A Last Minute Galapagos Cruise

“So what do you want to do for your birthday then?” Josh said, as we journeyed across the Ecuadorian countryside on yet another long bus ride. With only a week to go before I turned 26, the options were becoming somewhat limited. And after volunteering in Cuenca for five months last year, I'd been to most places in Ecuador that I'd wanted to visit.

Later that afternoon, finally off the bus and ensconced in our chosen hostel for the night, I came across Josh googling the prices of flights to the Galapagos. I looked closer at the screen.

“Hang on – these are for a departure on March 3rd. A day before my birthday…”

He glanced up at me with just a hint of a grin. “I thought it might be a good idea. Who wouldn't want to spend their birthday in the Galapagos?”

And somehow, only fifteen minutes later, we'd booked two return flights to the islands.

The Galapagos, take two

I know what you're thinking. Didn't she go to the Galapagos already? And you'd be right.

Last June, I flew to Ecuador's most famous islands and spent six days trying to experience the best of the Galapagos as cheaply as I could. And I managed to do so with only $900, something I was very proud of.

So clearly heading there a second time is a little bit extravagant. But first off, it was a birthday present to myself, and secondly, a lot of people don't realise that a trip to the Galapagos isn't actually such an overwhelming expense.

When we arrived on Santa Cruz island, there were hundreds of Ecuadorians enjoying a week long holiday, presumably because they get time off work around carnaval – and it certainly explains why Josh and I scored such cheap flights from Guayaquil. In actual fact, the flight is the most expensive element of a Galapagos holiday. Once you arrive on Santa Cruz there are enough beautiful beaches, restaurants and hours of beautiful weather to warrant a great holiday, without even stepping foot on a cruise ship or even another island.

With a return flight of $330 (or £198) and a week of accommodation in one of the cheaper hostels, it equates to the same value as many other summer holiday destinations.

But I digress. The real reason I so readily decided to fly back for a second Galapagos visit was because there was a huge element I'd missed out on the first time around: the Galapagos cruise.

Before he'd even arrived in South America, Josh had earmarked enough money to warrant going on a cruise in the Galapagos, which gave me all the more incentive to accompany him.

So once we arrived in the tiny town of Puerto Ayora, we spent three days in the offices of various travel agents, alternately sweating in warm fan-turned heat and luxuriating in air conditioning, but always with the same question on our lips: how good a cruise deal could we get?

Getting a good Galapagos cruise: the process

If you want to get a good deal on a last minute Galapagos cruise, it's not as simple as just taking the first price that's offered to you. There's a large amount of time, research, bargaining and compromise involved too – not to mention the inescapable hurdles that the Galapagos National Park confronts you with. Such as the discovery that they've recently changed the cruising routes, allowing boats a three week window to sail the west side of the archipelago only and then three weeks in the east. It gives each side a three week break from the gaggles of tourists and cruise boats that routinely interrupt the wildlife.

Luckily Josh and I already knew we wanted to spend our time in the east side, which was the only side open when we arrived. Our interest lay in quite a few islands – San Cristobal, Española, Floreana and Santa Fe to the east, Isabela and Fernandina to the west – but obviously some choices had to be made, as we couldn't fit it all in.

Then there were the questions: how many days/nights for how much money? How long on each island and how much time spent snorkelling in the water? How big is the boat and what class is it? Does the guide speak English?

As we drifted from office to office, we built up an idea of what kind of prices we were looking at – anything from seven days for close to $1000 on an averagely alright boat, to $500 for just a few days on a much nicer boat.

At some point we even found ourselves bargaining for the exact same cruise at two different agencies with wildly differing prices that were “absolutely the last price I can do – because the captain is a friend of mine”…

Eventually we settled on a trip we were both happy with: three nights aboard the Aida Maria, heading for Floreana, Española and San Cristobal islands for $550 each. This particular cruise was an eight day tour but had already been journeying around the islands for five days when we boarded, meaning we spent three nights, two full days and one morning living the cruise lifestyle.

Which entails… what, exactly?

What to expect from a Galapagos cruise

Within seconds of stepping off the small zodaic that brought us from shore, I realised just how different boat life was going to be. All shoes were confined to a box on the outside deck – “bare feet at all times on board,” said Jennifer, our guide for the next few days.

She showed us around the interior of the boat, which didn't take long; a walk through the main indoor cabin, replete with two long tables laid with cutlery and linen napkins; a white board on one wall with a breakdown of the day's activities in black marker; and a small bar in one corner, where a teenager stood in a white shirt, cleaning glasses.

“Fernando is the barman on board – he'll help you with anything you need,” Jennifer explained, as Fernando smiled shyly at us.

Another white shirted man cleared his throat behind us, my backpack in one hand and Josh's in another – “disculpe” – and Arnando disappeared down a steep flight of steps to what eventually transpired as our cabin.

One of four downstairs cabins, our little three night home was comprised of two bunk beds and five steps-worth of floor space until we stood in the snug bathroom. But it was clean and cool, with fresh yellow sheets and two towels each daily – more than sufficient for a couple of backpackers.

We headed back upstairs at the sound of a bell ringing. Dinner time, apparently – although the bell quickly came to control our boat lifestyle, particularly when we found it nigh on impossible to distinguish whether the sound was for a fifteen minute warning or for a “we're on the zodiacs now and we're missing everything so HURRY UP!”.

Back in the main cabin, we shook a number of hands and heard a number of names that I immediately forgot. Josh and I brought the passenger count to fifteen: two women from Germany, a couple from Austria in their late twenties, a middle aged Australian couple, an elderly Belgian couple and five retired Canadians headed by the indomitable Mary Lee, a naturalist and avid bird watcher, who's been bringing Canadians on Galapagos cruises for the last decade.

Dinner was huge; a buffet of rice, potatoes, meat, broccoli and cauliflower, followed by ice cream for dessert. Because most of our fellow passengers were in the older age range, not many people went back for second helpings – which also meant that, after days of eating cheap and insubstantial menu del dias, Josh and I actually felt full. It was a joyous moment.

Setting sail on the Galapagos

At some point in the night, I awoke with my head very close to a wooden ceiling and the distinct sound of metal being dragged exhaustingly against the side of… something? Was it a boat?

There was light coming from my right, and as I turned my head I realised I was looking through a porthole. The first rays of sun were just beginning to glimmer on the thin strip of visible sea. Yep – I was most definitely on a boat.

No sooner than I'd turned back over and been swallowed up by sleep again, a bell began to ring. With still barely any light on the water outside, we stumbled up the stairs to a chorus of good mornings from the other passengers. Early starts are the norm on a cruise, apparently.

A full breakfast of eggs, ham, toast, fruit and coffee is not the easiest thing to digest at 6am, but the temptation was just too great. That, and knowing that the sea air always makes you hungry, was enough to make me devour a plateful.

So, after donning my bikini and spreading suncream on every available portion of skin, I grabbed my requisite numbered bag filled with snorkelling gear and boarded the zodiac that waited patiently at the back of the boat.

The two full days we spent on the cruise rushed by at an incredible speed. We walked through the rocky landscape of Isla Española, passing nesting birds, skittering crabs, lounging sealions and an innumerable amount of iguanas, all basking in the sun with their eyes closed in pleasure.

We spent an entire morning wandering Isla Floreana, visiting Post Office Bay, where sailors used to leave their letters in the hope that a passing ship would be heading in the address's direction. It's now used exclusively by tourists, but the sentiment is still just as strong.

From the sides of the indomitable zodiacs, we watched blue footed boobies posing on rocky outcrops, adult sealions sunning themselves, and their babies playing in the protected shallows.

We jumped into stunningly blue waters and snorkelled with bulging headed parrot fish, languid rays and even a few sharks.

On more than one occasion, we found ourselves dangerously close to dozens of jellyfish; thin transparent strips that seemed completely insubstantial but left pricks of pain on the surface of my arms, my legs, my stomach.

And after every reboarding of the boat, we would rush down to our cabin and immediately jump into the shower, before heading back up to the main interior for another huge buffet lunch. In fact, with all the snorkelling sessions and multiple hot showers a day, I spent more time in the water than out of it.

By the time the sunset began each evening, we were safely back on board, suitably exhausted and ready for an early night, the boat making its slow way through the water as we slept.

So was the cruise worth it?

I have the privileged position of being able to compare the two methods of exploring the Galapagos: by cruise boat, and on day trips. While both have their merits and their downsides, there's no doubt that researching them both is a huge factor when deciding which is the better choice for you.

Last year I spent a week on Santa Cruz island and took day trips to two more; San Cristobal and Isabela. While the first island more than exceeded my expectations, swimming with sharks, baby sealions and giant turtles all in one day, my time in Isabela wasn't as great. A large part of the trip was on land, with the major sights being iguanas, mangroves and an inland turtle sanctuary. I left the islands knowing I was ultimately keener on the water-based elements of the Galagagos.

This year, spending two days on a cruise boat meant more proximity to the water and my snorkelling gear, and offered an influx of activities that I would otherwise not have been able to do. But I also felt like my time was very limited, with every minute of the day accounted for. It meant that when Josh and I suggested swimming in a gorgeous bay instead of walking along it, as the itinerary stipulated, the other passengers seemed a bit concerned.

Were we really rocking the boat that much?

It seems very easy to get dragged into a mindset where you're unable to think for yourself on a Galapagos cruise. In fact, many of the passengers on board our boat seemed more than happy to have every move decided for them; such is the nature of this kind of trip, I guess.

The most important thing to bear in mind is that, regardless of taking a cruise or opting for day tours, a trip to the Galapagos is ultimately based on a certain level of risk. There's no way anyone can guarantee you'll see multiple schools of sharks at Kicker Rock in San Cristobal, or if you'll ever be swimming with giant turtles or baby sealions. In fact, with climate change becoming an ever more present factor, there are less and less animals around for tourists to see.

A final cruising opinion

When I try to compare and contrast the different factors of cruising or daytripping and come to a conclusion, I fall short. It's impossible to quantify why a cruise is worth it.

For two backpackers, it was feeling like our possessions were totally safe, being presented with linen napkins at dinner, and having a seemingly unlimited supply of food. For others, it was the chance to see more exotic animals in the wild over the course of a week than they'd probably ever seen.

But regardless of the personal reasons for exactly why, talking to the other passengers on board resulted in the same unanimous opinion; the Galapagos cruise was entirely worth it.

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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24 Responses to A Last Minute Galapagos Cruise

  1. Stephen March 20, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

    Thinking about cruising the Galapagos? I’m fortunate that my business affords me the occasional opportunity to travel on cruise ships, mostly to Europe and South America, but now and then to the Caribbean or South Pacific. I used to use sites like Travelocity to book my cruises, but I stumbled upon the better way to find deals: go to the second level sites who compare 14 of the major cruise line sites in one single search. You’ll not only see Royal Caribbean or Princess deals, but ALL OF THEM in one place.

    I must have saved over 4,000 Euros since I started using them. I sincerely believe that using only one of the top booking sites is not necessarily the best idea.

    • Flora March 27, 2014 at 4:00 am #

      Thanks for your comment Stephen – however I’d appreciate it if you didn’t leave links to external sites in your comments as it looks pretty spammy. Cheers and enjoy all the cruise ships!

  2. Dyanne@TravelnLass March 20, 2014 at 7:04 pm #

    Firstly… “…It gives each side a three week break from the gaggles of tourists and cruise boats that routinely interrupt the wildlife.”

    Woo-HOOO! Absolutely BRILLIANT conservation policy. And I imagine those wondrous turtles, sea lions, booby birds et al – think it’s even better. ;)

    That said, yet another great Galapagos review Flora – thanks! As I now live in Cuenca, clearly those luscious isles will now be in my cross-hairs sooner rather than later.

    My only regret is that you didn’t come up with a definite “pro” for either style (as I read it, I was soooo hoping you’d come out strongly pro for one or the other).

    So, I think maybe… as I have the time, I might just try both in one trip – say a 3 night cruise, followed by a week doing day trips. (and yes, I too think nearly 3 days corralled on a boat with 14 other folks, jumping to attention at bells… would be plenty) ;)

    Whatcha think?

    • Flora March 27, 2014 at 4:02 am #

      Ahh you’re living in Cuenca! Hope you’re having an incredible time there – it’s definitely still one of my favourite South American cities, even after a year of travelling around the place.

      Yep I think that sounds like a perfect plan. Ultimately if people are budget conscious enough to not do a 7 or 8 day cruise but still want a taster of the cruise lifestyle, what I’ve ended up doing is probably the best option. Combining a short cruise with a couple of day trips to other islands means you get the best of both worlds and still don’t feel like you’re too out of pocket.

      • Dyanne@TravelnLass March 27, 2014 at 4:09 am #

        Yes Flora – I spent the past near 3 years living in Asia (Vietnam and Thailand) but recently moved here to Cuenca and I’m really liking it (esp. a far easier language to learn than Thai or Vietnamese!) ;)

  3. Poi March 20, 2014 at 10:47 pm #

    While I hate the idea of a strict itinerary I think I’d have to go for a cruise if (should read when) we went to the Galapagos, as close to the water as possible at all times.

    When’s the third visit going to be??

    • Flora March 27, 2014 at 4:09 am #

      Hmm there are no immediate plans for a third visit..! I think I may have had my fill of the Galapagos for the time being.

  4. Bronwyn March 21, 2014 at 6:03 am #

    Happy Birthday! Looks like you made the right decision. :)

    • Flora March 27, 2014 at 4:08 am #

      Haha thanks Bronwyn – I like to think so :p

  5. TammyOnTheMove March 21, 2014 at 4:05 pm #

    I absolutely loved the Galapagos when we went a few years ago. I only went there for 3 days though which wasn’t really enough. Would love to go back one day to explore the rest of the islands I haven’t seen the first time round.

    • Flora March 27, 2014 at 4:08 am #

      Ah yeah, I really don’t think three days is enough. Were you guys on a cruise or staying on Santa Cruz?

  6. Vasudha Aggarwal March 26, 2014 at 6:31 pm #

    Great article Flora. And the pictures are beautiful.

    • Flora March 27, 2014 at 4:06 am #

      Thanks so much Vasudha! I’m glad you enjoyed the article :)

  7. Tina April 3, 2014 at 4:55 am #

    Great pictures…. Seeing and swimming with many of the wildlife including penguins, sea lions, dolphins. Driving through ocean surrounded by volcanoes on all sides. That’s what I really miss in Galapagos.

    • Flora April 3, 2014 at 5:17 pm #

      Swimming with so much wildlife was definitely a huge element of why I enjoyed the Galapagos so much! Glad it resonated with you, Tina :)

  8. Ally April 9, 2014 at 11:45 pm #

    Looking to visit the Galapagos in the next few weeks so this is massively useful, thank you! Currently planning to try Quito first for a last minute deal, then if no luck just head on there.

    Was the tour you did long enough? We were thinking more like 7/8 days…but then the cost doubles!

    • Flora April 15, 2014 at 10:34 pm #

      Great stuff Ally, glad it helped you out a bit! Honestly, I think I would’ve prefered a couple more days on board – but then again we only a full two days and three nights. I reckon four or five days on board would be sufficient, and the cost is a good midway point between the cruise we did and the 7/8 day option.

  9. Laura April 10, 2014 at 7:51 pm #

    I also did the Galapagos cruise a few years ago and we got a really good last minute deal from one of the small agencies. I recommend taking one of the middle-sized boats, I think ours had around 30-40 people including the crew. Snorkelling next to the further, younger islands was the for sure the best part of the trip. I snorkelled with baby sealions, penguins and marine leguanas, amazing! For Galapagos I recommend taking the cruise but also it’s worth having some time on your own to explore the islands that can easily be explored on your own. Wow, the most amazing nature destination I’ve ever been to!

    • Flora April 15, 2014 at 10:41 pm #

      Great suggestions Laura – when I was in Santa Cruz the only boats on offer were with much smaller capacities, but I reckon if there’d been a good deal for the 30/40 people I might well have considered it. Did you sort out your trip on the islands themselves?

  10. Grandstan April 28, 2014 at 4:31 am #

    Great review, and I plan on doing the last minute cruise thing also, but your review didn’t make it clear whether your price of $550 x 2 for 3 night cruise included airfare from Quito, $100 park entrance fee, $10 migratory care, or other expenses. In other words, what was your total cost?

    • Flora April 30, 2014 at 11:50 pm #

      I’m afraid I haven’t got the exact figure for the cost overall but your comment basically summed it up: $550 for the cruise, $110 park entrance & migratory care, and approx $330 return from Guayaquil, not Quito. In terms of other expenses I’d suggest looking at my other post about the Galapagos, “How to Do the Galapagos on the Cheap,” as that gives a much more detailed breakdown.

  11. Jo May 7, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    Thanks for giving an insight into visiting the Galapagos Flora, I’m planning a trip for September and find this very useful! I think I might book a flight from Quito in advance (found some very cheap online under £200 return) then get accommodation in Puerto Ayora on arrival, with the aim of finding a boat tour for maybe 4 days but spending around 10 days there in total so having some time for day trips and doing my own thing. Does this sound like a good plan to you? I’ll be sure to read more of your blogs before I set off on my travels to South America!

    • Flora May 18, 2014 at 10:18 pm #

      Glad you found it useful Jo! I’d definitely recommend getting just your flight sorted ahead of time, and maybe email a few places in Puerto Ayora if you’re worried about not having accommodation. There’s always something available but it depends on how budget you’re willing to be basically..!

      Doing about 10 days with a 4 day boat trip sounds almost identical to what I did :) You should be totally fine with that arrangement. If you haven’t read it I wrote a detailed piece about how to do the Galapagos ‘on the cheap’ which you might want to look at. Let me know if you want any more help with planning your trip!

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