The first decision - to cruise or not to cruise? - is an easy one. While it is possible to plan a land-based holiday in the Galapagos, you are restricted to just four towns with hotels, and you'll have to take day trips by boat to reach the best wildlife areas. Touring the Galapagos on an expedition cruise ship, on the other hand, allows you to reach the more remote and pristine islands, travelling in comfort and accompanied by expert guides.
The next consideration is your itinerary. There are two routes that most ships follow - the Western and the Northern (or Central). On the Western route you'll visit the geologically younger islands of Fernandina and Isabela, while the Northern route will normally include outlying islands such as Española. Wildlife is a key factor when choosing your itinerary, as some species are limited to certain islands - for example, Española is the only place you'll see albatross, while the westernmost islands are the place to see Galapagos penguins. The time of year can also have an impact on what you'll see.
The final decision is which ship to choose, and you may be surprised to discover that most cruise lines don't operate in the Galapagos. Visitor numbers are strictly controlled, and cruise lines that operate here must do so through an Ecuadorian subsidiary. The National Park restricts landing sites to 100 passengers ashore at any one time, so no ship exceeds this number. All operators must have at least one guide per 16 passengers and all guests must be accompanied by a guide when ashore. We generally recommend a slightly larger vessel (between 50-100 guests) as you'll have more than one guide, a range of activities to choose from and more space and comfort on board.
So, what are your options? Here are our top five recommendations:
The newest ship in the Galapagos is the 100-guest Silver Origin, which joined the Silversea fleet in 2020, replacing the ageing Silver Galapagos. This sleek vessel combines high-tech hardware with Silversea's trademark personalised approach, including butler service for every suite. Silver Origin also offers the highest crew-to-guest ratio in the Galapagos, and innovative features such as an outdoor firepit. Silversea's all-inclusive package takes all the stress out of your trip, with flights from the UK, a two-night pre-cruise hotel stay in Quito and all your transfers included.
If you would prefer something a little smaller then Lindblad Expeditions' 48-guest National Geographic Islander II, accommodating just 48 guests in stylish surroundings, is a great choice. Formerly known as Crystal Esprit of Crystal Cruises before it was purchased and converted by Lindblad, this sleek all-suite vessel is akin to being on your own private yacht, with indoor-outdoor dining options, an observation deck, a climate-controlled Marina and a high-tech Science Hub. The ship is equipped with an impressive array of 'tools for exploration', including kayaks, paddleboards, a glass-bottom Zodiac, snorkel gear for adults and children, video microscope and remote ocean view cameras. Lindblad's other ship in the Galapagos, National Geographic Endeavour II, underwent a major refurbishment in 2016 and is a little larger, carrying 96 guests.
To operate in the Galapagos you need to be an Ecuadorian company, a challenge that Hurtigruten have overcome by chartering the MS Santa Cruz II from local outfit Metropolitan Touring. With 50 cabins for 90 guests, this is one of the larger ships operating in the region, giving spacious public areas both inside and outside, not to mention a smoother ride, and she underwent a full refurbishment in 2021 to bring her up to Hurtigruten's standards. She has comfortable accommodation (163 square feet) with a few larger suites and interconnecting rooms for family groups, as well as single occupancy cabins. Excellent facilities, two outdoor hot tubs, great areas to interact with the experts on board, indoor and outdoor dining areas and a well-stocked library make the ship a great choice for exploring the Galapagos.
Celebrity Cruises are best known for their large mainstream ocean ships packed full of family-friendly facilities, so it may come as a surprise to learn that they have almost 20 years of experience operating expedition ships in the Galapagos. It's the newest ship in the fleet, Celebrity Flora, that really appeals to us here at Mundy. Launched in 2019, this brand new vessel embodies the same chic and contemporary style as the wider Celebrity fleet, and brings innovations including the chance to 'glamp' on deck in a comfy cabana, with a stargazing session guided by one of the onboard naturalist guides. On board you'll enjoy a relaxed atmosphere, more suited to families than some of the other ships in the Galapagos, along with all-inclusive pricing that covers a lot more than you would normally get on a Celebrity cruise.
This exciting company started out as a river cruise line, but have recently expanded into boutique ocean cruising. Billed as the first true superyacht in the Galapagos, the sleek Aqua Mare, launched in 2022, offers an intimate and exclusive way to explore one of the world's most fascinating destinations. Carrying just 16 lucky travellers, this is a little smaller than the ships we would usually recommend in the Galapagos, but we just know that Aqua Expeditions will deliver an exceptional onboard experience, and this is a particularly appealing option for a private charter. She is spacious for her size and offers an amazing 1:1 staff-to-guest ratio, with two naturalist guides on hand to ensure you get the most out of your expedition.