• Michael Donlea

An Introduction to the Galapagos Islands

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

Of all the destinations I’ve had the privilege of specialising in during my time in the travel industry, the Galapagos Islands is without a doubt the most unique. Not just so in terms of its outstanding bio-diversity, volcanic terrain and protected status, but also in the way that a holiday to the Galapagos Islands works. I can say from personal experience that it’s one unlike any other, and for many first timers the prospect of getting their heads round the planning alone can be daunting to say the least. Below, I’ll be addressing some of the most commonly asked questions I came across during my time as a Galapagos specialist.

Apart from the wildlife, how do the Galapagos Islands differ to that of other holidays?

The most important thing to understand about these islands is that a visit here is an educational experience. It’s not akin to a cruise through the Mediterranean, which will most likely offer you plenty of downtime. Whether your itinerary is an ocean-based or land-based one, the days are long and usually planned years in advance. The busy schedule though means that you’ll make the very most of your time away and have plenty of wildlife and birdlife-spotting itineraries, even if you do feel in need of a rest by the end.

Ocean-based or land-based - which is better?

Land-based itineraries like those offered by Tropic Eco are a good option for those who experience seasickness or those who are uncomfortable staying on a boat. During down time, you aren’t confined to common areas like you are on the boats so you certainly have a little more breathing room, however many of the boats are actually quite spacious and furnished to a high standard, so I wouldn’t be too dissuaded by this.

One of the main advantages of ocean-based itineraries is that get you further afield than you ever would on a land-based one. With the bio-diversity of the islands, this will in turn introduce you to more wildlife and birdlife than if you stayed on land. It’s also worth noting that many land-based itineraries are locked to particular islands. Ocean-based itineraries on the other hand offer a vast choice on where to go. A 7-night cruise can introduce you to many of the central and the western islands for example - you’d struggle to match that on a land-based itinerary.

Ultimately, both ocean and land-based visits have their advantages. Bearing in mind though that a trip to islands isn’t cheap, many people who travel here usually might visit just once in their lifetime. With an ocean-based expedition typically tending to be much more varied therefore, I’d choose a boat over land every time.

A Galapagos land iguana
A Galapagos land iguana

What’s the best boat?

I was asked this question a lot! Really, the answer to this depends on what sort of vessel you’re looking for. Questions I’d ask to help to narrow this down include:

Budget - How much are you looking to spend?

Size - Would you prefer something small (16-20) large (90-100) or do you see yourself in the middle?

Type - Do you have a preference between catamaran, yacht or sailing boat?

Luxury - Are you looking for something high-end, something basic or are you happy with a mid-range option?

Facilities - Are there any particular facilities on board that you’re looking for? E.g. hot tub, bar, private balcony, kids’ club.

In reference to the above, I’ll outline a few suggestions below:


The Seaman Journey (16) is an excellent mid-range option and offers an array of itineraries to suit even the most picky of travellers. Yolita II sleeps up to 20, but comes in at a more competitive price. With the passenger:guide ratio in the islands at 16:1, should you be one of 17 or more on your expedition cruise round the islands, you’ve got the advantage of having an extra naturalist guide onboard the boat. Santa Cruz II (90) is one of the largest boats in the islands. There are plenty of common areas, and the boat is very child-friendly so it’s a great option for families.


There are simply too many catamarans or yachts to choose from here, but if you’re looking for something with more of an old world-feel, why not take a look at a sailing boat like the Mary Anne? I was lucky enough to spend several nights onboard, and loved its rustic wooden interior and weather-beaten furnishings. If you are an avid sailor and are keen on staying on a boat like this one, just bear in mind that the sails are typically unveiled just once on a week-long expedition cruise, and this is only for show. All boats have itineraries that they must stick to rigidly, and the Mary Anne can’t afford to slow down by stopping its motor to make way for the sails. The Galapagos Sky is a dive boat offering specialised itineraries for scuba divers. Bear in mind though that it’s just scuba diving here (i.e no island visits), and you need to meet certain criteria in terms of your diving experience to join one of their expedition cruises.


The Elite is one of the newest boats in the islands, and is a fantastic option for those seeking their creature comforts and something luxurious. The Yolita II (as I mentioned above) is an excellent option for those who aren’t focused on comfort and luxury. If you’re looking for a slight step up though, why not look at the Archipel I or II?


La Pinta has a glass-bottom boat onboard - an excellent option for those who don’t feel up to snorkelling. The mid-range Treasure of Galapagos features private balconies in all cabins.

Sally Lightfoof Crab

What’s a typical day in the Galapagos?

You’ll rise early at around 0700, where a member of the crew will knock on your door. You’ll have the opportunity to shower before breakfast whilst the naturalist guide reminds the group as to where you’re heading to that morning, what you might expect to see and whether it’s a wet landing (2-3 ft of water to wade through) or dry landing (the zodiac will park up on the beachhead).

You’ll embark 1-at-a-time onto the zodiac and will be ferried across the water to your landing spot. Your naturalist guide will take you on a 2-or-so hour hike along the designated trail, educating you about the island’s native birdlife and fascinating geological features. Then it’s back to the boat, possibly for a bit of snorkelling perhaps before lunch and a siesta.

In the afternoon, you’ll head to a different site for another gentle hike across the volcanic terrain with your group. After, head back to the boat for dinner, an informal debrief/Q&A session with the naturalist guide and an explanation as to what the plan is for tomorrow. After dinner you can either browse through the selection of books onboard the boat, head to the bar with your fellow guests for a drink or do a bit of stargazing up on deck (there’s zero light pollution out there). As you can see, a typical day a really a rather busy one so plenty of guests tend to amble off to bed after the evening debrief.

What’s the best ocean-based itinerary?

It really depends on what you’re interested in. The islands are so vast that it’s simply impossible to visit each of them in a single trip. You’ll also find that most itineraries focus either on the western or eastern islands. Latin Trail’s Seaman Journey’s 8 day itinerary C offers a comprehensive tour of the western and central islands, including ample time on Isabela Island - the largest in the Galapagos and one of the most biodiverse.

However, the Natural Paradise’s 8 day itinerary B, run by Royal Galapagos, is a fantastic one that includes both Española Island in the far southwest (famous for its waved albatrosses) and Isabela Island, the largest island in the Galapagos. I have never seen a Galapagos itinerary that is as comprehensive as this one and it’s well worth doing some research on.

Is it possible to create my own bespoke tour of the islands?

Unfortunately not. The unique setting and biological diversity of the islands is fiercely protected by the Ecuadorian Government. As such, all boats operating here have pre-arranged itineraries that cannot be tailored, even if you were to charter a boat. It’s also worth noting that whilst each boat offers multiple itineraries and durations, no two itineraries are the same.

What’s the best time to visit?

The beauty of the islands is that they can be visited at any time of year. Such is the bio-diversity, there is nearly always something in mating season that attracts passionate wildlife goers. If you’ve experienced seasickness before though, I’d avoid June-September as the waters tend to be slightly choppier during this time. The winds calm down by October, and from January onwards the sea temperature slowly increases, with April-May one of the most popular times of year for snorkelling.

Anyone looking to spot a particular species should note that waved albatrosses for example lay their eggs primarily on Española Island and only between April and June. Galapagos penguins on the other hand are found mostly on Isabela and Fernandina Islands, and are most commonly seen between May-January. Again, to get your trip right, it’s important that you figure what (if anything) you’d like to see, A Galapagos specialist can help to pinpoint when you should visit.

A Galapagos seal enjoying a snooze

Is it possible to combine a trip to the Galapagos with another destination?

Now we’re talking! Firstly, I should clarify that it’s not possible to fly straight from the Ecuadorian mainland to the Galapagos following your international flight. You need a safety net on the mainland should your international flight be delayed. Why? The boats won’t wait for anyone so you need to ensure you’ve arrived in Ecuador with plenty of time to spare. I'd suggest at least 2 nights in either Quito (Ecuador’s historic capital) or Guayaquil (the tropical port city and commercial hub). I’d nearly always suggest Quito though as it has a lot more to offer the average traveller.

If you want your whole trip to focus on birdlife and wildlife, why not consider a trip to the Ecuadorian Amazon? There are wonderful eco-lodges on off shooting tributaries like Sacha Lodge and Napo Wildlife Center, both of which offer an immersive experience of the rainforest. Options like Minga Lodge go one step further, working with local communities in the Amazon to offer you a glimpse into the locals’ lives in the rainforest. If you fancy learning how to shoot a blowgun or are interested in meeting a shaman from an indigenous community, Minga Lodge is certainly one to consider.

Ecuador & the Galapagos also works well with other countries like Peru (history, colonial architecture and the world-renowned Machu Picchu) and Costa Rica (lush rainforests, towering volcanoes, lazy beaches and cool cloud forests). Just bear in mind that for the latter, you can’t fly direct between the two countries.

If this doesn’t appeal though, why not just crash out in a hotel on the Galapagos itself, like the fabulous Finch Bay Hotel, voted the World’s Leading Green Hotel of 2019, or the lovely Golden Bay on San Cristobal Island.

If you’re still reading by this point, I applaud you for your dedication! You’re clearly interested in visiting the Galapagos and I sincerely hope that you have learnt something from this post. It may even send you back to the drawing board, which in my opinion is a good thing, because for a once-in-a-lifetime trip like this, you really want to make sure that you get it right.

How is your research going? If you have any questions related to planning a trip, let me know in the comments section below and I’d be happy to help.

Gracias y buen viaje!

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