Cruise Ship Tours vs. Land Based Galapagos Travel

Galapagos Vacations with Come to Galapagos
land based private tours versus cruise tours.

Cruise Ships at harbor vs. Land Based Galapagos Travel

Below is a letter written by one of our guests in 2011. I think it fairly succinctly details the differences between land based and cruise tours of the Galapagos. It can also be seen on trip adviser, Click Here.

We had a long debate about whether to take a cruise or land based tour for our Galapagos family vacation. None of us really had the slightest idea of what we were talking about, excepting maybe Shea, my fourteen year old daughter, who didn’t really either. She forms conclusions and strong beliefs based solely on information she finds on the internet. “Finds” is not actually the right word, digs up, garners in the late night when she’s suppose to be sleeping is more accurate. She would “track down leads”, her words about Galapagos Vacation web sites, “nice website, but who owns the company, what is their history, track record, what kind of reviews have they received and from whom?” She asked several companies for referrals that she could contact directly.

As a group we enthusiastically embraced the idea of doing both kinds of tours, one week on a cruise tour and one week with a locally owned and operated land based Tour Company. Shea had found several companies offering land based tours, but only one that was owned and operated by a resident of the Galapagos. This company also had credentials in the US, aside from an address and bank account they also had a state of California issued “California Seller of Travel” license which they had had for more than five years without complaints.

The cruise ships as best as Shea’s dangerously (I’m her overly protective father) sophisticated Google skills and detective/militant mind set could determine seemed to be owned by foreigners or investors, which she found offensive. I didn’t so much as we were just trying to plan a nice Galapagos family vacation. Here’s a challenge for anyone, compete with my daughter, find a commercial interest somewhere and dig/google whatever she does to come up with who actually owns it, not just who operates it as an owner at the behest of investors. She informed my wife, myself and her younger brother that most of the companies involved in cruise tours in the Galapagos made, in her words “ridiculous claims” to being eco-friendly. This happened over dessert when we had agreed to talk about our upcoming adventure. “How can a cruise ship operating in the Galapagos using fossil fuel that has to be imported to those islands, cruise ships that free anchor (apparently tearing up reefs) at least two times a day and pump the peoples pooh directly into the ocean, possibly be eco-friendly?” There was a moment of silence, neither my wife nor I had thought at all in terms of an “eco-friendly” component in our choice of how or with whom to travel. I finally answered, “Well, I don’t know, honey, but really thank you for your diligence.” I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes it is just best to humor her.

Shea proceeded to show us a number of web sites selling the same tours on the same boats, the odd thing being that some of these web sites were only web sites/dot coms, others were companies actually involved in tourism in the Galapagos, but they were based in Canada, Australia, England and the US, almost everywhere it seemed except the Galapagos. “What do you think of that?” I patiently tried to explain to Shea that if it were not for these companies and web sites no one would be going to the Galapagos. Her response was “And that’s not such a bad idea, except that I would like to get there before it is exploited beyond recognition.” Teenage kids… If you have one you understand. I am soon to have two.

We had a wonderful time on our cruise tour. The only negatives were that we spent far more time with our fellow travelers than we did with nature or our guides. It was like being trapped on a very tiny floating island with a bunch of people you couldn’t get away from and for my tastes we were spending (as in paid for) too many hours with people I could have done the same with in a bagel shop in the US for free. Shea to my great consternation had time to develop a small romance with the fifteen year old, son of parents I didn’t really care for who besides which seemed to encourage this romance. I certainly wasn’t.

We were able to see some really incredible animals and sites, albeit that we had to take turns, group B, our group would be at a site for an hour, having to leave when group A showed up and then we went off to where group A had been. The guides were great, attentive, knowledgeable, but you could really see we weren’t any different to them as a group B than hundreds of other group B’s that they manage year in and year out, kind of a “canned” manner of talking about the wildlife, etc. It also rankled me that we were in group B rather than A or rather that our group was called group B. I know that sounds silly, but such is my mind sometimes when stressed. It was as if we were somehow less important.

We eventually grew accustomed to the schedule, our fellow travelers, our small births and bathrooms, the rocking of the ship, the daily wonders being delivered to us along with our meals on a schedule so much so that I remember thinking toward the end of the cruise perhaps we had made a mistake booking a land based tour. Another week of what we were doing wouldn’t be so bad as long as the kid and his parents left as they were scheduled to do; on the other hand I had only a vague idea of what was to come next.

I had exchanged several e-mails with the owner of Come to Galapagos. He had informed me that we were rare, but not unique with our idea to sample both a cruise and land based tour and that universally, everyone who had been able to manage that combination with them had come away with the same reaction. “The people on the cruise tours don’t have any idea what they missed or why.” Click Here for photos.

My family and I now do. It is one thing to participate in a mass tourism experience that actually lives up to its hype, as we did. It is another to experience the same location with the people that live there. There was no hype, their web page was simple, straight forward and full of down to earth information. There was more direct information on that site than any other my daughter had showed me and in her words, “No fluff, just the real stuff.”

The “no fluff, just the real stuff” that we received in the Galapagos with Come To Galapagos was far beyond anything I might have imagined possible that someone (in this case my daughter) could find on the internet. It is one thing to hear a guide give his canned speech; it is another to meet his wife and family and to watch my family spend casual time with him without sixteen other tourists/strangers around. It is another to have our itinerary completely thrown out the window for the opportunity to swim with dolphins in the open ocean, as the opportunity arouse, another to breakfast each morning with the families that ran the hotel/B&B’s where we stayed, to watch my kids playing with theirs. Our “schedule” was organized around the tides, weather and our energy level. We spent our time, on OUR schedule with people who live there, our own customized Galapagos private tour. We flew on small planes between the islands (seeing the Galapagos from a small plane was really a perspective giving treat), had our own boats on day tours, fished with locals and visited the farm where much of the food we ate was grown. My daughter had with all of her internet savvy chosen three places she wanted to see. We saw them all, but only when the tide was right, when the light was right for the photos she had envisioned taking and when the animals would most likely be willing to interact. We witnessed a giant tortoise stampede, baby dolphins with their parents and had a sea lion pup literally hug my daughter while snorkeling. Nothing close to the above happened on the “cruise tour” portion of our vacation.

Shea, in an exhausted, drowsy moment on the flight back from the Galapagos, tucked her head into my chest and said, “Dad, I had no idea where I was pushing us to go, but thank you for listening.” Then she slept and I said to no one who could hear, “I’m proud of you.”

I needed to write a note, express my gratitude publicly for the people that really, personally showed us the Galapagos. The owner of Come To Galapagos, Rick, met us at the airport, checked in on us morning and night. We had the pleasure of meeting his son, dinning with him one night and with his wife. She referred to us as she does all their clients as “the hearts that come here” and the people working with them as, “The Family Come To Galapagos” (guides, restaurant owners, hotel owners, chauffeurs, boat captains, farmers and fishermen). These people really care for the well being and education of their visitors and the birth right of their children, the Galapagos Islands. Click here for more photos.

Mike Stranton
Stanford, CA
July, 2011

For another perspective click here for International Galapagos Tour Operators Association.