Island Hopping in the Galapagos
What is Island Hopping?
Island hopping in the Galapagos Islands, also known as land-based tours, is the only other way to see the islands if you are not on a cruise. Cruises used to be the only way to visit the archipelago, but now travelers can base their excursions from a hotel on one of the four main islands to which they will return every night. During the day, speedboats and charter planes go from island-to-island.
It allows greater liberty with your itinerary
How you plan your land-based tour is up to you. Many people choose to simply book their hotels beforehand and plan their trip once they get to the islands. This is easy to do if you are staying in Puerto Ayora, as there are many agencies dedicated to daytrips and tour planning.
If you want to set up your itinerary prior to leaving, this is a good way to plan out how you will manage your schedule while in the Islands and see everything that you want to see.
It's a money saving option
One huge benefit of land-based trips is the fact that they can save you a bunch of money. Although cruises are usually all-inclusive, most cost thousands of dollars. While no vacation to the Galapagos is inexpensive, island hopping allows you to budget your money more, as you can choose which hotels and activities most suit your price range. Hotels and lodges can range anywhere from $15 per night up to more than $400 per night, depending on how luxuriously you would like your lodging to be. Regardless, even at the lower end of prices, you will usually find air conditioning, a private bathroom with hot water and a comfortable bed. The biggest range and selection of hotels are on Santa Cruz, in the main city of Puerto Ayora.
There are also hotels in this price range on Isabela Island, San Cristobal Island, and Floreana Island.
It's also important to note that many companies and hotels still offer all-inclusive island hopping packages as well, for less than $1000 per person for a five-day tour. These packages are the best deal for island hoppers, and they are almost always negotiable in terms of length of stay, type of lodging, and the activities you choose to include.
It's better for people with motion sickness
All of the cruise ships in the Galapagos Islands are around 100 passengers or less, which means they are much smaller than the giant cruise ships that navigate places like the Caribbean. This amplifies the motion of the boat, and if you get motion sickness or have never been on a cruise before, land-based tours are a good way to experience the islands without the distraction of a boat's constant rocking.
Transportation between islands
To get from one island to the next, there are only two options: speedboat and charter planes. There are numerous speedboat companies that will accommodate your schedule, but be sure to book it at least a day in advance so that you know when it departs and you are guaranteed a spot. The travel time on boats can be between half an hour and several hours.
Gotta see 'em all
Depending on the length of your trip, you will need to plan which islands you would like to see on your land tour and how long to stay on each of them. Obviously, the longer you stay, the more you will be able to see. But even a five-day trip to the Galapagos is ample time to be amazed by the naturally wonderful sites and experiences the Islands have to offer. Many people like to set up their adventure using Santa Cruz as their home base, since it is in the dead center of the archipelago.
There are four inhabited islands - Santa Cruz, Isabela, San Cristobal, and Floreana. These are the main stops of most island hopping tours. Although you will most likely not be able to visit the outermost islands (that only cruises and liveaboards pass by), you will be able to spend a more relaxed quality time enjoying the activities like biking, hiking, snorkeling, swimming, and exploring.
And, of course, you will still be able to fit in all of the staples of a Galapagos vacation too, like witnessing first-hand the rainbow of land animals exclusive to the shores of these islands.
Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz is home to Puerto Ayora (the main city in the Galapagos Islands). Puerto Ayora has a population around 18,000 and a relatively active bar and restaurant scene. Finding an inexpensive hostel or even a nice hotel here is easy.
This is also where most of the tour operators are based and hosts the best hotels for families, with good beach access. With the help of the tour companies, you can plan your hiking excursions, snorkeling, diving, intra-island transportation, and all of the other activities you want to cover.
The highlands of Santa Cruz are also home to a distinct mountain climate unique on the islands, which offer visitors some more remote hotels.
If you are hoping for the most secluded and relaxing vacation, then consider booking your vacation on Isabela, Floreana, or San Cristobal, as they are the more isolated islands in the archipelago.
Isabela offers a great mix of intimacy and adventure. Since it's the biggest island, it has a great diversity of activities, like hiking the Sierra Negra volcano, swimming with sharks at Tintoreras, visiting the wall built by prisoners (Wall of Tears), among other sites and activities. This is a good island to visit if you are planning a romantic trip or even a high-energy expedition.
San Cristobal Island
This island is home to the loberia, where you can see a colony of sea lions; the Junco Lagoon, a unique and large body of freshwater located about 700m above sea level; the research and breeding stations, where you can learn more about the natural and human history of the islands and even see a completely sustainable and safe tortoise breeding site.
As the southernmost inhabited island, Floreana is ideal for underwater exploration. If you want to snorkel, then Floreana has the best spots. If you are a diver, then prepare to be taken away by Devil's Crown, a sunken volcano that has now become recognized as one of the world's best dive spots.
To figure out which Islands seem most exciting to you for your hotel-based land trip, check out the Island Highlights map, with a preview of the activities each one has to offer.