A trip to Galapagos is a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. A travel destination to blow you away from start to finish. You’ve watched the amazing wildlife on National Geographic, now you want to see it for yourself.
Most travelers only get the opportunity to visit Galapagos once. So you want to get it right. The Galapagos islands are not a one size fits all destination. The most important decision is the choice between a live-aboard cruise or a Galapagos land tour. Of course there are trade-offs and pros/cons to consider. Ultimately the right decision comes down to WHAT you want to see, and HOW you prefer to travel.
Keep reading for our tips and recommendations on how to visit Galapagos. We put cruises to the test against land tours, based on all of the most important travel considerations. Who will be the winner?
Let’s start off with simple introductions, so we know exactly what each option brings to the table.
A Galapagos cruise is a live-aboard yacht experience. Passengers eat, sleep and tour aboard a boat on the Galapagos seas.
Tourists are met by their naturalist English-speaking guide on arrival to the airport. Everything else is literally plain sailing. Cruises are all-inclusive, so all of the nuts and bolts are taken care of. Passengers are dropped back at the airport again on the final day for their flight out.
Itineraries are pre-set by the National Park, so tourists know exactly which visitor sites are included. You’ll wake up each morning at a new island, ready to explore. Every day brings a chance to trek and snorkel, with your guide on hand to showcase all of the best wildlife.
There are boats of all shapes and sizes. 16 passenger vessels are ideal for an intimate, small group Galapagos experience. Larger cruise ships offer more space, services and stability. There are cruise options to suit most budgets.
Galapagos cruises are a popular way to visit the archipelago. Many yachts sell out, so advance trip planning is highly recommended.
Also known as Island-Hopping or Land Based Tours, a Galapagos land tour offers a different type of experience.
Land tourists base themselves in hotels on inhabited islands - San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, and Isabela. Intra-island ferries and flights mean that it’s easy to hop from base to base.
Daily tours whisk travelers to the very best sites on and close to each island base. Guides will accompany you to national park sites, and in free time it’s easy to explore alone too. The best Galapagos beaches, restaurants and boutiques are but a short walk away.
Perhaps best of all though, land tour itineraries are flexible. Book one of our popular land itineraries, or we can help you to custom design your very own unique trip.A Galapagos land tour gives you the freedom to enjoy the Galapagos Islands in your own travel style.
We’ve broken the Galapagos tour experience down into 10 categories. These are the key things that can make or break your vacation. We’ll comprehensively compare cruise against land tour in each category to decide the winner.
So, in the blue corner we have cruise yachts, in the red corner we have Galapagos land tours.
Let’s put them to the test – may the best tour win!
Unique wildlife is the big reason that so many people flock to the the arhipelago. Without doubt, the Galapagos Islands are a world class wildlife destination, right up there with an African Safari, the Antarctic or North American National Parks.
In truth both cruises and land tours have wildlife covered hands-down. With either travel style, tourists have a great chance to tick off most of the bucket-list Galapagos animals. But there are some important differences to consider too.
Some islands can only be visited aboard a cruise. Genovesa, for example, known as the bird island for it’s incredible diversity of Galapagos bird species. Fernandina and the westerern side of Isabela island are also only accesible on cruise yachts. This is the only place to spot a Flightless Cormorant, and the most likely area to find Galapagos penguins nesting. These islands are among the biggest Galapagos highlights for wildlife lovers.
While Galapagos land tours may not be able to include these visitor sites, they do afford the advantage of enjoying a more flexible and relaxed wildlife experience. Many great sites can be explored without a guide, such as a beach with Galapagos sea lions, blue footed boobies and much more. With no time constraints to worry about, visitors get a more personal and relaxed wildlife experience.
VERDICT: A closely fought contest, but Galapagos cruise comes out the winner. Simply put, cruises offer a 10 out of 10 Galapagos wildlife encounter. Land tours are still a great choice for wildlife too, but there will be a few Galapagos birds and animals that are off limits.
The Galapagos archipelago is larger than most people realize. How many Galapagos islands are there? In total 19 large islands and 108 smaller islets or rocks. Each island differs to the next in terms of habitat, landscape and wildlife experience. So, the more ground covered, the more diverse the Galapagos vacation.
Cruises have access to every Galapagos visitor site. The ability to cruise at night and anchor at sea means that different islands can be visited every single day. While some Galapagos islands are close together, others require many hours of navigation. So, cruises can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. In short, cruising itineraries deliver the best diversity of visitor sites.
Land tours are more limited in itinerary options. Staying at hotels on the 3 inhabited islands means that visits are limited to sites on or close to those islands. This is certainly not a show-stopper. Land tours can and do visit many unforgettable Galapagos visitor sites. But the fact is, some islands are out of reach for day tours from land.
VERDICT: A clear victory for Galapagos cruises. For visitors looking for the most complete Galapagos experience, take a cruise itinerary.
Galapagos is not just about WHAT to see, but also HOW to see it. The range of different tour activities add spice to a Galapagos vacation.
Everyday activities offered on a live-aboard cruise are treking and snorkeling. Guided treks are usually short to moderate in difficulty, along designated trails. There are heaps of birds, plants and animals to see along the way, which naturalist guides will stop to tell their group all about. Most days also afford an opportunity to explore the underwater world of Galapagos. Snorkeling is a huge trip highlight for many, spotting colorful fish, tame reef sharks, rays and more. Cruisers will also typically enjoy free time at beaches to relax or swim. Some of the more up-market yachts even carry kayaks on board – adding another excellent choice for exploration.
On a Galapagos land tours visitors can equally enjoy all of the above – treking, snorkeling, beaches and kayaking. There are also many additional activities at your disposal. Adrenelin junkies can fit in a day of surfing, mountain biking, standup paddle boarding or horse riding. It’s also easy to add a day dive into a land based itinerary. Galapagos is one of the best scuba diving destinations on the planet. There can’t be many places on earth where divers can share the ocean with hammerheads, manta rays, whale sharks and penguins!
Check out Happy Gringo’s activity-packed land itineraries – Galapagos Active (6 days) and Galapgos Adventurer (9 days). These itineraries can easily be adapted to include extra activities if you wish.
VERDICT: Land tours offer the complete Galapagos smorgasbord of activities. Whatever adventures you are into, a land tour itinerary can be adapted to include it.
Naturalist guides are an important tour component. A good guide can really bring the islands to life in his/her briefings, and make a big difference to a trip.
All guides are registered by the Galapagos National Park. They are English speakers and have studied in order to qualify for their position. Of course, some guides are better than others, but there is a degree of standardisation.
Whether taking a cruise or land tour there is always an element of pot luck in guide selection. That said, often the more experienced guides are snapped up by the higher-end yachts, giving them a slight advantage.
VERDICT: It is impossible to know in advance which guide will be assigned to a cruise or land tour. We regularly receive good feedback about guides from all Galapagos trips. Overall though many of the very best guides work on the cruises.
We all like to be spoiled once in a while, and especially when on vacation. Perhaps a few touches of comfort, a spacious room, maybe an ocean view or a little pampering - why not?
So, how do our 2 contenders perform on the comfort scale? In simple terms, you get what you pay for.
A luxury or super-deluxe cruise yacht might have private balconies, a jacuzzi hot tub and enough space to swing a sea lion … while standard class yachts are more “cheap and cheerful”, but burn less of a hole in the wallet.
Similarly, land tours offer flexibility in choice of Galapagos hotel. We offer 4 different classes of land tour: Backapacker, Standard, Comfortable and Luxury - something for every desire and budget. So, if land tourists want confort they can have it.
VERDICT: A draw. Galapagos offers all levels of hotel and cruise yacht. Comfort level depends more on budget spend than on type of tour.
Good food and a full belly makes for happy tourists. A healthy diet is also increasingly important for many people, as is flexibility to cater for special dietary needs (vegeterians / vegans etc).
Cruise yachts may be limited by small kitchen space, but tourists are often impressed by the creative dishes whipped up by on-board chefs. All meals are included from lunch on day 1 to breakfast on the final day. Yachts also have bars that run passenger tabs. A range of cocktails are mixed and sundowner beers bring a perfect end to the day.
Land tours only include breakfast at the hotel, and sometimes lunch on day tour yachts. The advantage to this approach is freedom and flexibility to sample some of the excellent restaurants for dinner in each town. Chilled out nightlife and bars add to the mix.
Both tour types will go out of their way to cater for special dietary requests. Just let us know in advance, so suitable preparations can be made.
VERDICT: It’s hard to pick a winner. A cruise gives all-inclusive value for money, while land tours give freedom to dine out at a restaurant of choice. Another hard fought draw.
We’ve already stated that, as Galapagos tours go, you get what you pay for. That is absolutely true. But how does a similar comfort level of cruise compare to a land tour? Which tour offers most bang for your buck?
At Standard comfort level, our 8-day Galapagos Explorer land tour sells for $2125 per person, while the Aida Maria (a typical standard class yacht) 8 day cruise costs $3120. So, dollar for dollar the land tour comes out close to 1/3 cheaper than its comparable cruise.
At luxury price points, the same Galapagos Explorer land tour sells for $2935 per person, verses $4518 on the luxury class Anahi 8 day cruise, a 35% price difference.
But, to truly compare apples with apples, we need to remember that cruises are all-inclusive in terms of meals, while land tours only include breakfast and some lunches. So, you’ll need to add cost of meals to the land tour prices for a fair comparison.
Even so, in general there are clear cost savings with a land tour.
VERDICT: We have a winner - Land tours are generally more budget friendly than cruises.
Not all Galapagos trip itineraries are created equal. In reality there are lots of different itinerary options and choices available. We’ve already covered itinerary diversity, with cruises coming out a clear winner. But what about itinerary flexibility?
A Galapagos Cruise will take you further afield to reach sites that land trips can only dream of … but this does have one disadvantage. In order to protect wildlife on uninhabited islands, cruise itineraries are regulated by the National Park. This is great because it ensures that visitor sites receive a gradual flow of tourists each day, to avoid fragile ecosystems being overwhelmed. However, it also means that a cruise itinerary is 100% set-out in advance. Of course, you can see which itinerary is scheduled before you book, but they are set in stone. There is also a lack of flexibility after that – the visits cannot be adjusted or changed.
Island-hopping land tours also come with a pre-designed itinerary when you book, but there is an important advantage to consider. We are able to custom-make a unique itinerary just for you. Visitor sites and activities are flexible a la carte – we can literally design the trip around your ideas and preferences.
VERDICT: Flexibility is where land tours really some into their own. The ability to pick and mix your own itinerary is huge!
Freedom is another important “How to go to Galapagos” consideration. Some tours that follow a highly programed schedule, others factor in freedom for exploration.
Galapagos cruises are very organised. Every day is meticulously programed to provide visitors with the best possible experience. A typical day will mean early start, morning visit / activity, back to boat for lunch, afternoon visit / activity, back to boat for dinner, free time, navigation at night. Rinse and repeat. Most activities are performed in a group, especially treking and snorkeling. Sometimes there is free time for an hour or two at the beach, with freedom to wander off and explore. In terms of dining, every meal is served aboard the yacht. Everything is very structured, and free time is quite limited.
Land tours have some programed visits too, such as navigable day tours to nearby islands. But they also include some more flexible activities with a private guide, meaning that tourists can dictate the pace and direction a little more. You will be the only members of the tour, so the guide can adapt it a little more to your desires.
It’s also easy to incorporate free days into a land tour itinerary. A free day provides complete flexibility to explore by yourselves, head out treking, relax on the beach, shop at boutiques, or just enjoy some down time. In the evenings you’ll have complete freedom to cruise around town, try out different restaurants, or stroll at night.
VERDICT: Another win for land tours, with a more relaxing vibe, plus freedom to enjoy down time.
The marine life at the Galapagos Islands is breathtaking, and an important element to any trip.
Overall cruises provide better snorkeling. This is due to the diversity and range of different Galapagos snorkeling sites that can be visited. For example, only cruisers can snorkel at renowned sites like Prince Philip Steps (Genovesa), Devil’s Crown (Floreana) or Tagus Cove (Isabela).
There’s great snorkeling to be had on land tours too, for example Kicker Rock (San Cristobal) and Los Tuneles (Isabela). But overall the diversity of options on a cruise wins.
Most regular cruises do not offer scuba dive tours, but there is an alternative. Specialist live-aboard Galapagos dive cruises ONLY do diving, and they do it exceptionally well. Wolf & Darwin islands, to the far north of the archipelago, boast the largest shark biomass on the planet! Imagine diving with huge schools of hammerheads and whale sharks the size of buses!
It’s also easy to include day dives into a land tour itinerary, to famous sites such as Gordon Rocks and North Seymour. But for hard-core scuba enthusiasts the specialised dive cruise is the only way to go.
VERDICT: There’s amazing underwater action to be had on any Galapagos tour, but cruises have the slight edge.
We can’t finish without mentioning a few final important considerations.
The Galapagos ocean can sometimes be quite choppy, so visitors without sea legs may be more suited in general to land trips. Of course, many types of sea sickness medication are also available, and highly recommended for your Galapagos packing list.
Land tours also involve boat travel when they hop between islands bases. Speed boat ferries operate daily between inhabited islands, but the journey is bumpy and can be uncomfortable. Small jet flights are also available, but fares tend to pricey and luggage limits are low (11kg - 25 pounds per person).
Would you believe it, we have a tie 4-4!
Galapagos Cruises win on wildlife experience, itinerary diversity, guides and diving/snorkeling.
Island hopping land tours take gold medal for flexibility, freedom, tour cost and activities.
So, where does that leave us? How do you decide which tour to take?
In our opinion, the most important Galapagos decision comes back to WHAT you want to see, and HOW you prefer to travel.
If your goal is a complete experience that ticks all the boxes, and to see as much of the Galapagos Islands as possible … then we recommend to consider a Galapagos cruise.
If you prefer a general overview of the Galapagos islands, together with more freedom and flexibility to create your own adventures and do your own thing … then a land tour is probably a better choice.
Still not sure? Don’t stress it, there is no right or wrong answer. The Galapagos islands are going to blow you away whichever choice you make :).
Whilst cruises and land tours rightly grab most of the attention, they are not the only options out there. Let’s briefly run through a couple more choices that you might want to consider.
Resort style hotels like Finch Bay and Galapagos Safari Camp are land tours with a twist. Instead of hopping between island bases, they offer a single accommodation base on central Santa Cruz island. They also go one step further to include all meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – each day, and have a resort style feel with swimming pools.
Sure, the variety of day tour options are more limited from a single island base. But the flip-side advantage is that you’ll stay in one hotel room for the whole trip with fewer hassles.
More and more tourists opt for the best of both worlds. Why not combine a short 5 or 6 day cruise with a 4 or 5 days land tour add on? Get the benefits of cruising to far away islands, together with some free time and flexibility to explore. It’s also easy to add on simple hotel nights to a cruise, for downtime before or after.
Whichever choice you make, Happy Gringo has you covered. Count on us for 17+ years of experience in organising unforgettable Galapagos vacations. We’ve sent > 10k happy tourists out to Galapagos during that time.
Contact us for a FREE TOUR QUOTE. Our expert team will discuss the options with you. We’ll provide all of the advice you need to make the right choice for you and your family.
In conclusion, how to visit Galapagos? Well, it all depends on the type of Galapagos vacation you are looking for. What do you want to see? How do you prefer to travel? Both cruises and land trips are great tour options, but it’s important to understand their differences. Be sure to consider the pros and cons of each before making a big decision. We hope this blog serves as an informative and useful decision tool – please do reach out to us if you have any further questions or doubts. Your Galapagos vacation is once in a lifetime, so let’s get it right!