Senior editor Norie Quintos, who edits the annual Tours of a Lifetime package in the magazine, just returned from a trip to the Galapagos and mainland Ecuador with her teen sons. This is the second of a four-part series. To see the first post, click here.
The biggest logistical decision travelers to the Galapagos face is whether to go on a boat-based or land-based tour. Each has its pros and cons and what’s right for the neighbor down the street or your golf buddy isn’t necessarily what is right for you. And then, of course, there’s the environment to consider.
For Americans, the most popular way to travel around the Galapagos Islands is by live-aboard boat. While traditional 2,000-passenger, Carnival-style cruise ships are unable to ply these waters, boats that do cruise the archipelago range in capacity from eight to 100 passengers. (Full disclosure: National Geographic Expeditions operates two well-regarded ships in the Galapagos, the 96-passenger Endeavor and the 48-passenger Islander). Boats vary greatly in level of comfort. Travelers typically fly to Quito or Guayaquil in mainland Ecuador and take a domestic flight to either San Cristobal or Baltra in the Galapagos, depending on your ship’s itinerary. Ships have a repeating eight-day itinerary, which are often split into four-, five- and eight-day cruises covering two or more of the 60-some islands and islets.
(Next year, some boats will start a 15-day itinerary and by 2012 all boats will operate 15-day itineraries, which can be split into cruises of four days and up, without repeating any sites. Because almost 97 percent of the Galapagos is designated as a national park, landings are pre-determined and strictly controlled. The daily schedule generally goes something like this: Breakfast on board; morning landing and excursion via Zodiac; lunch on board; afternoon excursion; evening sail to next destination.
So-called land-based trips base themselves on one or more of the four islands inhabited by humans as a base (typically Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabela), and use vans or motorboats for day excursions. There are no high-rise hotel chains on the islands and only two small luxury properties. More typical are inns, B&Bs, and hostels ranging from backpacker-style to comfortable. In the past, these were the choice of budget travelers and adventurous Europeans, but land-based tours are becoming more popular as lodging standards improve and tour options expand.
To find the best choice, weigh your priorities and look at the specific options available to you. Here are some factors to consider:
- Cost: Land-based tours can be cheaper than cruises because accommodations tend to be more modest; many packages also exclude some meals.
- Comfort: An advantage of the live-aboard boat is that you’ll only have to unpack once, compared with having to move two or three times on land. And the most expensive boats are more luxurious than the typical Galapagos hotel. However, you’ll get far more living space in a hotel than in a cramped boat cabin. Prone to seasickness? You may prefer spending nights on land. The caveat is that the smaller boats that take you from one island to another on a land tour can cause worse seasickness symptoms than the larger cruise vessels. (In either case, over-the-counter pills or a prescription patch can help).
- Activity Level: High-energy folks may do better on land, where there are opportunities for longer and more strenuous hikes, snorkeling, and kayaking. Boat activities are constrained by time limitations and the fitness level of the majority of the group.
Sustainability: Figuring out which kind of trip is more environment-friendly is a little like playing the paper- or plastic-bag game. There are reasonable arguments on either side. The cruise industry has been regulated by a strict set of protocols developed over 40 years. Park naturalists accompany every excursion; guests are not allowed off marked trails; all food is eaten on board; and waste sorted, carried away, and recycled. “There has been a well-established system of metrics that has successfully guided boat-based tourism,” notes Johannah Barry of the Galapagos Conservancy.
Land-based tourism is by comparison relatively new and unregulated; there have been few if any studies showing their impact on the fragile ecosystems. Barry worries that land-based tourism involves some recreational activities that are not normally associated with the Galapagos and may increase the risk of harm to the environment. “If you want to go horseback riding or surfing, there are better places than the Galapagos to do it,” she notes. On the plus side, land-based operators say they don’t travel as far as cruises do, using up less fuel; they contend that land tours provide more income to the existing local population, whose former fishing-based livelihood has been decimated by regulations designed to protect the marine environment. They argue that large Ecuadoran or international boat companies take much of the money out of the Galapagos.
So, what should responsible travelers do? Choose the travel style that best suits your needs. Then, find an established operator (whether land- or boat-based) that shares your concern for the environment by asking pointed questions about every aspect of the trip. Make sure your operator is a member of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA), whose members agree to adhere to ecological standards.
- Other considerations: Liveaboard boats make more efficient use of your vacation time because inter-island travel is done while you are sleeping. Land tours give you more contact with the residents as you patronize local hotels and restaurants; you’ll also have more opportunity to practice your Spanish. Tipping is simpler on a cruise: You’ll hand over an envelope at the end, with the cash being divided among the crew. On land, you’ll have to pull out your wallet repeatedly, handing out small bills to the seemingly endless stream of porters and drivers and local guides, in addition to an end-of-trip gratuity for your main guide.
- Avoid problems: Type in “travel Galapagos” on the Web and you’ll find a bewildering array of travel agents, tour outfitters, and cruise companies clamoring for your business. Beware of booking though the Internet with an unknown agency. Some liveaboard boats are not up to Western standards or may be switched with inferior vessels without notice. A significant number are not even registered. A U.S.-based operator doesn’t prevent all problems, but can wield more leverage and be held accountable should an issue arise.
To help me navigate the variety of choices available, I turned to Seattle-based tour operator Southern Explorations.
Founder and CEO Justin Laycob was a kayaker who fell in love with South America as a teen, went to school in Ecuador and learned Spanish, and mined his contacts to turn his travel passion into a business. He custom-designed a trip for us, accommodating my desire to experience both boat-based and land-based travel in the Galapagos.
He also crafted an extension on the mainland. Because I was bringing my teen sons, I wanted a boat that would have other active families. Because I was a single mother, I wanted a friendly environment conducive to social interaction with other guests. We settled on a boat from the well-rated Ecoventura fleet. The Flamingo 1 accommodated 20 passengers in 10 cabins. There were eight children ranging in age from 12 to 16. Perfect.
For the land portion, Laycob suggested a customized multi-sport trip, where we would be snorkeling, hiking, and kayaking through the islands, and rafting and mountain biking on the mainland. “I’m not good at hills,” I complained. No problem, we could arrange a mostly downhill ride.
All photos by Norie Quintos
In the next posting, Norie and the kids get schooled.