This set of pages offers some things to consider as you make probably the most important decision of your trip—how to travel around the islands. It’s certainly not an exhaustive list, but it presents some issues I came across in our trip or in talking with other people about their experiences. Should you do a live-aboard cruise or a land-based tour with day trips to various islands? What kind of things should you think about when considering all of the options for live-aboard cruises? Assuming you can’t get to all of the islands, what islands are best known for unusual species? What about other “must see” aspects of the islands? Keep in mind these are just my opinions and our experiences, mixed with some of what I’ve learned from other people. Perhaps these points will help you to think about what’s really important to you on your trip.
Land-based travel or a live-aboard cruise?
In the Galápagos Islands, you can either take a live-aboard cruise or do day trips from 1 of the inhabited islands (Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, or Isabela)—sometimes referred to as “island-hopping.” Let me say a few words about the day trip option before moving to live-aboard cruises. If you are desperately prone to motion sickness and none of the remedies works for you, day trips might be an option to consider. Also, if you are traveling with young children who wouldn’t do well cooped up for long periods of time on a boat and handle getting in and out of pangas and walking 2-3 hours twice a day, day trips might be the way to go. You have more control over when you go to places, although flexibility is important since some of the more popular day trips may be sold out. You also probably get a better sense of what life on the Galápagos Islands is like for the human inhabitants if you stay in hotels and book day trips. (But really—is THAT why you’re spending all this money to get to the Galápagos Islands? Probably not, for most people.)
Some downsides accompany this choice, though. You spend a good amount of daylight (2+ hours one way!) simply traveling to and from the island you’re visiting on an often-bumpy speedboat. If the seas are especially choppy, seasickness appears to be common. On a live-aboard cruise, you travel primarily during lunch or after dark, so you hit each landing ready to go. Because of the travel time, you can only visit one island, with only one landing each day; on a cruise, you make two landings each day (with snorkeling, kayaking, and swimming options in between). Day trips to separate islands are only available from Santa Cruz and only to a few of the central islands. (For example, you can’t do day trips to Fernandina, the western shore of Isabela, Genovesa, or Española.) Day trips from Santa Cruz are to Bartolomé, N. Seymour, Santa Fé, S. Plaza, and Floreana. All of these except Floreana visit the same sites as the cruises do. But the Floreana trip goes only to the inhabited highlands and a less spectacular snorkeling area, not visiting Post Office Bay or snorkeling at the spectacular Devil’s Crown. On the islands available for day trips, the wildlife live further from the paths and you’ll likely see more people on the landings. The cruise boats typically get the better early morning or late afternoon time slots, when wildlife (especially the warm-blooded critters) are likely to be more active; land-based tours are left with the less desirable mid-day slots (when, especially during the warm/wet season, the temperatures will be the most uncomfortable for both humans and wildlife and the light, the harshest for photography). Plus, on a live-aboard boat, you really get away from the hustle and bustle of civilization (yes, that exists even in the Galápagos!) and get a broad sense of the archipelago, the desolate islands, the expansive ocean, and the vast diversity. If you’re still thinking about a land-based experience, you can read some good information on TripAdvisor, here.
Parque Nacional Galápagos offers a nice map of the visitor sites—both marine and terrestrial—on the archipelago, classified as restricted (special permission needed), intensive (accessed only via a naturalist cruise or with a certified guide), cultural-educational (unrestricted), and recreational (unrestricted). If you click on the site name, you read a short write-up about that site. Click on the button beside “site names” under the zoom bar to display the site names on the map. On a land-based tour, you can visit the latter two categories on your own—no certified guide is needed. As noted above, you can also do day trips to a few of the intensive sites via day trips from Santa Cruz.