© 2018 Yacht Isabela II
Choose Wisely: Trip planning before you book a tour to the Galapagos Islands
Galapagos Islands Map
You’ve dreamt of it for a lifetime. The Galapagos Islands. A place where history has been made. For centuries, home to pirates and whalers, but mostly to highly unusual fauna, inspiration for Darwin’s theory as presented in On the Origin of Species. And one of the few places on Earth where the wildlife shows no fear of humans, meaning you can observe it from just a few metres away. You want to see and do everything. But with so many options available in this magical, exhilarating, iconic destination, you know there will be some trade-offs.
How to determine what works best for you? How to separate the essential from the merely beautiful? The transformative from the enticing? The perceptions from the realities…
Perception: Cruise ships are too massive for exploring Galapagos.
Reality: In other parts of the world, cruise ships can, indeed, be massive. But in Galapagos, the largest ships hold a maximum of 100 passengers and are perfect for exploring the islands. The options range from single-guided boats, with approximately 6-10 cabins, to two different types of multi-guided ships: Expedition yachts (approximately 16-24 cabins) and expedition vessels (over 24 cabins).
TRAVEL EXPERT TIP: Ask about your ship’s capacity.
Perception: Mass tourism is damaging the Galapagos National Park.
Reality: The Galapagos National Park strictly controls the number of visitors allowed to visit the area each year, making the archipelago one of the most highly protected and monitored destinations in the world. As a result, the total number of people staying on live-aboard ships over an entire year is close to 75,000… and that is less than what a world-class sports stadium holds at just one sold-out event!
TRAVEL EXPERT TIP: Ask about how tourism helps the Galapagos National Park.
Perception: I’ve done a great deal of sailing in calm harbours, so I guess in the tropical waters of Galapagos my boat won’t move enough to cause me any discomfort?
Reality: Stability can make all of the difference and it is a strong feature of an expedition vessel. Contrary to common assumption, tropical waters are not always calm and an expedition vessel, by its very nature, reduces movement at sea. Single-guided boats often face interesting challenges when sailing between islands.
TRAVEL EXPERT TIP: Ask what kind of ship will be the most comfortable for you.
Perception: I can go on any ship. After all, they all cover the whole archipelago.
Reality: Not all ships reach all of the islands you might want to visit, such as Genovesa, Fernandina, Española and North Seymour. The archipelago covers a vast area of 138,000 km² (about half the size of Great Britain) and the ship and the itinerary that you choose will determine how you access the unique wildlife.
TRAVEL EXPERT TIP: Ask which itinerary or programme will give you the best island and wildlife coverage.
Perception: Only single-guided boats let you select full-week trips.
Reality: Expedition vessels, yachts, and land-based options offer a wide variety of choices for voyage length. You choose what’s best for you with itineraries that range from 5 to 15 days. You can even combine two shorter itineraries to make sure you get the island coverage you want.
TRAVEL EXPERT TIP: Ask about the best trip date and length for you.
Perception: Single-guided boats get exclusive access to secluded National Park locations and do not share the islands with other visitors.
Reality: At each visitor site, you will generally find more than 4 single-guided boats per visitor site or only 1 expedition vessel. Why? Because according to Galapagos National Park (GNP) rules, each visitor site has its own maximum number of guests permitted at any given time. Careful itinerary design, not ship size, is what ensures exclusivity and top wildlife viewing opportunities on island visits.
TRAVEL EXPERT TIP: Ask about your ship’s Galapagos Exclusivity Rate.
Perception: If I want to go ashore in a small group, I must go on a small ship.
Reality: The Galapagos National Park official regulation authorizes 16 or fewer guests per guide. On expedition vessels, the number of guests per guide comes down to an average of just 12.
TRAVEL EXPERT TIP: Ask about the Guide/Guest Ratio on your ship.
Perception: If I travel on a cosy single-guided boat, all my travel mates will be congenial and we will get along just fine.
Reality: Not necessarily, unless you have chartered the entire single-guided boat. Expedition vessels and yachts give you the freedom to find your own space when you want it or to seek out different guests for company while dining or when you want a friendly conversation.
TRAVEL EXPERT TIP: Ask about any special interests you may have. Ask if your ship has both an expedition leader and a hotel manager to ensure that everyone in your party is comfortable and their specic needs are well attended.
Perception: All guests on single-guided boats speak my language and so language issues will not affect my experience.
Reality: Not everyone on a single-guided boat will necessarily speak your language. Naturalist Guides are generally multilingual and on single-guided boats, they often must repeat information in two or more languages each time they go ashore. Expedition vessels and yachts, with multiple Naturalist Guides, are better able to handle varied language requirements. This means that each group can receive more in-depth, outstanding natural history interpretation in various languages.
TRAVEL EXPERT TIP: Ask how many guides are on your ship.
Perception: I’m in great shape. Basic first aid on board is enough for me.
Reality: Lucky for you if you enjoy constant good health, but having an MD Officer (Doctor) on your vessel can make all the difference, considering that you’re travelling in a remote region. All operators watch out for the safety and security of their guests, and the National Park authority has its own facilities and emergency medical transport available. But some operators take guest safety to another level by investing in a permanent medical presence on board.
TRAVEL EXPERT TIP: Ask if there is a Medical Ofcer on board.
Perception: With so few guests on board a single-guided boat, I´ll never feel cramped.
Reality: If it’s space and freedom you want, take a look at the Guest Space Ratio (GSR), a cruising industry benchmark designed to show how much room each guest has on any given ship and provide a common number that can be compared from ship to ship. Divide the ship’s gross tonnage by the total guest capacity. Anything above a GSR of 20 is considered comfortable.
TRAVEL EXPERT TIP: Ask about the Guest-Space Ratio! Ask for detailed information about your ship’s facilities and where you can go, besides your cabin, when you want some extra space?
Perception: I can do any Galapagos National Park approved activity I want, whenever I want, no matter how I visit the islands. Reality: There are numerous ways to explore and have fun in Galapagos. With land-based travel, you have greater scheduling options for any activity ocurring outside the park boundaries. But if you want to visit any sites within the park limits, it’s important to remember that the National Park Authorities require that you do so accompanied by a licensed Naturalist Guide, which means you will have the greatest flexibility on multi-guided expedition vessels and yachts.
TRAVEL EXPERT TIP: Ask if more than 1 activity is available at the same time.
Perception: Single-guided small boats can leave a lower environmental footprint.
Reality: Actually, the fewer people on board, the higher the environmental footprint per person. It’s a question of basic economies of scale: the inevitable carbon footprint of the vessel, when divided by the number of guests on board, falls dramatically on multi-guided expedition vessels versus single-guided boats. Expedition vessels additionally reduce their footprint on protected areas by investing in cutting-edge technology, training, plastic reduction, solid waste management, and clean processes, many of which are impossible to implement on single-guided boats due to space reasons. Finally, by undergoing regular environmental-impact audits by local authorities, and even third parties, multi-guided expedition vessels guarantee compliance with international standards.
TRAVEL EXPERT TIP: Ask your operator about its environmentally-friendly initiatives, on-board technology, and sustainability awards.
Perception: Single-guided boats give you more personalized service on board.
Reality: Expedition vessels have an entire team devoted to making sure that onboard hospitality is everything you need it to be. The Hotel Manager and Expedition Leader, supported by a dedicated staff, cater to guest requirements in terms of languages, special meals, and other speciﬁc requests, as you would expect in any ﬁne tourism establishment. A highly-trained staff makes all the difference in your onboard experience.
TRAVEL EXPERT TIP: Ask if your boat has an onboard Hotel Manager and Expedition Leader.
Perception: Inexpensive non-reputable operations can deliver outstanding experiences.
Reality: Galapagos is close to all of our hearts, but it’s actually a highly remote destination and experience matters! Safety protocols, area knowledge, navigational records, logistics management, and more can only be mastered after many years of operations in the same place. Crafting a dream journey deserves a top operator.
TRAVEL EXPERT TIP: Ask how much time the tour operator has worked in the Galapagos Islands.