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.
Scuba-Diving Trips -- The waters surrounding the Galápagos offer some of the best diving in the world. If you want to dive here, you have two options: Book a tour on a dedicated dive boat -- and dive every day -- or take a nondiving cruise and then spend a couple of extra days in Puerto Ayora and arrange diving excursions from there. Two of the best diving outfitters in Puerto Ayora are SCUBA Iguana (tel. 05/2526-497; www.scubaiguana.com), located at the end of Avenida Charles Darwin, right by the entrance to the Darwin Research Station; and Sub-Aqua (tel. 05/2526-633; www.galapagos-sub-aqua.com), on Avenida Charles Darwin and Avenida 12 de Febrero. You can also dive out of Puerto Barquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal, or Puerto Villamil on Isabela.
Ecuadorean & International Tour Operators --
Ecoventura (tel. 800/633-7972 in the U.S., or 04/2839-390 in Ecuador; www.ecoventura.com) operates four first-class ships: the 16-passenger dive boat M/Y Sky Dancer , and the three identical 20-passenger boats M/Y Eric, Flamingo I, and Letty. Each of the latter three has two guides for every 20 people, a large sun deck, a bar, two sea kayaks, and snorkeling equipment. In addition to providing personalized service and excellent local guides, Ecoventura is environmentally friendly. Don't expect super-luxurious cabins or over-the-top food, but you can count on this operation having the most experienced guides in the islands.
Galacruises Expeditions (tel./fax 02/2509-007 in Ecuador; www.galacruises.com) runs four ships of their own and can book passage on a wide range of other boats and ships. Their boats range from tourist-class monohulls to modern luxury catamaran yachts. They do full-service tours around Ecuador and the region.
KLEIN Tours (tel. 888/50-KLEIN [505-5346] in the U.S., or 02/2430-345 in Ecuador; fax 02/2442-389 in Ecuador; www.kleintours.com) is one of the oldest companies operating boats in the Galápagos, and their experience shows. The company maintains three first-class ships: the 20-passenger M/Y Coral, the 26-passenger M/Y Coral II, and the 110-passenger M/V Galápagos Legend. The smaller boats offer comparable services to those offered by Ecoventura's fleet, but KLEIN Tours' food is better. The guides are excellent and knowledgeable. The M/Y Coral is the more deluxe option of the two smaller vessels, with a top-deck Jacuzzi and fine rooms. The Legend has large cabins, a swimming pool, massage service, a 24-hour coffee bar, and a jogging track. I prefer the intimate feel of the smaller boats, but on the Legend, you won't be lacking for any personal comforts.
Linblad Expeditions (tel. 800/397-3348 in the U.S. and Canada; www.expeditions.com) is another luxury-oriented tour agency with decades of experience in the Galápagos, and a particular commitment to protecting the environment and raising environmental awareness. The company operates three luxurious cruise ships here, the National Geographic Explorer, the National Geographic Islander, and the National Geographic Polaris. Their 10-day program costs $4,740 to $8,120 (£3,160-£5,413) per person. Various extensions are available, as is a Machu Picchu combination tour.
Metropolitan Touring (tel. 02/2988312 in Ecuador; www.metropolitan-touring.com) runs three luxury ships and one luxury hotel (Finch Bay Hotel), and is one of the largest and most professional tour agencies in Ecuador. Consider booking with them especially if you want to mix and match time on shore with time on a ship, or if you want to design a package that includes a Galápagos excursion as well as trips to other destinations in Ecuador. Their 48-passenger Yacht La Pinta, 40-passenger Yacht Isabela II and new 90-passenger Santa Cruz II combine the comforts and smooth ride of a large ship with an intimate, small-group experience,
Overseas Adventure Travel (tel. 800/493-6824 in the U.S. and Canada; www.oattravel.com) offers good-value itineraries, often combining a Galápagos cruise with time in Ecuador's Amazon or a side trip to Machu Picchu. Tours are limited to 16 people and are guided by experienced naturalists. Their 11-day Galápagos-and-Amazon package begins at $6295 per person, including round-trip airfare from Miami.
Quasar Náutica (tel. 800/247-2925 in the U.S. and Canada, 0800/883-0827 in the U.K., or 02/2446-996 in Ecuador; www.galapagosexpeditions.com) operates five ships in the Galápagos, most of which are small and intimate. Their largest ship, the M/V Evolution, is a beautiful small cruise ship with 16 double staterooms. This vessel harkens back to the early 20th century and features a wonderful aft-deck dining room. The M/S Alta is a regal three-masted motor ketch, while the M/V Parranda is an elegant 38m (125-ft.) classic motorized yacht. The M/V Grace is a classic and historic yacht that was actually the wedding present given by Aristotle Onasis to Prince Rainer and Grace Kelly -- hence the name.
Surtrek (tel. 02/250-0660; www.surtrek.com) is one of the better Quito-based general tour/adventure-tour operators. And their Galápagos connections and experience are top-notch. They can book a wide range of cruises and mixed itineraries, and are often good at finding last-minute bargain berths on ships.
Tauck (tel. 800/788-7885 in the U.S. and Canada; www.tauck.com) is a well-established soft-adventure tour company catering to higher-end travelers. They do an excellent job across the board, and have various itineraries, ranging from a combination Galápagos-and-Peru trip to a family excursion through the Galápagos. Tauck always charters an entire ship, usually one of the better luxury cruise ships plying these waters.
Dedicated Dive Boats -- In addition to generally having better equipment and dive masters, the dedicated dive boats tend to design their itineraries in order to visit the archipelago's top dive sites, particularly those around Wolf and Darwin islands. Most feature an average of four dives per day, although some days you may go down five times. Night diving is not allowed in the Galápagos.
Caution: Diving in these waters is not for beginning divers. There are often strong currents, cold waters, and limited visibility. Much of the diving is in relatively deep water. The payoff comes in the size, number, and diversity of large marine life. Due to the nature of the diving here, I recommend taking a boat with Nitrox facilities. If you are not already Nitrox certified, you can take a course onboard and dive with Nitrox tanks the entire time.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.