I wanted to give potential travelers my observations, having had the unique opportunity to go to the Galapagos at two different times of year, on two different boats, with two different itineraries. What would I pick, knowing what I know? Let me say right off the bat—if either of these trips had been my only trip, I would be THRILLED. I don’t think there is a ‘bad’ time to go, or a ‘bad’ itinerary to pick. I just want to emphasize that. These are just observations, some of it is nit picking, but it is what I would tell a friend if they were deciding to go to the islands.
I also must make a disclaimer. I went to the Galapagos in an El Niño year. Both tour guides informed us that what we were seeing in terms of weather wasn’t necessarily normal. I asked one guide when he would recommend going and he said July, as it is in between seasons and offers the best of both. On the equator, it isn’t the changing path of the sun that determines Spring, Summer, etc. Instead it is sea water temperatures, affected by the currents, resulting in two seasons. The Trade winds slacken, allowing some currents to lose force, and others to strengthen. In an El Niño year (every 2-12 years), the Trade winds actually reverse direction, allowing a warm, nutrient-void current to flood the islands. Which affects weather. So I would advise you to do your own homework about when to go—I will report that the October trip was much more pleasant weather-wise than the May trip was for me. The water temperature was colder in October, but not too prohibitive. But, again, not typical for other years. El Niño was also the reason why I returned to the islands so quickly. My research showed that a strong El Niño has very negative effects to any animal that relies on the sea to survive. (It is good for land animals. One strong El Niño year reported rain for almost 9 months straight. That’s a lot of moisture for vegetation. It is also a soggy vacation…) A different story for sea life. The water temps rise, the algae dies, the fish die, the sea lions die, the iguanas die…you get the idea. At the time of this writing, the conditions so far this fall have not been horrific. But I had one year to take advantage of my winnings, and I felt the longer I waited, the more likely it would be I would observe some of these negative results. I also wanted to see what the islands were like in a different time of year than my first trip. So I was back on the plane in under a month of being announced the winner!
Let’s talk boats. My first trip was aboard the Guantanamera, described as a Motor Yacht, tourist class. Click here for description and photos. I would call this a basic, frills-free boat. The Millennium is described as a Catamaran, first class. Information can be found here. I’m not going to lie—boat life was much more comfortable here! This boat was more spacious, and larger by far. It had one more entire deck on it than the Guantanamera. The food was better on Millennium, but both were fine. The individual rooms were bigger—we had bunk beds in one and twin beds side by side, with room in between to walk in the other. One had a cubby for some items, the other had a full armoire. The Millennium wasn’t damp, or smelly with engine fumes like the Guantanamera. (Some of that may have been because it was less humid when I was on that one.) The first class ship's beds were more comfortable. I was hoping it would be smoother sailing, as the hull is built differently, but both boats tossed me around just the same. The motor noise was obnoxious on both. Also the same? Amazing, cooperative, energetic crews. Awesome snorkeling.
Wild locations. Two dinghies to transport you to awaiting adventures. Clean and properly maintained. Get my point? This decision is based upon your personality, preferences, and budget. For me, dollar for dollar, I would pick the more basic boat if I was trading that for more days on the islands. I really spent very little time in the rooms. If you can afford the longer tour on the better boat, by all means! Go that route! (Classification of Galapagos ships is a tricky thing, and it depends on the date of information given, etc. There is a great article on it here, for more information.)
Now on to itineraries. The Northwest trip I took was 8 days, the Eastern route was 6. If I were to advise someone on which route to take, I would say the Northwestern. I believe the Northwestern provides a bigger variety of islands…from 80 year old pahoehoe lava flows at Sullivan Bay to the highland rainforest on Isabela. I also think the wildlife is more abundant on the NW route, at least for the times of year I was there. Keep in mind that some animals are only available on certain islands, and at certain times. You can only see albatross on the Eastern itinerary, and for a few months they aren’t there, either! And there is the human element on the Eastern, of Post Office bay.
Also, if you are concerned about sleeping, the Eastern route doesn’t cover as much distance between islands, so there is less night travel. Less seasickness, if that is a problem you contend with. Again, personally, I would endure 8 hours of rough seas all night in order to experience Genovesa. But it all depends on your tastes and needs.
Plus and minuses to both, but I would reject neither. Either itinerary will be a trip of a lifetime.