineraries in more than one region.
For example, Galapagos sailings begin and end on either Baltra Island or, less frequently, San Cristobal, where you'll land after flying in from mainland Ecuador and before boarding your ship. Centrally located Santa Cruz Island, which is inhabited, tends to show up on several itineraries, as does Isabela Island, which is the largest in the group.
In general, cruise lines will break the islands into north, south, east and west loops. However, some lines offer inner, outer and central loops. Others feature a combination. The best way to choose between them is to decide which islands you'd most like to visit.
In most cases, sailing around each region takes at least a week. Exceptions like Hurtigruten's four-day western offering allow passengers to complete the entire trip in seven days, from when they first leave home to when they return. For anyone wishing to make their adventure last longer, cruise lines will allow passengers to sail back-to-back voyages that string different itineraries together.
Many sailings also offer pre- and post-cruise hotel stays, usually in Quito but sometimes in Lima, Peru, with a Machu Picchu add-on. Some also offer the chance to tack on a pre- or post-cruise visit to the Choco Cloud Forest, about 3.5 hours from the center of Quito.
Note: To visit the Galapagos, you will likely have to fill out several forms, including a formulario del viajaro (traveler's form) and possibly a health declaration form.
Additionally, the country requires a tarjeta de control de transito (transit control card) for each passenger, along with an entrance fee. Most cruise lines will take care of those last two for you. (Keep the transit control card with you; you'll need it to enter and leave the Galapagos.)
Here's a rough breakdown of which islands you might visit in each region. It's also possible you could visit the same island more than once on a sailing. Again, note that specific itineraries will vary by cruise line and are subject to change.
On a northern loop Galapagos cruise, you might visit Baltra Island, Santiago Island, Bartolome Island, Isabela Island, Fernandina Island, Santa Cruz Island and Genovesa Island.
The southern loop typically includes Baltra Island, North Seymour, South Plaza, Santa Fe, San Cristobal Island, Floreana Island, Santa Cruz Island and Espanola Island.
On eastern loop itineraries, you can expect stops at Baltra Island, Mosquera Islet, San Cristobal, Santa Fe Island, South Plaza Island, Santa Cruz Island, Espanola Island or North Seymour.
During a cruise along the western loop, you might call on the islands of Baltra, Santa Cruz, Isabela, Fernandina and Floreana.
On inner loop voyages, you might check out Baltra Island, Daphne Island, Santiago Island, Rabida Island, Isabela Island, Bartolome Island, Santa Cruz, North Seymour Island and San Cristobal.
As part of an outer loop cruise, you might make calls on Baltra, Daphne, Espanola, Floreana, Isabela, Fernandina, South Plaza and Santa Cruz Islands, as well as Champion Islet.
If you opt for the central loop, you might find yourself on the islands of Baltra, Rabida, Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, Espanola, San Cristobal, Lobos and Bartolome.
Things to do in the Galapagos
Whether you do your pre- and post-cruise planning on your own or through your cruise line, you're almost guaranteed to end up in Quito at some point.
There are tons of things to do, but some of the don't-miss activities include a ride on the TeleferiQo cable car for a view of the city; a trip to the Mercado Central for fresh fruit and empanadas; stops at two well-known churches, Basilica del Voto Nacional and Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco; and visits to chocolatiers, statue restorers, hat- and mask-makers and herbal healers for some local flavor.
On the islands
Because the islands of the Galapagos are largely uninhabited and undeveloped, activities are mostly limited to what nature offers.
They include scenic panga (inflatable boat) rides to view wildlife; wet landings from panga to shore that will allow you to hike or laze on the beach; snorkeling; glass-bottom boat rides; paddleboarding; swimming and nightly recaps back on board. Sometimes crew members also give talks about topics relevant to the sailing.
During calls on inhabited islands, you might also check out the world's weirdest, smallest post office; visit baby giant tortoises or have lunch ashore before biking to a coffee plantation where the owner will teach you how to make moonshine from sugarcane.
In the cloud forest
Before or after your cruise, should you choose to visit the Choco Cloud Forest, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, you're likely to stay at the Mashpi Lodge, an eco-friendly resort in the canopy. There, you'll be assigned a dedicated guide who will help you plan your daily activities based on your interests and desired exertion level.
Options include hiking, swimming in waterfalls, night walks to spot critters that only emerge after dark, rides on the property's sky bike and Dragonfly gondola rides, educational lectures, massages, and visits to the on-site life center (where you can watch tayras steal bananas and visit a butterfly garden) or science lab (where staff biologists will tell you about the new species they've discovered).
Several cruise lines feature Peru add-ons as part of their longer itinerary packages. Lima is often advertised, but I've also seen Cuzco as an option, particularly for travelers wishing to visit the obvious highlight: Machu Picchu.
Must-see sights in Lima might include visits to the Huaca Pucllana pyramid; the El Parque del Amor monument, which offers stunning sea views; the local fish market in the Chorrillos district; Plaza de Armas, where you can see the government palace and city hall; and the catacombs at Museo Convento San Francisco.
Best Galapagos cruise ports
Floreana Island, one of the most southerly islands in the Galapagos cluster, has two common stops, and they're both notable — but for very different reasons.
Punta Cormorant offers an easy trail that leads to a stunningly serene beach, where you're likely to see sea turtles bobbing in the water nearby. Swimming isn't allowed, but the peacefulness that will wash over you is worth the short trek. Along the way, you can climb a quick set of stairs for great views over the island.
On the opposite side of the island is Post Office Bay, named for what might be the world's smallest post office. It's definitely one of the quirkiest. A small door in an old barrel gives way to a pile of postcards stuffed into a Ziploc bag. The idea is that new visitors leave postcards hoping that someone after them will deliver them. Then, they take old ones addressed to people who live near them and, when they return home, make every effort to hand-deliver them to the recipients.
The island of Rabida is an aesthetic standout, thanks to its pristine red-sand beaches. However, that isn't its entire claim to fame.
Rabida is also where you'll find a unique menagerie of birds, including pelicans, mockingbirds, doves, flamingos, white-cheeked pintail ducks, yellow warblers and Darwin finches. If you're a birder eager to check a ton of species off your list, it's a stop you won't want to miss.
Santa Cruz, one of the Galapagos' four inhabited islands, is connected by a bridge to Baltra Island, where most cruise passengers arrive before boarding their vessels. Santa Cruz is one of the most common stops on Galapagos cruise itineraries. It's also where many non-cruise travelers stay when they visit.
The island's Puerto Ayora is where you'll find the Charles Darwin Research Station, home to a center that protects, hatches and studies giant tortoises. It also studies plant life and invasive species in the area.
Another popular stop on many excursions is Rancho El Manzanillo, a reserve toward the western side of the island where you'll find groups of giant tortoises. (Did you know a group of tortoises is called a "creep?")
Following lunch, you'll don a pair of borrowed rubber boots for a guided walk along the grounds. Watch out: There are so many giant tortoises that you risk tripping over them — or their equally giant excrement. Don't worry, they'll withdraw into their shells if you get too close, creating a hissing sound that should give you a heads-up.
For a more active daytime pursuit, you can bike four miles outside Puerto Ayora to El Trapiche, a plantation that grows coffee and sugarcane. The owner will show you how he makes moonshine from the latter.
San Cristobal Island, another of the Galapagos' inhabited islands, is home to a second airport that cruise passengers sometimes use to reach their ships.
The island is the place for travelers to spot frigatebirds and red-footed boobies, as well as giant tortoises (useful if you missed out on Santa Cruz Island).
The Cerro Colorado Tortoise Breeding Center, on the south part of the island, focuses on mitigating threats to the islands' giant tortoise population. It's another location where giant tortoises are bred in captivity and released into a monitored natural habitat to be protected and studied.
Isabela Island is the largest island in the Galapagos. One of its highlights is Punta Vicente Roca, at the island's northwestern tip. It's home to many animals, including flightless cormorants, Galapagos penguins, sea turtles, marine iguanas and fish in a rainbow of colors.
Another landmark of a visit to Isabela Island is a cave-like rock formation. You can't go inside, which adds a slight mystery to the place, but you can observe playful sea lions as they swim around your boat and take in the cacophony of blue-footed boobies as they roost on the rock above.
A call on Genovesa Island, one of the northernmost in the Galapagos group, features a unique hiking opportunity in the form of Prince Philip's Steps (also called El Barranco).
The stairs are essentially a natural rock formation. Although wooden handrails have been added for safety, the climb is steep and the path narrow; participants should be in decent shape to make it to the top for sweeping views and potential sightings of Nazca boobies, red-footed boobies, red-throated frigatebirds and endemic lava gulls.
This area is also great for snorkeling, offering a chance to view unicorn fish, parrotfish, angelfish, butterflyfish, surgeonfish and hogfish. If you visit during the right season, you might come face-to-face with hammerhead sharks or manta rays.
Known for its favorable snorkeling opportunities, Punta Espinoza on Fernandina Island offers plentiful chances to get up close and personal with underwater life. Onshore, you can spot sea lions, marine iguanas and beautifully colored Sally Lightfoot crabs.
A short and fairly flat hike will take you over lava rocks to beaches where sea lions laze, play and mate, barking as they make their presence known.
Simultaneously, listen for the spitting of marine iguanas. Gross as it seems, the sound is like a series of adorable little sneezes as they purge, through their nostrils, the salt they accidentally ingested during underwater feeding.
Arguably one of the most iconic views in the Galapagos is the one from the Pinnacle Rock volcanic formation on Bartolome Island, one of the smallest of the main islands.
Ideal for hikers, the walk to the top takes about a half hour, at which point you'll be rewarded with vistas of nearby Daphne Minor, Daphne Major and Santiago Islands.
Animal sightings on Bartolome might include Galapagos penguins, herons and elusive Galapagos hawks. Should you choose to snorkel at the nearby beach, you're likely to see sharks, rays, sea lions and red-lipped batfish.
When to book a Galapagos cruise
Because Galapagos cruises operate all year, there isn't a shoulder season, so fares remain steady year-round. However, you can find times to snag deals.
Keep an eye out for sales around Black Friday and Cyber Monday, as well as wave season — the period during the first three months of each year when cruise lines offer deep discounts, added perks or a combination of the two.
Also, check with your travel agent to see if they can offer you anything extra — like a land-based add-on or extra onboard credit — if you're considering booking.
Because of the length and price of most Galapagos sailings, you'll likely want to plan at least six months in advance, if not further.
When I priced out a few sailings over the next 18 months, I noticed that fares within the next two months are actually higher than those for voyages six months out. In other words, booking at the last minute is unlikely to get you a deal.
What to pack for a Galapagos cruise
Because the Galapagos Islands are near the equator, the sun is particularly intense. Pack protective clothing like long-sleeved (but lightweight) sun shirts, hiking pants that zip off into shorts, hats (preferably with neck protection), sunglasses and sunscreen with a high SPF.
Beyond that, quick-drying clothing made from synthetic fabrics is best. You'll also need comfortable shoes, including hiking boots and water shoes that can get wet. (I recommend Keen-style sandals, water socks or Crocs.) Bring extra socks; merino wool works well to regulate temperature and keep you comfortable.
In terms of accessories, you'll want binoculars, a day pack (waterproof, if possible) that you can use ashore and a water bottle if your cruise line doesn't provide one. Toss some seasickness remedies into your bag, and download some movies or TV shows onto your smartphone or tablet in case your cabin doesn't have a TV.
In the Galapagos, what not to bring is just as important. Most ships in the region aren't fancy. Although people do change for dinner, you likely won't need dressy clothes.
Also, keep any fresh fruits and vegetables at home, along with loose nuts and seeds. The local government is extremely cautious about preventing visitors from introducing anything foreign that could harm the islands' delicate ecosystems.
Your luggage will be screened carefully when you arrive, and you could face steep penalties if you're caught with contraband.
The Galapagos is a region unlike anywhere else on Earth, which means a trip there is full of nuance.
Because sailings can cost upwards of $10,000 per person and last two weeks or more, you'll want to know what to expect ahead of time, so you can get the most out of such a sizeable investment in both time and funds.
From choosing a ship and itinerary to determining what to put in your suitcase, you have much to consider when planning a Galapagos cruise.
If you take your time and enlist the help of a seasoned travel agent, you should be able to eliminate many of the usual snags and focus on enjoying your time on some of the world's most untouched islands.
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