Hundreds of companies offer trips through the Galápagos, and trying to sift through all the tourist brochures is daunting. First and foremost, let me warn you that you tend to get what you pay for here. There are four classes of boats: economic, tourist class, first class, and luxury. The economic boats have shared dormitories and bathrooms, inexperienced (and non-English-speaking) guides, and mediocre food. On a tourist-class boat you may have your own private quarters, but expect them to be cramped. You probably won’t have air-conditioning or hot water, and your guide might not have a good command of the English language. First-class ships have excellent guides, small but private cabins with hot water and air-conditioning, and passable food. The main difference between first-class and luxury service is the food; some luxury boats also have swimming pools or Jacuzzis, but the cabins are not necessarily much bigger.
Another word of caution: Don’t expect your cruise in the Galápagos to be a typical pleasure cruise; the boats are used mainly for lodging and transportation purposes. During the day, small dinghies, known as pangas, will transport you to the actual islands. Once you’re on land, the excursions often involve long, uphill hikes. The Galápagos are not a place for relaxing — expect to participate in strenuous activities.
Moreover, size matters. The larger ships, in general, are the most luxurious, with the greatest number of amenities. These are also much more stable and enjoyable when the seas get choppy. Still, even the best of these have a slight cattle-car feel to their operation. When you’re exploring the islands with 100 other people, the islands lose some of their mystique. Plus, you always feel a bit rushed, because there is always a group behind you, waiting for you to continue on your way. If you’re looking for a more intimate experience, you’ll want to book one of the smaller yachts. These have a bit more flexibility, and often afford the ability to linger a bit more on the island tours.
Trips to the Galápagos venture out to the high seas, and the waters can be rough. Be sure to bring anti-seasickness medication with you. Candied ginger also helps settle small stomach upsets, and is an alternative to medication. If you know that you are prone to seasickness, you’ll definitely want to book on one of the larger ships, which are much more stable and comfortable. Also note that although the lower cabins tend to be a bit darker, with portholes as opposed to larger windows, these cabins are also the most stable. (In other words, it’s easier to get seasick when you’re sleeping higher up.)
Recommended Tour Operators & Ships
Every travel agency and tour operator in Quito and Guayaquil offers package tours to the Galápagos, as do many international operators. In most cases they just book space, either by reserving in advance or on a first-come, first-served basis, on the set number of boats touring the archipelago. Profit margins are very low, and prices tend to be standardized — meaning it’s very rare for any agency or operator to severely undercut another for the same berth on any one boat or ship. Below I list recommended Ecuadorean and international tour operators specializing in Galápagos trips, as well as descriptions and contact information, when possible, for my favorite boats and ships