This is such an amazing place that I think everyone who can should make their way to Galapagos. Here's a rough guide to help you plan your own awesome trip.
5 or 8 days?
Originally I wanted to spend 8 days on a cruise but we couldn't find a suitable boat and itinerary. We then settled for a 5 day cruise but were to arrive two days early so we could add a one day Isabella Island day tour beforehand. I think this worked out perfectly, it allowed us to get on the island and organise ourselves before we got on the boat and gave us just enough time on Galapagos without getting too repetitive. Some people on our boat were doing the full 8 days AND had 4 more days on land afterwards and were looking to change their flights so they could leave after the cruise. Please note that the last day of the cruise is just a travelling day as most flights leave about midday so a 5 day cruise ends up actually being only 4 full days.
The Galapagos Islands is made up of a handful of different, smaller islands and it really depends on the season what you will see on each island. May is breeding season for a lot of birds and animals so its the best time for wildlife. This is also the beginning of the dry season which means sunny days but colder water temperatures to snorkel in and slightly poorer snorkelling visibility. We picked May because we didn't want it to rain too much and its just before the peak season, to improve our chances of getting a last minute cruise. We particularly wanted to see waved albatross which can only be seen on Espanola Island for certain months and were breeding at the time, whereas most other animals can be seen on most of the islands. So we specified the itinerary to include Espanola. The other winner was a visit to Kicker rock near San Cristobal Island, which is one of the best snorkelling places in Galapagos. Most cruise boats eather do the North west or South east and ours covered the South East Islands. Most itinearies will cover 2 really good islands though and the top islands according to our guide are Espanola, Fernandina, Genovesa and North Seymour. Here is an outline of our itinerary:
Baltra, North Seymour
San Cristobal: Leon Dormido, cerro Brujo, Isla Lobos
Espanola: Gardner Bay, Punta Suarez, Islets Osborn & Gardner
Santa Fe, Plazas
Santa Cruz: Tortoise Breeding Centre, Baltra
Which ever way you go about it, Galapagos is expensive. Its true that you can save 30-50% by booking last minute, usually from Guayaquil, Quito or on Galapagos itself but after speaking to different people on our boat, we all paid the same no matter which Ecuadorian city we came from. Overall, for 2 people the main costs added to $3484. Here's the breakdown:
Galapagos Per Person
5 day cruise 1100
1 day Isabella tour 120
Hotel Flamingo (2 nights) 32
Isabella entrance 20
Galapagos transit card 10
Galapagos entrance fee 100
Snorkeling equipment 30
Taxi to and from airport 36
We flew with Aerogal from Guayaquil into Galapagos and then Galapagos into Quito. We had a $1000 ATM cash withdrawal limit so we prepared by taking out money every day before booking it so we had $4000 to hand over straight away when we found the right cruise. You can pay by credit card but its a big surcharge you end up paying, eating away at your discount. We saved overall $1000 off the online price but it looked like everyone else paid the same on our boat as they all booked last minute too.
Which Travel Agent?
Guayaquil, unlike Quito doesn't really have a central tourist area so you had to wanter around a lot to find agencies and get quotes and check availabilities. This is a tiring and time consuming process of people calling up boats as there is no online system for checking or booking. The larger, flashier offices were a waste of time. They are too busy to check numerous boats so always just give you one or two expensive options they don't really suit your needs. You really needed a smaller place that JUST did last minute Galapagos tours as their primary business. One other frustration was that we started looking on Sunday but nothing was open so this was a day wasted. The only place we found that catered to our needs was Travel Galapagos located in the Hostal Suites Madrid. Chris was really helpful in finding out exactly what we wanted and spent a lot of his time with us explaining things and calling up a lot of different boats. He was very peristant in looking, what you need when spots get snapped up from under you. He also offered us a fair price. A lot of people, us included, found that even an hour delay thinking about options and researching them could mean you lose it and then have to start all over again. My advice, know what you want and book it when you see it! We also had a public holiday in the dates we wanted which made things more booked out.
We were tired, hungry and frustrated when Chris finally found us the Guantanamera and we snatched it up after doing a 2 minute online boat check. Luckily we did as the couple who booked it last had to be split up into single sex rooms but they too had run out of options at that point and just sucked it up and took it.
Which Class of Boat?
The order of boat quality goes from economy, tourist class, first class and cruise ship. There are also motor boats and catamarans. Our lower budget meant they we were only aiming for tourist class and first class boats. The Guantanamera is a tourist class, motor boat so our cabins were small and basic but clean and comfortable. We had air conditioning (which we didn't need to use), hot water showers and great food on board. Actually, considering some of the hostels we stayed out, this was an improvement and we were happy with it. The smaller boat size does mean you feel the boat rok more and I am really prone to motion sickness. But I found that if I took some tablets and napped when we were sailing I could sleep the nausea off and am proud to say I didn't throw up once on that boat. Also, judging from the other groups we saw, it looked like the nicer the boat, the older the clientele. So think carefully who you would want to hang out with the whole time. We had a good range of people from 20-30 years old with one older lady who was nice but a lot pickier.