Going to the Galapagos Islands has been on my bucket list for close to a decade. And thanks to some friends having traveled there in various ways in the past, I knew that I wanted to do a Galapagos cruise when I eventually did go.
I'm not a fan of cruises on huge ships, but the ships in the Galapagos by law can only hold up to 100 passengers (and some hold far fewer) – so cruising is definitely a different vibe here.
I knew that a Galapagos cruise would be an epic adventure filled with unique landscapes and memorable wildlife encounters. But there was a lot that I didn't know (or expect) before I went.
So if you, too, are planning a bucket list cruise to the Galapagos, here are all the things I think you should know before you go.
11 things to know before a Galapagos cruise
1. This is an active trip
First things first: to truly enjoy the Galapagos Islands, you're going to need to get pretty active to discover them. My dad and I were both a bit surprised at just *how* active a Galapagos trip could be.
For example, our small-ship cruise consisted of hiking and snorkeling every single day – sometimes twice a day, with the occasional kayaking session thrown in, too. None of the hikes were technical or super strenuous, and snorkeling sessions usually lasted under an hour. But it all adds up!
A typical day on a Galapagos cruise could look like this:
- 6/6:30 a.m. – Wake up
- 7 a.m. – Breakfast
- 8 a.m. – Load up in dinghies for a wet landing, followed by a hike or beach walk to see wildlife
- 10 a.m. – Swimming or snorkeling
- (and a couple days we had the chance to kayak before lunch too!)
- 11:30 a.m. – Back on board
- Noon – Lunch and time to relax
- 2 p.m. – Back in the dinghies for more snorkeling
- 3:30/4 p.m. – Another wet landing for another hike, or occasionally a scenic cruise back on board the ship
- 6:45 p.m. – Briefing for the next day
- 7 p.m. – Dinner
I was happily exhausted each night and usually in bed before 9:30 p.m.!
Most cruises are also not super accessible, requiring you to climb stairs, and get in and out of zodiac-style boats (usually into the waves or on sand) multiple times per day. There are a few of the larger, luxury ships that are more disability-friendly, but it's something you'd need to specifically look for when booking.
2. Every island is different
The thing that struck me the most during my trip is that each and every island in the Galapagos is unique. All the islands were formed by volcanic activity, but the landscapes vary from black lava fields to white sand beaches; stark cactus-dotted landscapes to more lush lagoons. Every island is like a different planet.
(The islands are also bigger and further apart than you might think! Which perhaps explains why they're all so very different.)
We visited the following islands on our 7-night cruise:
- Santa Cruz (x2!) – We went into the highlands in the center of the island on Day 1 to see giant tortoises at El Chato Ranch, which was lush and green, and visited the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora. On Day 5 we were back on Santa Cruz as part of an itinerary change, visiting the northern, volcanic end of the island to climb the red and dusty “Dragon Hill.”
- Espanola – We visited a beautiful white sand beach at Gardner Bay, followed by a water-only visit to spot albatross and marine iguanas near Punta Suarez.
- San Cristobal – We went for a hike into the dry and dusty interior of the island to look for tortoises, and then visited Cerro Brujo (my favorite beach!) in the afternoon.
- Santa Fe – Home to some sandy-colored land iguanas, and playful sea lions that we snorkeled and kayaked with.
- South Plaza – What an alien landscape! Bright orange and red carpetweed that the land iguanas match, plus tall prickly pear cacti, and cliffs that tons of red-billed tropicbirds like to nest in.
- Santiago – We went for a walk on a black lava field at Sullivan Bay, and then got to swim with Galapagos penguins here!
- Bartolome – We climbed 365 steps up to the top of this stark, volcanic island to see an iconic Galapagos view. (And then saw more penguins.)
- Rabida – We landed on the red sand at Jervis Bay, and did a loop around the island to see flamingos and other Galapagos birds.
Honestly, no two islands were the same in landscape or wildlife, which is so fascinating!
3. The beaches are incredible
I've been to some truly singular beaches around the world, and some of the beaches in the Galapagos rank up there with the best of them!
My two favorites were the beach at Gardner Bay on Espanola Island, and Cerro Brujo on San Cristobal Island. These beaches had soft white sand, turquoise water, and tons of sleepy sea lions! The combination certainly made these beaches some of my favorites anywhere in the world.
(And the water at the beaches was around 73 degrees F when I went in early November, in case you were curious. Perfectly fine to swim in, though our ship did provide us with short wetsuits for our longer snorkeling sessions.)
4. The wildlife is truly not afraid
You've probably seen photos of sea lions lounging on docks and chilling right next to people on beaches in the Galapagos. I did, too, and was skeptical as to whether that actually was the norm. Well, I can now confirm that it is!
The animals in the Galapagos have no need to fear humans, and so they don't. Tortoises, sea lions, iguanas, nesting birds, even penguins… they honestly don't care much that you're there.
There's a rule that you're supposed to stay at least 2-3 meters away from all wildlife – but the wildlife don't get the same memo. We had everything from sea lions to penguins to young flamingos come right up to us.
5. Everything is protected
Part of the reason the animals aren't afraid of humans is because they are SO protected by Galapagos National Park. The penalty for even accidentally killing an animal here includes hefty fines and even serious jail time.
The park is well aware that its natural resources are its main draw, and they protect them fiercely.
So be prepared to follow rules not only about the wildlife, but about other things, too, like not bringing single-use plastic onto the islands; keeping your boots/shoes clean; and trying to use biodegradable toiletries and reef-safe sunscreen.
And no, you can't sneak a penguin back with you in your backpack, either.
6. The national park controls all
When you're in the Galapagos, everything you do is dictated by Galapagos National Park. They assign each cruise ship its itinerary for the whole year, decide who gets to land on which island at what time, dole out snorkeling permits, and more.
It sounds a bit over the top, but everything runs super smoothly. You're never waiting in a line of ships for your turn to visit an island, and the way they spread ships and groups out means that your group might have a beach or slice of island all to yourselves. It makes for a pretty intimate-feeling trip.
The national park also handles last-minute changes, which I experienced on my trip. There was an ongoing outbreak of bird flu in South America when I visited, and, out of caution, the national park shut down a few of the larger bird colonies to tourist visits.
We weren't able to get close to the albatross colony at Punta Suarez on Espanola, or visit the red-footed booies at Punta Pitt on San Cristobal. And we had to cut Genovesa Island (home to all three types of boobies) out altogether.
And while it was a bummer to miss those trip highlights, the national park assigned our ship other islands and walks and beaches instead, and everything ran incredibly smoothly. If you hadn't known the original itinerary, you would have never guessed that it had been changed at the last minute.
7. The ship you choose does matter
Cruising in the Galapagos is not like cruising in other parts of the world. Because of regulations in the Galapagos, cruise ships there legally cannot hold more than 100 passengers – and most of the biggest ships sailing the islands top out around 90.
There are 3 ship sizes you have to pick from for a Galapagos cruise:
- Small ships – Usually hold up to 16 passengers; good ship example: Reina Silvia Voyager or Cormorant II
- Medium-sized ships – 40-50 passengers on average; good ship example: National Geographic Islander II or La Pinta
- Large ships – Around 90 passengers; good ship example: Silversea Silver Origin or Santa Cruz II
Small ships in the Galapagos offer a more intimate experience; you get to know your naturalist guide and other passengers well, and there's no taking turns for excursions, as everyone can do the same thing at the same time.
Larger ships, by contrast, will break passengers up into groups with different guides and sometimes have you doing different things at different times due to park regulations. But larger ships are generally more stable in the water, and have more on offer on board (like common areas, libraries, bars, gyms, etc.).
Which type of ship you choose will depend on your travel style and needs/wants for a trip like this. I personally chose a small ship – and I wrote all about the pros and cons of small ship Galapagos cruise!
8. You may need seasickness meds
Regardless of which size ship you choose, if you are prone to motion sickness, you're going to want to pack seasickness meds with you for a Galapagos cruise.
July-October is the time of year with the roughest water, but you can also encounter rolling seas even during “calmer,” wetter months. In November (which is a shoulder season in the Galapagos), we had two nights that were particularly rough on our small ship.
Most ships try to travel longer distances (i.e. between islands) at night, but it was rough enough one night that the rolling of our ship woke me up and I couldn't get back to sleep.
The good news is that, while I AM prone to motion sickness, I had no issues on this cruise while taking Dramamine (active ingredient Meclizine) prophylactically every day. In fact, no one on our ship got seasick at all because those of us who were worried about it just took meds.
So if you know you're prone to motion sickness (or aren't sure if you are), I would recommend taking tablets daily just in case. Take it from me that trying to “cure” seasickness once you're already feeling sick is no fun.
(Don't want to take meds? You can also try a Reliefband, which is a device that's worn like a watch that uses electrical signals on your wrist to help get rid of nausea. It also works!)
9. Bring more than one swimsuit
You'll be spending a good amount of time in the water on a Galapagos cruise (remember, on my cruise we went snorkeling usually twice a day, and sometimes swimming or kayaking, too), so I recommend packing more than one swimsuit.
We often went right from hiking to swimming or snorkeling with no way to change in between, and I don't know about you, but I cringe at the thought of putting a wet swimsuit on under clothing I then have to hike in!
I brought 3 swimsuits with me to the Galapagos, but you can probably get away with 2.
(Though I will say that if you're going to the Galapagos when it's very humid and don't have access to a balcony you can hang things on to dry, you might actually want 3 swimsuits, as it may take more than one day for a suit to dry out in your bathroom.)
10. The sun is no joke
The Galapagos Islands straddle the Equator in the Pacific Ocean, and if you know anything about the sun, you'll know that its UV rays are extra intense right at the Equator.
Because of this, good sun protection is an absolutely essential item to pack for the Galapagos Islands.
I recommend a mixture of sun-blocking clothing and sunscreen to help protect yourself from the equatorial sun.
For sun-blocking clothing, I brought:
- Long-sleeved, breathable tops (I most love this Columbia one)
- 1 wide-brimmed sunhat and 1 baseball cap (but I mostly wore the wide-brimmed hat)
- Sunglasses with UV protection (and polarized ones are always recommended on the water)
And, because of the sort of destination it is, you'll want to bring reef-friendly sunscreen when you can. (Focus on finding mineral sunscreens as opposed to chemical ones, and pay attention to whether they are water resistant or not!) My favorite sunscreens for this trip were:
- Cetaphil Sheer 100% Mineral Liquid Sunscreen (50 SPF, water resistant)
- Cetaphil Sheer Mineral Sunscreen Lotion (50 SPF, water resistant)
- Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Oxide Dry-Touch Sunscreen (50 SPF, water resistant)
- CeraVe Mineral Sunscreen Stick (50 SPF; I used this for my scalp, too!)
And yes, 50 SPF is definitely recommended in this part of the world, and prepare to re-apply it frequently! You'll feel permanently coated in a layer of sunscreen, but it's better than sunburn and skin cancer.
11. Tourism here feels sustainable
To me (as someone who studied tourism development and has a master's degree in tourism management), tourism in the Galapagos feels pretty sustainable.
I say “feels” because there's always a bit of unsustainability when it comes to tourism. But in the Galapagos, it seems to be handled in a way that, overall, focuses on long-term conservation and economic success.
The main airport in the Galapagos on Baltra island, for example, is the first true eco-friendly airport in the world, being fully wind- and solar-powered (it even has a LEED Gold certification). The national park also limits how many people can be in the islands/on land at any given time, along with limiting the size of cruise ships.
But the most impressive thing I learned is that the crews on all the ships in the Galapagos must be Ecuadorian nationals – and the naturalist guides all have to be from the Galapagos Islands. Giving locals a stake in the tourism industry is one of the best sustainable moves!
Add to these all the conservation programs you can learn about at the Charles Darwin Research Station, and the Galapagos really is a great case study for sustainable tourism development. I felt pretty good about visiting!
The Galapagos Islands are definitely worthy of being on any bucket list. And if you go into a trip there knowing all the above things about what to expect, then you'll be set up to have the best trip possible.
Are the Galapagos Islands on YOUR bucket list? What other questions do you have about visiting?
Amanda Williams is the award-winning blogger behind A Dangerous Business Travel Blog. She has traveled to more than 60 countries on 6 continents from her home base in Ohio, specializing in experiential and thoughtful travel through the US, Europe, and rest of the world. Amanda only shares tips based on her personal experiences and places she's actually traveled!