Before we start, an important thing to bear in mind is that every boat in the Galápagos has its own dedicated itinerary, delivered by the Galápagos Islands National Park authority. Therefore, not all boats go to the same parts of the Galápagos. There are good itineraries and there are weak ones.
As a rule of thumb, we say that the more time you spend in populated areas – in particular Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal and Puerto Villamil on Isabela – the weaker the itinerary.
According to the Galápagos Conservation Trust, the best way to minimise the negative and maximise the positive impacts of your visit to the Galápagos is to travel on board a smaller boat on a full 7-night itinerary, ideally on locally owned, SmartVoyager certified vessels.
Indeed, shorter cruises tend to encourage more flights which have a greater impact on this fragile environment and increase risks of the introduction of invasive species. Moreover, over the course of a good 7 night Galápagos cruise you will see the full diversity of the islands, both in terms of species and landscapes. This is simply not possible on a 3 or 4-night cruise.
On land, the maximum group size authorised by the national park is only 16, so technically your experience on the ground should be pretty much the same whether you arrive on a boat for 100 or for 16 people. However, when travelling as part of a larger group, you are going to be more strictly timetabled and may lose the flexibility that comes with being part of a small group. What’s more, the group size limit doesn’t apply in the water,, and snorkeling is likely to be rather less of a memorable experience when shared with 100 others.
At Pura Aventura, our strong preference is for Galápagos boats at the smaller end of the scale – usually between 14 and 20 people – as they can reach places the larger boats can’t, and because we believe your experience will be better when surrounded by fewer people.
Here are our 5 favourite Galápagos vessels:
Being a catamaran, one of Seaman Journey’s selling points is her stability, which will be of interest to you if you’re concerned about seasickness. That’s not it, though: the Seaman Journey is a first class boat, comfort is key, and the (max) 16 passengers are very well looked after. Guides, onboard lectures, and sunset at the outside bar all come highly recommended.
S/S Mary Anne
The Mary Anne is a photo opportunity in herself. An elegant and beautiful 3-masted tall sail vessel, she is the only ship in the Galápagos able to navigate by wind power alone, and you can get involved with hoisting the sails (guaranteed on every itinerary) if you wish. Accommodation is spacious, with 12 cabins yet a maximum capacity of 16, and single cabins carrying no supplement. Some meals are served on the sun deck, and the décor reflects the Mary Anne’s classic appeal: lots of wood, and a strong sense of maritime heritage.
A sleek motor boat, the Beluga is, in our opinion, one of the best in class due to the reliable quality of every stage of your experience as a guest, which comes at a price that represents very good value. The Beluga’s naturalist guides are very well thought of: while all Galápagos guides are exceptionally knowledgeable and passionate about their craft, the Beluga crew are among the very best. Eight double cabins hold a maximum of 16 passengers comfortably, and the royal blue loungers on the rear sun deck are ideal for watching the archipelago drift past.
The Beagle feels a little like the nautical equivalent of one of our favourite inns or lodges in Spain or Latin America, and that’s why we like her. Owned and run by the Cruz family, Sr Cruz having been born on Floreana island, The Beagle is described as being particularly friendly and relaxed, and we agree. She’s cosy too, and that’s not a euphemism for not being able to swing a cat: she has six double cabins and one smaller one for single or double occupancy. If you have a romantic vision of sailing the Galápagos on a classic sailing ship, then you’ll love The Beagle’s teak decks and white sails.
Ecoventura’s first-class motor yachts Eric and Letty are identical and each carry up to 20 passengers. Because each yacht has two bilingual naturalist guides, the ratio of guest to guide is lower than on many other ships, which is a very important factor to consider. If you’re planning a family holiday to the Galápagos Islands, these are an excellent choice, as regular family departures include activities and adventures aimed specifically at children.
So while it would be foolish to deny that there are pressures on the islands (a rising population, invasive species, and rising visitor numbers), abandoning travel is not the solution either. If each and every visitor ensures that their visit is managed as sustainably as possible – by choosing an operator very carefully – we’ll minimise the risks as much as possible.
Keep in mind that tourism provides huge amounts of income for conservation research and practices in the Galápagos Islands. And thanks to successful sustainable tourism developments, 97% of the species which Darwin saw on the Galápagos in 1835 still exist today. Without the income generated by tourism, the Galápagos as we know it would be a distant memory indeed. Where an ecosystem as fragile as the Galápagos is concerned, it is vital that the destination receives not more travellers, but better travellers.