The Galapagos Islands: By land or by sea?

For years, since Charles Darwin first arrived to the Galapagos Islands on The Beagle, boat-based travel was the only option for anyone interested in exploring one of Earth’s most unique destinations. Historically, the Galápagos Islands themselves are better suited for blue-footed boobies and giant tortoises. But the last several years have seen another animal inhabit the islands. Green-friendly luxury boutique hotels have sprung up in a number of locations. And so just as the birds, animals and sea life have evolved, so has the best way to really have the most immersive experience in the Galápagos. And now, island-based travel allows visitors to take advantage of stunning, empty beaches, nearly untouched natural beauty and limitless ways to explore it all.

I’ve stayed in several of these new boutique hotels. Many are right on the water, with some sitting directly beachfront. Friendly and professional service is a pleasant surprise 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, and smart, contemporary design is evident in all properties. As for space — there’s no comparison. Even the most generously scaled cruise ship can’t come close to the amount of space you can have on the islands; a particular benefit if you’re visiting with family or friends.

Being island-based has other advantages, too. Cruise ships, while allowing access to many different sights and locations, come with significant limitations. Cruisers are relegated to a tight, government-controlled schedule. As you know, when dealing with nature, being somewhere at the wrong time means you can miss out completely on the bucket list experience you traveled there to have. Imagine missing kayaking among sea lion pups because your ship takes off at a certain time? With unlimited time on-shore, you can linger all day or come back another time, if you want.

In one instance, our small group set off on a land tortoise-sighting expedition. While on the way, we spotted a large expedition cruise ship anchored off shore. Nervous, we asked our naturalist guide if the 100+ passengers on that ship were going to find tortoises, too. He laughed and said yes. “But fear not,” he said. The difference was that that the cruise ships send their passengers to a private farm set up specifically for large scale tourism, while we were able to visit a national park. A scenic hour-long walk through pristine wilderness led us to dozens of tortoises in their natural habitat. They outnumbered us by at least three to one, and we sat in awe, watching them play in the mud. We couldn’t have asked for a better experience.

Another day, our group took a stroll along the beach to see frigate birds and afterwards snorkel in the lagoon where Darwin first landed. Out of the corner of our eyes, we saw a fleet of Zodiacs bounding towards a large, looming cruise ship. Off to the side was a much more interesting sight, however. A colony of female sea lions and their pups were sunning themselves on the sand and playing in the waves. Since they have no natural land predators, they didn’t mind us, and we were able to spend more than an hour at eye-level with them. My then 10 year old son even flopped on to his stomach and raced a sea lion pup down to the water level. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and one we could only have had with the patience and flexibility offered by not being tied to a cruise schedule.

Our naturalist guide, Alfredo, and his small circle of other passionate and informed local guides, is why an island-based Galápagos trip is a no-brainer. These guides work with small groups, which has been from anywhere from two to 18 travelers, and they have insider knowledge and context that informs and transforms a visitor’s experience on the island. On a ship, we would have had to endure a PowerPoint presentation about so-called island life. On the islands, we were living it with people who know where and how to interact with the community and wildlife. They were also there to help us understand what we were experiencing and to treat it with care.

Cruise passengers can, of course, be forgiven for thinking the Galápagos is just about its wildlife. That’s what’s been sold to the world, after all. But people live there, too. When you stay on the islands, there’s ample time and opportunity to find out just what that means. I relished the opportunity to visit a local family-owned coffee plantation, where they also grow fruit and sugar cane. You’ll never be able to compare a coffee in the communal dining room of a ship with a fresh cup made personally for you at the plantation where the beans are picked. And you can’t reach the plantation in the time allocated ashore by the cruise ships.

So, a word of advice: if you’re thinking about visiting the Galápagos Islands, don’t think that a cruise is the only way to go. Consider an island-based tour. The differences are numerous and stark. By staying on the islands, you’ll be immersed in a truly remarkable place like only the most well-connected travelers can be.