There are five classes of tour boats—economy, tourist, tourist superior, first, and luxury—and trips range 4–8 days, with occasional special charters of 11 and 15 days. When you consider that you spend half of the first and last day traveling, four-day tours are not recommended unless you’re really strapped for cash or time—five days should be the minimum.
Whatever length of tour you opt for, there’s no escaping that it’s not cheap. Prices range from less than $750 pp for a five-day economy-class trip to $5,000 for eight days on a luxury-class vessel. Note that arrival and departure days are counted as tour days. Prices include food, accommodations, transfers to and from your boat, trained guides, and all your shore visits.
Airfare and insurance are paid separately, and you’ll need to factor in tips for the crew plus the cost of alcohol and soft drinks on board.
Itineraries are strictly controlled by the National Park Service to regulate the impact of visitors on delicate sites. Every cruise has a tight schedule, and the feeling of being herded around doesn’t suit everyone, but console yourself that cruises have far less impact on the environment than land-based tours, plus you get to see far more.
Note that cabin supplements for singles are usually very high. It doesn’t hurt to ask, but you’re far better off sharing a cabin.
Prices for boats in the economy class range $1,000–1,250 pp per week, but there are frequent last-minute deals because older visitors booking from abroad tend to avoid the most basic boats. You may be lucky and have a good experience, but note that every aspect of the service on these small boats, carrying 8–16 passengers, will be basic: Class 1 guides have a low level of training and knowledge and often a poor level of English; cabins are tiny and more prone to rocking, so seasickness is worse; and the food will likely be uninspiring. Economy boats also have smaller engines and can’t cover as much distance as the bigger boats.
While this level of boat suits some budget travelers, they are losing popularity to land-based tours. You should also consider that this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so paying a bit more for better service is advisable.
Moderately Priced Boats
Tourist-class and tourist superior–class boats are the most common cruise choice in the islands. These medium-size sailboats or motorboats hold 10–16 passengers. Everything is better quality than on the economy boats—better cabins (though they are still small), more varied food, and class 2 guides with a higher level of knowledge and better English. These boats also have bigger engines, so they are faster and often cover longer distances, including remote islands such as Genovesa. While the service is not as good as on first-class boats, overall these boats offer the best deal and attract a mixed range of clients—backpackers, Ecuadorians, and older foreign visitors.
Costs range $1,300–1,550 pp per week for tourist class and $1,600–1,950 pp per week for tourist superior class.
This is probably the best cruise experience you can get on the islands—these boats are far more comfortable but still have small capacity (mainly 16–26 passengers) to retain an intimate group atmosphere. They can also cover longer distances, and most include a visit to the fascinating western islands of Isabela and Fernandina. Cabins are more comfortable, with beds rather than bunks, and the decor makes the interior a delightful place to spend time, as opposed to many cheaper boats, where you want to escape the interior any chance you get. These are also much sturdier yachts, so seasickness is less of a problem. Guides have to be class 3, so they must hold a degree in natural sciences (usually biology or geology) and speak nearly fluent English. Prices range $2,000–3,800 pp per week.
While the largest cruise ships are thankfully a thing of the past on the Galápagos, there is still demand, mainly from older visitors, for a luxury tour with standards comparable to top-class hotels on the mainland.
Most of these ships have capacity for more than 40 passengers, and the biggest, such as the Galápagos Explorer II, cater to 100. The food is gourmet standard, the guides are the best in the archipelago, and there are many facilities onboard to keep you busy at the end of the day’s tours—spas, massages, gyms, jetted tubs, swimming pools, even karaoke bars, although some people would pay money to avoid the latter. Tours and meals are announced by loudspeaker.
The biggest benefit of these larger boats, like the first-class yachts, is that they are faster and so can reach the outlying islands. Best of all, rolling is minimized, so you’re far less likely to get seasick, although it’s still possible.
The biggest drawback is the feeling of being herded around in a large group. It’s more difficult to have an intimate experience of the wildlife when dozens of other passengers are chatting and clicking their cameras. Due to the size of the group, there is very little flexibility in the tours, and schedules are set in stone. Luxury-class tours start at $3,800 pp per week and climb to over $5,000 pp.
While the boat you travel on is very important, a good or bad guide can make or break your trip. There’s no escaping the fact that, in most cases, you get what you pay for. The good news is that all Galápagos guides are trained and licensed by the National Park Service, and they have all received further training in recent years as part of the government’s actions to confront the islands’ environmental problems. Guides are qualified in one of three classes, in ascending order of quality: Class 1, usually on economy boats or handling land-based tours, have the lowest level of knowledge and English; class 2, on tourist and tourist superior class boats, are more knowledgeable and often very good; and class 3 guides, on first-class and luxury boats, are the real experts and must have studied natural sciences at university. All guides should speak at least two languages, but class 1 guides often speak little besides Spanish. Every guide has to pass rigorous examinations every three years and complete a training course on the islands every six years to keep his or her certification. When booking a tour, ask about your guide’s specific qualifications and what languages he or she speaks.
Booking and Payment
Booking a tour to the Galápagos can be done anywhere from thousands of kilometers away at home in your own country to an agency in Puerto Ayora the night before the cruise leaves. In general, the farther away you are from the islands, the more it costs. You can save over 50 percent of the total price by booking your tour in Ecuador and even more if it’s last-minute. Even greater savings can be made booking last-minute in the Galápagos. However, bear in mind that it’s very much a question of luck to get what you want last-minute, particularly if you have a specific itinerary in mind.
To book a cruise from abroad, a deposit of at least $200 pp (via wire transfer or Western Union) is required. Ecuador does not permit the use of credit cards for any payments by Internet or telephone, so these can’t be used without the owner, the card, and the owner’s passport being present in Ecuador. This is to combat credit-card fraud. Even so, only a handful of boats accept credit cards for payment in person, and these still require partial payment in cash or traveler’s checks. You can pay for your flights with credit cards, however.
Many travel agencies in Quito and Guayaquil advertize tours, so shopping around is a good idea. The more time you browse, the more likely you are to find a good deal, so it pays to be patient. The best deals come when agencies are desperate to fill the last few spaces on a tour, and you can save between 25 and 50 percent. Note that the best last-minute deals are on the better classes of boats. South American Explorers (SAE, Jorge Washington 311 at Plaza, Quito, tel./fax 2/222-5228, quitoclub [at] saexplorers [dot] org, www.saexplorers.org, 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 9:30 a.m.–8 p.m. Thurs., 9:30 a.m.–noon Sat.) in Quito is a good source for up-to-date information on recommended boats. Deposits range 10–50 percent, depending on the boat and the tour operator. You are normally required to have paid in full 30 days before departure, unless it’s a last-minute deal.
The biggest savings can be made by flying to Puerto Ayora, checking into a cheap hotel, and browsing the agencies on the waterfront for last-minute deals. It’s not unheard of get a cruise for as little as 30 percent of the original price, and a 50 percent discount is common. It’s all a question of luck, and it is far less likely in high season (December–April and July–August). If you are doing it this way, consider avoiding the cruises that frequent sites on or close to Santa Cruz, because many of these you can do yourself on day trips.
Ensure you get an itinerary and all the details of what you are paying for printed out. Some travelers find that they pay for what they thought was a superior boat only to wind up with an economy vessel. Direct all complaints concerning tours, before or after, to the Capitanía del Puerto (port captain) if you booked in the islands, and to the agency directly if you booked in Quito or outside the country.
Life on Board
When you arrive on your boat, unless you’re in first-class or luxury, your first reaction may be: “They didn’t say the cabin was that small.” But bear in mind that your room is really just for sleeping—you’ll have far too much to look at outside on deck and at the visitor sites.
You’ll meet the rest of the tour group, and your guide will introduce himself or herself and the rest of the crew before going through the tour schedule. Guides will also explain the park rules that you must follow.
Most days have an early start (breakfast at 7 a.m. or earlier) to give you the maximum time at the island sites (and also to get there before the day tours). Most boats tend to travel overnight to save time, and it’s one of the joys of the cruise to wake up in a new place. The morning visits usually take 2–3 hours, including the panga ride to shore. Your guide will direct the group along the path or down the beach, explaining what you’re seeing and filling in relevant natural history details as you go. Be understanding if your guide seems overly concerned about keeping the group together and making everyone stick to the trail. You need to remember that some visitors unwittingly cause damage, and the tour group is the guide’s responsibility. Just because you’ve paid a lot of money doesn’t mean you can do what you want. The same sentiment applies when your guides insist that you wear a lifejacket during panga rides; they face fines and jail time if they’re caught with passengers not wearing them.
Back on board, you’ll find your cabin clean and lunch ready. The midday meal is casual—a buffet on cruise ships and fixed menus on smaller vessels. You may find yourself surprisingly hungry after all that hiking and snorkeling, but don’t overeat, as you may get lethargic and even seasick if the boat is traveling after lunch. Lots of water and fruit is important to keep your energy and hydration levels up. Your guide will announce the departure time for the afternoon excursion; there’s usually an hour’s break.
Afternoon visits are similar to the morning, although it’s considerably hotter, so take a hat and plenty of sunblock. Late afternoon is famously the best time for photography. Don’t miss the incomparable opportunities to snorkel—for many people this is the highlight of the trip. Where else in the world can you swim with sea lions, turtles, stingrays, and sharks? Wetsuits are handy, especially in the cold season, but are not necessary in the warm season; wearing just a swimsuit, most people can last about half an hour in the water before getting chilly.
There’s usually some time before dinner to freshen up and enjoy a drink while watching the sunset (just after 6 p.m. year-round). Dinner is the most important meal of the day, and this is your chance to fill up. Formality and quality of food depends on the class of the cruise. After dinner, your guide will review what you saw during the day and preview the next day’s schedule.
The higher-class vessels often have after-dinner entertainment. Otherwise, it’s a case of swapping tales with your fellow passengers. Alcohol is available, but try not to overdo it—you don’t want the next morning’s tour ruined by a hangover and interrupted sleep. Bear in mind that drinks are comparatively pricey and not included in the cost of the tour. You may be surprised to be nodding off by 9 p.m., but there’s no shame in it. Get plenty of rest because, after all, you didn’t come to the Galápagos for the nightlife.
It’s customary to tip at the end of the cruise. Remember that, although your tour is expensive, in a country as unequal as Ecuador, the big bucks don’t filter down to the lowest level; the crew as well as the guide will very much appreciate your tip. Obviously use your own judgment on how much to give, and your tip should reflect the level of service. Between 5 and 10 percent of the price of the cruise is considered normal. Tip the guide separately, and use the tip box for the rest of the crew.
© Ben Westwood and Avalon Travel from Moon Ecuador & the Galápagos Islands, 5th Edition