Best Galapagos cruises for an epic wildlife adventure of a lifetime

About 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Galapagos Islands are a remarkable place to visit for wildlife sightings. You can see flightless Galapagos penguins, Galapagos sea lions, giant Galapagos tortoises, marine iguanas and hundreds of other species found nowhere else on earth.

The islands are also one of the places in the world that are best explored by cruise ships.

To get close to Mother Nature in the mostly unpopulated islands, you need to get on the water — and land on islands in the company of a licensed Ecuadorian naturalist guide. Galapagos National Park tightly controls who comes in and where ships can explore.

All the ships are Ecuadorian flagged, Ecuadorian crewed and owned by Ecuadorian companies, sometimes in partnership with leading cruise companies. Excursions, often twice a day, are included in cruise fares. The sailings are year-round, and routes are always subject to change based on park control.

Related: 9 things I wish I had known before taking a Galapagos cruise

The cruise companies use various descriptors of where they go, but basically: If your ship heads north and west, you’ll see more volcanic landscapes; if you go south or central you’ll explore more beaches and bays. Wildlife sightings on both routes are thrilling, both above and under the sea — where you may find yourself snorkeling with sharks and sea lions.

Birdwatchers may want to do a full 14-night trip to touch every corner and add many species to their Life List. For the rest of us, a week or less can provide enough brag-worthy wildlife encounters to last a lifetime.

Choosing a ship will depend on how long you want to explore, how much you want to pay and what level of luxury you expect. It’s not uncommon for travelers to combine a Galapagos cruise with land exploration in Quito, Ecuador; the Ecuadorian Amazon; or Machu Picchu in Peru. Most cruise lines offer add-on land-based itineraries.

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Here are our picks for the best Galapagos cruises.

Short cruises on La Pinta

METROPOLITAN TOURING SOUTH AMERICA TOUR OPERATOR/FACEBOOK

This intimate, 48-passenger yacht is operated by Metropolitan Touring and offers popular four-night and six-night itineraries. These are a good option if you are short on time.

Cabins are spacious, with floor-to-ceiling windows, so you can take in the views even when getting ready for the day or relaxing in bed. Four cabins can be connected for families or friends traveling together (some sleep three). The entire ship sports a comfortably upscale ambiance, and a favorite hangout is the sun deck with its hot tub and bar.

An expedition leader along with onboard naturalists will guide you through your trip. The ship is equipped with kayaks for guest use, and a glass-bottom boat provides views for those who aren’t into snorkeling.

cost: Four-night cruises start from $5,525 per person; six-night cruises from $7,001 per person. Small-ship expedition specialist UnCruise Adventures also charters La Pinta. Seven-night packages combining one night in Guayaquil with a six-night cruise start from $9,595, available on select dates from March through November.

Hurtigruten expedition experience on Santa Cruz II

Also operated by Metropolitan Touring, the 90-passenger Santa Cruz II is an expedition ship with contemporary decor and comfortable single, double and triple cabins.

When you aren’t in your cabin you might catch views from the ship’s two hot tubs. Activity equipment includes snorkeling gear (with wet suits available to rent), a glass-bottom boat and kayaks, plus a top-deck fitness room.

The ship, which is operated on a carbon-neutral basis, is under charter to the well-regarded expedition company Hurtigruten for select dates each month in 2023.

cost: Eight-night packages combining a six-night cruise with two hotel nights in Quito are available from $7,999 per person. Other options include four-night cruises from $4,551 per person and six-night itineraries from $5,735 per person.

Yachting with Quasar Expeditions’ Grace

QUASAR EXPEDITIONS/FACEBOOK

Quasar Expeditions has the most historically prestigious ship in the Galapagos market. The 16-passenger Grace is a classic yacht from the 1920s that carried Princess Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco on their honeymoon in 1956 (in the Mediterranean).

Reflective of the golden age of travel, it’s all about luxury on board — polished woodwork, gourmet meals and service from a crew of 10, plus two naturalist guides.

cost: Seven-night cruises start from $8,500 per person.

Island exploration with Adventures by Disney on Galapagos Legend

Adventures by Disney offers sailings in the Galapagos on the 100-passenger Galapagos Legend in March, June-August and December.

The minimum age is 7 and the recommended age is 8 and older. The comfortable ship has the rare-in-the-Galapagos feature of a swimming pool, plus a hot tub. When Disney is on board, its trained Adventure Guides lead special Junior Adventurers activities for kids, in addition to the usual snorkeling, kayaking and glass-bottom boat rides. Select sailings invite special guest experts on board to give workshops and presentations in their area of ​​expertise.

cost: Fares for eight-night trips beginning with two hotel nights in Quito followed by a six-night cruise start at $7,399 (adults) and $6,699 (children). Other companies, such as Go Galapagos, offer three-night cruises on Galapagos Legend starting from $1,842 per person.

Relais & Chateaux experience on Origin and Theory

Ecoventura’s 20-passenger all-suite yacht, Theory, in the Galapagos. ECOVENTURA

Ecoventura’s 20-passenger all-suite yachts, Origin and Theory, are both recognized by the prestigious Relais & Chateaux gourmet restaurant and luxury hospitality association, and intimate and luxurious exploration is their calling card.

The crew of 13 includes a French-trained chef, a concierge and two naturalists.

Pampering ensues — even for young guests who are on board select family departures during which added activities include a cultural exchange with local students. Check out the rare Galapagos publications in the library when you’re not in the outdoor Jacuzzi, on the kayaks or on paddleboards.

cost: Seven-night cruises are available from $9,450. Or, charter the entire yacht for yourself for $189,000.

Superyacht sailing with Aqua Expeditions

Aqua Expeditions is well known in luxury circles for its superyachts in the Peruvian Amazon and Asia. The company recently launched the 16-passenger, all-suite, all-inclusive Aqua Mare in the Galapagos.

The interior decor is by Italian superyacht designer François Zuretti, and the Peruvian Japanese-fusion cuisine is by chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, famed for his “jungle cuisine.”

Among the spacious suites, the top Owner’s Suite is 861 square feet. The Jacuzzi is big enough for six guests. The yacht is also stocked with kayaks and paddleboards for guests to use.

cost: Seven-night cruises start from $9,450 per person. Charter the entire yacht starting at $196,000.

Galapagos with Avalon Waterways

Treasure of Galapagos. DIEGO TOAPANTA GARCIA/AVALON WATERWAYS

River cruise line Avalon Waterways is known for sailings in Europe and on the Mekong. However, it’s also in the Galapagos, chartering the 16-passenger small ship Treasure of Galapagos for seven-night sailings from February through November 2023.

All cabins on the ship — including the 430-square-foot master suite — have balconies and are done up in welcoming, contemporary decor. The ship’s design is outdoor-focused, with alfresco dining and a bar near the Jacuzzi.

Indoors is a small lounge and dining area. Wine and beer are included with meals.

cost: Seven-night cruises (beginning with two nights in Quito) start from $5,251 per person. Other Galapagos operators sell four-night itineraries for the ship starting from $3,695 per person.

Expedition sailing with Lindblad’s National Geographic Endeavor II

Top expedition company Lindblad Expeditions has been sailing in the Galapagos for more than 50 years, evident by the seasoned team of naturalists and the experiences they deliver, including exploring the sea thanks to innovative underwater equipment.

This 96-passenger ship is a spacious base camp. Passengers can explore with Zodiacs, kayaks, glass-bottom boats and stand-up paddleboards.

Select expeditions feature guest National Geographic biologists, authors and photographers, who can help you get the perfect wildlife photos. The cruises are popular with families, and a diving program is available for advanced divers.

cost: Fares for a 10-night cruise (including two nights in Guayaquil) start from $7,710 per person. Lindblad also has a 52-passenger all-suite luxury yacht in the market, the National Geographic Islander II, with as many crew members as guests. Fares for its seven-night cruises start from $9,390 per person.

Ultra-luxury experience on Silver Origin

Silver Origin in the Galapagos Islands. LUCIA GRIGGI/SILVERSEA

Ultraluxury line Silversea Cruises delivers everything on a silver platter on the 100-passenger Silver Origin.

Request Champagne from your butler while you lounge in the hot tub. Guests will likely also appreciate the high-tech walls that feature touch-controlled HD screens allowing you to zoom in on exclusive wildlife videos shot by drone in Galapagos National Park.

There is also the luxury of space to spread out, indoors and out, amid gorgeous contemporary furnishings. Everyone stays in a large butler-serviced suite.

In addition, the cuisine is extraordinary — the Ecuadorian executive chef even takes time to explain the local ingredients he uses. The staff includes one naturalist guide for every 10 guests.

cost: Fares for seven-night cruises start from $12,250 per person.

All suite mega yacht cruising on Celebrity Flora

With a design similar to Silver Origin, Celebrity Cruises’ Flora delivers a first-class experience.

Suites include either a step-out balcony or an “infinite veranda” created when you push a button to open the top half of a wall of glass.

Menus are crafted by a chef who helmed Michelin-starred restaurants. Personal suite attendants cater to your needs while experienced naturalists lead star-gazing sessions.

Perhaps the coolest experience on board is glamping on the top deck, overnighting under the stars in a cabana equipped with a double bed.

cost: Fares for seven-night cruises start from $7,918. Celebrity Cruises also offers sailings on the 48-passenger Celebrity Xpedition, a small luxury ship. Seven-night cruises start at $5,119 per person. Additionally, seven-night sailings aboard the even more intimate, 16-passenger Celebrity Xploration start from $5,550 per person.

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