The Galapagos Islands have long been a sought-after travel destination for nature- and wildlife-loving families. With its unique animal species and volcanic landscape on a series of archipelagoes, this South American equivalent of an African safari offers exceptional moments of connection for visitors.
But many families have wrongly assumed that the only way to experience this destination fully is to visit by cruise ship. Cruising the Galapagos is amazing in its own right, and we have booked many happy clients on ships of all sizes. However, let us dispel the notion that there’s just one way to visit this iconic location. A Galapagos Islands land-based tour is an incredible alternative way to travel here, and the experience will still feel like a true vacation.
We spoke with one of our preferred Galapagos travel partners, who provided the insight below, for tips on this approach. Inspired to plan a trip? Connect with us and we can make it happen!
The first misconception to correct is that a land-based experience of the Galapagos means your family will be confined to seeing only one location. Not so! It is possible to explore the islands without cruising.
A land-based trip does not mean you are confined to land — rather, it means you have a single base on land to which you return nightly, rather than basing aboard a ship. Accommodations such as luxury tent camps in the heart of the Galapagos cater meaningfully to families looking to experience this destination in a unique way.
Some families feel drawn to a cruise ship experience because their top priority is to see as much wildlife as possible, and therefore they think they need to cover a lot of geographic territory during their time in the Galapagos. This is understandable, as no one wants to travel that far only to be disappointed by the lack of animal sightings — particularly kids.
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But from land-based accommodations, it is still quite possible to see all the major species that make a trip to the Galapagos so thrilling, like blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, giant tortoises and more. In fact, you might even find you have more intimate experiences with these creatures after cruise ship groups have gone back to their boats in the evenings. That said, it is important to acknowledge that visitors may miss out on seeing some of the particular subspecies only found on remote islands that are simply too far for a day trip from land-based accommodations.
With customized day trip experiences, though, families can arrange visits to nearby islands that feature species that they do have a specific interest in seeing. The keyword here is custom, as families enjoy not being confined to a set itinerary prearranged by cruise ship companies. This bespoke experience is one of the greatest selling points of a land-based tour.
Another misconception of a land-based Galapagos experience is that families will spend the bulk of their vacation traveling from one island to another, repacking and unpacking each night. Contrast that with the logistical ease of a cruise, and the choice seems like a no-brainer, especially for parents. But again, this need not be the case.
Families should instead choose one place to base themselves for the duration, as opposed to Galapagos island-hopping each night, and arrange day trips to other islands to get variety in sightseeing and activities. After all, guests don’t come all the way to the Galapagos to spend the bulk of their time in developed towns, which constitute only 3 percent of the land here. Instead, families can immerse themselves in the protected natural land all day instead of wasting valuable time changing hotels.
Another perk of a land-based trip is that you’re not confined to the dates and durations of a cruise schedule. Families with limited vacation time, such as a weeklong break from school, can have a wonderful experience and only stay three to four nights. Nearly all cruise routes are for six nights or more.
For families choosing to do a land-based trip in part because they want to mix some leisurely days by the pool in between more active days, staying six to seven nights in the Galapagos is ideal.
This flexibility in scheduling means families can easily spend a few days exploring mainland Ecuador, which is culturally quite different from the Galapagos. It adds nice variety and a more complete experience to a South American vacation.
While no day in this exceptional place could ever be considered typical, there is a natural flow to a land-based trip for families. After a night of listening to the sounds of nature from the comfort of their accommodations, families usually head out on a day trip to a different island with a dedicated guide, hiking and exploring a new place and making all kinds of thrilling discoveries in the wild. Our Family Travel Advisors can help you choose which of the islands in the Galapagos to focus on depending on interests and ages. Spend some time snorkeling or swimming before heading back to camp to rest, enjoy communal happy hours, let the kids play in the pool and more before dinner.
It’s very easy to mix in days of downtime or land activities like biking through the countryside, seeing lava tunnels, visiting a coffee farm and observing the black sea turtles at Tortuga Bay. The ability to check out how the locals live in communities like Puerto Ayora is an advantage of a land-based trip to the Galapagos; it is harder to get this kind of immersive cultural experience aboard a ship.
Some independent-minded travelers balk at the idea of set meal times and an activity schedule that leaves little room for change (and doesn’t account for kids’ meltdowns). This, along with the confines of being on a ship each night with energetic children, is often what deters families from cruising. And that’s where the appeal of a land-based experience in the Galapagos Islands makes sense.
Families who prioritize their vacations for the bonding time also value the intimacy of the accommodations offered on a land-based trip. You can eat meals in private and also spend your daily activities with your own guide, not in a group of 20 to 40 other people. For those with unique interests, like surfing, scuba diving or yoga, a hotel-based trip to the Galapagos is much better suited to accommodate these activities than a cruise schedule.
That said, there are many visitors to the Galapagos who may find a cruise more appealing and better suited to their travel style. For example, people who love for their days to be action-packed will appreciate the constant options offered on cruise ships. Parents and kids who value socializing with our families during a vacation also find this aspect of cruises uniquely appealing. And those whose top priority in the Galapagos is getting out to more remote, uninhabited islands prefer visiting via cruise because they can travel there while sleeping at night and wake up to a new location each day. No question, Galapagos cruises are better suited for this.
But for families who desire the freedom to explore while maintaining easy logistics, a Galapagos land-based tour is a really enticing option when visiting one of the world’s most iconic locations.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Laurel Perry.
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