Any given Galapagos Islands cruise technically starts with the flight out to the islands from Quito (or Guayaquil). Flights take off from Quito between 07h30 and 09h30 (between 09h00 and 11h00 from Guayaquil) in the morning of the first day of the cruise (unless you have requested that you fly out earlier to Galapagos). All Galapagos yachts already have pre-assigned seats on specific flights, in this way each yacht operator can guarantee all passengers have the necessary flight spaces for their cruise.
All passengers are required to check in for their Galapagos flight 90 minutes prior to flight departure. Prior to checking in at the airline counter (some cruises use TAME airlines while others use AEROGAL), all passengers must pass by the INGALA counter for the Tourist Control Card to pay the USD $10 per person fee and collect your card [NOTE: (1) all individuals must be pre-registered with INGALA – most yacht operators register their guests upon reserving and confirming your cruise; (2) some yacht operators require that this fee of USD $10 per person is pre-paid; and (3) if you are traveling independently (i.e., not with an arranged tour, you will need to register yourself with INGALA – this can be done on their web site]
Next to the INGALA counter, you will find the SICGAL luggage inspection area. No agricultural products are permitted. Once you have passed these two check points, then proceed to the airline counter (TAME or AEROGAL) to check in for your flight. All airline tickets are now electronic. IMPORTANT NOTE: All passengers are restricted to the following luggage limits per person: (1) one check-in piece of 20kg (44lbs); and (2) one carry-on/hand luggage of 7kg (15lbs). The flight from Quito (via Guayaquil) to the Galapagos is approximately 2 ½ hours on a Boeing 727.
STEP TWO: Arrival in Galapagos (Baltra or San Cristobal)
Upon arrival at Baltra (or San Cristobal) travelers pay the Galapagos National Park entrance fee of $100 per adult (or $50 for children) – this MUST be paid in USD cash only. Inside the Galapagos airport, there will be a bank of guides for the various yachts. In addition to your cruise voucher, some yachts pre-provide passengers with either small badges or stickers which must be worn to assist the guide recognize his or her passengers, while other yachts have large signs. The naturalist guide will meet you, collect your luggage and escort you on the short bus ride to the Baltra or San Cristobal dock (or in some cases a longer trip down to Puerto Ayora) to board the boat. Once at the respective dock, motorized zodiacs, called ‘pangas’ will transport you from the dock to your boat, where the crew will welcome you on board. After departure and lunch, the first island visit is made.
STEP THREE: The day to day
Apart from the first day (where you only have one afternoon visit) and the last day (where you generally have one short visit in the morning), all other days consist of two daily visits – one in the morning after breakfast, and one in the afternoon (after lunch). IMPORTANT NOTE: some yachts do not have a short visit on the last day, and only consist of a transfer back to the Galapagos airport for your flight back to mainland Ecuador.
Each island visit, or more accurately said, each visitation site, usually consists of a light hike (a very limited number of visitation sites are panga rides only – but this is the exception). The total visitation generally lasts between 2 to 3 hours (depending on the site in question), allowing plenty of time to explore and photograph the abundant wildlife. There are opportunities to swim and snorkel daily (with a few exceptions when visits are inland (i.e., the highlands of Santa Cruz, as an example). These hikes are along well marked National Park trails. On the islands, one follows marked trails established by the National Park Service, walking at a leisurely pace as the guides interpret and explain the unusual sights (vegetation, wildlife, geography etc).
Passengers are ferried (via zodiak/panga) from your boat to the landing point, that is designed to land on beaches or mini docks. The landings are either wet (where one must step into ankle to knee-deep water and wade to shore) or dry (where one steps from the panga directly on to a solid landing surface). The guide and panga driver assist passengers with a steady hand at all landings.
During the overnight hours, the yachts will make their journey to the next day’s visit point. This way, when passenger wake for breakfast, the yacht is already anchored off the island that will be visited. Each day, passengers get up around 7am and enjoy breakfast – you can ask for vegetarian or specific foods on the most important boats in Galapagos. After breakfast, one takes in the fist (morning) visit and then transported back to your boat for lunch (usually around 1 or 2pm). Most often you will have an opportunity to swim/snorkel in the early afternoon (between to the two visits) or in the late afternoon (after the afternoon visit). All yachts generally carry snorkel equipment, although many charge a nominal fee (ranging from US $10 to $25 the week) to rent this equipment. If you have your own, it is recommended that you bring it along if possible.
Occasionally, there are transfers between the morning and afternoon visit (but passengers are busy enjoying their lunch in the meantime). Sometimes these trips are short, sometimes they take hours. In either case, you’ll have plenty of time on your own on the boat during the midday hours. Most boats have VCRs, a small library, and a few games to whittle the hours away with, but think about what you want to do with spare time on the boat before you head to the Galapagos, and make sure you bring any necessary accessories. All boats attempt to maximize daylight hours with minimal sea travel and maximize visit times on the islands. Dinner is usually served between 6 and 7pm. After dinner many boats have a review guided by the naturalist about the day and what they have seen, what kind of wildlife they have seen, explaining like that (some boats have these discussion in the morning during breakfast).
During or after dinner, the boat again heads for the next site. Overnight is when the boat does most of its long hauls. If you’re prone to seasickness, note that many of the longer passages are through open ocean water between islands, which can be quite choppy. What every sailor knows: the roughest ride is at the top of the boat, the lower down and centrally located you are, the less you feel the motion. For those very sensitive to sea sickness, try and avoid sailing boats and avoid taking a cruise between late August through to October (the rougher period in Galapagos).