You are contemplating a visit to Galapagos. You have dreamed of this trip for years and now you are ready to go. There is a bewildering array of companies and websites offering trips to Galapagos, all professing to be the best. How do you choose your tour?
You come to the experts.
Galapagos residents Greg and Thalia have been living in the islands since 1982 and have over 25 years experience providing assistance and organizing tours for visitors to Galapagos. Greg has also been working as a naturalist guide and trip leader for over 25 years and both Thalia and Greg have conducted extensive ecological research in the islands. With our local and up-to-date knowledge of Galapagos and tourism we are able to provide you with the best advice for a trip to Galapagos. We pride ourselves in giving you personalized, honest service. Read below to discover the key elements for a successful tour, and contact us to book a tour.
KEY ELEMENTS OF A SUCCESSFUL TOUR
A visit to Galapagos is the trip of a lifetime. But all too often the trip falls short. Why? The naturalist guide. It is the Naturalist Guide which makes a trip. Your naturalist guide is there to provide information on the natural history of the islands and to maximize your enjoyment of the islands while making sure the park rules are upheld at the visitor site. There are over 500 NATURALIST GUIDES in Galapagos but only about 14% are university trained, experienced “naturalist 3” guides. And the vast majority do not have a professional command of the English language. These two factors mean that most visitors receive a superficial interpretation of the wildlife, geography, geology, history and conservation of the Galapagos or find it difficult to understand the guide because of their accent or language. Most tour operators and websites offering trips to Galapagos state that they have the best guides in Galapagos, but don’t be fooled. You have a right to ask who your naturalist guide will be, whether he/she is a naturalist I, 2 or 3, and how many years experience they have.
Galapagos Natural History Tours prides itself in using experienced, knowledgeable guides who are also fluent in English. Our guides have intimate knowledge of the Galapagos natural history, the ability to convey the information in a clear and entertaining manner, a healthy sense of humour, and the experience to show you the best of Galapagos. They also know the value of early disembarkations in order to avoid other groups, they can direct you to treasured snorkelling sites and can recount little-known facts and stories about the islands.
Most of our tours are led by Greg Estes. Regarded as one of the very top NATURALIST GUIDES in Galapagos, Greg Estes has led more trips, as guide and expeditions leader for top international tour companies, in Galapagos than any other guide. With a degree in biology from the University of London he has also conducted extensive research in the islands and has recently written a book on Charles Darwin’s historic visit to Galapagos. His first language is English. Greg knows how to maximize a visitor’s enjoyment of the islands. Check out Greg & Thalia’s biography.
Look for a superb itinerary. If this is your one big chance to visit the famous Galapagos Islands, make sure you see as much as possible. A trip to Galapagos deserves at least a week. Most boat tours are 8 days in length, with a few 11 day and 2 week options available. Some companies offer shorter, 3-4 day options, however these are not recommended, as half a week is simply not enough time to appreciate Galapagos. Remember, too, that half of the first and last days are taken up in travelling from and to the continent. When looking at an 8 day trip be wary of cruises which go into port to pick up and drop off passengers midway through the one week itinerary. These companies offer half week cruises and participants who book the full week by combining the first half and second half of the cruise often lose out as they have to wait while the boat drops off passengers, picks up incoming passengers and refuels.
Make sure you are clear as to how many days are spent in Galapagos. A trip advertised as 11 days long usually means 8 days in Galapagos and three days on the continent. To fully enjoy the Galapagos we do not recommend anything less than an 8 day tour in Galapagos. With the right itinerary an 8 day trip can include the best sites. If you would like a longer trip a great option is to stay a few days after the boat tour on one of the inhabited islands. A 2 week trip does not necessarily add significantly to the number of visiting sites but the pace is more relaxed.
Visitors to Galapagos have different priorities when it comes to what they want to see most of all. The giant tortoise, marine iguana, sea lion and blue-footed booby rank high on the list. And all of these are normally seen in a cruise in the islands. But others, like the flightless cormorant, Galapagos penguin, waved albatross, Galapagos fur seal, Galapagos land iguana, red-footed booby, vermillion flycatcher and flamingo are not always seen. And furthermore even though you may see a giant tortoise, marine iguana, sea lion or blue-footed booby, you may not have a chance to see tortoises in the wild, marine iguanas by the hundreds, sea lions frolicking underwater or blue-footed boobies doing their courtship dance. You will have a chance to see all of these if you have the right itinerary. An ideal itinerary includes at least two of the three “Biggies”; Fernandina , Española and Genovesa. Ask anyone who has been to the Galapagos what were their highlights and they are bound to mention one of these three islands. Fernandina to see hordes of marine iguanas and the flightless cormorant in one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world, Española to see nesting blue-footed and Nazca boobies, colorful marine iguanas and, between April – December, the waved albatross, and Genovesa (the ‘bird island’) to see nesting red-footed boobies, frigatebirds, storm petrels and red-billed tropicbirds. All three islands offer outstanding opportunities for great photography.
Unfortunately, on most trips often one or more of these islands is missing from the itinerary. It is impossible to include them all on a trip lasting less than a week due to their widely spread positions at the periphery of the archipelago; Fernandina is the most westerly island, Espanola the most southeasterly and Genovesa is up in the northeast of the archipelago. Be sure to look for an itinerary that includes at least 2 of these 3 outstanding islands.
Most tours cater to people of all ages and have low to average activity level. If you would prefer earlier starts to the day, maximum hiking and snorkelling opportunities, you need to be more selective. To maximize your enjoyment of the islands, choose a tour with a high activity level. You can always choose not to do a hike if you are not feeling up to it, but it is better to have the opportunity to do so in the first place. As Greg says “It is not unusual to see groups arriving late in the morning at a visiting site and then staying on shore for only an hour or two. Snorkelling is often not an option for these groups. When one sees the abundance of wildlife both on land and in the water it is a tragedy to spend so little time taking in the wonders of Galapagos on this once in a lifetime experience.”
In Galapagos you can find tours on vessels ranging from 12-passenger yachts to 50-100 passenger cruise ships. Boats carrying 16 passengers are the norm. Unless you are specifically aiming for the comfort and luxury provided by a cruise ship, a smaller vessel offers a more intimate visit to the islands. The advantages of a small boat are that you are in a smaller group, you get a more personal feel for the islands, photography is better if you are not sandwiched between large groups of people, and it allows for a more flexible schedule. Most cruise ships are tightly run, time-conscious ships with little to no flexibility in the time in which you go on shore or snorkel. Cruise ships also have restricted itineraries and are unable to visit some sites such as Genovesa Island.
The most expensive tour does not necessarily mean the best, but the least expensive tours lack in quality of service, and may be deficient in safety. You should also consider the impact cheap tours have on the Galapagos ecosystem. As professed by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), there is a real cost to conservation, and sustainable tourism in Galapagos will only be achieved through the support of high quality, well-interpreted, low-impact, live-aboard tours run by conscientious, qualified operators (WWF article) . Operators selling cheap tours are putting quantity ahead of quality and undermining conservation efforts.
High quality tours, on the other hand, do not have to be expensive. There is a range of great trips in the $4000-$6500 per person price range. With our years of experience, and with our local and up-to-date knowledge of the operations in Galapagos, we are in the best position to recommend the best tours for your budget. Let us help you narrow down your search.
Note: While choosing a trip look closely at the cost, and what it includes. If not included remember to add the cost of your round-trip flight out to the islands (about $550 per person including the INGALA transit card), hotel nights in Quito or Guayaquil, and the park entrance fee (about $100). Also remember tip money for your crew and guide and spending money for sodas and alcoholic beverages on board and t-shirts and other souvenirs.