A cruise to the Galapagos Islands is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have at sea. This remote group of islands are located almost 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador and have become one of the most sough-after destinations for the adventurous traveler.
Born through volcanic eruptions, today the islands are thriving with some of the most exotic marine and animal life you can find on the planet.
And what better way to experience the Galapagos than by way of cruise ship. But what cruise lines even sail to this region? What size ship should you choose? And what cruise line is best for your particular needs?
We’ll dive into the answers to all of those questions in this article.
Why take a cruise to the Galapagos Islands?
An expedition cruise to this part of the world is different than any other type of expedition you can take. It is a haven for lovers of nature and wildlife. In fact, there are hundreds of creatures living on the islands that can’t be found anywhere else on earth. And here, they are thriving, even though the group of islands are made up of lava rock from past volcanic eruptions.
The Galapagos Islands are the only place in the world you will find penguins north of the equator, amazing, diving marine iguanas, and giant tortoises that can live for over a century. And don’t forget the beloved blue-footed booby that can be found all over the islands.
Cruises to the Galapagos Islands typically depart from one of two cities on the Ecuadorian mainland: Quito or Guayaquil. You can often combine land and sea packages with your cruise as well.
When to take a Galapagos cruise – best time of year
Yes, this group of islands are on the equator, but this doesn’t mean the weather is the same all year round. There are basically two main seasons the Galapagos experiences: the dry season from June to November and the wet season from December to May.
The dry season will see lower temperatures of about 72 degrees Fahrenheit. It will also typically be more cloudy during this time of year which also means the water will be colder. This is important because snorkeling is one of the main attractions around the islands and for good reason.
The wet season averages about 78 degrees Fahrenheit and the water is warmer and clearer. You may experience occasional downpours of rain but these usually clear up rather quickly.
Most travel advisers recommend traveling to the Galapagos during December to May season to get the most out of your trip.
What are the top Galapagos cruise lines?
What’s best for someone else may not be what’s best for you. This is especially true when choosing a dream vacation. In this section we will look at the top cruise lines that sail to the Galapagos and how they differ. You can also see rough price estimates, but remember, these prices are based on current pricing and there are other fees and taxes that should be factored in.
The Galapagos National Park governs the area and sets the rules with what sites can be visited and how many ships can visit at once. There are about 90 approved sites ships can visit.
Related: Best all-inclusive cruise lines
Avalon offers 7 to 19-night cruises to the Galapagos on their vessel, Treasure of the Galapagos. This small ship has 9 suites and carries a maximum of 16 guests, perfect for a more intimate and personal cruise to this exotic location. Each cruise will include access to a multilingual Naturalist to help provide insightful information and commentary both on land and on the vessel.
Mostly known for their river ships that sail in Europe, Avalon Waterways offers luxurious suites and destination-focused cruises to their guests. The company has won multiple awards for Best in European River cruising and Best River Cruise Line Cabins, in addition to accolades for its shore excursions. Avalon brings this same “elevated” experience to the Galapagos.
Prices start around $6,000 per person for an 8-day cruise on Avalon Waterways, and intra-vacation airfare can be added to your fare as well.
Celebrity currently offers more expedition cruises to the Galapagos than any other company. The cruise line’s three cruise ships include the state-of-the-art Celebrity Flora, with some of the largest suites in the Galapagos on the 100-passenger capacity vessel. The ship has floor to ceiling windows and verandas and was built specifically for Galapagos sailings.
Celebrity Cruises offers a premium experience in the Galapagos region, with a focus on responsible tourism. The company’s ships are designed to blend in with the natural environment, and the itinerary includes a range of activities such as snorkeling, kayaking, and hiking.
There are naturalists on every cruise with a ratio of 1 Galapagos certified naturalist to every 9 passengers.
From 7-16 night cruises, there are quite a few options for choosing dates, and this is helped by having three sailing in the Galapagos.
Prices start around $5,000 on Celebrity Xploration or Xpedition, but sailing on the newer Celebrity Flora will have a starting cost anywhere from $8,000 – $10,000.
Hurtigruten Expeditions offers an expedition-style experience in the Galapagos region, with a focus on exploration and education. The company’s ships are small and agile, allowing for access to remote locations and up-close encounters with wildlife. The onboard experience is casual and comfortable, with a range of educational programs and lectures provided by expert guides.
The company has four ships that sail to the Galapagos but most sailings are offered on MS Santa Cruz II, a 90-capacity exploration vessel, complete with a Library and Science Center. The ship has 50 cabins and suites and also has cabins just for solo travelers.
A 6-night sailing on Hurtigruten to the Galapagos can start around $6,000 per person without taxes and fees.
Lindblad Expeditions has partnered with National Geographic for almost 20 years now and offers a high-end expedition experience in the Galapagos region, with a focus on exploration and discovery. The company’s ships are equipped with state-of-the-art technology and equipment for scientific research and exploration. The onboard experience features gourmet dining and expert-led lectures and workshops.
There are two ships that sail to this region for the company: National Geographic Endeavor II and National Geographic Islander II. The latter is the newest ship in the fleet and was formerly Crystal Esprit. It has a capacity of 48 passengers and has been refitted for Galapagos exploration.
Cruises will start around $10,000 and range from 6-nights to 15-nights.
Lindblad has a Cruise Critic award for the Best Cruise Line in the Galapagos from 2022 to add to its wall of accolades, in addition to a Conde Nast Travelers Choice Award. The cruise line has been sailing to the Galapagos for over 50 years so if you want to sail with a company with a proven-history look no further than Lindblad Expeditions.
Silverseas Cruises offers a luxury cruise experience in the Galapagos region, with a focus on personalized service and immersive experiences.
For those wanting to travel in comfort and luxury it’s hard to beat what Silversea offers.
Silver Origin is the cruise line’s vessel that sails to the Galapagos, offering anywhere from 7 to 14-night cruises that are all very destination focused and port intensive.
The 100-passenger vessel has a fitness center, spa, observation and expedition lounge and beautiful outdoor spaces, including one that turns into a specialty restaurant for dinner. And there are 90 crew members, offering an almost 1:1 crew to passenger ratio.
Silversea also offers an all-inclusive package that includes flights, shore excursions, butler service, all food and beverages, pre-cruise hotel stays, and private transfers.
Prices start around $12,000 to $13,000 per person.
Uncruise Adventures offers a unique, adventure-focused experience in the Galapagos region, with an emphasis on active exploration and personalized experiences.
Think of it like an off-grid cruise that is customized to your needs, allowing for some travel spontaneity along the way.
The family-owned company has ships that are small, allowing for access to remote locations and up-close encounters with wildlife. The onboard experience is casual and comfortable, with a focus on personalized service and flexibility.
Uncruise currently has eight 7-night cruises to the Galapagos from now until November, all starting at around $10,000 per person on the vessel, La Pinta.
The 48-passenger capacity vessel has 20 Luxury cabins and 4 Luxury Plus cabins.
A Galapagos cruise is definitely NOT for you if…
While a cruise to these islands can be the trip of a lifetime for many, it’s not the trip for everyone. In fact, shortly into your cruise you will find that it can be one of the busiest cruises you have ever taken. Any destination-focused cruise will involve a lot of time off the ship, but a Galapagos cruise is even more destination focused than most.
You might go on several expeditions in a day after leaving the ship at 7am. After getting back to the ship there may be an afternoon excursion to enjoy as well before arriving back at the ship for dinner. And in the middle of all of this there can be several lectures and talks about the islands.
You have mobility issues
It’s also not for those with mobility issues. Many of the excursions will involve hikes, walking over uneven terrain, and climbing in and out of Zodiacs. Remember, your ship will not dock at a pier so Zodiacs will often be used to transport passengers back and forth.
This is not a cruise to relax but one that will be for the active traveler. Don’t worry, you’ll have time for a nap here and there.
Since the islands were formed out of volcanic activity you can expect many of the hikes to involve winding up or down rocky outcrops and paths not built for leisurely strolls.
It’s still well worth it, but you should know ahead of time that you should expect to be well worn out at the end of each day.
You want a relaxing vacation
Sure, you can skip a few expeditions and replace them with a well-placed nap, but then you will experience FOMO after hearing how the other passengers enjoyed their exciting tour of the exotic islands.
And since this is the trip of a lifetime for many, it’s hard to justify sleeping in or taking a day off when this is your one chance to see something amazing in the Galapagos.
This cruise isn’t for those who don’t want to get into the water as well. Snorkeling is a big part of the excursions offered in the area and there’s so much marine life teeming beneath the surface. You’re missing out on a big part of a Galapagos trip if you never take a peek under the waves. This is also why we recommend traveling to the area during the warmer months in the first half of the year.
A few packing tips
Because of all the walking and hiking you will do, it’s essential to bring good walking shoes. Pack shoes that have good grip and are comfortable. Also, water shoes can come in handy for all the time you will spend in the water, snorkeling.
For clothing, I recommend packing some shirts and shorts/pants that are water resistant. There are expedition pants that can be transformed into shorts and are great for the Galapagos climate. If they get wet they will dry out quickly while keeping you dry on those hikes.
Additionally, pack a hooded raincoat, swimwear to wear under a wet-suit (which is usually provided by the cruise line), and perhaps a hat or cap. Bio-friendly sunscreen is also great to pack, and throw some bug spray in your bag as well, as you will spend quite a bit of time outside in the elements.
A light backpack to carry your gear on shore will come in handy, and of course bring a camera to capture all those moments. Most of the wildlife will be close to the path and you aren’t usually allowed to go off the path. Even a medium-length zoom lens should be fine unless you want those really tight shots of the wildlife.
The most popular places to visit in the Galapagos
The Charles Darwin Research Station, located on Santa Cruz Island is all about preserving the islands’ unique ecosystem, and you can spot some giant tortoises while you’re there.
Another must-see is Punta Espinosa on Fernandina Island. Here, you’ll get up close with marine iguanas, sea lions, and Galapagos penguins.
For some breathtaking views, head over to Bartolome Island. You’ll hike to the top of a volcanic cone, explore lava tubes, and lounge on beautiful beaches.
If you’re looking for a place to relax, Las Bachas on Santa Cruz Island has you covered. Swim, snorkel, and soak up some sun, while spotting sea turtles and flamingos nearby.
Isabela Island is the largest island and has a ton of unique wildlife, like the Sierra Negra Volcano and the Wall of Tears.
Post Office Bay on Floreana Island is a historic spot where whalers used to leave messages for each other in a wooden barrel. You can still leave postcards for others to pick up and deliver by hand.
Also, you take a boat tour around Kicker Rock off the coast of San Cristobal Island to see some incredible marine life, including sharks, rays, and sea turtles.
Some rules and regulations when visiting the Galapagos
To make sure invasive species are not introduced to the Galapagos Islands, cruisers must follow strict biosecurity protocols. These protocols are designed to minimize the risk of bringing any foreign species to the islands.
After arriving all cruise ships are inspected by the Galapagos National Park Service to ensure that they meet the necessary biosecurity standards. The ships must have specialized equipment and infrastructure, such as onboard waste treatment systems and quarantine areas, to prevent the introduction of any invasive species.
In addition, all visitors and crew members are required to follow strict biosecurity protocols, such as cleaning and disinfecting their shoes and gear before and after disembarking the ship. They are also not allowed to bring any fresh produce, plants, or animals to the islands.
These measures are essential to protect the unique biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands and to prevent any invasive species from threatening the native wildlife. By following these protocols, cruisers can help ensure that this ecologically diverse ecosystem remains preserved for future generations to enjoy.
Certain kinds of sunscreen that is harmful to coral and marine life is also not allowed. Many cruise lines will provide a suitable sunscreen for you, but know this ahead of time.
You will also have to stay on the path during an excursion. You will be tempted to get off the path to get a closer photo of some wildlife nearby, but regulations require that you stay on the path and with the group during your hikes.