Most visitors to the Galapagos Islands choose to take a cruise; and many people believe that this is the only way to visit the islands in Ecuador. It is, in fact, quite easy to visit the islands independently then ‘hop’ between the islands and take day tours to see more of the incredible nature on offer. Both options have positives and negatives, but how do you choose which option is best for you? I’ve summed up some key points to help you decide whether you should take a Galapagos cruise, or island hop & visit the Galapagos independently:
Price is a major factor for backpackers and budget travellers, and with a 5-day Galapagos cruise round the islands costing a minimum of $1000, costs can easily spiral out of control. Travel independently and you can allocate from $20 lodging per night for a single room, and anywhere from $25-30 upwards per day for food. For activities, on each of the three main islands (Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isabela), there are beaches and snorkelling areas that you can visit for free, and day tours to other islands or to top snorkelling destinations cost around $100 per person. Transport between these 3 islands costs approximately $35 each leg of the journey between Santa Cruz and the other islands. There are no direct boats from San Cristobal to Isabela, due to distance, so you have to stop off at Santa Cruz and buy another ticket for the rest of the journey.
A great cost-saving option for those travelling independently is workaway. When I was planning my trip in 2015 there weren’t any available but it is becoming more popular on the islands so check it out.
Like any kind of tour or arranged travel, with a Galapagos cruise you will be following a set itinerary depending on what was agreed with the company when you booked. You will usually be eating and sleeping on the boat, often in shared cabins, and you are limited to what you are able to do outside of the schedule. Island hopping has the major advantage that you can choose to go where you want, when you want, although there are some islands which can only be visited on overnight cruises due to the distance from the port.
Range of Visit
Some islands and areas can only be visited as part of a cruise, which means that if some species only inhabit that area, you will not be able to see them independently. Fur seals and flightless cormorants for example are only found in the North part of Isabela and Isla Fernandina, areas which can only be reached by cruises. Galapagos cruise boats travel overnight to arrive there the following day, whereas day tours are done in speed boats, and have a limited reach. Likewise, certain parts of Santa Cruz for example can only be reached if you spend time on the island – in particular where you can find giant tortoises in the wild. Similarly, most cruises will not offer diving as part of their itinerary, so if you want to dive you may have to travel independently.
This was a major factor for me, having suffered from motion sickness since childhood. For me the thought of sleeping on a boat was not remotely appealing, so I opted for the island hopping and took individual day tours which were more manageable with motion sickness pills and acupressure wrist bands.
Quality of Visit
It can be very difficult to choose a Galapagos cruise company that is good quality and good value. Often you get what you pay for, but that doesn’t mean that more expensive trips are without pitfalls. Problems such as food poisoning, cleanliness on board, strong smells from the engine room, and having no control over the rest of your group, can cause issues on a cruise. If you choose to travel independently you have more control over your choices of accommodation and food at least, and if you want to change your plans at short notice you can, instead of being stuck on board!
On board even the most basic Galapagos cruise there will be a guide on board to explain more about the area and the wildlife. If you take day tours on the islands you will also get a guide, but of course any free activities won’t include this.
A cruise to the Galapagos Islands is great for people who are short on time. As the boats also travel overnight, you wake up in a new location so cover more in a shorter period of time. However, to really make the most of your time on the Galapagos you need a minimum of 1 week. Bear in mind too that a 7 day cruise will probably include your arrival day, and departure day as part of the itinerary, so you only really get 5 days to explore the islands. If you are travelling independently I would say 10 days to 2 weeks is a good time to be able visit a lot of the main ‘attractions’ on the islands – although if you have more time there is plenty to do to fill the extra days!
Meeting the Locals
On a cruise to the Galapagos islands, by its very nature you spend the majority of your time on the cruise boat, and have limited time on land. You are fairly isolated on board, and little opportunity to meet local people, and see what life is like beyond the confines of the boat. Island hopping in the Galapagos on your own time gives you much more time to explore the islands themselves, where you stay in family owned hotels or guest houses (hostels are very rare), and can chat with local people. There are also inland areas that are worth visiting for the wildlife, for example on Santa Cruz there are wild giant tortoises – a species you won’t get to see in the wild if you just visit on a cruise.
The Galapagos Islands have their own, increasingly fragile, eco-system. Over the years, invasive species of plants and animals have arrived and threaten the native species. Increased tourism and infrastructure on the islands puts increased pressure on the islands’ resources. I chatted to a guide there who said in her twenty years working on the islands she has already seen huge changes, and the wildlife is suffering. I believe that giving something back to the communities and the wildlife is vital for its continued survival. Volunteering in the Galapagos Islands is a way to make a small contribution to help. I spent 2 weeks volunteering at Hacienda Tranquila on San Cristobal Island, and loved it. We didn’t work directly with the animals, but worked in the communities for example painting a kids’ playground, and clearing invasive plants and re-planting native species. In my time off I thoroughly explored San Cristobal, then had another week island hopping. If every person who visited the Galapagos Islands contributed even a day to similar projects we could help conserve this precious place for years to come.
Summary: Galapagos Cruise or Island Hopping
It isn’t always easy to choose which option is best for you. Do your research on prices, cruise schedules and figure out exactly what you want to see and how long it might take. Cruises can be booked from home, or from Quito or Guayaquil – or even at the Galapagos Islands themselves although there is a risk of no available options, especially in high season. There is no doubt in my mind though that it is definitely worth visiting the Galapagos, even though this took a huge chunk of my budget. Backpackers, think carefully about your funds, and how often in your life you will have the chance to visit these incredible islands. Whichever option you choose, I am sure you will love your experience on the Galapagos Islands!
If you decide to take a Galapagos Cruise, I recommend Intrepid Travel, who arrange a variety of cruises from basix economy packages to luxury cruises. For example check out the details of this tour below:
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