A cruise is the classic way to explore the Galapagos Islands. For good reason. You’re able to reach more islands, explore more terrain, and see more wildlife. Many visitor sites are only available to cruises, so a cruise is the only way to visit them. By visiting many different island you also have a chance to see the amazing variation between the species on the different islands, and you may see species in different life stages on different islands — for example, you may see boobies mating on one island, sitting on eggs on another, and raising their hatchlings on a third. If you strip away boat amenities and get at the heart of what makes a great Galapagos trip, it’s going to be your guide and the islands you visit.
While, truly each island has something different and unique to offer, there are some that really stand out. Due to Galapagos National Park regulations every boat can only visit any given site every two weeks, meaning you can’t get to all the top sites on a trip shorter than 12 or 15-days. When looking through your options, a good rule of thumb for an itinerary is that if a boat visits at least 1, but preferably 2 of the first 3 islands listed below, then you’ve got yourself a good itinerary. If you are interested in seeing specific species, like the Galapagos penguin for instance, then you might look for particular islands in the itinerary where spotting these species is more likely. Many species, like sea lions, marine iguanas and blue footed boobies are sprinkled throughout the islands.
GENOVESA ISLAND: Located far north, a visit here usually means a full night of motoring to reach this island (and possibly rough seas), but it’s worth it. It’s a bird haven, chock full of magnificent frigate birds, nazca/masked boobies, a very large storm petrel colony and it is one of the only places to see blue and red footed boobies side by side. You might even catch a glimpse of the elusive Galapagos owl. When I was here I think I literally gasped walking up Prince Philip’s Steps. You had to actively watch where you were walking as to not disturb a booby making a nest or dancing for his mate. You’ll see many of these species elsewhere, but not quite in the quantities as you find here. Large cruise ships are not allowed on the island.
ESPAÑOLA ISLAND: Considered one of the oldest islands, it’s teeming with wildlife. You’ll enjoy a gorgeous white-sandy beach (one of the most beautiful in the Galapagos) strewn with sea lions basking in the sunlight, with brilliant turquoise water beckoning you for a swim. Swimming there is a great idea as it is a good place to snorkel with these frisky critters! Español is also the only island to see the waved Albatross, and they are worth the trip alone. They are on the island from April – late December, nesting on the ground. And, if you want to see how cute these birds are check their segment on the BBC Galapagos documentary on the Galapagos – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBZkNwer7Co You’ll also spot blue footed boobies, nazca boobies, finches, Galapagos hawks, and colorful sally light-foot crabs.
FERNANDINA ISLAND is one of the youngest islands and it has some of the most unique lava flow in the islands. It has a very prehistoric feel, and there is something remote and peaceful about a visit here. Bright red and blue sally light foot crabs scurry across the jet black shoreline and thousands of very large marine iguanas populate the island. Fernandina is the the place to see the endemic Flightless Cormorant. One woman in my group actually almost stepped on one. We also spotted sea turtles coming into one of the bays. And, the channel in between Isabela and Fernandina is a great place to spot larger marine life like dolphins and whales.
BARTOLOME ISLAND: Interestingly, there is not a lot of wildlife on land here. You might catch a glimpse of a lava lizard darting by or the Galapagos penguin waddling on some shore rocks. But, underwater Bartolome offers what I experienced to be some of the best snorkeling in the Galapagos. A beautiful underwater landscape of jagged rocks offer secret passage ways opening up to schools of colorful fish, Galapagos white-tipped reef sharks, and sea lions. We actually saw Galapagos penguins diving for fish and a flightless cormorant swam right past my goggles. And, the lookout from the top offers a spectacular view of pinnacle rock and Bartolome’s moon-like landscape.
ISABELA ISLAND is the largest island shaped like a sea-horse. They recently opened up a number of new site visits on this island. It’s a lush island with 6 volcanoes. Walks inland can be more vigorous than the coastal walks of most site visits and you’ll often sport a variety of finches, Galapagos hawks, and a variety of endemic flora. Great snorkeling opportunities as well. Common sitings include Galapagos penguin, white-tipped reef sharks, sting rays, and sea turtles!
NORTH SEYMOUR, while somewhat of a common island to visit, boasts of a very large blue-footed booby colony. And, is a nice addition to any itinerary.
Looking for more help choosing and planning a Galapagos trip? Check out our Galapagos Travel Guide