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The Galapagos Islands, straddling the equator 600 miles west of Ecuador in the Pacific, are among the few places on Earth where visitors can get a feel for what the world was like before the arrival of man.
The archipelago’s 18 islands and 107 rocks and islets, undisturbed by humans until the whaling era, are today a protected wildlife sanctuary and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
They're also an ecological wonder and among the planet’s most isolated landforms, home to a huge diversity of animals, including giant tortoises, iguanas, fur seals, hammerhead sharks, manta rays, penguins, sea turtles and an abundance of exotic birds. Some of these creatures exist nowhere else, and most of them exhibit no fear of humans.
Megaships are not permitted to land passengers in the islands, but many touring options are available via sailboats, motor yachts, live-aboard dive boats, small ships and expedition-style vessels carrying no more than 100 passengers. The islands are protected as a national park by the nation of Ecuador, and many regulations intended to help conserve their fragile ecosystems are in effect. Cruisers explore the islands from designated landing sites in groups of no more than 16, led by licensed naturalist guides.
A popular way to visit the Galapagos is via a cruise aboard any of several small-ship and expedition-style lines and ships that carry no more than 100 passengers, including Silver Explorer, Celebrity Xpedition and Ecoventura. In addition, charters are available, as are live-aboard boats for certified divers. Most vessels book up early for the high seasons: July, August, December and early January.
Here are the top cruise lines that call on the Galapagos:
A number of smaller cruise lines (not in our database) and smaller charters can also get you to the Galapagos.
If you take an expedition cruise on a small expedition ship, don't expect the kinds of amenities and creature comforts you'd find on a larger ship, such as a choice of dining venues, onboard activities, Internet cafes, casinos or the like.
Many hotels catering to tourists, both budget and high-end, have been established in recent years on the Galápagos’ inhabited islands. in fact, 35 percent of visitors now spend at least one night on land. Consider a post-cruise stay of a few days to explore the islands from a different point of view. Contact a Cruiseable travel professional for suggestions.
The biggest choice you’ll make, besides which vessel to cruise on, is how many days to spend exploring the islands. Much depends on your budget and the depth of your interest. Vessels typically visit two landing sites per day, with itineraries (which can be combined) focused on the north, central or south islands (described in order, north to south, below).
Each landing site features a unique environment and combination of wildlife species. While cruises as short as three nights are available, a 14-night itinerary is required for the greatest variety. There are two airports in the islands, one on the island of Baltra and one on San Cristóbal. You may fly into one and out from the other.
If you plan to give your children the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of a visit to the Galápagos, you may want to choose a vessel offering special programming for them. Lindblad Expeditions, which teams with National Geographic for these kinds of expeditions, offers special kids-only programs, including photo workshops and hands-on science and conservation projects.
If money’s no object, gather some friends and charter a yacht. Why not?
Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, an account of his momentous 1835 visit to the islands, is a very readable introduction to the observations behind his theory of natural selection, which rocked the Victorian world and continue to make waves in conservative religious circles.
The cruise lines provide meals as part of your itinerary. You'll also likely spend lunchtime on one or two days at restaurants in the towns, which serve local and international fare. In Puerto Aroya or other towns, don’t miss out on ceviche, lobster and other seafood specialties. Depending on the itinerary, you may also take your daytime meals on your cruise vessel. In the evening, swap tales over dinner with fellow ship passengers, some of whom may have gone on a different outing that day.
Cruises operate year-round. Weather is influenced by ocean currents, and what you’ll see in terms of wildlife activity varies according to the life cycles of individual species.
December to May is the warmer season, with daytime highs averaging in the high 70s to 80s. Afternoon showers are frequent, but the seas and wind are calmer. June to December is drier and cooler, with average daytime temperatures in the low 70s. During this season, the “garua” (fog) comes in, and seas are rougher. But hiking is more comfortable, and wildlife — particularly whales, whale sharks, dolphins and nesting albatross — are more active.
Wet season: The warm currents surrounding the islands December-April bringing calm seas, water temperatures in the 70s, daytime highs in the high 80s and sporadic rains. March is the hottest month and also the peak of the rainy season.
Dry season: Between May and November, the Humboldt and Peru currents arrive to plunge water temperatures into the 60s. Trade winds blow, a sea mist known as garúa sometimes sets in, and daytime temperatures are cooler, typically in the very comfortable lower 70s. Rain is infrequent.
High season: May, June and November to mid-January are the busiest months for tourism.
Cruises begin and end in the islands, and whether or not you arrange your flights or leave it to your cruise line, it’s advisable to arrive in Quito or Guayaquil, on the Ecuador mainland, at least two days in advance to avoid having your plans dashed by a canceled flight or other delay. It’s a 90-minute flight from Guayquil to the islands; add an hour if originating in Quito. Depending on your itinerary, you will fly in and out of airports on the islands of Baltra or San Cristóbal. Most visitors booked on a cruise or land tour are met by an escort and transferred to a departure point.
On larger vessels, transfers from ship to shore are made by water taxi in port towns and by Zodiac or other inflatable craft at uninhabited visitor sites.
Specific established areas on inhabited islands can be visited on your own. Otherwise, visitors are required to be accompanied by naturalist guides licensed at various levels of expertise. Some are trained only to enforce the rules (staying on designated paths, etc.), while others are highly educated experts in various biological fields. In general, top-tier guides are hired by top-tier cruise lines.
Documents needed: U.S. and Canadian citizens need a passport and a transit card (arranged by your cruise company). In addition, all visitors must pay a $100 cash fee, earmarked for conservation, upon arrival. Because of concerns about counterfeiting, bills over U.S. $20 are not accepted.
Language: Spanish is Ecuador’s native language, but English is widely spoken in the islands and by tour guides.
Currency: The U.S. dollar replaced the sucre as legal tender in 2000.
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"A zoologist's dream, the Galápagos Islands afford a once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness animals found nowhere else on the planet. … No one who has walked among these unique creatures will ever forget the experience."
"One of the most memorable scenes was a white sand beach on Floreana, where I sat on a bed of volcanic rock amid scuttling Sally Lightfoot crabs, mesmerized by turquoise wavelets lapping the shore. It seemed like a vision of earth in its early, Edenic days, and of the world as it could be."