Mar 03 2012

The Five Ws to a Galapagos Islands Trip


After over ten years behind the scenes monitoring, investigating and arranging Galapagos Islands cruises and land-based packages, I thought it was high tide time to share some of these valuable aspects.

For those interested, you will find an important link at the bottom of this article for getting more information (as I purposely leave some mystery for the reader!).

WHERE – It’s obvious … or is it?!

Map of Galapagos Islands Visitation Sites

The Galapagos Islands, obviously! But the question is still a legitimate one. It’s a bit like saying you want to visit Puerto Rico … but where within this country?

The Galapagos Islands consist of 19 different islands (marine and/or land visits) that can be visited by tourists (there are others islands, but not where tourists are permitted). The archipelago itself really consists of 15 main islands, 3 smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets. All these are spread out over 7,880 km2 (3,040 sq mi) of land in over 45,000 km2 (17,000 sq mi) of ocean. In terms land area, that’s slightly less than the whole of Puerto Rico (who’s land area is 8,870 km2).

Within these different islands, there are over 70 different visitation sites (on land) and over 80 marines (scuba diving and/or snorkel) sites. So if my math is correct, there are over 150 different sites for tourists to enjoy in the archipelago!

It has taken numerous years and repetitive visits back to Galapagos to enjoy the majority (that’s right, still less than 100%) of these numerous sites. I ask, “how many have the luxury of returning to the Galapagos Islands more than once or twice?”

That being said, they are all interesting islands and sites, but some are more interesting (e.g., diverse, panoramic, unique) than others. For instance, you are not going to find the Galapagos Giant Tortoise, Galapagos Pengiun, Flightless Cormorant, Fur Seal, Red-footed Boobie in many places. On the other hand, you will get to enjoy Marine Iguanas, Sea Lions and Sally Lightfoot Crabs on the majority of islands.

For more information, feel free to read this related article. “What places in the Galapagos Islands are the best for viewing wildlife?”

Unless you plan on spending a month exploring all the corners of the archipelago, it is important to consider the most diverse and interesting tour itinerary – they are not all the same!

WHAT – What Makes the Trip Memorable and Interesting?

Travel Expectations: Anticipation versus Reality

I am not referring to ‘memorable & interesting’ as having to communicate with your naturalist guide using sign language or hand gestures due to his/her lack of  English, or worse yet, getting stranded on the high seas due to a poorly maintained vessel. What I am referring to is a truly enjoyable trip of a lifetime.

To start, the “success” of a trip to the Galapagos Islands greatly depends on some key factors – which start with one’s expectations.  Travelers have an array of expectations. Obviously you want to have realistic expectations (including all the advantages, disadvantages, up and downs etc). If your expectations are lower or spot on with the reality, chances are high that you will enjoy what you expected to. However, if your expectations do not match the reality, you may run into a snag! (more on this topic in this related article, “Expectations: Reality vs Anticipation”).

With your expectations correctly in line (this requires that you have accurate and up to date information), it boils down to some principal factors, such as the quality of the Naturalist guide (i.e., level of knowledge, English language skills and personal skills), the tour itinerary itself (i.e., what islands and visitation points you will be enjoying) and accommodation and amenities – be it a hotel or yacht (you want to try and avoid hotels with cockroaches or boats with strong diesel fumes!).

I will end this subsection by mentioning that not all Naturalist guides are alike (see related article, “Galapagos Islands Revisited – The Naturalist Guide Sets the Tone“). The very same holds true for tour itineraries and accommodations!

HOW – A Live Aboard Cruise, Land-based Package or what?

GPS-DAY-TRIP-MAPThere are really one of two ways to go about this: (1) a live aboard cruise; or (2) staying in a hotel (otherwise known as a ‘land-based’ or ‘combined’ tour). Each has its advantages and disadvantages – which is probably why more and more people tend to be combining a live aboard cruise with several days prior to (or after) the cruise on land in a hotel.

LIVE ABOARD – Most travelers go on a live aboard (cruise) that takes them to various islands, sailing at night and arriving in the morning at different visitation sites. The biggest advantage is that passengers are exposed to a wider variety of farther afield islands that generally have unique wildlife not commonly found on islands within day tour range.

The cruise cost generally covers all expenses, such as all meals, water, tea, coffee, accommodation, bilingual naturalist guided visits, transfers in Galapagos (Galapagos airport to boat and visa versa), and snorkel equipment (on most boats). Extras are such items as alcoholic & extra beverages, tips/gratuities. The disadvantage is that these are generally more expensive than land-based tour options.

LAND-BASED – Land based options involve setting up a base (or hotel) in one of the towns: (1) Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island (the most popularly chosen); (2) Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal Island; and/or (3) Puerto Villamil, Isabela Island. The advantage is that these options are generally less expensive than live aboard cruises.

Land-based tours are limited due to the distance that can be covered on any given day, as tourists leave and return back to same point. Therefore, the majority of the time is spent traveling to & from the point of interest. Unlike live aboard cruises, there is usually only one visit per day. Contrary to popular belief, one actually spends more daylight time travelling on the open water getting to and from the visit site than one would on a live aboard cruise!

More on this topic in this related article, “On a Budget (Land Based vs. Live Aboard)”

WHEN – When should I go?

Talc-soft white beach (Galapagos Islands)

When you have the opportunity! Obviously you cannot consider such an investment (yes, I consider the expense of a trip to the Galapagos Islands an investment … when done properly, an investment in a truly unique experience of a lifetime) when you don’t have the necessary funds saved up under your mattress. However, this doesn’t mean that you have to spend your life savings to accomplish a visit to the islands.

Let’s just say – for argument’s sake – that you do have a sum saved up to invest into the Galapagos Islands.

If you’re not flexible (e.g., family or work obligations) you are going to have to go when you have the window of opportunity – sorry, can’t help you with that! However, if you are flexible then you might want to take into consideration some of the following factors.

Timing influences not only the abundance (or lack thereof!) of available spaces, but the respective prices you will pay for these spaces. Galapagos Islands cruise spaces and rates have turned into something along the lines of the stock market. Spaces come and go, while prices go up and down.   It really boils down to supply and demand. While the number of beds (both hotel and yacht) remains very stable in the Galapagos Islands, it depends on the market demand.

When there is an excess of available spaces floating about, prices tend to drop. So when are the quieter periods in the Galapagos, you may ask. Although there are exceptions to the patterns established in the past ten years, August is the most popular month to visit; followed by July, March and June. Looking at the other end of the spectrum, September to November generally tend to be the least visited months for the Galapagos Islands.

Complete and detailed visitor statistics for the Galapagos Islands can be found in this related article, “Galapagos Statistics”.

The slight downside to the August through to late October period is that the seas are generally more turbulent – so if you are prone to sea sickness, please keep this in mind!

The Galapagos is visited all year round, but most people select the holiday / vacation periods (i.e., Christmas/New Year’s, Easter, summer holidays/vacations). These periods sell out up to one year in advance (or more!).

The warmest period (air & water temperatures) generally run from November through to April. The coldest (and generally has more turbulent seas) are generally September and October. June through September is normally characterized by the presence of whales in Galapagos (mainly off the coasts of the western islands of Isabela & Fernandina). February through to April are the most desirable months. During this period, the islands not only adopt an emerald-green color, and turn humid and balmy warm, but many species start reproducing now.

More extensive information on these and other important factors can be found in this related article, “Selecting Tips”.

WHY – Why visit the Galapagos Islands anyway?

The Blue Feet

Do you enjoy nature & wildlife, beaches, geology or general travel adventure? The memorable experience I have had on each returning trip to the Galapagos Islands are as live and clear in mind today as they were when I actually experienced them.

Without going into a long preamble, you might want to read this article, “5 Legitimate Reason to Visit the Galapagos Islands”.

WHO – Who else!

As a visitor …. YOU (and your loved ones) of course!

As a service and information provider … someone that you trust and that has years of proven experience (may I be so bold as to mention Sangay Touring®?)

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