The cruise itself
Beyond a relatively low bar of safety and cleanliness, the most important aspect of choosing a cruise is, in my opinion, the itinerary. Beginning in 2012 , all boats have pre-set 15-day itineraries that don’t visit the same island landing or snorkel spot twice during that period. (An exception is made for visiting population centers, such as Santa Cruz.) This was mandated to lessen the impact of tourism on the uninhabited islands and decrease the number of people on each island at the same time. Companies have the option of running a 15-day cruise, 2 non-overlapping 8-day itineraries, and a combination of shorter cruises. It might be useful to keep in mind that, given the logistics of airport transportation, any cruise is really 2 days shorter than is advertised. The first day is just an afternoon outing; the last day, just a morning outing. So a 5-day cruise is really just 3 full days at sea; a 4-day cruise, a mere 2 full days at sea. Since you’re going to spend all of the time and money to get to the Galápagos, shouldn’t you do it up right? I recommend a minimum of the 8-day/7-night cruises. We were on an 8-day cruise and, although we had a truly marvelous time, I was ready to head home at the end. It almost felt like my ability to experience any more new wonders was on overload. Or maybe I was just dog-tired. I imagine it’s hard to go wrong with any cruise 8 days or longer, as long as you consider the boat’s itinerary carefully.
This new requirement dramatically increased the challenges in choosing a 8-day itinerary (currently the most popular choice). The ability to visit the “Big 4” islands—Fernandina, the western shore of Isabela, Genovesa, and Española—all on the same 8-day cruse plummeted to zero. If all 4 of these fascinating islands are visited on one portion of a ship’s 14-night route, the remaining itinerary would only visit the more central islands—a serious disappointment for those travelers. Let’s say you don’t have infinite money and endless time to spend in the Galápagos, so you’ve ruled out the 15-day see-it-all cruise. How should you think about choosing an 8-day/7-night cruise, which in my opinion is a great way to go, knowing you’ll have to miss something special?
Speaking in broad generalizations, it appears that the majority of the boats are carving their 14-night cruises into variations on 2 routes: a “western” itinerary and an “eastern” (sometimes called “south/central”) itinerary. The western routes will typically focus on Fernandina and the western shore of Isabela. (Some even spend 3 days or more at various spots on Isabela, which is the largest island in the archipelago.) Fernandina and Isabela are the youngest, wildest, and most isolated islands, with the greatest amount of volcanic activity. (Rarely do volcanoes actually erupt, but you can see fumaroles.) You can even take a hike to the rim of a quasi-active volcano (Sierra Negra) on Isabela. The strange-looking Flightless Cormorant can only be found on these 2 islands as well. Galápagos Fur Sea Lions (a.k.a. fur seals, although they are really sea lions rather than true seals) can be found here as well. (Unlike the ubiquitous—and adorable—Galápagos Sea Lion, the fur sea lions are much harder to find. They feed at night and spend the days in the shade of rocky coasts. You most definitely will NOT be swimming the fur sea lions!) Three or more days on Isabela may seem like a long time to spend on one island. But what an island! And the snorkeling anywhere around those 2 western islands is fantastic—the best spots we snorkeled on either of our trips. You will not feel short-changed in any way if you do, except that, on most boats, you won’t get to see Waved Albatross on Española. You also won’t spend as much time with the playful Galápagos Sea Lions; these mammals love to loll on sunny, sandy beaches and the western islands don’t have as many of these as the eastern islands do.
The highlight of the eastern itinerary is Española. If you’re traveling between, say, April and mid-December, you can see the magnificent Waved Albatross at Española (Punta Suárez). With the exception of a small colony on an island just off the coast of Ecuador, these beautiful behemoths come to breed only at this spot. The only place on the planet! They begin to leave the colony in mid-December to spend the next 3 months or so soaring off the coast of Peru. The scenery at Española is lovely, so even if you’re traveling during Jan. through March, it’s not a disappointing visit. It’s just not quite the wildlife highlight it is when the Waved Albatross are there.
The major wild cards in these itineraries seem to be Genovesa and Floreana. Some boats put Genovesa on the eastern itinerary and some, on the western itinerary. Similarly, if Genovesa is on the eastern itinerary, Floreana is probably in the western itinerary—and vice versa. Genovesa is a marvelous island, with amazing opportunities to walk through—quite literally eye to eye—breeding colonies of Great Frigatebirds and all 3 species of boobies (Nazca, Blue-footed, Red-footed). It is also the easiest place to see Red-footed Boobies, although a small group can occasionally be seen elsewhere (e.g., Punta Pitt on San Cristóbal). You may also catch a glimpse of the Galápagos Fur Sea Lions on the rocky cliffs during Darwin Bay at Genovesa too, in case you don’t get to Isabela. Floreana is interesting if you’re intrigued by the human history of the archipelago. Post Office Bay has a great story from the times of whaling and you’ll see ruins of a Norwegian canning operation. I didn’t find the wildlife all that interesting there, although seeing Greater Flamingos nesting was quite an experience. However, snorkeling at Devil’s Crown (off Floreana) is great! It’s alleged to be one of the 2 best areas for snorkeling in the archipelago. But not all boats that go to Floreana snorkel at Devil’s Crown, so check carefully if that’s important to you.
You can now see that on either of the 8-day itineraries, you won’t be able to get to all of the “Big 4.” So you’ll have to make some tough choices. If wildlife is one of your major reasons to visit the Galápagos and you’re not dying to see the Waved Albatross (or if you’ll be traveling between mid-Dec. and late March), I suggest you look for an itinerary that includes Genovesa with the western islands, making it more of a “northwestern” itinerary. That’ll get you 3 of the “Big 4” islands. This recommendation is especially good if you’ll be traveling during the months that the Waved Albatross won’t be present on Española. As of early 2014, here’s a partial list of boats that go to Genovesa, Isabela, and Fernandina on an 8-day itinerary, ranging from tourist class to cruise ships: Guantanamera, Daphne, Floreana, Yolita II, Nemo II, Samba, the Tip Top fleet (Tip Tops II – IV), Eric/Letty/Flamingo I, Beagle, Grace, Cormorant, Athala, Isabela II, Eclipse. I’m sure a few others have this “northwest” itinerary, but this list gives you a place to start.
If you’re traveling during the breeding season of the Waved Albatross on Española (April – mid-Dec.), the choice is a much tougher one. If you’re desperate to get to Española as well as Isabela and Fernandina, a much smaller list of boats (as of early 2014) have a “southwestern” itinerary, which includes Española, Isabela, and Fernandina: ranging from first- class to cruise ships, Coral I & II (if you combine itineraries A & B), Queen Beatriz (but the Isabela landings are only in Puerto Villamil—nothing on the spectacular western shore or on Fernandina), Evolution, Ocean Spray, Eclipse (just a couple of Isabela landings), Islander, Celebrity Xpedition (only a couple of Isabela landings).
Finally, some boats carve their 15-day itineraries into 6-, 5-, and 4-day routes that can be mixed and matched for 9-, 11-, and 15-day routes. However, note that any combination will involve stopping mid-cruise to drop off and pick up travelers doing the shorter pieces. This can easily result in a more boring day, visiting a site in a town while you’re waiting for the new travelers to arrive at the airport and be transported to your boat. Some boats have even done this with their alternating 8-day cruises, breaking them into shorter options too. Again, if you choose one of these, you’ll have a stop back in civilization mid-way during the cruise to off- and on-load new travelers. Personally, I recommend looking for a continuous 8-day/7-night cruise, in order to spend as much time away from towns as you can. And one final word—if you’re planning your first trip to the archipelago, DO NOT sweat the specific itinerary too much. Any reputable boat will have an itinerary—especially an uninterrupted 8-day/7-night itinerary—that will afford you wonders beyond your imagination. Find a boat with an itinerary that interests you, that gets decent reviews (e.g., on TripAdvisor), and that fits your budget and travel schedule—and make a reservation. Then just sit back and get seriously excited about the amazing adventure that awaits you!
For people who are intent on seeing all of the bird species possible (you know who you are!), you will be better served by going on a special birding-focused trip rather than a more general cruise. Flightless Cormorants can only be seen on Fernandina and the western shore of Isabela; Waved Albatross, only on Española and only reliably between mid-March and mid-December; Medium Tree Finch, only in the Humid Zone of Floreana; the desperately endangered Mangrove Finch, only on southern Isabela (and good luck with that effort!). You’re likely to have to spend more money and go for more days (and what a pity that would be… NOT!).