I recently had the pleasure of spending two weeks in the Galapagos aboard the small cruise ship Camila. If you have the opportunity to go, I highly recommend it. Here’s a few tips for travel in the Galapagos.
Our Naturalist Guide summed up the experience well when he said, “This is not a vacation. It’s an expedition.” If you’re looking for a relaxing vacation comprised of sleeping in, shopping, going to the spa, and taking it easy, this might not be the trip for you. If, on the other hand, you want to view unique wildlife, go hiking and snorkeling, immerse yourself in the natural surroundings of uninhabited islands, and learn a lot about geology and ecology, there are few trips in the world that will satisfy your curiosity as well as a Galapagos expedition.
If you want to truly experience the Galapagos, the best way is to book a live-aboard ship. There are so many islands within the Galapagos, each with its own unique ecosystem, flora and fauna. You can only reach the majority of the islands by boat, and you can’t truly experience the Galapagos by booking one place to stay on land.
In my opinion, small vessels are the best in terms of getting to more places where large ships can’t go and in terms of getting up close and personal with the wildlife. Too many people at once would probably scare away some of the animals.
There are three major ocean currents that intersect in the Galapagos, and the water can get a bit rough. If you’re at all sensitive to motion sickness, I’d highly recommend booking a catamaran, which is significantly more stable than a mono-hull. If you’re at all worried about motion sickness, seek out the catamaran or tri-maran boats.
Plan on unplugging and tuning in to nature. Throughout most of our trip, we had no WiFi and no cell reception. Most of the islands are uninhabited with no technology of any kind. While you may be able to access a cell signal or get WiFi in a cafe in one of the two main ports on Santa Cruz island or Isabella island, it will be painfully slow and unreliable. If there is an emergency, the staff will be able to radio for assistance from the boat.
If you take advantage of all the excursions, hiking, and snorkeling opportunities, you’ll work up quite an appetite. Fortunately, the meals provided aboard the Camila were wonderful, as I imagine is the case aboard most of the ships in the Galapagos. The schedule varied each day based on the activities planned, but breakfast was usually around 7:00, lunch around 12:30, and dinner around 7:00. They always had cookies and crackers available for small snacks between meals. You’re not allowed to bring any food on the hikes, so as not to attract animals or insects.
The demographic on board our vessel was mostly fit and adventurous retirees. (About 75% of the guests were retired). I didn’t see any kids on board any of the ships we came across or amongst any of the other groups we crossed paths with on our hiking excursions. While some kids may certainly appreciate the experience, they definitely couldn’t count on any other kids to hang out with. Also, the cost is considerably steep and is charged per person, so bringing kids can significantly increase the total cost of the trip and would certainly need to be budgeted accordingly.
You must be fairly fit to make the most of this type of trip. You will be climbing in and out of pangas (small inflatable zodiac boats) multiple times a day. This is the only way to get on and off the ship for every excursion. You must be fit enough to swim and snorkel, hike, take walks over uneven and occasionally slippery terrain, and climb in and out of pangas (sometimes hopping into the water, climbing onto slippery rocks, or landing on sandy shores). There are multiple excursions centered around hiking & snorkeling everyday (or diving if you choose a dive boat).
Boats in the Galapagos are either licensed dive boats with scuba diving everyday or boats that do not allow diving. There are no mixed diving/snorkeling boats. We struggled with whether or not to book a dive boat or a “land and sea” cruise. Ultimately, we chose a land and sea tour on a boat that offered a lot of snorkeling and hiking excursions. So much of what we wanted to see in the Galapagos was the land-based wildlife such as the giant tortoises, blue footed boobies, flamingos and other interesting birds, penguins, marine and land iguanas, etc. We were told that much of the marine life that we’d want to see could be seen while snorkeling, which was true. On our first morning in the Galapagos, we snorkeled with sea turtles, penguins, marine iguanas, and even a massive manta ray. On other days, playful sea lions swam circles around us. We saw seahorses, half a dozen different types of rays, hammerhead sharks, Galapagos sharks, white tip reef sharks, octopus, eels, and a wide variety of fish. That being said, however, we’d love to also go back to the Galapagos some day to go scuba diving. It’d be wonderful to be able to stay down and hover near a seahorse while you focus your camera for that perfect shot. Also, there were a few things we didn’t see while snorkeling that we’d be more likely to see while diving, such as whale sharks (if we went during the right season).
If you do go, here’s a handy packing checklist of things you might want to take on your journey:
- Motion sickness medicine (The seas can be very rough, particularly during the dry season. Be prepared.)
- Small backpack for use on excursions. (Both hands must always be free when getting on and off the panga. You’ll need to put your camera, sunscreen, insect repellent, water bottle, etc. into your backpack.)
- Dry bag for cameras (I used a small dry bag that would fit in my backpack. Other people used a dry bag backpack.)
- Reusable water bottle to bring on excursions (The ship provided small aluminum ones. We preferred having a more insulated water bottle to keep the water cold.)
- Neoprene socks if you’re using the fitted-style fins provided by the ship
- Journal or notebook to take notes
- Breathable lightweight hiking clothes suitable for hot weather and rain (Jeans would not be comfortable on hot hikes. Dresses or skirts would make it difficult to get in and out of the panga.)
- Lightweight rain jacket
- Lots of sunscreen (It’s not easy to find after you arrive and very expensive if you do find it, so it might be worth checking a bag if for no other reason than to bring a full size bottle or two of sunscreen. Keep in mind that shopping opportunities are very limited. You’re maybe in a port with shops once every 3-4 days.)
- Insect repellant
- Must carry an epi-pen if you’re allergic to stinging insects
- Sun hat
- A good pair of hiking shoes with socks (Some of the terrain is rough, rocky and slippery. Some people wore running shoes. The important thing is that your shoes have good tread. There are some wet landings where you hop from the Panga into the water near the shore. Most people just took their hiking shoes off and landed barefoot with their socks and hiking shoes in their backpacks or tied around their necks. Towels were provided to dry off your sandy feet before putting your shoes on. I brought a pair of Keens, but found open hiking sandals uncomfortable because sand and pebbles got into them on some of the hikes.)
- Deck shoes (Hiking shoes are placed in a bin after each excursion, so have a pair of shoes to wear just aboard the ship. I wore flip flops, but some people wore other types of sandals, tennis shoes, or boat shoes.)
- Casual comfortable hot-weather clothes (You’re swimming, hiking, and sweating most of the day, so the dress was appropriately casual. No one on board bothered with makeup or doing their hair.)
Please click here to read my review of the Camila cruise ship.