From snorkeling with sea turtles and hiking up a dormant volcano to spotting giant tortoises and penguins, a journey to the Galapagos brings an array of incredible sights and activities. With a cruise, you’ll get further from the main islands, and there’s no need to pack each day for a new hotel as your accommodation and transportation are combined. Use this guide to get the most out of your Galapagos cruise.

Highlights

  • Travel effortlessly between destinations on a luxury cruise boat
  • Visit the Charles Darwin Research Station to learn about animal conservation 
  • Spot giant tortoises, penguins and other magnificent wildlife in the sea and on land
  • Go snorkeling or scuba diving with sharks and seals

Benefits of a Galapagos Cruise

A tourist yacht anchored off the coast in the Galapagos Islands. 

Planning a trip to the Galapagos? One immediate question you'll face is whether to take a cruise, sleeping aboard a boat that will ferry you between the islands, or take a land-based tour, during which time you would stay in hotels. 

The main benefit of a cruise (sometimes called a sea-based tour) is maximising your time in the Galapagos. You’ll see more on a cruise compared to a land-based tour as your boat can quickly shuttle you between the islands and rocky shoals. A cruise will also give you better access to some of the outlying islands, not accessible to land-based tours (also known as an island-hopping tour).

If you want to get the best of both worlds, take a cruise and then spend a few days in a hotel on the island of your choosing.

Ships & Itineraries 

The pool deck of the Galapagos Legend Cruise Ship.

Boats vary in size from small yachts and catamarans (accommodating around 20 guests) to mid-size cruise ships (accommodating up to 100 guests). Cruises follow different itineraries and some cater to special interests (photography, yoga, birdwatching). You’ll need at least five days for any cruise. With a cruise, the first and last days are used for the logistics of getting to and from the mainland, so a five-day cruise is really just three full days in the islands. We recommend a cruise of no less than seven days, and more if possible.

Note that the itineraries listed in this story are samples to provide a general idea of the daily routine, however, your itinerary will depend on which boat you book a tour with as these are fixed schedules that only change on a year-to-year basis. 

Daily Activities

Observing a giant tortoise in its natural habitat is a highlight of any Galapagos tour. 

Each day, motorized rafts called pangas (zodiacs) are used to shuttle you from your yacht or cruise ship to the shore: this is called a wet landing (compared to a dry landing when you exit the boat on a dock). Once on land, you can do some hiking, snorkeling and exploration of the coast. Naturalist guides from your boat will join you to explain the flora and fauna. On the uninhabited islands, a guide will be with you at all times.  

Back on board the boat, you’ll enjoy a nice lunch while cruising to the next destination for more sightseeing. Snorkeling is a popular activity on most cruises and you can expect to do this activity at least once a day. 

During visits to towns, there will be opportunities to visit local sights and enjoy a meal at a restaurant. Make sure to visit the local fish markets, which always have a few sea lions and birds lingering about. You may also likely visit a tortoise rehabilitation center.

You’ll get to know the other passengers during some leisure time and over dinner (buffet style on some boats). There is typically an overview of the following day activities after dinner.

Refreshments and entertainment, such as live music and dancing, are usually available. Services vary per boat, but you may have access to special facilities such as a pool, hot tub or fitness center.

Fixed Schedules

5-Day Cruise

Look for penguins and iguanas on Bartolomé Island.

This five-day itinerary of the Galapagos includes one large island and two smaller ones. Day one and day five are transportation days to get you to and from the islands, so you’ll be out at sea for three full days.

This itinerary begins with a flight to Baltra Island, and then a visit to Black Turtle Cove on nearby Santa Cruz Island (the central island of the group). A panga will tour you through the mangroves to spot sea turtles and rays.

Next, continue to Genovesa (Tower) Island for a wet landing at Darwin Bay. Only accessible on a cruise tour, Genovesa is one of the northernmost islands and is known for its bird watching opportunities. You’ll then spot Galapagos penguins, sea lions and marine iguanas at Bartolomé Island.

There’s more bird watching at Rábida Island, which has unusual red rocks and an inland saltwater lagoon. Then, continue to the northwest shore of Santa Cruz Island, to spot flamingoes and marine iguanas.

Finally, make a dry landing at Puerto Ayora (the largest town in the Galapagos) to visit highlights of Santa Cruz Island, including tortoises in their natural habitat.  

7-Day Cruise

Enjoy the white sand beaches of Las Bachas on Santa Cruz Island. 

A seven-day cruise gives you five full days at sea. You’ll visit four large islands and two smaller islands. You'll have plenty of opportunities to snorkel and explore the main group of islands. After flying into Baltra, continue by bus to Puerto Ayora for a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station.

Board your vessel and get accustomed to life on the boat before continuing around the western coast of Santa Cruz Island to Whale Bay and Dragon Hill (the latter named after the large numbers of marine iguanas).

Then spend a couple of days sailing around the coast of Isabela Island, stopping off at Puerto Villamil, Moreno Point, Urbina Bay, Tagus Cove and other points of interest. You’ll encounter a variety of ecosystems, including mangroves, lava flows and reefs. On neighboring Fernandina, you’ll see Galapagos penguins and the world’s largest colony of marine iguanas.

Next, you’ll continue to Santiago Island and Rabida Island, the latter known for its red sand beaches. On the final day, you’ll visit the white sand beach on Las Bachas on Santa Cruz Island, an important nesting site for sea turtles, before heading back to the airport on Baltra.

11-Day Cruise

A boat parked off the coast of Chinese Hat, an islet of the Galapagos.  

An 11-day cruise allows you to see nine large islands and several smaller ones. Choose this tour if want maximum exposure to the main group of islands.

The journey begins with a flight from Quito to San Cristobal Island, where you’ll visit an interpretation center that explains the history and significance of the islands, with exhibits on biology and ecology.

Next, spot seabirds on Española (Hood) Island – albatross can be seen here from late March to early December. Then continue to Floreana Island, to see flamingos, do some snorkeling and visit Post Office Bay.  

On Santa Cruz Island you’ll visit the Charles Darwin Research Station to learn about environmental conservation and to visit a tortoise breeding center. On Isabela Island (the largest in the chain), you’ll hike up Sierra Negra Volcano, visit the town of Puerto Villamil, and spot penguins at Elizabeth Bay. At Urbina Bay you’ll spot turtles, rays, iguanas, penguins and flightless cormorants.

Ferdinanda Island, Santiago Island, and Rábida Island are additional stops on this tour. One unique attraction is Chinese Hat, an islet off the coast of Santiago, which gets its names from its shape, similar to a Chinese fisherman’s hat. Colonies of marine Iguanas and penguins can be spotted here.

You’ll then travel to Bartolome Island, where you can climb to the 114m high summit for great views. Snorkeling is possible here, amid multicolored fish and penguins, at the spectacular Pinnacle Rock. North Seymour Island is the final stop on this tour before your flight out from Baltra.