Here’s one truth of Galapagos Islands travel that you’re not going to hear many tour operators admit: your experience on the islands themselves isn’t going to be much different whether you pay $3,000 per person or $12,000 per person.
They’ll tout their great guides and educational sessions, their well-planned itinerary, and their service in getting you from the plane to the ship and back, but those are all a given among the experienced operators above a certain price range. What really has an impact on your cost and your experience is the ship that will be taking you from place to place.
The Galapagos Islands are a protected park and only a very tiny percentage of land can be walked upon by visiting humans. The rules are quite detailed and strict, so don’t think paying extra is going to give you some kind of VIP access. Or a detour to an unscheduled beach. You’ll be on the same trails as the people who rustled up a last-minute discount berth on the cheapest boat in the harbor. You won’t be drinking a sundowner next to the blue-footed boobies and nibbling on fresh berries. The special perks have to happen on your vessel instead.
We have several Galapagos tour articles on Luxury Latin America, all featuring different kinds of ships. Our writers discuss the Mary Anne, Evolution, Ocean Spray, and Flamingo I. These are just four ships out of more than 200 that are licensed to ply these waters though, so saying that the choices can be overwhelming is an understatement.
In general, smaller is better. You can get into more coves and do less waiting around for a panga to take you to shore if your ship holds a maximum of 16 passengers. You’ll be on a first-name basis with your fellow passengers and crew and it’ll feel like an exclusive experience rather than some vacation factory deal. There’s a limited amount of space, of course, but as you can see from the Ocean Spray catamaran video above, that doesn’t mean the ship can’t be quite comfortable—plush even.
Some people like big ships though, which have more stability in the water and have more space for extra amenities. In my opinion this is better for visiting big port cities than fragile islands filled with wildlife, but if you want to go big there are options like this one pictured above.
In the middle are ships that hold 48 passengers or so. This means more shifts to take people ashore than one hosting 16 people, but it’s not overwhelming.
Beyond the size, the ships can vary greatly in staff ratio, food served, cabin sizes, and even the range of wetsuits. Some will go snorkeling every day or two, some only once. Some supply mounds of snacks, a great media room, and satellite internet access. Others none of the above.
There are even some sailing ships, though be advised they don’t really do much sailing. The strictly controlled itineraries and distances between the islands mean they’re really using a motor most of the time.
We haven’t sorted through the data on a couple hundred ships to tell you which ones are best for which people. AdventureSmith has, however, since they’re tops when it comes to arranging small ship cruises. So you best bet is to visit their contact page and phone them with your wish list and your budget. Otherwise, read this fine article that we certainly can’t top:
This is one of those bucket list, “once in a lifetime” travel experiences that really is something special for people of any age. So this is not a time to wing it. Talk to an expert and choose carefully.