Ever since I was a little girl, watching nature programmes on the telly with my dad, holding my little Greek land tortoise in my lap and pointing at the giant tortoises on the screen, I dreamt of going there myself – the Galapagos Islands. They have always been a mysterious place: so far away, out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; inhabited by bizarre animals who look like they hadn’t evolved much in the last thousands of years; volcanic landscapes untouched by humans…

How to get the best out of the Glapagos Islands, Santa Cruz cruise, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes

Well, almost. Because of course, you can visit the islands, that belong to Ecuador, and experience first-hand encounters with the giant Galapagos tortoises, curious seals and boobies, or the only penguins in the northern hemisphere. There are numerous tour operators and itineraries across the many islands of the archipelago – as you  can imagine choosing the right tour for you is super important if you want to get the most out of visiting the Galapagos. This certainly is not a cheap trip to do, but a once-in-a-lifetime experience worth every cent of investment. From celebrating a special anniversary or birthday, over planning your first solo trip well into your 60s, to asking yourself ‘if I died tomorrow, which trip would I have regretted not to have done’ – when I visited the Galapagos back in September and spoke to other travellers about their reasons for their trip, I was surprised at times (to say the least) – overwhelmed and deeply moved (to get it right).

The Galapagos Islands are the kind of place you should go if you have a strong interest and passion in nature and wildlife watching, if you love active exploring (but not necessarily thrilling extreme sports), if you dive and snorkel and if you are looking for one of the planet’s few still off-the-beaten-track gems. Here is how you can get the best out of your trip.

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Should you travel on Land or on Water?

First up, make yourself familiar with the choices you have. You can organise everything yourself or book with a tour company, restrict yourself to a land-based itinerary or set sail on one of the cruise ships or catamarans. One thing to keep in mind about visiting the Galapagos is, that it’s not cheap. It is possible to do ‘on budget’ (relatively speaking), by basing yourself in a guest house on either Santa Cruz or San Cristobal (the two inhabited islands with airports) and do land-based trips or day-trips with speed boats – BUT here are a few things to consider when you choose your trip:

– Day trips by boat can only cover so much of distance – islands that are further off are off-the-chart for you. In addition to going to more islands, cruise ships also travel during the night, thereby giving you more time on the islands when you’re actually awake.

– Some spots are rigidly restricted to cruise ships, which means passengers from small boats are not allowed to go on land/small boats are not allowed to anchor. Additionally, landing sites are strictly monitored and only allowed to be visited every 14 days – make sure to take this into consideration when planning your timing.

– When you add up all costs you pay for a land-based journey (accommodation, transfers, meals, tours etc.) and the time you spend in transfer, it might be worth looking into a cruise after all, as all those things are already included in your package. Plus, you cover a lot more of the islands.

– 98% of the Galapagos Islands are actually national park. No matter how you decide to travel the islands, you will have to pay the entrance fee of $100 on arrival.

How to get the best out of the Glapagos Islands, Santa Cruz cruise, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes

Cruising the Galapagos

I travelled on board the old Santa Cruz I (in the meantime the new Santa Cruz II has taken over – with bigger cabins and more luxurious amenities) which is operated by Metropolitan Touring, one of the oldest and most experienced tour operators in Ecuador and one of the first cruise operators in the Galapagos.

Trustworthy and reliable is what you want to look out for in a tour operator which takes you round a fragile eco-system like this. The staff on-board the ship treated the landscape and its inhabitants on land and in the water with the utmost respect; our guides were well-educated, both in terms of language skills and the biology, geology and history of the Galapagos. They were proud to show us their home (only Galapagos-born Ecuadorians are allowed to live and work on the islands) and dedicated to teach us as much as possible without harming the environment.

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Yay, Group Travel!

The cruise ship had capacity for 90 passengers, but there were only about 70 guests on board with me. The Santa Cruz II is slightly bigger, but according to national park restrictions no more than 90 passengers are allowed on one boat for now. As you can see on above picture, you’re not walking around in a big group, but the guests were split up into six groups of 10-15 people. Every group is named after one go the Galapagos BIG15 (we were the Cormorants). As you can also see, the Galapagos cruise – despite being prized – certainly does not live up to the cruise stereotype of being for old people only.

To get the best out of the Galapagos you need to take easy hikes on rocky terrain, climb some hills, snorkel and swim – at two outings a day (in the morning and after lunch), this gets rather exhausting. I met several newly-wed couples, two sisters from Ecuador, a girl from Germany visiting her friend’s family, who was the captain’s daughter – all roughly my age. But even the older couples, were still young and active, and great to talk to. Sounds like a lot of couples and pairs, right? Cruises are a classic journey to do in a pair, because cabins are obviously cheaper when shared, but if you consider that you are bound to run into the same people all the time and there is no other ‘evening entertainment’ than having a drink at the bar, I felt that the ship was the perfect place to be as a solo traveler. On a land-based itinerary I doubt I would have made so many friends and contacts! By the way, there was a second female solo traveller on board – she was definitely one of the oldest passengers on board, but so full of bubbly energy – I was able to learn a thing or two from her!

PS: There are of course also smaller ships to choose from, but be aware, that the smaller the boat, the higher the price!

To find out more about our love for group travel, read on here.

How to get the best out of the Glapagos Islands, Santa Cruz cruise, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes    How to get the best out of the Glapagos Islands, Santa Cruz cruise, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes

Which Itinerary to choose?

There are roughly three options for cruise itineraries: Northern, Eastern and Western Galapagos. All three head to different islands and therefore offer different opportunities for wildlife watching and activities. To be absolutely honest though, unless you are super picky with which animals you want to see, any of the routes are amazing. I did the Northern itinerary, which I had read beforehand was the least exciting – and oh, what bulls*** that was. Let’s just say, if the Northern route is boring, then I don’t think I could handle the other routes…

Due to national park restrictions any boat can only land at the same site every fourteen days. That’s why most boats have a two-week cycle of repeating the three itineraries year-round.

When to go?

There are two seasons on the Galapagos – the Hot Season from December to May (hot and humid), and the Dry Season from June to November (drier, cooler and more wind). I went in Dry Season and expected the water to be too cold for snorkelling. Fact was though, snorkelling was still on, and wet suits and snorkelling equipment were available on board. Any season is good to visit the Galapagos, so don’t worry!

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Which activities to choose?

There is an easy answer to this question: do as much as you possibly can! One day I was so tired from snorkelling in the morning, I considered giving the afternoon hike a miss – and almost missed out on the most amazing hike of the entire week (in terms of animal encounters, photo ops and views). I learnt my lesson – you’re here, you only have 5 days, you pack in as much as you can.

Days start early on the ship, with a wake up call at 7am and breakfast at 7.15. The morning excursion usually starts around 8am and your group will return in time for lunch. The afternoon excursion starts around 2pm and when you get back you have time for a shower before dinner and optional evening activities on board. You spend all week with the same group and nature guide. The excursions include easy hikes to view points or through bird colonies, walks along the beach, snorkelling from the beach or deep-water snorkelling from the boat and glass-bottom boat trips (mainly if you don’t want to snorkel). Every day you land on one or two islands, with completely different geology, animals and plants. No excursion was the same – the beaches had colours from gold to white over red to black; some animals only live on one particular island, others show up everywhere. And the best thing is – they are not afraid of humans! Because the national park protects them so well from poachers and they only see humans every 14 days, we are merely a peculiar species of mammal roaming their habitat every now and then. If anything, the animals are curious and come even closer to you and your camera lens.

Wildlife watching is what it is all about. The ‘main attractions’ on land are the giant tortoises, birds like frigates, boobies (yes…) or flamingos and iguanas; in the water it is all about penguins, seals, manta rays, sharks and colourful fish. Be aware, that you are not allowed to touch the animals – even when an adorable seal baby walks towards you… Not every animal lives on every island, so when choosing your itinerary, it’s worth checking where the animals live that you definitely want to see. Find out more about BIG15 – the fifteen most famous species on the Galapagos – right here.

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What to bring

As a Galapagos cruise is an active holiday, more than anything else, there are a few practical things to bring along. You won’t need fancy clothes for the evenings, as the restaurant on board is rather casual. Comfy clothes are important for the hikes, as well as some warmer items for after sunset and evenings on deck. A bathing costume is a no brainer, as well as shoes that can get wet (or you can take off quickly) for wet landings on the beaches. There are a few dry landings as well, but your guide will let you know before every excursion what kind of footwear you should bring.

The Galapagos are a paradise for wildlife photographers – so bring as much camera equipment and memory cards as you can. Although animals are not shying away from people, they still might be sitting unimpressed in the distance, so a zoom lens will be very appreciated. For snorkelling bring a GoPro in a waterproof case, so you can snap photos under water.

The most crucial thing to remember though is sun protection. The name already gives it away – Ecuador and the Galapagos are on the equator, so the sun is super strong here. The sea breeze might make you believe otherwise, but you really should not spend too much time in the sun without a hat and proper skin protection. I obviously forgot to bring a hat (rookie mistake), but knowing how to knot a turban with a scarf did the trick for me.

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Life on board

Life on board the Santa Cruz I was just as I had remembered from my last (and only) cruise in Norway, onboard a Hurtigruten ship for 700 passengers – obviously on a much smaller scale. My cabin was comfortably sized, especially since I had it to myself and I was impressed with the size and functionality of the bathroom. I had a good-sized window to see out towards the islands, a desk and a cupboard for all my clothes and equipment. There was even a docking station for my iPod which made getting up and falling asleep so much easier. Except for showers and sleeping though, I hardly spent any time in my cabin. I mostly hung out in the lounge area, selecting and editing my photos of the day, or on the sun-deck tanning or sipping on an ice-cold glass of wine.

Although the ship provides internet connection, the remote location of the Galapagos makes it low-bandwidth and therefore way too slow for emails or social media. Not ideal if you’re a digital nomad, but perfect if you need an excuse to switch off for a few days. The sundeck has a bar, sun chairs and a jacuzzi, which looked alluring, but I didn’t try due to utter tiredness from the sun and the sea. The crew is rather small, and soon you’ll know everybody’s face. If you ask, you might be able to get a peek into the bridge and a go at the steering wheel. There is always a jar of Oreos right next to a jar filled with sea-sickness pills (I really only needed them on the last evening – the longest leg of the journey), and two tanks filled with drinking water. You are highly advised to re-use your water bottle (every passenger gets one in their cabin), but are prohibited to take any food along on the excursions. All eating has to be done on board to secure the self-contained eco-systems of the islands.

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Now, that I gave you an idea of what a cruise around the Galapagos Islands is like – what to consider when booking the tour, what to bring and how to survive on board – all you need to do, is to save up the pennies and set out to find that adorable seal baby!

How to get the best out of the Glapagos Islands, Santa Cruz cruise, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes

Have you been to the Galapagos yourself – or is it on your bucket list as well? For more inspiration, check out our other travel stories from Ecuador here and sign up to our newsletter!

All photos by Kathi Kamleitner, except snorkelling photos by Aislinn Cuvi and group shots by cruise staff.

Disclaimer: I was invited to the Galapagos Islands by Metropolitan Touring and BZ Comm. All my opinions are, of course, still my own. I will be forever thankful to MT and BZ.Comm for making my dream  of the Galapagos come true!