Choosing a boat
To get you started, click here for one Web site that covers a number of different cruise options and provides each boat’s itinerary. Dates at the top of a description of any specific boat show when the itinerary information was updated, which is important as boats switch over to the new mandated 14-night itineraries. Here is another site that has a slightly different presentation, but similar information. And this Web site allows you to compare 3 different boats at a time—click on the “comparing this” button as you browse, then click on the “compare cruises” window on the left side of the screen to display the side-by-side comparisons of the 3 boats. (I’m not endorsing any of these organizations; they are just two of many that present information about the boats and their itineraries. Also note that, with almost 80 boats plying the waters, any one Web site will probably not list them all.)
When I was trying to figure out our return trip for 2013, I used all of the above Web sites for making our decisions about which cruise to take. For us, the itinerary was the most important consideration—we were heading back to do the western islands of Isabela and Fernandina. I also hoped that we might be able to repeat Genovesa, but that wasn’t a deal-breaker. After that, we wanted only a top tourist-superior or first-class category boat, and nothing bigger than 20 passengers. We also didn’t want too many repeated landings from our first trip. Finally, we were traveling with a single friend, so a small-to-non-existent single supplement was important. I made up an Excel spreadsheet, which you can download here. Keep in mind it has a lot of shorthand “notes to self,” so it may not be completely intelligible. But you can see how I set about this overwhelming task. Perhaps it will give you some ideas of how to get started on your own obsession. (You’ll find a likely even more helpful Excel spreadsheet that I made on the previous page that you can download and sort by more islands than just the ones we were interested in. Use the page numbers at the bottom of this page to click back to p. 6.)
With most of the cruises, you get what you pay for. One of the most critical aspects of your cruise will be your naturalist guide(s). That person can make or break your trip. You want someone who is knowledgeable, friendly, enthusiastic, motivated, and English-speaking. Frills and luxuries aside, “economy” and “tourist” boats are more likely to have less experienced and less well-qualified naturalist guides, whose English may not be as good as you’d want. “First-class” and “luxury” boats typically have the highest level of naturalist guides (referred to as Level III) and English should not be a problem. Since the naturalist guide really is your eyes, ears, and brain on the trip, I strongly suggest you book either a first-class (which our boat was) or a luxury boat if at all possible. If you’re not one of those making reservations many months or years in advance, this Web site lists boats that has openings in the near future. Here’s another one that has a nice presentation of information. (Note that I can’t vouch for the service of these Web sites, since I’ve never used them to book a cruise.) Not all boats are listed and prices are likely not as low as you could get if you waited truly until the last minute to book, either in Quito or Puerto Ayora. But you can get an idea of what availabilities might look like if you’re traveling in the near future.
For those who are interested in dealing with tour companies respected by the locals, Carol Ann Bassett’s book Galapagos at the crossroads: Pirates, biologists, tourists, and creationists battle for Darwin’s cradle of evolution (2009) has provided one list.
Following are some tour companies that knowledgeable Galápagos residents recommend: Aggressor I & II Fleet, Andando Cruises, Columbus Travel, Deep Blue Galápagos, Ecoventura, Enchanted Expeditions, Integrity Galápagos Yacht, Kensington Tours, Latin Tour, Lindblad Expeditions, Metropolitan Touring, Ninfa Tour, Scuba Iguana, Tip Top Cruises, Xpedition Cruises, Yacht Daphne, Yacht Darwin, and Yacht Eden. (p. 293)
Each boat has an itinerary set by the Parque Nacional Galápagos that determines the schedule of which islands it visits and in what order. Itineraries are absolutely critical. Unless you’re on a 15-day cruise, the boat will have to miss some islands. For instance, only a small number of 8-day cruises get to the 4 most isolated islands: Isabela and Fernandina in the west, Genovesa in the north, and Española in the south. Personally, I think Española and Genovesa are absolute gems and should not be missed, if at all possible. However, I’m a birder and those islands are renown for their amazing sea bird nesting colonies. You may have different priorities. Regardless, the boat’s itinerary is absolutely critical to consider when choosing a cruise. Below, I’ve noted some of the highlights of each island, which may give you some things to think about as you ponder your choices. This Web site allows you to sort boat itineraries by a specific island that you might be interested in. (Keep in mind that itineraries may change—with the big change of 2-week itineraries taking place in 2011. We’ll have to see if they keep this great feature updated.)