So, you have decided you want to visit the Galapagos Islands. Should you visit by land or sea? Three of the most common questions we hear are:
- “Should I choose a Galapagos cruise or island hopping?”
- “What is the best way to visit the Galapagos Islands?”
- “How do I best support Galapagos sustainable tourism with my trip?”
The answer to all three is, unanimously, to choose a Galapagos small ship cruise. Why? The facts may surprise you. Read all about the pros and cons of each style of travel below. We outline how to plan the best tour for a sustainable Galapagos—whether you stay in a hotel or cruise.
Since cruises are not for everyone, there are ways to do hotel-based trips right. If you end up going by land, this post will help you understand the reality of responsible travel in the Galapagos.
Start here to make an informed decision about whether you want to choose a Galapagos cruise or a Galapagos island hopping land tour. And, ultimately, find the best way to visit the Galapagos Islands for you.
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IN THIS POST: Cruise or Galapagos Island Hopping
Why Choose a Cruise?
Pros & Cons of a Cruise
Why Choose a Land Tour?
Pros & Cons of Land Tours
Comparing Costs – Cruise vs Land
Galapagos Sustainable Tourism
Educate Yourself – Sustainable Resources
Responsible Land Travel Tips
What is the Best Way to See Galapagos?
Why Choose a Cruise in the Galapagos?
The Galapagos archipelago consists of 13 major islands and dozens of smaller islets. The Galapagos National Park covers more than 3,000 square miles of islands and ocean, with virtually all visitor sites accessed only by boat. Even land-based tourists must take a day boat to explore the Islands’ unique nature and wildlife.
Overnight Galapagos cruises aboard expedition ships and yachts are permitted to visit islands that are out of reach of day tours from towns. Exploring by boat offers the most comprehensive exploration of a variety of islands in the most efficient way. You will visit more islands in less time, thus seeing more variety of wildlife.
Wake up each morning in a new destination. Actively explore ashore with professional naturalist guides. Snorkeling and small craft excursions are included on every cruise. Some even offer kayaking and paddleboarding. Each night return to the ship for a hot shower, delicious meal and comfortable rest as your captain sails you to the next destination. Onboard lectures entertain and enhance your understanding of the island’s history, environment, and conservation efforts.
Eco cruises are the most sustainable method of travel with the least amount of impact on the environment. Since cruises are highly regulated and have minimal impact on limited island infrastructure, they are the most sustainable way to explore the islands. Additionally, guides aboard small ships and yachts are the eyes and ears of the park service. The park does not have the resources to patrol all 3,000 square miles for illegal fishing. Cruises can help extend their reach. Read more about Galapagos sustainable tourism below.
Pros of a Cruise
- Explore a greater diversity and larger number of remote islands.
- See a greater quantity and variety of Galapagos animals.
- Cruise at night, maximizing your time to explore ashore by day.
- The most maximized and comprehensive experience for a 1 week time frame.
- Visit remote islands not accessible by day tours.
- Included and guaranteed daily guided activities. Two daily hikes plus snorkeling and explorations by small watercraft.
- Great for small travel groups.
- Onboard naturalist guides lead guided hikes, snorkeling and lectures.
- No need to pack and unpack every few days.
- All-inclusive accommodation, activities, guides and meals.
- Cruise tourism is regulated to minimize its environmental impact.
Cons of a Cruise
- Seasickness can be an issue. See the best time to visit the Galapagos Islands and how to prevent & treat seasickness on cruises.
- Cruises can be more expensive than land packages, but not by much.
- Set schedule, not customizable
- Fixed departures mean travelers coordinate their plans to the ship’s schedule.
- Cruises are active explorations with limited downtime during the day (unless you choose to not participate in a shore landing).
Why Choose a Galapagos Island Hopping Land Tour?
There are two ways to explore the Galapagos by land. You can take an organized guided Galapagos land tour. Or you can buy plane ticket, book a hotel and explore the region independently. The best way to see the Galapagos by land is on an organized tour package with a reputable operator. Learn how independent travel harms the Galapagos in the Galapagos sustainable tourism section below.
Organized, guided land-based tour packages offer a unique alternative to cruises. The experience is obviously different than a cruise because you stay overnight in hotels. Each day, you then explore with guides on day tours in town, on the island or on boat trips to nearby wilderness sites.
Galapagos island hopping programs such as our Galapagos Island Hopper primarily visit the three islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isabela. These islands and their associated communities offer a variety of hotels, restaurants and activities. Other land based tour packages such as our Galapagos Discovery or Galapagos Safari are based from a single lodge or hotel on one island, usually Santa Cruz or San Cristobal.
Our land-based tour packages and island hopping adventures are designed to mimic the cruise experience by including as much wilderness exploration as possible. Day boats are utilized to offer naturalist-guided hikes and snorkeling at landing sites within reach of hotels in town.
Land-based vacations allow for more control of what you see and where you go. We have standard packages to get you started, but we can also build you a custom itinerary to fit your interests, ability and budget.
Choosing a land-based program offers more flexibility for down time and relaxation or active adventure. You may opt to just lie on the beach or at the pool. Or schedule a guided mountain bike ride or adventure tour. Be as active or as chill as you wish.
Galapagos island hopping can be a great way to experience daily life in the towns and communities of the Galapagos. Local shops, restaurants and museums welcome visitors. Nearby beaches are frequented by visitors and locals alike.
Pros of Galapagos Land Tours & Island Hopping
- Hotel rooms and common areas are larger than aboard small ships and yachts.
- Seasickness is only an issue on day boats. Not at the hotel or while on land.
- Land packages can be less expensive, but not by much.
- Itineraries are flexible to begin on any day and can be customized.
- Balance of relaxation and exploration as you see fit.
- Interact with locals experiencing island culture and communities.
Cons of Galapagos Land Tours & Island Hopping
- Explorations of nature and wildlife are limited to landing sites near towns.
- Can only stay on 4 inhabited islands.
- Day trips to island sites include more transit time and less time hiking and snorkeling.
- More complex logistics of moving around between lodging with interisland transporation.
- Land tours only include one landing site per day due to distances and travel time.
- Small day boats can be more severely affected by rough seas compared to small ships & yachts.
- Unregulated land based visits can threaten the islands when not done properly.
Comparing Costs – Cruise or Galapagos Island Hopping
Of course, price is also an important factor when considering if a Galapagos cruise or island hopping is best for you. Cruises can be expensive, but a quality cruise is unquestionably worth it.
Cruises in the Galapagos typically cost $500-$1000 per person per day. Cruises are all inclusive with accommodation, meals, activities and guides included in the price. Our cruise packages will also include flights from mainland Ecuador, transfers, park fees, permits and tourist cards at additional cost. Galapagos deals are often available.
Quality Galapagos land tours and island hopping typically costs $400-$800 per person per day. This price includes accommodations, most meals, fully guided day tours, internal flights and transfers. Our land packages will also include flights from mainland Ecuador, transfers, park fees, permits and tourist cards at additional cost.
It is possible to visit the Galapagos on a backpacker budget, but there are sustainability concerns and your experience will be limited. We do not book independent travel to the Galapagos.
Galapagos Sustainable Tourism – How Land Based Travel Affects the Islands
Anyone considering land travel to the Galapagos should educate themselves on its impact and the issues surrounding the growth of tourism. We discourage independent land-based travel to the Galapagos for several reasons.
First and foremost, because of National Park regulations, independent travelers are limited in their ability to visit the uninhabited islands and sites that make the islands famous. Second, unchecked land-based tourism is harmful.
There are environmental and socioeconomic consequences to increased independent travel in the Islands. Since the 1990s, the number of cruise passengers has been strictly capped and regulated. Land-based tourism has not been regulated and is threatening the Islands’ fragile ecosystems. Between 2007 and 2018, Galapagos annual visitor arrivals increased by a staggering 70%. Virtually all the increase was due to independent land-based travel.
The unregulated growth of independent travel threatens the islands in a variety of ways:
- Increased pressure on existing infrastructure. The islands basic infrastructure such as energy, water and waste are limited.
- A heightened risk of introducing invasive plant and animal species. Invasive species are introduced through the shipments of goods and equipment. More hotels, restaurants and residents means more shipments and more risk.
- Encroachment on animal habitats and wild lands.
- Travelers’ behavior is regulated aboard cruises. Guides enforce rules such as staying six feet away and not feeding animals. National Park rules are routinely ignored and impossible to enforce in and around towns.
- Limitations on the number and size of new hotels are not enforced. Unpermitted hotels, hostels and rental properties add to all the issues listed above.
Galapagos Sustainable Tourism Resources – Educate Yourself
- Learn more about Galapagos sustainable tourism and the challenges facing the Galapagos Islands.
- Visit our partners at IGTOA (the International Galapagos Tourism Association) to view their Position Statement on Tourism Growth in the Galapagos Islands and an article about Galapagos tourism growth.
- This New York Times article “Going to the Galápagos Is Easier and Cheaper Than Ever. That Might Not Be a Good Thing” is excellent.
- IGTOA board member Marc Patry has an informative overview of the issue.
- Full disclosure – AdventureSmith Explorations Founder & President Todd Smith serves on the board of IGTOA. AdventureSmith Explorations is a signatory on a letter from IGTOA calling for strict tourism controls of land tours (similar to those set on cruises) sent to Ecuador’s tourism minister in February 2018.
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The Best Way to Visit Galapagos by Land – Responsible Travel Tips
We believe that hotel-based Galapagos tours can be environmentally sustainable and contribute positively to the local economy when regulated and operated properly. What is the best way to visit the Galapagos by land? Follow these Galapagos responsible travel tips:
- Plan to stay at least one week, instead of just a few days.
- Utilize locally owned, permitted hotels and lodges with verifiable sustainability practices.
- Support authorized and permitted day tour and boat operators.
- Employ local guides licensed by the Galapagos National Park.
- Patronize locally owned restaurants and shops offering island sourced food and souvenirs.
- Visit approved landing sites outside of towns to fully experience what the Islands have to offer.
- Support local conservation and humanitarian organizations. Book with operators who do the same.
If you do choose to travel by land, we encourage you to do it responsibly. Coincidentally the sustainable travel choice also provides the most intimate and enjoyable experience. Please consider one of our Galapagos land tour packages or contact us to customize a private tour.
What Is the Best Way to See the Galapagos Islands? Cruise or Island Hopping?
Is the best way to visit the Galapagos by land or sea? The best way to visit the Galapagos Islands is aboard a small ship cruise. Land-based tours and island hopping can be a suitable alternative when operated sustainably.
Most travelers seeking to visit the Galapagos on a budget are simply unaware of the potential harm caused by independent travel. Please consider our Galapagos eco cruises and eco tours when planning your vacation.
Have a question about what is the best way to visit the Galapagos Islands for sustainable travel or the general best experience? Leave a comment below and our experts will answer. Ready to book your cruise or island hopping adventure? Contact us and you will be on your way.
MORE GALAPAGOS RESOURCES:
Galapagos Luxury Travel
Galapagos with Kids
Galapagos Land Tours
Best Time to Visit Galapagos
How to Get to Galapagos
Galapagos Islands Animals
Galapagos Trip Reviews
Galapagos Travel Guide
Galapagos Cruise Deals
If you have a question or are looking for advice, please use the comments below. Our experts will answer your questions to make this guide to Galapagos Island hopping or cruises even better. If you are ready to book your travel to Galapagos, please contact us.