For some, embarking on a cruise may conjure up images of show-girl entertainment and all-you-can-eat buffets, possibly on a craft accommodating thousands of passengers. But an 'expedition cruise' is a different kettle of fish altogether:

What are the main characteristics of an expedition cruise?

1 The stated aim of expedition cruising is to enable guests to visit, by river or ocean, parts of the world which may be are hard to reach, and which have as attractions extraordinary wilderness landscapes, a plethora of wildlife or isolated traditional communities. Or all three. In our region, this includes the Galápagos Islands, the Amazon river, Antarctica, The Falkland Islands and South Georgia and the fjords of Chile and Argentina. The expeditions generally last from 3 days to a month in duration.

2 Many cruises are multinational, but the majority have English as their main language, on larger vessels with some information given in simultaneous translation for guests of non-English speaking nationalities. The important thing is that guests usually have a lot in common: an adventurous spirit, a love of wild far-off places, an attraction to wildlife, a flexible attitude. Photography and birding enthusiasts are usually present. There is a wide age range, with some cruises encouraging families, and they make popular honeymoon holidays. Some of the longer cruises especially to Antarctica tend to attract a clientele over 50 years of age, in some cases because of the relative cost. But in our experience, guests are invariably enthusiastic, adventurous and young at heart.

3 Expedition cruises usually follow an itinerary where various stops are made at different locations, land excursions are frequently achieved with wet landings where you are ferried ashore by zodiac or other small motor-powered boat. Each landing may be from one to four hours in duration. In the Amazon, you may be undertaking an excursion by canoe.

4 Ships are ideally small: preferably fewer than 120 passengers, enabling rapid landings and the maximising of time ashore. This is especially important in the Antarctic and South Georgia, where a maximum of 100 guests are allowed to disembark at any one time.

5 Excursions ashore are guided, either by local experts or guides recruited for their specialist knowledge: they may be biologists, geologists, climatologists, historians or wildlife experts. But in spite of their frequently impressive academic qualifications the expeditions ashore and presentations on board are not strictly lectures as you might expect at university: rather, the speakers, who double as guides, adopt the tone of a good |(ie not dumbed down) TV documentary, with information presented in an accessible and entertaining manner. They are often younger than the passengers. On cruises to Antarctica or the South Atlantic, the ships’ infrastructure means that these presentations may often be accompanied by superb images and videos.

6 On landings, in some places you are free to wander off on your own, taking photos or just drinking in wonderful scenery or viewing trusting wildlife. You will be advised to what are the local rules, and you must stick to them. In the Galápagos you must adhere to your guided group.

7 Like the landings and on-board presentations, meals are informal affairs; there is no need to dress up, and you can usually mix easily with other guests, there being no fixed table planning. The cuisine on board (buffets or sit-down meals, often a mixture of the two) is almost always crafted using fresh ingredients and is frequently unexpectedly innovative.

8 If you are going a long way: eg to Antarctica, there may be some positioning days referred to as “at sea”. But this won’t be lost time; there will frequently be presentations, lectures, videos, quizzes and other low-key entertainments. These are optional, there is no pressure to attend and you may just wish to spend time on deck watching the world go by.

9 There is a huge range of style and quality in the accommodation and facilities of course. You may be travelling on an ice-strengthened ship in the Polar region, luxury motor yacht, a three-masted schooner, a small economical launch in the Galápagos, or a traditional riverboat on the Amazon river. This will be reflected in the price, though the quality of the actual experience in terms of what you see and do in any one location is similar.

10 Expedition cruising frequently requires guests to have a certain level of both physical (to get in and out of the small transfer boats) and intellectual flexibility. There may be last minute modifications to the itinerary which will be reflected in the experience. Many of these journeys are weather dependent: you cannot always drop anchor or make a landing at the proposed destination. The captain, guide or expedition leader may have to make decisions on the hoof, bearing in mind both the safety of guests but also mindful of their hopes and expectations: a difficult balancing act, but safety always comes first. You can expect the odd disappointment but more likely a wonderful, unexpected surprise, such as the sight of a whale breaching, a pair of hyacinth macaws flying over the boat at sunset, or a snow-clad mountain peak emerging from cloud.

Have a look at our favourite expedition cruise:

The Brazilian Amazon: Tucano cruise
The Peruvian Amazon : Aqua and Aria
The Ecuadorian Amazon: MV Anakonda
The Galapagos islands: Eclipse
Antarctica: Sea Adventurer
Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica: Plancius
Patagonia: Via Australis

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