Some general cruise considerations
Okay, let’s say you’ve decided to take a live-aboard cruise (since that’s what I know most about). Keep a few things in mind when you’re thinking about which one. The first thing people likely think of is “How much will it cost me/should I spend?” In the Galápagos, you typically get what you pay for. You can spend as little as $250 – $300/day; but by most reports, you probably don’t want to be anywhere near those boats. You can also spend as much as $800 or more/day for maximum luxury. But really—“cruising” in the Galapagos is unlike cruising anywhere else. You won’t spend much time in your cabin—it’s mostly just a place to change your clothes, take a quick shower, and tumble—head full of the day’s wonders and the marvels to come the next day—into bed. For that matter, you won’t even spend much time awake on the boat. Do you really want to spend that much money for luxury that will mostly just be incidental? In my opinion, you can get some first-rate boats and terrific itineraries for $350 – $400/day (booked in advance). Note that these prices are for 2012; they are likely to change with time, as do all prices. Later, you’ll see a link to a Web site for last-minute deals.
You need consider lots of other things besides the money you spend. Here are a few things to think about.
- The uninhabited islands have no restrooms or porta-johns. (Come on, now—you know you were wondering!) With only one exception, the outings on the islands didn’t last more than 2 hours. (The exception was the afternoon on Punta Suárez on Española, which spanned a bit more than 3 hours.) After each outing, we returned to the boat (and our own bathrooms). You’re not allowed to leave the path (which will be diligently enforced by your naturalist guide—Park regs!), for fear of causing some kind of disturbance of wildlife or vegetation. As a result, it would be difficult (not to mention environmentally problematic) to discreetly leave the group to “talk to a tree,” as my husband would say. No one in our group—and we were a group of aging Elderhostelers!—appeared to have any problems with the length of time on the outings. However, if you have difficulties going 2 hours or so with out a pit stop, you may need to have some alternative arrangements.
- If you’re traveling alone and want to take a naturalist cruise, you need to think carefully about your choice. Most boats levy a single supplement—an extra charge for a single person taking up a cabin that is meant to house 2 travelers. These supplements range widely but can sometimes be as high as 75% or 80%. Some boats allow you to volunteer to be matched with a single same-sex traveler; if you are willing to do that, they may waive the single supplement even if you’re not matched. But read the fine print carefully (or ask a lot of questions), because not all boats will waive the supplement in that case. For instance, Ecoventura’s Eric/Letty/Flamingo I still charge the full supplement if you’re not matched with a fellow traveler 60 days before you set sail. Some of the larger cruise boats may have single cabins with no or low supplements. However, the only small boat I know of that has no single supplement (at least as of this writing) is the lovely motor sailor the Mary Anne (which we sailed on for our 2013 return trip). You can read about and see photos of her by clicking the link under the header photo of the Giant Tortoise.
- On the other hand, if you’re traveling as a 3-person group—especially if one of the 3 persons is a child—you might be interested in investigating boats that offer triple cabins. Here’s a list of smaller boats (16 – 32 passengers) that sell at least one triple cabin, in alphabetical order: Anahi, Beluga, Coral I (36 passengers), Coral II, Cormorant, Daphne, Eric/Letty/Flamingo, Evolution, Galaven, Galaxy, Grace, Grand Odyssey, Maryanne, Nemo III, Odyssey, Ocean Spray, Reina Silvia, and Sea Man II. Some of these “triples” consist of a couch that can be turned into a bed—and suitable for shorter or younger folks. The larger boats are more likely to have larger triple cabins or cabins that can be connected more as suites.
- Nearly all cruises offer good snorkeling opportunities most days, typically between the morning and afternoon outings. (If you suspect you might not want to snorkel, look for a boat that has kayaks available. That way, you won’t completely miss out on the magic of interacting with the marine life in a quiet setting.) However, if you’re interested in diving, you’ll need to make other arrangements. Generally speaking, Park regulations don’t allow cruises to mix land outings and dive trips. You might be able to arrange with your crew to do a day trip dive when your cruise stops at one of the inhabited islands (e.g., Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz); however, you will miss out on whatever the rest of the group is doing during that period. You can also stay a few days after—or arrive a few days sooner—to do some diving day trips. Or you can arrange a live-aboard cruise dedicated just to diving; however, you will see little of the islands themselves on such a trip. I am not a diver, but I have heard many note that diving in the Galápagos Islands is definitely not for beginners; one diver recommend having logged at least 50 (some say even 100) open-water dives before even considering it. You can read more about day trips here (a dive shop that gets high praise for safety) or compare several live-aboard dive cruises here.
- Everyone who goes to the Galapagos comes home with thousands of photos. All landings proceed at a very slow pace, to allow for learning from the naturalist guide, enjoying the scenery, and taking photos. However, everyone needs to stay within sight of the naturalist guide, so you can only spend so much time at any one photo op. Yet some people are extremely interested in wildlife photography and want to as much time getting photos as possible. If you’re one of these, you might want to consider a photography cruise. These cruises often travel with a photographer on staff; they tend to get to the islands at the times of best lighting; and the groups take more time on photography than a typical cruise does. A few organizations that you might check out for photography cruises are Nat Geo (on the Endeavour), Ocean Adventures (on the Eclipse), and Natural Habitat (on the Letty). (I imagine there are others, but these give you a place to start.)
- Boat size is important. As in everything, there are pros and cons to any size of boat. The larger boats are likely to have more luxurious accommodations and more on-board activities than would smaller boats. If you are prone to motion sickness, a larger boat will probably be less problematic in heavy seas (as would a cabin below deck rather than higher up). You might consider a catamaran, since it would fare better in waves that hit the boat abeam (from the side). However, it would probably be more rocky if the waves were coming from ahead. (As a sailor, Z assessed that most of the motion we experienced was side-to-side; hence, a catamaran would have felt more stable most of the time.) You might also consider traveling between December and May, when the waters are calmer (although there are no guarantees that wild water won’t show up—it is the ocean, after all). Some of the large boats (> 40 passengers) are restricted from some important landings. Since everyone disembarks to the same landings, traveling with a larger group may feel like you’ve brought your own crowd with you to every spot. Or you may have to stagger the landings, to accommodate the entire group—some go to one spot; others go to another spot; and you switch once those outings are finished. The National Park mandates 1 naturalist guide for every 16 passengers; the larger boats have more than 1 naturalist guide. So even on the bigger boats, you probably won’t miss the opportunity to learn because of the bigger groups. The larger boats also offer a greater mix of people, so you can likely find folks you want to hang out with. The subgroups of 16 can select themselves to reflect specific interests, or faster/slower speeds, or a particular naturalist guide who fits your style. With the smaller boats, there’s no place to run and no place to hide—you need to hope that you can get along with most everyone and especially the naturalist guide(s). But 16 people (just about the smallest group on an 8-day cruise) was a very nice size for us and provided an extraordinarily intimate experience with the environment. Even up to 32 people would be manageable; I’ve spoken with people who were on that size boat and they had a great time too. (Make sure your boat has multiple pangas for ferrying people to land, in order to cut down on waiting time before and after an outing.) And 16- to 32-passenger boats are probably the most common. But larger than 32, consider the pros, cons, and itineraries carefully. The experience may not be the up-close-and-personal experience that most people are looking for.
- The thought of a cruise on a sailing yacht might sound intriguing and romantic, But keep in mind that the motor sailors in the islands rarely hoist their sails. In order to cover the distances to the various islands, even the sailboats travel under engine power most of the time. On our return trip in May, 2013 aboard the 3-masted barquentine Mary Anne, though, we had the chance to experience the hoisted sails 3 different times—and on the last day, she actually sailed completely under wind power for more than 2 hours. It was a truly magical experience, in part because my lifelong-sailor husband got to pilot this gorgeous boat for more than an hour while she was sailing. (You can read more about it on my report about the Mary Anne; a link can be found under the header photo of the Giant Tortoise.) Although there are several sailboats working the archipelago, the Mary Anne is the only one that seems to routinely raise her sails, at least for some period of time.