The Galapagos Islands are not the most convenient of locations to get to; their remote location within the Pacific ocean some three hours flight from mainland Ecuador is in fact one of its charms.
However, that remote location and restricted number of visitors at any one time, makes the Galapagos an expensive if highly rewarding, controlled yet unspoiled travel destination, truly unique in the world.
The Ecuador government sensibly controls and restricts entry and access within the islands to a very high degree. Visitors and tour groups are on tight schedules in relation to access points and times. The up side of this is that visitor impact upon the unique wildlife and ecosystems is minimised, you can approach within two metres of any of the birds or animals and the wildlife has seemingly no fear of their human invaders. Sites never seem crowded and mostly it feels like it is you and unspoiled, untamed nature at its best!
Certainly my own trip to the Galapagos exceeded my expectations and was a highlight of my many travel adventures!
There are two ways of accessing the Galapagos Islands if you are an ordinary tourist. It is possible to base yourself at Baltra, exploring Santa Cruz on foot and taking day tours to neighbouring islands, such as Genovese, where you will see both Blue Footed Boobies and Frigate birds aplenty, as well as land iguanas and most likely Galapagos fur seals. However, this will restrict the islands that are accessible and a Galapagos cruise of some sort, will overcome the tyranny of distance, as the cruise vessels are able to cover large distances at night.
Limited walking tours are available that do cover a number of the larger islands, but be prepared to rough it and endure invasive insects that bite!
Personally, I chose to go on the smallest cruise boat I could find and afford. This took some seeking out and research. I did the North Western 8 day itenary aboard the glorious Nemo 1.
Because I was a solo traveller I could afford either a large cruise boat, carrying a hundred passengers with ammenities like bars and pools, or a tiny catamaran, with few passenger comforts, other than great food and comfortable cabins down steep ladders with an ensuite wet room, that carried only 14 passengers.
For me, it was a no brainer. I was physically fit and willing to sacrifice luxury aboard for access to the more remote and less publicly accessible islands of the Galapagos, in order to access as much as I possibly could in the way of bird species and geology.
Bare in mind all your costs except for alcohol and tips for the crew at the conclusion of your cruise are covered from the time you board your cruise boat. Alcohol on Nemo 1 was US $40 per bottle and a gin and tonic US$10.
Check whether there are additional costs for diving equipment if you intend doing a diving cruise in these rich waters, but good snorkel equipment was included aboard Nemo, for our twice daily marine adventures.
To further keep cost down I was prepared to share a tiny cabin.
Those I met who had been aboard bigger cruise vessels enjoyed their cruise and did access islands on a rota basis, but did complain they made it to fewer islands and most of their bird sightings were from aboard ship.
In contrast the trusty Nemo 1 had fewer ammenities, but with only fourteen passengers, we accessed superb wildlife viewings, regularly could snorkel or swim in places where our companions included fur seals, turtles and marine iguanas. We sighted several whales and our captain could slightly change course to maximise our time with them. There was no bar and only one dining area, which we all shared during our fabulous buffet meals of local specialties, but wine, beer and mixed drinks were available pre-dinner and with our evening meal. Our crew serviced our airconditioned rooms daily and ably supported us through finding our sea legs and subsequent voyage. They were exceedingly careful with ensuring the safety of gear and equipment and maximising our opportunity of seeing and experiencing as much as we possibly could during our eight day Galapagos odyssey.
A typical day would begin with breakfast at 7.30-8.00 am, followed by an island hike to wildlife and geographic points of interest, then onboard refreshments and change into swimming gear, a snorkel or swim, then tasty and plentiful lunch, followed by another hike and snorkel, snacks, then time to clean up or rest a little, before dinner. Often our boat covered long distances overnight and sometimes we cruised for an hour or two during our lunch break.
From our catamaran, we were transferred to the islands on a zodiac, or inflatable rubber motor boat. There were both "wet" and "dry" landings. Dry landings were ones where we would exit the zodiac without having to get our feet wet, onto either man made or natural landings. Wet landings involved getting out of the zodiac into some degree of water, sometimes ankle or even knee deep. That none of us ever got any wetter was due to the skill of the crew with timing our entry off or back onto the zodiac to avoid waves and swells with skill, experience and precision.
All cruises will have a wildlife guide that takes you out on your adventures. Indeed, exploring without your guide is not legally permitted in the highly regulated environment of the Galapagos and groups are kept together at all times.
Try and find a "naturalist tour" with a level 1 guide, if wildlife is what is taking you to the Galapagos Isalnds. Their knowledge, experience and passion for the many ecosystems ans species will be an ongoing asset through your trip.
If a group tour is not your thing, rest assured, travelling on as intimate cruise vessel as you can find, will ensure you individual and unique access and experience with the wildlife and environs. You will be so engrossed in the many species and their sheer numbers, as well as their lack of fear of humans, you will barely notice your fellow travellers.
I found my own fellow travellers were kindred spirits, as obsessed with wildlife and wildlife photography as I was. Their company was invariably delightful, supportive and considerate of each other. If one person spotted something special they would share it with all of us, thus enriching the number of species we witnessed and maximising photo opportunities!
The other fabulous bonus of cruising on such a small vessel is that by the end of the week you will have come to know your entire crew. Ours consisted of our captain, an engineer, two sailors a chef, kitchenhand and waiter as well as our fabulous guide. All were from the Galapagos Islands and all shared a passion for the wildlife and sea. They, along with my fellow travellers, made up the sum total of a trip of a lifetime
Things to pack
- Camera with good zoom lense for wildlife shots
- Waterproof camera for marine photography and floating wrist band lest you lose your camera underwater. It will bring it back up to the surface, rather than sinking to the deep!
- Camera chargers, spare batteries, lense cleaners and silicon packs to protect lenses from moisture and condensation.
- Monopod that will steady your camera for wildlife shots (not much else to steady it on), that doubles as a walking stick for scrambling over lava tubes and rocks
- Sturdy lightweight water bottle
- Insect repellent and sunscreen
- Hiking boots and/or hiking sandals
- Drysacks to accomodate wet landings for cameras
- Good and highly portable wildlife guides can be purchased at Baltra airport
- Flashlight and spare batteries
- Comfortable lightweight clothing and a rain poncho or coat
- Sun hat, bathing costume or rash suit for sun protection
- Sense of humour
- Good quality snorkel equipment and float vests, if required, were supplied as part of our cruise package.
Best time to go?
The Galapagos Islands are wonderful at any time of the year, as they are located close to the equator. During the high season trips are even more expensive. I found May a wonderful time to visit the Galapagos, as the Boobies and Frigate Birds were at the height of their mating season. We saw their mating rituals as well as parents raising chics. For me, this was exactly what I sought to witness, so my timing could not have been better. Moreover it was off season so prices were about a thrd of hat they were during the high season. Sea temperatures were not too cold for comfortable snorkelling. We did experience two very wet days, where our adventures were limited somewhat by the tropical downpours!
Seasickness and Galapagos Cruises
With strong currents meeting at the Galapagos and creating its unique and bountiful ecosystems, smooth seas are a bonus, rather than to be expected durig your cruise. I was one of only three passengers never to suffer seasickness during our voyage which included some very bad weather early in our cruise. Most of my fellow passengers got their sea legs and end to seasickness after a couple of days and by the end of our eiight day cruise, even those who suffered enormously were almost free of the malady. It is worth speaking to your doctor prior to departure to organise motion sickness medication or behind the ear patches. Fresh air and keeping the horizon line in sight also helps lessen the impact of the movement of the boat.
You need a reasonable degree of physical fitness to cover the terrain at many places within the Galapagos. There are a few steep climbs and some rock hopping along some hiking trails. I managed easily despite my dodgy knee, but my monopod was a boon for the many unlevel surfaces. Some landings can be very slippery and some wet embarkations onto zodias can be a bit of an effort, but fun. The worst thing is that you might get a bit wetter than you wanted too in those places!
There is no access for wheelchairs on the more intersting islands and if you have real mobility issues check your cruise cabin is not down a ladder to avoid a surprise and disappointment on embarkation.
Cheapest options and genuine bargains
Bucket deals are available on unsold cruise places at short notice in Quito, once you have arrived in Ecuador. If you can be flexible with your dates and have time to spare, this will be your best chance at accessing a reputable cruise for one third to half the cost. During the high season limited such places exist, but certainly in May such deals are possible. A couple aboard Nemo 1 were lucky enough to secure the last unsold cabin on our cruise at half what the rest of us had paid and enjoyed exactly the same experiences and ammenities as the rest of us!