We booked an “eight day cruise” (actually seven nights, arriving late and leaving early; hence also equivalent to a four day trip plus a five day one) on the motor yacht Darwin via https://www.galapagoslastminutes.com/. Starting the booking process about six weeks before the cruise (i.e. in early January for a mid-February departure) got us a discount of around $100 each over what it said was the base price of $2000 a head. The discounts seem highly variable, but are generally better on the more expensive boats, and as it gets closer to sailing. I just checked while writing this, and right now you can get a week on the same boat for $300 less than we paid, sailing in just three days’ time. It might not be sensible to leave things quite that late, though: the flights to the islands do sell out, and it took several days for our bank transfer to go through: two days for it to hit the booking people’s account, and then almost a week more for them to pay the boat company itself. Paying by credit card would presumably be faster, but then 3% gets added on to cover the fees.
Darwin was a Tourist Superior class vessel, the second cheapest. It is technically possible to get Tourist Class, but that may exist only to make the other options look better by comparison. The more expensive options are First Class - 12-16 passenger boats with larger cabins and double beds rather than bunks - and Luxury class, which starts to rival cruise liners for facilities and, of course, pampering (q.v. antes). I think that the biggest factor to consider is probably the quality of the guide, but it seems as though there's no way of determining this in advance, other than that the more expensive vessels normally have better guides. Life on board the Darwin was pretty good, though: the cabins were small but functional; the food was tasty; and there was enough space that everybody didn't constantly get under each other's feet. Some of the group, though, had a hard time sleeping in the cabins: there's an air conditioner but not a lot of fresh air, and it could be noisy when the boat was under way, which it was most nights.
GLM booked us return flights to Baltra from Guayaquil. The airport is modern and sleek, but also a bit of a disaster. In order to get on a flight to the Galápagos, you must queue up to pay $20 each for the Galápagos Tourist Card, then queue again to have your luggage X-rayed and sealed, and then finally queue again to actually check your bags in. Despite the huge lines, and the dozens of unused checkin desks, there are only two windows for tourist cards, so it took us just over an hour to get checked in.
After landing at Baltra, we had to queue again to pay the $100 charge to enter the Galáapagos, and then wait until the sniffer dogs had finished going over all of the luggage. It’s not quite clear what is or isn’t allowed to be taken to the islands - there’s an official website that says dried or processed foods are all right as long as they don’t contain seeds, but the signs at the airport said no food whatsoever was allowed. We saw some hunks of cheese being extracted from luggage at Guayaquil airport, so the X-ray machine must have been working.
Our flight out only arrived at 12:50, and we didn’t get out of the airport until 1:45. I’m not sure whether the booking agent just put us on the earliest plane that there were seats available on, or perhaps the boat people hadn’t told her that they really wanted us to be there before lunchtime, but this was clearly a problem. We met our already-stressed guide, Rafael, and were then rushed onto a bus, down to the port, and on to the boat, where we were given 90 seconds to unpack before being given lunch and then sent straight off to walk around Mosquera Island.
The bus from the airport to and from the landing jetty was $5 each way for perhaps a 10-minute journey - another example of how Galápagos travel costs add up quickly.
We took lots of cash with us, in twenties and smaller. The $120 a head charges for the tourist card and entrance to the islands have to be paid in cash, and all the books say that nobody on the Galápagos will accept anything larger than a $20, so we made sure to hit all the commission-free ATMs in Guayaquil before leaving. It was also helpful to have lots of small bills when calculating the tip at the end of the cruise. We were told that it was appropriate to tip $2 per crew member per day, plus $5 per day to the guide (i.e. $2 x 6 staff = $12/day each, or $168 in total for the week to the crew, and $70 in total to Rafael). Each cabin was given two numbered envelopes for the tips, presumably so that they can tell who stiffs the guide, and how badly. (The answer seemed, on our boat, to be everybody, to varying degrees).
We paid $25 each to rent snorkels and fins (I think the half-week cruises also paid $25). A wet suit would have been $25 extra, but the water was pretty warm and the wet suits were rather old. If you have your own snorkelling gear and it's not too heavy to carry, then that would definitely be useful. The gear we had wasn't terrible, but I've used better. Maybe more expensive boats have better gear - but it would be cheaper to buy a new set in Guayaquil and throw it away immediately afterwards than to upgrade just for that.
Drinks on board were quite expensive: $4 for a bottle of beer, $7 for a thimbleful of wine, or $40 for the bottle. Neither gin nor tonic water was to be had, even for ready money.
We didn’t stay on the islands before or after our cruise - hence the rushed arrival on the first day - but, if we had, it would have been best to join and leave the boat in Santa Cruz, where there are hotels and restaurants. Meeting the boat in Baltra was convenient for the airport, but not for getting into town, and it would be annoying and expensive to have to make multiple trips back and forth.
If we were doing it again, I would book the same hotel in Guayaquil (or Quito) for a night or two both before and after the Galápagos, so that we could leave a bag there with everything we wouldn’t need on the islands. This would have saved valuable cabin space, as well as allowing us to keep our travelling pantry of herbs and spices intact.
Important travel gear. Invasive-species regulations meant we had to ditch the chilli flakes
before going to the Galápagos, but a good towel is appreciated everywhere
Douglas Adams would have been proud: one of the most useful things I packed was a Good Morning towel, the ubiquitous accessory of the working Singaporean. I wiped my brow with it in the heat, wrapped it around my head to protect myself from sunburn when snorkelling, and was prepared for an attack of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal. Also useful were a UV-resistant rashguard for snorkelling in, sunscreen, and sandals that stood up to seawater for wet beach landings. It was also important to have footwear that would stand up to scrambling over rocks and lava. I used walking sandals for both purposes, and I suppose a sturdy pair of water shoes would do for both, as long as they didn't fill up with sand too easily.