Exploring the Galapagos: By Land or by Sea?

Exploring the Galapagos: By Land or by Sea?



A trip to the Galapagos Islands has more than enough potential to be one of those "vacations of a lifetime." It's one of our best-selling packages, for both families and adults, and if it's on your bucket list, you've probably asked yourself HOW you're going to check it off. I.e. will you be exploring Ecuador's most epic islands by boat, or by foot? Keep reading for more information that will help you decide which style will work best for you.

Galapagos Island Facts

For centuries the only way to visit the Galapagos Islands was by sea.

The English naturalist and geologist, Charles Darwin, first visited the islands on September 15, 1835. At the time, he was just one of more than seventy passengers on board Captain Robert FitzRoy's ship, the HMS Beagle. Because of his work in the Galapagos Islands, Darwin would eventually go on to become one of the most influential persons in history.

Patrick Watkins, an Irish sailor, was the first permanent resident in the Galapagos. He ended up there by accident when he was marooned on Floreana from 1807-1809. Today, the Galapagos Islands have a population of about 25,000 people.

Galapagos National Park was established in 1959 and became one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites when it was designated in 1978. Through the years, it has seen an increasing number of visitors. For example, in 1979 there were 11,765 visitors, 81 percent of these were international travelers. In 2013, there were a reported 204,395 visitors, 66 percent of these were international travelers. Here are a few more basic facts about the islands:

  • The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of sub-tropic, volcanic islands (still active) that straddle the Equator about 600 miles west of Ecuador.

  • The archipelago consists of 13 major islands and 7 smaller islands.

  • The islands have two airports: Isla Baltra and Isla San Cristobal, both of these airports have flights to the mainland cities of Quito and Guayaquil.

  • In an effort to protect the fragile species living on the islands, the government of Ecuador limits the number of tourists that can visit an island at a given time.

  • The islands have two peak seasons - June through September and December through January.

Things to Consider When Deciding on How to Tour the Galapagos Islands 

In 2012, 54% of visitors cruised the islands while the remainder chose the land-based option. Prices vary, but typically cruises are more expensive than land-based programs. However, there are many options available, so don't write off one until you explore it completely - or speak with one of our adventure travel consultants!

The first (and the biggest) question is usually how does your body react to the motion of the sea? For some, it's not an issue, but for others, it can be debilitating.

The yachts Austin Adventuress guests travel on have 402 HP motors and feature 10 cabins with private bathrooms. They carry 20 passengers with a crew of 11.

An important thing to take into consideration for boat travel is the fact that Ecuador's seasons are opposite of ours in the U.S. There are two seasons, warm/wet season which lasts from January to June, and the cool/dry season which lasts from July to December. From June to November, the Humboldt Current coming from Antarctica via the northern tip of Peru is very strong. The cold water cools the air causing inversion layers over the islands, clouding the water and making big waves.

This can make the motoring a bit bumpy. If you do suffer from seasickness, a visit to your physician before the trip for Scopolamine may be in order. Other options are over-the-counter Marezine or Sea-Bands. Note: Even if you choose a land-based program, you will still have the boat transfers from island to island. These transfers are typically 2-3 hours long.

A Sample of What You'll See:

Regardless of which method of exploration you end up going with, keep in mind that there's a good chance that not all of the highlights of the Galapagos Islands will be included in the itinerary. In other words, it's important that you know beforehand which sites and activities matter the most to you.

If seeing more islands is your goal, then you will probably want to travel by boat since the cruises visit more islands than the land-based programs which don't visit the islands of Espanola, Genovesa or Fernandina. If your objective is to do some hiking, you'll probably want to go with a land-based program that has the option of the hike to Volcan Sierra Negra located on the island of Isabela.

Whereas the cruises allow travelers to see more islands, the land-based programs allow travelers to see more flora and fauna in a shorter period of time. The cruise alternates (weekly) between offering itinerary A (southern/central route) and itinerary B (western/northern route). Cruises typically sail Sunday to Sunday (8 days/7 nights) whereas land-based programs have more flexibility with departures nearly every day.

These programs range in length from 4 days/3 nights to 8 days/7 nights.


Cabin sizes on the cruise range from 90 sq. ft. to 110 sq. ft. with twin or double-sized beds. The land-based program can accommodate bed sizes ranging from twin to king. During the cruise, you typically motor at night time. On the land-based program, you sleep in a full-sized bed on the solid ground.

Cruise-based programs typically are limited to 20 guests while land-based programs can accommodate larger numbers.


In general, the Galapagos isn't known for its moderate to challenging exercise. For those who enjoy snorkeling, the cruise offers up to two snorkels a day. The land-based program can be described as more challenging and multisport. They offer everything from snorkeling and scuba diving to hiking and trekking.

The diversity of flora and fauna on both trips is amazing. Both programs offer the chance to visit the highlights on the island of Santa Cruz. These include the Charles Darwin Research Station, the lava tubes and tunnels, the twin craters of Los Gemelos and the giant tortoise reserve

If you're starting to feel that rush of travel excitement, head over to our Galapagos Islands Itineraries to build on your buzz!


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