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Choosing the Best Galapagos Itinerary

Punta Vicente Roca on Isabela Island in the Galapagos, Ecuador.

For many travelers, including us, the Galapagos Islands are a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Here, naturalists have been observing curious animals for nearly two centuries. It was here that Charles Darwin proved evolution. And it is here that visitors travel to experience one of the world’s most remote and remarkable destinations. Yet every visitor to these enchanted islands faces the challenge of picking the perfect Galapagos itinerary.

Two small islands off the coast of Isabela in Elizabeth Bay.

Unless you have unlimited time and unlimited money, visitors to the Galapagos face two options:

  1. Staying in a hotel on one of the islands and doing day-trips to sites on other islands.
  2. Or staying on a live-aboard vessel for a number of days and traveling around to the various islands.

From our perspective, sailing on a live-aboard boat in the Galapagos is the way to go. You’ll be able to experience these remarkable islands the way explorers have always experienced them – as sailors. Live-aboards also offer the ability to spend more time in different places – multiple shore landings or snorkels per day.

The giant Galapagos tortoise on Isabela Island in the Galapagos.

The giant Galapagos tortoise

Itineraries are tightly controlled by the Ecuadorian government and the Galapagos National Park. The government permits landing parties in certain spots, vessels can only moor for the nights in certain locations and deviations can only be made under exceptional circumstances for safety reasons. The government permits two general Galapagos itineraries, creatively called A and B by most operators.

Darwin Lake and Tagus Cove on Isabela Island in the Galapagos.

Darwin Lake and Tagus Cove on Isabela Island

Why does any of this matter? The Galapagos Islands are not uniform. Each island is its own ecology due to the island’s geological formation. The Galapagos Islands stem from a hot spot deep in the earth. As the Nazca Plate deep in the earth moves towards the South American Plate, thin spots or weak spots in the Nazca Plate allow lava to boil up to the surface. As the plate moves, various weak spots pop through the Nazca Plate resulting in the different islands. From a geological standpoint, this means the eastern islands of the Galapagos are older than the western islands. And the eastern islands have had more time to develop vegetation. So the islands in the south and east are generally lusher and the islands in the north and west are rockier. If you have two full weeks, most boats make both itineraries on alternating weeks, so you can see nearly all the islands. However, most visitors are only able to spend one full week in the Galapagos, so they need to choose between the two itineraries.

A male Magnificent Frigatebird further to the east in the Galapagos, where vegetation is more plentiful

A male Magnificent Frigatebird further to the east in the Galapagos, where vegetation is more plentiful

Galapagos Itinerary A

The eastern Galapagos itinerary generally visits:

  • Baltra Island – This is the location of a small harbor and the international airport. It is a former military base and some of the old base can still be seen.
  • Santa Cruz Island – This is the main island of the Galapagos, home to the town of Puerto Ayora and also the Charles Darwin Research Station and the forest highlands.
  • Floreana Island – Common sites to visit are Punta Cormorant, the Post Office Bay and the Devil’s Crown.
  • Espanola Island – Sites of Gardner Bay and Punta Suarez.
  • San Cristobal – This island has a large number of sites, including Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the San Cristobal Interpretation Center, Punta Pitt, and the stunning Leon Dormido rock.
  • Santa Fe – Some itineraries can also include the small Santa Fe Island.
Lava cactus  growing out of cracks in the flow on Fernandina Island in the Galapagos at Punta Espinoza.

Lava cactus growing out of cracks in the flow on Fernandina Island

Galapagos Itinerary B

The western Galapagos Islands itinerary generally visits:

  • Baltra Island – This is the location of a small harbor and the international airport. It is a former military base and some of the old base can still be seen.
  • Santa Cruz Island – This is the main island of the Galapagos, home to the town of Puerto Ayora and also the Charles Darwin Research Station and the forest highlands.
  • Genovesa Island – Genovesa (or Tower Island) is a rocky volcanic caldera that is actually due north of Santa Cruz and home to Darwin Bay and the Prince Phillips Steps.
  • Santiago Island – The stop here usually take in vast James Bay.
  • Isabela Island – This is the largest island in the Galapagos and most western Galapagos itineraries feature many stops, including Elizabeth Bay, Punta Vicente Roca, Urbina Bay, Tagus Cove and the massive Sierra Negra volcano caldera.
  • Fernandina Island – This is a chance to see the lava fields of Puna Espinoza.
One of the highlights of the western Galapagos itinerary is the lava flow at Punta Espinoza on Fernandina Island.

The lava flow at Punta Espinoza on Fernandina Island.

Which Galapagos Itinerary is best?

Ideally, visitors would take in two full weeks and do both itineraries. However, for many travelers, that’s not realistic. And it wasn’t possible for us. We only had two weeks for this trip – one week on the mainland of Ecuador exploring the mountains with Kuoda Travel and one week in the Galapagos (however, the different climates presented some packing challenges, so be sure to check What to Pack For Ecuador and the Galapagos). For us, we wanted to see the other-worldly lava landscapes so we chose the western Galapagos trip. However, there’s really no bad choice!

No matter which Galapagos itinerary you select, you'll have amazing wildlife encounters like this mother and baby sea lion

No matter where you go, you’ll have amazing wildlife encounters like this mother and baby sea lion






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What do you think about Choosing the Best Galapagos Itinerary?

  1. Shannony September 19, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

    Hey – wow… awesome photos! We just got back from a trip to the Galapagos and did a 5 day catamaran tour that pretty much followed the “A” itinerary you mentioned. It was pretty awesome and I’m all for the live on boat experience. Pretty sure our trip would have suffered with day trips alone and we wouldn’t have been able to see nearly as much.

    Love those sea lions! 🙂

  2. Samantha December 5, 2015 at 10:24 am #

    I’m starting to plan a Galapagos trip for probably 2017 but didn’t know there were two different itineraries for the islands so this is super helpful. I guess I’ll just need to set aside at least 2 weeks so I can do both! The Galapagos is one of my dream destinations so I want to explore as much as possible.

    • Lance Longwell December 5, 2015 at 12:31 pm #

      Samantha, if time is no limit, do it. Regrettably, we only had one week in the Islands. That meant we missed Post Office Bay and some of the other sites that we’d read about. I guess it just means we’ll have to back again!

  3. fadiyah March 5, 2016 at 4:17 am #

    Darwin Lake my dream destination,, what a beautiful view <3 Love it

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