Tourism is evolving:
When I first sailed around Galapagos 40 years ago. Our small yacht had no refrigerator, no hot water in a tiny shared bathroom. To cool a beer, you put it in a bucket of seawater. Moreover, we had no navigational aids apart from a compass and a chart. Over the years, yachts ditched the sails, got ensuite bathrooms, air-conditioning, cabins with balconies and even Jacuzzis, is that progress? On the downside there is no longer silence at anchorages – generators need to run continuously to provide the comforts. Arguably the addition of radar and sonar have made navigation safer, (but these can make crew complacent and forget basic skills). In the ‘old days’ a visit to Galápagos was all about the wildlife, today it is more about creature comforts than the creatures.
Upscale Small yacht cruising:
Firstly, due to strict regulations by the Galapagos National Park that limit boat licenses to roughly 70, boat owners are not repairing vessels, they’re replacing them. This past year has seen several upscale vessels exchanged for older motor yachts, such as Ecoventura’s Origin and Theory, which now part of the respected Relais & Chateaux collection. These each hold twenty passengers with thirteen crew members to look after them. Though advertised as ‘Expedition’ cruising, these boats aim at the next level of luxury. Boats no longer have cabins but ‘staterooms’. They feature gourmet food, an open bar for wine, local beer and spirits, espresso and cappuccinos. The advent of WiFi on such vessels means that the islands are sadly no longer off-grid. For me the most luxurious feature is a laundry service, with memories of washing my smalls whilst showering. Another new 16-passenger catamaran Elite has eight suites, panoramic windows and dinners served al-fresco on a semi-covered deck.
Celebrity Flora arrives:
Similarly, just arrived in the Galápagos is the brand-new Celebrity Flora, somewhat larger with 50 suites and eighty-two crew members. This state-of-the-art cruise ship was designed with Galápagos in mind. The hybrid propulsion system features dynamic positioning, meaning anchors are no longer required. The all-suite rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows. The penthouse suites are the biggest in the islands, with verandas not just balconies. There are three restaurants and meals are influenced by local cuisine.
Cruise and land-based options:
In addition, luxury lines such as Silversea and Lindblad Expeditions (branded as National Geographic) have been sailing the region for years. The new ships are more intimate and top-notch. Whilst budget cruises go for £3,000 per week, the new boats can be twice or three times as much. In some ways this is good news for this ecologically delicate archipelago. Boats in the Galápagos are required by law to conserve water and energy, ban plastics and purchase locally produced products, the new vessels are more stable, faster, and fuel-efficient. Cruise ships licensed guides tend to give a more closely regulated experience than the cheaper hotel-based trips from the four inhabited islands. The latter are run by speed boat operators whose guides are not high-level naturalists.
Choosing your trip:
In conclusion, most travellers will be happy with the close wildlife encounters that any standard Galapagos itinerary can offer. As always, the wildlife is oblivious to the presence of people, whether it’s a marine iguana snorting salt in your face or a pair blue-footed boobies dancing in their peculiar way. If you wish to Scuba dive there are only certain boats that can offer this, none of these are luxury. Twitchers wanting to see as many endemic Darwin’s finches will need advice about the itinerary. The inhabited islands populations are growing at a phenomenal rate, so we still advise a boat as the best way to see the uninhabited islands, the type of vessel depends on how deep your pocket is.