After about a year of research, we booked a 7 day cruise on a 16 passenger catamaran, the Cormorant, operated by Haugan Cruises. We knew that the Galapagos National Park regulations would be changing in 2012 to only allow each vessel in the islands to visit a particular stop once every two weeks. This is a good idea, because it reduces crowding at the different sites and allows more extended exploring each site and cuts down on long travel segments. We decided on a western or (B) cruise which visited the islands of Santa Cruz, Isabella, Fernandina, Santiago, Genovesa and North Seymour. The 16 passenger boats allow all passengers to participate in an activity together and not have to split up into groups. There are also vessels of up to 100 passengers operating in the Galapagos, which are probably more comfortable and have a a great number of on board activities, and naturalists, but we decided on a more active cruise.
On the Cormorant, which was new in June, we were able to snorkel almost every day, take hikes and nature walks. We didn't spend much time on the boat during the day and mainly traveled at night. There were three long voyages during the trip of over 8 hours, which were pretty rough. I would suggest taking Scopolamine patches if you are prone to seasickness.
The food on the Cormorant was excellent and healthy, with fresh fruit at every meal. The rooms were cleaned every day and every part of the boat sparkled.
Our naturalist guide, Javier Cando, was excellent. He was very knowledgeable about the islands, plants and animals, and very patient with our group. Every night after dinner, he gave a talk about the sites we would be visiting the next day.
One word about Galapagos naturalists; all are certified by the Galapagos Parks system, most speak English and may work on any boat. Therefore, you may not get the same guide on a particular ship as we did. There are three classes of guides and Javier was a level three. Some guides also speak French and German.
There was a crew of 10 on the Cormorant, who were very professional and patient. The captain even invited us to the bridge during the crossing of the equator. Only one crew member spoke limited English, but we didn't find that to be a major problem.
At the end of the cruise, we were asked to pay our bar bills and tips for the guide and crew in cash only. This was a surprise and inconvenience to many passengers, since we only made two stops early in the cruise at occupied islands with ATMs. I would suggest figuring out these tips and bills in advance and bringing cash. The U.S. dollar is the currency throughout Ecuador.
There are several web sites with packing tips. I would suggest packing lightly as there is a 44 pounds limit for flights to the islands. Pack light weight clothing that can be washed by hand. Bring a sturdy pair of hiking shoes for walking around on the lava flows. Bring a poncho and expect to get wet anyway. Make sure you have all medications and and a first aid kit, with cipro.
Most travel agencies recommend arriving in either Quito or Guayaquil two days before your cruise. This is to allow extra time in case of delayed flights and to promote tourism in other parts of Ecuador. Some travelers may decide take a tour of Quito or the Amazon region or even visit Machu Pichu. After a long day flying from Reno through Dallas, Miami and Quito, we decided to do our own walking tour, visiting a mercado, museum and park. Walking around the new part of Quito during the day felt safe, but could be a different matter at night. Best advice is to have the hotel or restaurant call a cab for you and negotiate the price before starting.
As part of the package price, a representative from Galapagoislands.com was supposed to provide all transportation once we arrived at the Quito airport. Before leaving on our trip, I emailed our sales representative from Galapagosislands.com twice to ask who would be meeting us at the airport and where should meet them in the airport. I never received an answer. It seems like once we had made our final payment on the trip, the level of service dropped. I was concerned about this arrangement due to the late arrival time of 11:50 pm in a strange country, where we speak limited Spanish, and without a working cell phone. We had also read about the crime in Quito and a warning not to get into strange taxis. When we left immigration with our luggage, there was a large group of drivers behind a rope with signs offering to give rides, but no one from Galapagosislands.com. After about 15 minutes, we met a young American woman with a cell phone, who kindly offered to call every emergency number at the travel agency. Finally after an hour of waiting, the driver showed up, without a sign or name badge. We will never know if he overslept or just assumed that the flight would be late.
We depended on galapagosislands.com for three more trips to or from the airport and they came through every time although we were very nervous about our final ride for our departing flight to the US where we had to leave the hotel at 4:30 am.
I would definitely recommend the Cormorant, but have reservations about Galapagosislands.com. I would recommend an Ecuador based agency, because they have the experience and knowledge of the islands. If you have a choice between Quito and Guayaquil, I would recommend Guayaquil, since Guayaquil is closer to the islands and most flights stop there on the way from Quito.