Woman in a hotel room in Galapagos watching the sea.

Galapagos hotel or cruise: What is the most inspiring way to see the islands?

Choosing between Galapagos by boat or land is like deciding whether you’d prefer a round-the-world trip or to live half the year in your version of paradise: ideally, you’d do both. The same goes for a trip to the world-renowned natural hotspot in the most remote location in the Pacific Ocean: a combination of a Galapagos hotel and cruise yields the richest, most rewarding experience.

But what if you could only pick one?

Land-based adventures

To opt for a land-based itinerary is to delve deep into the core of the islands, exploring by any means possible – by foot, bike, kayak, paddle board or otherwise – the hidden paths and secret tracks that make up their veins and arteries. It’s the king’s view of the archipelago from the peak of a volcano’s caldera, and the fatigued look of an ancient giant tortoise as you stroll among the prehistoric beasts in their natural sanctuary.

It’s rounding a corner to an undiscovered cove to a riot of wildlife that doesn’t give a fig about human presence: a grumpy male sea lion here, the scuttle of a lizard there, the overhead squawk of freakish frigate birds.

And after all that you can come home to an inspiring, oceanfront hotel to watch the sunset over this micro-universe and pick out the twinkling stars.

The freedom of the seas

To embark on a cruise is to follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin and many an intrepid explorer: to soak in the freedom of the open seas, to breathe in the air of possibility, to feel the momentousness of traveling to each destination by sea.

After all, the cruise isn’t just the transport between experiences, it is the experience. Where beaches are black, where penguins and iguanas make strange companions, and no two islands are the same. It’s regimented, to be sure, by the Galapagos National Park, and the cruise life does not cater to the free spirit or to spontaneity.

But it allows you to join the ebb and flow of the currents that breathe life into the islands, to become part of them for a microsecond of their million-year history.

Pioneers in land-based tours

When Alfredo Meneses, co-founder of Neotropic Expeditions, first visited the islands in fifth grade, he was fascinated by the blue of the water and the friendliness of the animals. He told himself: “I am going to come back and work here.” True to his word, after graduation he returned to work there as a guide, and this time he was struck by the fact that there were only cruises in the Galapagos, and no land-based options.

Golden Bay Hotel in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal Island.

“When I came back years later with my company Neotropic Expeditions already formed, I had the idea of doing multisport tourism, and nobody was doing that. I can truthfully say that I was the pioneer,” says Alfredo.

It was Alfredo who altered the course of Galapagos travel, and it’s thanks to him that now you can kayak around jagged islets, paddle board through caves, mountain bike along coastlines and hike down calderas. It’s also through his company’s philosophy of including, and encouraging the development of, local people, that during a Galapagos vacation you can experience the true essence of this extraordinary community.

Land-based tours: Authentic Galapagos experience

Alfredo explains: “We might go out with a fisherman, catch a fish, and at night he makes us a ceviche. There’s a lot of interaction between us and the people, and this communication is a way for us to comprehend who lives here. That’s just not the same as getting on a cruise. You could go shopping for three hours and never realise how the people live. Who is the true galapagueño? What motivates them? We have worked so hard so that we can work together there.”

Neotropic ensures that 70% of the money you spend in Galapagos goes directly back to the local community, to help with their development. Cruises meanwhile, though increasingly sustainable in their design and waste disposal, have little or none of this contact.

The Neotropic experience (you could say the original, authentic Galapagos experience), is an opportunity to touch, to taste, to listen the islands and the life of people and animals who dwell there.

Cruises: See more islands and animals

But where a land-based itinerary allows you to feel, a cruise might allow you to see more. With the former you’re restricted to what you see and visit by where you are, and there are some natural highlights that you simply won’t encounter.

For example, you won’t get a chance to spot the waved albatross with its car-length wingspan as it’s only found on Española, the southernmost island, or marvel at the peculiar red beaches of Rabida. Some iconic creatures, like sea lions, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, finches and giant tortoises, you’re all-but guaranteed to see no matter which option you choose, but others are far more likely from a cruise.

Cruises typically last from three to 14 nights, allowing you to explore some of the more remote islands like Floreana and Genovesa and the varied creatures, ecosystems and landscapes they harbor. Meanwhile, the fairly regimented schedules ensure you pack as much into your itinerary as you possibly can.

Regimented schedules versus flexibility

This comes with a drawback. Cruises are not so friendly to spontaneous free spirit: your route is mapped out by National Park, and your activities are pre-determined by the company you choose.

On a land-based tour, you’re free to customize your itinerary depending on your traveling pace and interests. Love kayaking? Spend a whole day paddling around coastlines! Crazy about penguins? Go out in search of them every day! Like to take things slow? Move at the pace of a giant tortoise if you like.

Within this flexibility is the opportunity for downtime and hazy afternoons on the beach, something that’s not factored into many cruises and can make them feel a little frenetic.

Places to stay

Pick and choose your activities, the restaurants and what you eat, and from all number of hotels. For example, Neotropic’s Opuntia Hotels group across three islands offers two standards of boutique hotels – Comfort and Select – with levels of service varying from basic and comfortable to luxurious and indulgent. You can also choose between staying right on the beach, in charming towns, or further inland.

Woman in a hammock in a hotel in Galapagos.

Comfort of the hotels

Hotel Casa Opuntia, San Cristobal, Galapagos.

What all these hotels can provide is comfort. If you like your showers hot, your bed big and soft and your privacy intact, a land-based program is probably for you. In spite of the limited resources of the islands, there are many very pleasant places to stay, to suit all budgets. While you’re deciding between a Galapagos hotel or cruise, consider the value-priced Opuntia Comfort Class Casa Opuntia in San Cristobal with its gorgeous view over the bay, and at the other end of the scale, the super-modern Golden Bay with rooms equipped with massive, sea-view bath tubs. That’s not to say that there aren’t high-end cruises: While some top-of-the-line cruises offer a luxurious service with lounges, hot tubs, stylish cabins, gourmet catering, balconies and private butlers, the reality is that sleeping in a cabin, no matter how fancy, will never be as comfortable as hotel. 

Room in the Golden Bay Hotel with ocean view.

Galapagos with children: Hotel or cruise?

Comfort is, of course, a key factor when planning a family holiday. And as well as eliminating the worry of small children running around the deck of a yacht, land-based itineraries are great for keeping all the members of the family happy. Neotropic Expeditions’ top-level guides with years of experience in leading family groups weave fun into every excursion, setting up treasure hunts and species check-lists. They can provide basic surf lessons, organize beach football with local children, host chocolate workshops on Santa Cruz Island, and offer their endless expertise while stargazing on Isabela Island.

Each family is different, with its own quirks and needs, and having the base of hotel rather than vessel can offer you the space and stability you need to keep everyone happy. What’s more, short travel times and the option of inter-island flights mean that there’s more time to enjoy the islands, and less opportunity for seasickness – something that can be excruciating on a cruise.

Making sugarcane juice.

Guides and travel groups

But in a cruise environment, spending extended periods of time with the same groups and guides has its benefits: you can develop a deeper relationship with your guide, who’ll probably spend the majority of the cruise with you.

Not only does this make for a pleasant experience, it also makes for a more meaningful one: over time, you might feel more comfortable asking your burning questions, therefore getting more out of your trip.

What’s the conclusion? Galapagos by land staying in a hotel or by boat?

If you want a fun-filled, relaxing Galapagos holiday full of variety, flexibility and choice, a land-based option is the adventure for you. If, however, your main priority is to see as much wildlife and as many islands as possible during your vacation, you should opt for a cruise. Whichever you go for – or if you opt for a combination of the two – you’re bound to come away with deep, transformative memories and an inspired outlook on life. Galapagos, the essence and embodiment of adventure and vitality, takes care of that.

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