If you like wildlife and the Galapagos Islands is not on your bucket list… it should be. These islands off the coast of Ecuador are a unique vacation. While more and more people who do visit opt for a land-based budget tour of the Galapagos, the best way to see the Galapagos is by boat. We recently spent one week and cruised 410 nautical miles in the Galapagos archipelago on Quasar Expeditions M/V Evolution. This guide will tell you what to expect on a small live-aboard cruise in the Galapagos.
Table of contents: ()
- Getting to the Galapagos
- Airports in the Galapagos
- Typical Galapagos Cruise Itinerary
- Day One – Saturday – Quito to San Cristobal Island
- Day Two – Sunday – South Plaza Island, Santa Cruz Island, Mosquera Island
- Day 3 – Monday – Sombrero Chino, Santiago Island
- Day 4 – Tuesday – Genovesa Island
- Day 5 – Wednesday – Isla Seymour Norte, Santa Fe
- Day 6 – Thursday – Floreana Island
- Day 7 – Friday – Santa Cruz Island
- Day 8 – Saturday – Santa Cruz Island
Getting to the Galapagos
The Galapagos Islands are 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, so Galapagos cruises start in the islands. You can fly to the Galapagos from either of the two largest cities in Ecuador: Quito or Guayaquil. Quito is a beautiful colonial city and the capital of the country. It is at over 9,000 feet in the Andes. Guayaquil is the largest city in the country and is on the coast. People who are concerned about altitude should fly through Guayaquil. We flew through Quito but more on that later.
- Guayaquil’s airport is José Joaquin de Olmedo International Airport (airport code: GYE)
- Quito’s airport is Mariscal Sucre International Airport (airport code: UIO)
As with any cruise, it is useful to arrive a day early as we did so that you won’t miss your cruise if you have any flight delays.
Airports in the Galapagos
There are two different airports in the Galapagos. The largest one is Seymour airport on the island of Baltra. This island is just off the coast of Santa Cruz island which is in the center of the archipelago and has the largest population. You can get to Seymor airport from Santa Cruz via a water taxi or bus.
The other airport is the San Cristóbal Airport on the island of the same name. San Cristóbal is the second-most populous island.
- Island of Baltra – Seymour Airport (airport code: GPS)
- Island of San Cristóbal – San Cristóbal Airport (airport code: SCY)
The cruises from Quasar starts at one airport and end at the other. We started at San Cristóbal Airport and ended at Seymour Airport. The next cruise would do the airports in the opposite order.
Typical Galapagos Cruise Itinerary
There are two main itineraries for the Quasar cruises. Our cruise covered more of the eastern islands and the following week the cruise would cover more of the eastern islands. The rules in the national park are that a boat cannot return to the same spot until 2 weeks later. So if you had the funds and two week’s vacation you could book a cabin for two weeks and see different islands. The one stop that both cruises would have in common would be the trip to the highlands of the island of Santa Cruz to see the giant tortoises.
Day One – Saturday – Quito to San Cristobal Island
We woke up before dawn on Saturday and hopped on a shuttle from our hotel to the Quito airport. There we met up with the Quasar representative who handed us the paperwork we needed like our entry forms for the Galapagos National Park. He ushered us through the agriculture and check-in process and made sure we had what we needed before we passed through security. We flew from Quito to Guayaquil and then flew onto the airport on San Cristobal in the Galapagos.
When we got to San Cristobal, Quasar met up with us got us on a bus, and took us on a quick bus tour through the town. The town started as a small fishing village it has grown as Tourism has grown on the islands. Tourism is the number one source of income with about 75% of people working in tourism.
The local sea lions feel very much at home and will just come into town… and even go into the stores. They have a fence and a gate to try and keep the sea lions down at the water instead. The city also built platforms for the sea lions to try and keep the sea lions off the boats because the boat owners aren’t fond of these somewhat stinky animals.
We took pangas (a small boat, in this case, the pangas of the M/V Evolution are inflatable zodiacs) out to the Evolution and had an orientation with Bolo who is our chief naturalist. Loulou who is one of the other naturalists says that Bolo has been doing this since the days of Charles Darwin. Loulou was the least experienced of our guides… and she had been guiding for 16 years!
After lunch, we had some downtime while the boat cruised up the island to a secluded cove Cerra Brujo (Wizard’s Hill) where we seem to have the island to ourselves except for some rather friendly sea lions. We cruised past a weathered remnant of a volcano, mostly ash but with some lava dams (vertical stripes of black lava). There were Sally Lightfoot crabs and barnacles on the rocks. Barnacles, we were told, can pinch quite hard if you put a hand or some other body part on them. Frigatebirds soared overhead.
Before every excursion from the boat, we would be told if we would make a “wet landing” or a “dry landing”. A wet landing usually meant stepping from the boat into the surf at a sandy beach. A dry landing meant hopping off the panga onto rocks, concrete steps, or a pier. You needed to know that detail so you would know what the right footwear would be.
Our first landing was a wet landing. We saw the first set of what would become very familiar tracks over the course of the week. These were the signs that iguanas had been on the beach recently.
We walked through a cut in an old lava flow to where some sea lions lounged. This was our first encounter with the wildlife in the Galapagos. Everyone tells you that the wildlife here is not afraid of people but when it actually happens to you, it still somehow takes you by surprise.
Some went walking down the beach and some took a dip in the ocean. There were a few fish in the water at this sandy beach and an occasional Booby would dive-bomb them. Probably the most memorable experience was when we were swimming in the ocean and a sea lion came right towards us very fast. He was almost nose to nose with one of our fellow travelers before veering off at the last minute. Welcome to the Galapagos.
We got back to the boat around sunset for drinks and snacks. We had an orientation for the next day’s activities, a toast with the captain, and dinner.
Day Two – Sunday – South Plaza Island, Santa Cruz Island, Mosquera Island
Our second excursion was a dry landing and a hike on a small island off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, South Plaza Island. We were greeted at the landing by young sea lions and one older female sea lion that had been injured with some sort of bite or cut. There were also more Sally Lightfoot crabs. The main vegetation on the island was tall cactus as short cactus falls victim to the yellow-headed land iguanas that the island has in abundance.
We walked to the end of the island past a place where the national park is trying to grow new cactuses in wire mesh enclosures to protect them from the iguanas. At the Cliffs of the end of the island is a bachelor colony of sea lions and a plethora of seabirds. We saw Nasca boobies, frigatebirds, cactus finch, and ground finch.
After a cold drink and a snack, we were issued our wet suit, snorkel, and mask which would be our snorkeling equipment for the week.
Before lunch, we spent about an hour snorkeling at Punta Carrion, a point on Santa Cruz island. At first, the snorkeling was not that great. The place we were at was fairly deep and the visibility wasn’t terrific. I would not have guessed at this point in the trip that some of our most memorable wildlife encounters would be while snorkeling.
We worked our way down the coast of this cove on Santa Cruz Island and then came across eventually a swirling mass of colorful fish that were all in one spot. We saw angelfish, parrotfish, and yellowtail surgeonfish. We also saw two or three sharks that were white-tipped reef sharks swimming next to us or under us. They were probably about 4 feet long.
Our evening activity was on tiny Mosquera Island just north of the airport on Baltra Island. The island had a white coral beach, ice plant, volcanic rocks, a whale skeleton, and not much else. Not much else that is except for playful sea lions that were doing an acrobatic show in the surf. They were curious at times coming up to see who we were. Some of the males were territorial with at least one of our group getting a little bite. Joan had one of the females who startled her with a bark and seem to demand a little more respect.
Our naturalist presentation before dinner was plate tectonics and island formation. All the islands in the Galapagos are volcanic islands. There are a number of shield volcanoes that rose from the surface of the ocean from a hotspot below the earth’s crust. The Galapagos Islands are on the Nasca plate which is moving to the east and subducting under the South American plate. The Nasca plate is moving at about the same speed that your fingernails grow. This action is raising up the Andes mountains. As the plate moves the location the hotspot remains the same. This causes new islands to form the islands in the east of the Galapagos like San Cristóbal are the oldest and those in the west are the youngest and most volcanically active.
One of the most entertaining parts of the cruise was our other cruise passengers. At first, we seemed to be the last to leave every meal as we’ve gotten in some interesting discussion with someone who is starting angel investing or someone who is a designer for the GAP or someone who works for the company that makes Remdeziveer or someone who competes in ballroom dancing or someone who is a trauma surgeon or someone who has run the Antarctic marathon. Many of the people are well-traveled. All are adventurous. Everyone we’ve talked to was vaccinated. Two were on their delayed honeymoon. Some are retired.
Day 3 – Monday – Sombrero Chino, Santiago Island
We started the day with a panga ride to Sombrero Chino (Chinese Hat). On the way, we looked for penguins along the shore of Santiago Island but only found one. Penguins in the Galapagos are Small and are the northernmost of all the penguin species, crossing over into the northern hemisphere.
We made a wet landing at Sombrero Chino next to a few sea lions and a great heron.
In case you had not already figured that out, the Galapagos is a great place for birders. Not only do they have an interesting assortment of birds, but you can, in many cases, walk right up to them. All the photos on this article were shot with either my usual Canon SLR with a flexible 18-250mm zoom lens or with my iPhone 11 Pro. It was humorous at times to see some of the better-equipted photographers carrying a zoom lens long enough that they could literally touch the bird they were taking a picture of.
As we approach the shore we saw three eagle rays. Two males (smaller) were trying to mate with a female In the shallow water.
Sombrero Chino was largely lava rock and coral. There were quite a few lava tubes on the island, mostly small, small enough for a child to crawl through. If you aren’t familiar with lava tubes, they are formed when how flowing lava cools at the surface where it comes in contact with the air, then lava continues to flow underneath until it eventually drains and leaves a hollow tube.
We hiked around to the other part of the island or we saw a number of marine iguanas. Marine iguanas are less colorful than the land iguanas and their coloring blends in with the lava rock of the islands.
We came back to the straight between Santiago and Sombrero Chino to snorkel for an hour. The clarity of The water was much better than the previous day at the beginning of the snorkel outing with lots of different colorful fish. We saw a school of 50+ surgeonfish, so many small red cardinal fish that it looked like an underwater ticker-tape parade, small silverfish that swam near the surface and looked like bubbles going sideways.
At least one penguin joined us in the water.
We also saw white-tipped reef sharks maybe 5 feet long. As we got further down the channel the current got stronger, and the clarity got worse. Just when I was about to give up snorkeling we saw a turtle swimming in the distance below us. This was our first but not our last turtle encounter.
We took a three-hour break to have lunch and reposition the boat to the other side of Santiago Island. In general, the mid-portion of the day is when the day cruisers get access to the central islands. The live-aboard ships have access before 10 am and after 4 pm. So during the heat of the day, we would often cruise, do water activities or take a break.
Our two-hour hike was interrupted when we spotted four different orcas from the pangas on the way to the beach. The orcas killed a turtle that we came across. The guides were very excited about seeing orcas as the last time they had was about a year and a half ago. There is a resident pod of orcas but their territory is quite large.
The highlight for Santiago Island was Galapagos Fur Seals which are actually a different type of sea lion and not a seal. Fur seals were nearly hunted to extinction for their beautiful fur. They are still endangered.
We saw a number of birds on the island. There were oystercatchers, plover, blue heron, pelicans, and Frigatebirds. We also saw a number of marine iguanas.
There used to be a large population of feral goats and pigs on the island but they have been eradicated. A U.S. sea captain introduced 4 goats to the island in 1812 while they were in the area preying on British whaling ships. The population grew to 100,000 goats.
Day 4 – Tuesday – Genovesa Island
We woke at Genovesa Island which is an ancient caldera. It has steep cliffs around most of the interior lagoon.
We did a pre-breakfast beach walk at 6:30 am to see the nesting area for Frigatebirds and Red-footed Boobies. The Nasca Boobies nest on the ground but the red-footed boobies have prehensile webbed feet the can grab branched so they nest in trees. The red-footed boobies were nesting in small mangrove trees.
We saw the swallowtail gulls which fly from Patagonia to nest in the Galapagos.
There were, of course, sea lions. Christina, one of our naturalists, said the day you don’t see sea lions… it means you are at home.
The Frigatebirds are the pirates of the air. Then can steal the Catch of another bird, especially the boobies. We were told to watch for them practicing the maneuver where they poke a movie in the back to get it to drop whatever is in its beak. The male frigatebird has a red pouch that it will blow out to impress the females. It will also make a warbling noise to try and attract females that are nearby. If a frigatebird gets its pouch damaged it will take months to repair and then will have scars and that may make it less attractive to the female.
Boobies will squabble over which stick to use to build a nest like an old married couple. The male will present a stick and the female will critique his choice. My wife and I don’t fare much better during home remodeling.
We returned to the ship for breakfast and then headed to one of two snorkeling trips. One group headed to deep water with strong currents where they had a 75% chance of seeing hammerhead sharks… which they did.
The walls of the crater near the beach are covered in old graffiti from before the area was a national park. Each ship used to mark when it visited the island on the walls.
I went with the other group that was supposed to have better visibility more fish and a chance of seeing fur seals in the water. It was a great snorkel spot but got deep quickly as the walls of the crater came down into the water. We saw schools of surgeonfish, angelfish, damselfish, and many others that I can’t identify. The type of damselfish that is black with just an iridescent blue or purple was the most stunning to me.
The highlight of the snorkeling though was to turn around and see a Galapagos fur seal just out of arms reach. The seal was floating upside down just sort of checking things out. Bubbles were cascading from its fur. It seemed content to just stay there watching us for a few minutes. We also saw a green sea turtle that was about 10 feet away.
Our third activity before lunch was a kayak trip. The ship has half a dozen different two-person kayaks which they towed over to near the lip of the caldera. They then brought the first batch of kayakers over and we boarded the kayaks from the zodiacs. We paddled our way along the cliff all the way back to our boat. Only one Kayak managed to flip over in the maneuver to get back out again at the boat.
After lunch, we had a movie about one of the early naturalits in the Galapagos which about half the passengers attended, and then took a break through the heat of the day until 4 o’clock when we headed over in pangas to Prince Philip steps. This is a rather rough set of steps that let you go up through the cliffs to the plateau of the island. They are named after the recently deceased Prince Philip of England who visited the island years ago.
We hiked on a trail that brought us to the exterior of the island through bird nesting grounds, especially frigatebirds and red-footed boobies. We were on the watch for the Galapagos Owl which hunts in the daytime. We had a little success until we got near the end of our hike when bolo our sharp-eyed naturalist spotted one in the distance. We signal to the other group where the owl was and, while they were watching it, it killed and ate one of the smaller birds that are its prey.
Day 5 – Wednesday – Isla Seymour Norte, Santa Fe
We awoke between Seymour Island and Isla Seymour Norte. Our first outing of the day was to go see the blue-footed boobies on Isla Seymour Norte. The boobies are ground-nesting birds and to court, they do this little dance where they show off their cute blue feet. The male will lift up one foot and then the other and make a whistling noise. The female will make a honking noise in return and do the same little dance. We did finally found a couple of pairs that showed us the mating dance. We saw several more with clutches of eggs.
They were also frigatebirds and land iguanas on the island.
We returned to the ship for only about 20 minutes before we came back out to snorkel the side of the island. I saw both a reef shark as well as a sea lion, although both briefly. We saw much of the same fish as before. A huge school of surgeonfish, parrotfish, etc. We also saw the long skinny coronet fish.
Just after we got on the boat we took off towards Santa Fe Island.
At Santa Fe Island the group is split into two groups. One group went and explored the island first while the other group kayaked a secluded bay.
We landed on a beach covered with sea lions which was no longer a surprise in the Galapagos. Some of the younger sea lions were definitely curious. One of the sea lions was going up to members of our group and untying their shoelaces to play with them just like a puppy. Another small sea lion seemed To be trying to find its mother as it went barking down the beach running into and crawling over different groups of females.
We hiked past the bachelor colony of sea lions who had lost the fight for dominance and into the scrub brush of the interior. We were looking for the Santa Fe Iguana which is only found on the island and is a slightly different version of the land iguana. It is less colorful than some of the other land iguanas as we have seen previously.
We took our pictures under the large cactus on a cliff overlooking the sea Before returning to the beach for kayaking. The shallow lagoon had a number of reef sharks, a couple of tortoises swimming under the water, and some mackerel swimming near the surface. It was an idyllic spot for kayaking as it was very protected and very calm. The kayakers needed to board from the panga as the national Park no longer allows the kayaks to land at the beach where they might disturb the sea lions.
Day 6 – Thursday – Floreana Island
We woke off the shore of Floreana Island. Last night we heard odd tales of people who settled Floreana Island from Ecuador including a German dentist/nudist/philosopher/vegetarian who came with his mistress. He was so nervous about having a tooth infection… even though he was a dentist… that he had a friend pull all his teeth before he left Germany. A number of the stories seem to end with… and they were never seen again.
After breakfast, we went to the “post office” which is an area where you can pick up postcards to hand-deliver them or drop off cards of your own. The practice goes back to the days of the wailing ships. When ships were heading back to the U.S., for instance, they would pick up the mail as they headed out. We picked up a letter to deliver in Virginia and others picked up letters for people in their area.
We then got back in the boats and went down the beach to an area where we swam with sea turtles. It was amazing!
We had a one-hour cruise before our next sparkling stop where we swam with sea lions. It was one of our best snorkeling experiences and the last of this trip. The water was a bit rougher because the sea lions don’t like playing in calm water.
That our final day of snorkeling was one of the most memorable experiences of the entire trip. First, the turtles and then sea lions of all sizes literally swimming circles around us. This was the second time I have snorkeled with sea lions but this experience was very different than when I did the same in the Sea of Cortez. In Mexico, small sea lions were curious about us and I expected the same in the Galapagos but did not expect larger sealions to also “play” with us.
Our final excursion of the day was a wet landing on another part of the island where we got to see flamingos.
We then hiked to the next beach over which was a white coral beach where the sea turtles hatch. They generally hatch at night so we didn’t expect to see when our group saw large sea turtle tracks and tiny sea turtle tracks but the other group did see a Frigatebird break into one of the nests and eat one of the tiny turtles. Only about one In 1000 sea turtles makes it to maturity. We also saw golden rays and small stingrays in the water.
Day 7 – Friday – Santa Cruz Island
Friday was the day to see the highlands and the giant tortoises. We awoke anchored off the north shore of Santa Cruz Island in the middle of the archipelago. We hopped in our pangas and headed to the port or you can also catch a ferry to the main airport. On the way in we saw a large group of blue-footed boobies feeding in the shallows just offshore. We diverted over to see them for a bit.
When we got to the port we put our masks back on as we walked through people we didn’t know to a bus that would take us in the Highlands. Along the way, we stopped at two sinkholes that were made when old lava chambers were exposed by erosion. The weather was cooler as we were higher up and the fauna changed significantly. We so large balsa trees and a number of trees that look like large broccoli but we’re actually related to dandelions.
Where we saw the giant tortoises was one of their mating grounds which was actually on a private farm instead of the national Park. 97% of the islands is national park. This farmer had changed his fencing to allow giant tortoises to pass in and out. This gives him another source of income and restored the tortoises to their traditional meeting grounds. We hiked around seeing the giant tortoises. As we got close to the fence that borders the national park we heard the sounds of grunting and crawled under the fence to track down a giant 600 pound or so male who was mating with the much smaller female, about a third of his size.
We took our obligatory pictures with non-meeting tortoises. The ship’s crew had brought in a barbecue lunch which we ate at the farm before checking out their small shop.
On the way back to the ship we stopped at a lava tube and explored this long cavern. The lava tubes started maybe three times my height but one point got so narrow that we had to get down and crawl for about 6 feet.
Normally the ship would then have a free day in town for people to do their tourist shopping, but with the Covid restrictions that part of the trip was canceled. Instead, the ship had special permission from the National Park to visit a quiet sandy beach on the northern shore of Santa Cruz Island where we spent our last time in the water. We did see a Frigatebird find one of the small turtles from a nearby nest.
We returned for a final toast, a video that the naturalist had put together over the week of our trip, dinner, and packing.
Day 8 – Saturday – Santa Cruz Island
We rose early to do a panga ride to a mangrove swamp on the shore. We saw baby reef sharks and a school of golden rays. A turtle would occasionally pop up its head and the usual assortment of boobies and pelicans were fishing the waters. We learnedly the red mangroves have some yellow leaves. Those are sacrificial leaves where the plant stores the salt. That allows it to live in saltwater.
Our cruise was in May of 2021. Quasar had only been running again for 14 cruises after being shut down for 8 months because of COVID-19. Unlike some of their first cruises of 2021, all the passengers (except for 2 children) on our trip were fully vaccinated and everyone on the crew had received at least one shot of their vaccinations.
At the time of this writing, you will need proof of vaccination or a recent COVID-19 PCR test to get to mainland Ecuador. You will need a recent COVID-19 PCR test within 4 days to get into the Galapagos whether or not you are vaccinated. The timing there was a bit of a challenge and some of our shipmates had as many as 3 different independent COVID-19 tests with the hope that they would receive the results for at least one before they needed them.
To make the cruise safer, we were not allowed to visit the cities on either San Cristobal or Santa Cruz but that would be a normal part of the itinerary in non-COVID years.
Quito was having curfews for COVID when we were there and so the people at Quasar didn’t really want us to go into the city before we went out onto the boat. So we will have to save that for another trip.
All the passengers wore masks when we arrived, but after about 3 days we (the passengers) did relax a bit with mask-wearing. The crew remained more consistent on wearing masks. All passengers were asked to continue to wear a mask at the buffet line in the dining room.
The tourism of the Galapagos is still restarting as of this writing. Many of the live-aboard ships were anchored empty off Santa Cruz Island. Where we should have seen 3 or 4 other boats we saw maybe one other boat. It turned out to be a pretty great place to socially distance.
Before our trip, we flew into Quito and stayed for two nights at the Hacienda Jimenita Wildlife Reserve about 20 minutes from the Quito airport.
The people at the Hacienda were great. When we arrived at the hotel room they had a hot water bottle for each of us at the foot of the bed and a fire going in the fireplace to make the room toasty. We ate our meals at the Hacienda, hiked in the morning, and lazed around in the afternoon with naps and crossword puzzles because we had an early start the following morning.
On our way back out of the country, we spent the night again in Quito near the airport at the lovely EB Airport Quito Hotel Eurobuilding. The EB is a new modern hotel. It was very nice and quite different in style from the Hacienda Jimenita.
Friends will tell you that the Galapagos is a singular destination. Many places claim to be the “Galapagos of …”, but one does not describe the Galapagos like anywhere else.
I will write more about the M/V Evolution in more detail in the future, but in short, it provided a memorable experience in a memorable destination. The crew made our experience a wonderful experience. From the stewards who seemed to make our bed 4 times a day, to the boat drivers to the dining room crew, all were wonderful. The 3 naturalists spent much of the day unfolding the island’s wonders to us. They did so with great enthusiasm. I know that they have done this same trip many times over many years but they do so with enthusiasm as if they were discovering it for the first time.
If you love wildlife, then you need to get to the Galapagos. If you can, you would be well-served to do so on a live-aboard ship like Quasar’s M/V Evolution.
My trip was sponsored by Quasar Expeditions for which I will always be grateful. The opinions above are my own.