By Jim Ferri
Visiting the Galapagos Islands is a trip of a lifetime for many people. But there are many things to take into consideration while planning for it, primarily the cost and your safety and comfort.
The first thing most people realize is that it’s not inexpensive. It is, in fact, more expensive than traveling anywhere else in Ecuador or most other South American countries.
The primary expense is the ship you’ll be sailing on. (You can book a hotel although you still need to take day-cruises out to the islands.) There are many ships and boats available, from small catamarans to the luxury cruise ships operated by Celebrity and Lindblad/National Geographic.
On our cruise a month ago we chose La Pinta, a luxury yacht owned and operated by Metropolitan Touring, one of the largest touring companies in South America. For us it was a nice size ship, large enough to ensure our comfort and safety and small enough to provide an intimate experience.
La Pinta’s cruises range from approximately $2,500 for a three-night/four-day cruise to $5,700 for a seven-night trip. Seven-night cruises on the Celebrity Xpedition start around $2900 per person and 10 days on the Lindblad/National Geographic Endeavor will set you back $4800–$8000 per person. Be aware that Metropolitan Touring and Lindblad/National Geographic have other ships as well, and that none of these prices include the cost of traveling to Ecuador or, once you’re there, of getting to the islands.
You can, of course, bring the cost of a tour down considerably by booking a small ship or securing a last-minute deal (online ahead of time or while in Ecuador) if you have the time and inclination to take that chance.
Additionally, there’s also a $110 park entrance fee (payable only in cash or prepaid through your tour operator) and departure taxes of $30.50 in Guayaquil and $44.30 in Quito (likewise cash only). The U.S. dollar is the official currency of Ecuador.
Luxury ships, such as those mentioned above, provide you with a larger cabin (our double cabin was 189 ft.²) a private toilet and a shower with plenty of hot water, something sometimes lacking on smaller vessels. They will also be more stable in rougher seas (important if you’re prone to seasickness), provide better food and have a doctor and medical facilities onboard.
One additional benefit is they often provide better guides/naturalists, which are required to accompany everyone who enters the Galapagos. Not only are the guides on the larger ships more knowledgeable, but they usually also have a better command of the English language, something that can be important if you don’t speak Spanish.
You cannot, in fact, visit the Galapagos without a guide since they are responsible for protecting the park. Even if you arrive on your own boat, one is going to join you aboard for the duration of your trip. One guide is assigned to a maximum of every 16 people.
The guides explain the regulations about not touching any bird or animal or picking up anything, rules that they strictly enforce. Plus they’re a font of information for people like me who can’t tell a sea lion from a seal, a finch from a frigate.
Island hikes can be strenuous if you’re not in good physical shape, since some go up steep gorges or across very rocky ground, so you have to think of your own safety and comfort. Instead of hiking boots many people wear Tevas, lightweight water-shoes that are perfect for climbing in and out of Zodiac dinghies on wet beach landings. Just remember to buy the type that enclose your toes.
Remember also that since you’re out on the ocean very near the equator, you need to protect yourself from sunburn. Plan on bringing a wide-brimmed hat and a long-sleeve lightweight shirt to wear on hikes, as well as SPF 70 suntan lotion and bug spray. Just keep in mind the four-ounce liquid limitation on your airline.
The final dilemma many people experience on a cruise such as this is the gratuity problem. Just Google the subject and you’ll see how many people are concerned with the issue. Although on some ships gratuities are included in the cost of your cruise, on others they’re not.
Before leaving home I had researched the subject quite a bit, and found that the consensus was to leave $10 per passenger per day for the crew, and $12 per passenger per day for the guide/naturalists. Pre-trip information from our tour operator, on the other hand, recommended $10 per person per day for the aggregate crew, plus $7 for the guide.
The night before we disembarked from La Pinta, however, a sheet providing schedule and departure information was left in each of our cabins. Included in the information was the subject of gratuities. It suggested $50 per guest (total, not per day) for the crew and $25 per guide/naturalist if you felt they had provided excellent service.
We paid it gladly.
If you go:
Linddblad/National Geographic Expeditions
Metropolitan Touring / La Pinta