Updated on July 10th, 2020
“The Galápagos Islands are a dream destination for many people & an expensive choice. Therefore, it’s important that you make the right decision on how you want to spend your time when you are there. Here are my top tips on how to choose a tour of the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador. Follow these & you really will have the holiday of a lifetime!”
The Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
The Galápagos Islands have been a destination on my Life List since I compiled it back in 2016. I always love seeing wildlife in its natural habitat & as such this archipelago is hard to resist. Here, you have wildlife of all shapes, sizes & bizarre colours living together in abundance.
“They may touch you, examine you or completely ignore you. It’s a place where people save for a lifetime to visit & isn’t a cheap holiday. It should & does feel like a privilege to be able to witness this unspoilt & unique part of the world.“
So, if you’re planning to head to The Galápagos Islands, it’s important that any decision you make about how you visit is the right one for you!
Here I will give you some top tips on the key things to consider when you’re planning a trip to the Galápagos & share my thought process, experience & stories along the way. If you would like to read all about my Amazing 8-Day Boat Tour then please check out my next post.
What Did I Do?
I had read that April is one of the best times to visit the islands. In addition, I heard that the outer islands have fewer tourists as you can only access these parts by boat & on longer trips. I was looking for tours with availability & itineraries which fitted both of these categories. When I saw a sale for the G Adventures tour for 10 days on the Yolita, I snapped it up! This was my 3rd trip with G Adventures. They have never failed to deliver great tours with excellent local guides & a focus on giving back & sustainability. if you are interested to learn more, you can read about my previous experiences in several in Peru & Costa Rica.
Throughout my time on the Yolita, I had the chance to snorkel with Sea Lions, Marine Iguanas (the world’s only sea-going lizard), Hammerhead Sharks, more Turtles than you can shake a stick at & had a Penguin peck my camera with its beak.
“In addition, I was able to explore beaches of every colour (white, red, black?), climbed active volcanoes & walked on lava fields. Dolphins leapt from the water & I saw the most bizarre but beautiful courtship rituals of the Frigate Birds.”
I witnessed Booby birds with feet of all colours of the rainbow, was spat at by iguanas, stung by jellyfish & developed a newfound fascination with crabs. Where else in the world can you fit all that into 8 days?
What do you need to know?
To make the most of the time & money you spend in The Galápagos Islands there are a number of important elements that you need to consider:
1. When To Go?
This will depend on many factors. I chose April. Although it is the wet season, this basically means that you can expect the occasional short downpours in amongst sunny & warm days. The big advantage of travelling between January to May is that the water tends to be smoother. April is one of the calmest months with the warmest waters for snorkelling.
“If you suffer from seasickness, then this is an important consideration. I am lucky not to experience issues & for the most part, we were sailing during the night.”
Once we started to move, despite the calmer waters, many of my travelling companions started to feel nauseous. Make sure you take enough medication if you require it, even in the calmer months. The cooler & drier season is between June – December but the impact of currents tends to make the seas choppier.
Do also bear in mind that Ecuador sits on the equator so the sun is particularly intense here. You will need strong sunscreen & need to reapply it regularly to make sure you don’t burn, whatever time of year you visit.
2. Where to go?
This is a huge question as there are so many choices of itineraries & routes to navigate around this unique archipelago. My advice is to do your research & decide what specifically you would like to experience. You can see many animals everywhere (Galápagos Sea Lions, Marine Iguanas, Sally Lightfoot Crabs). However, numerous species are specific to one area or a handful of islands only. For example, the Waved Albatross is unique to Isla Española & the Red-Footed Booby can generally only be spotted on Genovesa or San Cristobal.
“Once you have compiled your “wish list” then look to see which places you must have on your itinerary to experience this & keep your fingers crossed! My list included swimming with turtles & sea lions, seeing Blue-Footed Boobies & the courtship of the frigate bird, resplendent with their puffed out red chest.”
I was fortunate to achieve everything on my list & so much more. However, bear in mind that you may not always be the lucky one to spot your desired prey! A number of members of my group saw the Spotted Eagle Rays while snorkelling which remained elusive to me. Meanwhile, my roommate was desperate to see Hammerhead Sharks but despite us never being far from each other as snorkelling buddies, she missed the 4 I was able to capture on film. She left with these bizarre-looking creatures still on her wish list.
3. How Long To Go For?
This will usually depend on your budget, length of holiday & your wish list. Just scanning the website of G Adventures alone there is a choice of 46 tours which include the Galápagos as part of the itinerary! For the more remote areas, you will need more time. Many cruises are for around 5 – 7 days. Mine was 8 days on the boat.
“The most I have seen for the “complete” Galápagos experience is 17 days…with a price tag to match!”
I actually wished I had stayed for longer. The tour as I booked it was 10 Days (although Day 1 is “Arrive” & Day 10 “Leave”). It started & finished in Quito, so the morning of Day 2 began with breakfast at 4am to catch a flight to the islands. A couple of the guys had picked up the tour at the last minute & met us on Baltra Island (where the airport was & we picked up the boat). At the end of the tour, they left us at the same place to continue with a few more days to explore “on foot”. I was envious & would have loved to do the same.
4. By Land Or By Sea?
There are many options now to explore Galápagos by land. Staying in the towns & using ferries or flying between the islands. You can then take day trips to many of the key attractions. This is often a more budget-friendly way to see these beautiful islands.
“If you do choose to stay land-based, then there will be several sights that it will be harder to access.”
Although the seas were very busy around the most populated islands, by the time I reached the west coast of Isabela, there were only 3 boats present. This gave us the opportunity to view landscapes & wildlife which is much less frequented by tourists. It was a very special experience.
5. How Can You Cut The Cost?
The Galápagos Islands are not a budget destination although there are ways & means to visit without spending the huge price tag you see for some cruises. As mentioned, land-based itineraries are becoming increasingly accessible & a good option for those on a strict budget. Bear in mind that accommodation & visitor numbers are limited & as such prices for day to day living are much higher here than on mainland Ecuador. In addition, the park rules are such that you have a guide present when visiting the designated tourist sites, so Day Tours will be required & all cost money.
Choosing a Boat
Touring by boat is the most common form of tourism & the prices can be high. The overall cost of a cruise will depend on your choice of vessel, facilities, number of passengers, length of time etc. My best advice would be to decide on a budget & shop around.
“If you book in advance, then you are likely to pay more but also have a greater choice. You can save money by holding off until you arrive in Ecuador where you will find tour operators across the country who will offer deals but again, the compromise will be the choice.”
As mentioned earlier, the more enthusiastic you are about ticking off your “wish list”, the earlier you will have to book & potentially more you will have to pay.
In addition, you can save money as a solo traveller by sharing a cabin. If you would like one to yourself then you will need to pay a premium for this. Hence I shared!
Personally, I believed that this was my one chance to go to Galápagos & as such, I wanted to do it properly. For me, this was on a boat, for a longer time to see the more remote islands & I was willing to pay money for this opportunity. You only turn 50 once, right? 😉
6. How Much Extra Money Do You Need?
In addition to the cost of the cruise, there are a couple of extra charges which you will need to pay to even be allowed on to the Galápagos Islands. At the airport, in Quito, the airline charges you $20 (Ecuador uses US Dollars as currency) as a Transit Control Fee. You will need to pay this in cash at check-in. On arrival at the islands, you also go through the Galápagos equivalent of immigration where you pay the National Park fee of $100, again in cash.
“Cash is king here with limited acceptance of credit cards. We were advised to get all cash we needed from the ATM’s before leaving Quito as these are also in limited supply (or may have run out of money) on the island.”
If you’re on a tour, bear in mind that you will also be expected to tip the guide & crew. You will need cash for that too. More on this in the next section.
7. What Is included?
For my cruise, the total cost included hotel accommodation at the Hilton Colon in Quito for the 1st& final night of the tour, & flights from Quito. Transfer from the airport on arrival was also arranged & paid as part of the package. As I was in Ecuador for 2 weeks beforehand, I had to organise my own transfer but was able to negotiate G Adventures covering my journey back to the airport instead.
“All food on the boat was provided which meant 3 full meals a day plus snacks, hot drinks, water etc. We were also given branded water bottles which we refilled on the boat, cutting down on plastic usage.”
In addition, all snorkel gear was included, if required (mask, snorkel, fins & wetsuits). Because of the different current experienced in the Galápagos, water temperatures vary so the wet suits were a welcome addition for the cooler areas.
Alcoholic & soft drinks such as lemonade & coke etc were charged for & the bill settled on the final night. Additionally, for all G Adventures trips, the crew will expect tips (though of course not mandatory). The guidelines we were given were $7-10 per person per day for our guide & $10-15 per person per day for the crew (to be split equally amongst them). At our Welcome Meeting in Quito, the guide told us so we could ensure we had enough cash to cover our needs.
8. Which Boat?
In the Galápagos, there are 85 boats available for tourist cruises which range in size from 96 to 4 passengers. Most are under 20 & the Yolita held 16 people in double cabins. This was the perfect size for me. Bear in mind that the larger ships are limited to where they can moor. The National Park places big restrictions on the number of visitors so it is my understanding that on these larger vessels you have to choose your activities rather than being able to participate in everything.
“I was very impressed with the service we were offered on the Yolita. The cabins were bigger than I was expecting (but once all the luggage was in place, space was still limited).”
Each cabin had a private bathroom. Showers had hot water whenever we needed it & we weren’t limited to quick showers either. I have been on tourist boats where we were given a lecture on the 2-minute shower! The rooms were serviced (beds made, bathrooms cleaned) once a day & we were provided with clean towels (hand, bath & beach) every 2–3 days. Our service was excellent but was included in the price charged.
9. What Activities Are There?
Throughout the tour, we took part in a combination of hiking, snorkelling & taking rides on the Pangas (2 smaller dinghies). There were a few members of our group who struggled with walking far or weren’t keen/able to join the snorkelling trips. Snorkelling was some of the best I have ever experienced for the sheer volume of wildlife. The landscapes on the short hikes, being volcanic by nature, were otherworldly & spectacular.
“If you don’t take part in all activities, you miss out on so much of the magic of the experience.”
Each evening before dinner we were given a briefing on timings & activities for the next day from our guide. This gave us a clear understanding of expectations, including wildlife, clothing & footwear required, smoothness of the sailing etc. Through photographing this & the map which she also annotated it gave us a constant focal point.
10. Where Can You Go & Do You Need A Guide?
However you decide to visit the islands, you will be restricted to the official visitor sites (70 on land & 79 in the sea). The National Park will not allow you to visit any site during darkness or without a guide.
Our Guide was Adriana who was excellent, full of energy & knowledgeable. She led us on all hikes, snorkelling trips & was always on hand to answer our questions. Adriana was born & bred on the Galápagos Islands which added a very authentic perspective.
11. What are the Rules?
The animals of Galápagos do not have any land-based predators & as such are not afraid of humans in the way we are used to. Galápagos National Park has a number of rules which you need to follow at all times:
- Do not feed or touch the animals. You may have many close encounters where curious sea lions come to check you out. If this happens the rules are that you enjoy the moment but never reach out & touch the animals.
“Keep your distance. We were told to always try & be no closer than 2 meters. This means 2 meters, not 2 meters & then with your arm stretched as close as possible with your camera in it ;).”
- No littering. Many species are endangered & it was a breath of fresh air not to see rubbish anywhere during my time on the islands. It is everyone’s responsibility to keep it that way.
- Do not remove any natural object, living or not. Each time we returned to the boat we were hosed down – shoes after hiking & bodies after snorkelling. I know this was partly to keep the boat clean, but also to prevent any between island contamination.
- All guides on the boats should be certified by the National Park Service but as usual, you get what you pay for so the more budget vessels will have lower qualified staff on hand.
- The National Park Service keeps the islands as nature intended. For example, a guide cannot intervene if they see an injured animal unless the injury was caused by human contact. These rules keep the ecosystems intact.
“That said, through the history of human discovery, breeds have been introduced (goats, rats etc.) which have impacted the fragile ecosystems & caused the extinction of several species on some islands”.
The authorities are making efforts to redress the balance of this where possible.
12. What Do You Need To Take?
Space is limited on the boat & the size of your luggage could reduce your space in the cabin, so ideal is a soft bag with limited capacity. Apart from the obvious travel documents & anything you want to take, consider the following:
- Binoculars. I have a good telephoto lens on my camera so used that instead.
- Camera. My trusty DSLR was with me but also make sure you bring plenty of battery & memory cards as you will take a lot of photos! I also loved having my Go Pro so I could video my snorkelling encounters. And of course, my iPhone to cover all eventualities.
- SIM Card. Be aware that for obvious reasons there is no WiFi on the boat & limited service across the islands. Your only option to connect is to get a SIM card for Ecuador before you leave the mainland. This means that when a connection is possible, it will happen automatically. Otherwise, enjoy the digital detox!
- First Aid Kit. Include travel sickness medication, anti-histamines (bites & stings), pain killers, plasters/band-aids, insect repellent.
- Sunscreen. Make sure it’s strong (SPF 50+) & waterproof. Also, a lip balm with sunscreen (one of the ladies burnt her lips very badly).
“Reusable water bottle. On our boat, this was provided but I used my own as it held more & saved me from getting it confused with my fellow travellers.”
- Hat. Sun protection when you are out on the pangas for a few hours, or hiking.
- Sleepwear. In case you are sharing a room.
- Waterproofs. Mainly a jacket & a cover for your daypack.
- Dry Bag. To carry anything you need on the panga excursions, just in case.
- Quick-drying clothes. We dried things by hanging them on the top deck. When the sun was out it all dried very quickly. When it rained, it was a real struggle to hang things out in the cabin to try & dry. Bear this in mind, particularly if you plan to visit during the wet season.
- Swimwear. A couple of choices ideally.
- Hiking Gear. Hikes were short but often on uneven terrain due to the volcanic nature of the islands so make sure you have appropriate footwear. The best shoes were sandals which can do wet/dry hiking. I only had training shoes & flip flops & had footwear envy for those who made better choices!
Hopefully, you have found this useful for planning your once-in-a-lifetime visit to this unique & magical destination. I had such an amazing time in the Galápagos Islands. It blew my mind! To read all about my adventure then check out the post on my 8-day Boat Tour. You can also read more about my time in Ecuador, such as my 3-day hike of the Quilotoa Loop & visit to the Cloud Forest in Mindo.
Interested to read more?
You can also Subscribe Here to get regular updates & special offers from Sue Where? Why? What?. I’d love for you to join me on my journey!
To see more of my photos from The Galápagos Islands please visit my Gallery page!