Most people who know anything about the Galapagos islands, have placed it on their bucket list of ultimate vacations. Just the opportunity to visit the islands and to see it’s uniqueness is once in a lifetime. It was a milestone birthday, and I wanted to do something special to mark the occasion, and after little discussion, we landed on The Galapagos Islands.
There is an exorbitant amount of information available on the islands and their unique characteristics. One of the best available is Galapagos: the Island that Changed the world by Paul D. Stewart). A valuable source of information and history. There isn’t however, a lot of information readily available regarding tours and cruises. You can book a cruise that traveled to a set number of islands, or you could take ferries from one to the other. Most of the Galapagos Islands are fiercely protected and not open to visitors. Some sections are dedicated only to scientific research and of the few that allow tourists, most require a guide to accompany you and/or a time limit.
For what we wanted, a scheduled cruise appeared to be the best option, but not wanting to get lost in the shuffle of excess, we knew we wanted something on the small side. We wanted a small group on a relatively small boat, but didn’t want to rough it and sleep in hammocks below deck. We had both been on boats many times before, but have never slept (or showered) on a boat before this trip, so we didn’t know what to expect, but wanted to be comfortable.
I discovered Ecuatraveling through my online research, a travel company with a base in Quito. Through correspondence with the wonderful Esteban, we booked not only the Galapagos Cruise (6 days on the first class boat The Odyssey), but other excursions in Quito after the cruise ended. We had discovered that some, being unaccustomed to the high altitude of Ecuador, suffered illnesses and setbacks, so we decided to acclimatize ourselves by spending a couple of days in Quito before we flew to the Galapagos islands, and a few extra days after to explore the city. This is highly recommended, for any type of traveler, plus give you the opportunity to visit a beautiful and passionate city. It is with high praise that I recommend Ecuatraveling, they were warm, flexible and supportive to all our needs.
From Quito we flew early morning to Guayaquil for a quick stop to pick up additional passengers, then to Baltra Island. Once the luggage was thoroughly checked and sprayed, we hopped on a ferry to Santa Cruz island. There we met up with a driver who escorted us to The Odyssey, that was docked on the other end of the Island. On the boat we were introduced to the other guests (12 of us in total), the Naturalist Guide and the crew. In the early afternoon, we were off on our first excursion to The Charles Darwin Research Station.
I had already been in contact with the Research Station, having inquired if there was any possibility of me planting a tree on one of the islands. Having planted a tree in Costa Rica in honour of my dad the year before, I wanted to continue the tradition and somehow contribute to the protection of the Galapagos. They happened to have a pilot project they were working on, which included the ability to adopt a plant. They chose to use me and my story to help market the project. When we arrived at the main building of the Charles Darwin Station that day, we were greeted with a large chalkboard sign with my name on it, advising me to contact customer service. Once I did, embarrassed beyond reason, they escorted us through the premises, introduced us to members of the team and gave us a small presentation on the preservation efforts they were making on the islands. They then presented me with a laminated document that indicated they planted and dedicated an indigenous flowering plant in my name. I would highly recommend you spend time at the Research Center, or at the very least on their website. Even if you can never make it to Galapagos, consider donating to their wonderful efforts.
The Odyssey itself was fantastic. It was large enough to spread out but small enough to feel cozy, and having recently been renovated, it felt like a floating hotel. We were lucky enough to request one of the larger rooms on the upper deck, which was more than spacious. We had a large bed, a large bathroom with huge shower and a couch sitting area that could double as another bed if required. There was plenty of space for storage and large open windows with an awesome view. We arrived in February, when the water is calmer and warmer, but the boat did rock. It wasn't always noticeable; we were sometimes caught off guard by the movement underfoot.
Each night, the Naturalist Guide, Gustavo, would gather us on the main level for a brief explanation of the next day’s excursions. In between excursions, we shared all meals together on the boat. The food was delicious and plentiful; a big thank-you to the chef and crew for spoiling us. Esteban from Ecuatraveling had even arranged with the chef of The Odyssey to present me with a birthday cake on the last night on the boat. A wonderful surprise. One evening, as we approached the equator, dolphins emerged . The captain steered the boat in circles, encouraging the dolphins to jump and play. We all gathered on the deck together as the sun set and shared a toast the moment the boat crossed over the invisible line.
On our cruise, we encountered hundreds of Marine Iguanas, so many so that we often had to walk carefully beside or over them as they rested in the sun. Once you see them as small wrestlers in luchador masks, it’s hard to see anything else. The animals on The Galapagos Islands do not have many, if any, predators, so they are for the most part, unafraid. It is fascinating to experience one on one. We had close encounters with Galapagos seals, flightless Cormorants, Frigate Birds, Blue-Footed Boobies, Galapagos Penguins, Giant Tortoises, Flamingos, Sally Lightfoot Crabs, Reef Sharks and so many more. We captured more than 9,000 photos on this vacation. To see some of our highlights, scroll though the Galapagos Photo Album on this site.
We climbed the side of the Sierra Negra volcano to see the inside of a crater the size of multiple football fields (almost 10 km wide, which is the second largest crater in the world). It is not an easy hike. Our guide was clearly accustomed to the altitude and the physicality, and expected us to climb up and back down in 45 minutes. It took most people 40 minutes just to make it to the top. It was very hot and there is little shade on the climb. I had a particularly rough hike, suffering from a mixture of heat exhaustion, altitude sickness and an increased heart-rate due to asthma symptoms, but made it the top in 45-50 minutes, stopping frequently to breathe. It was 100% worth it and I would do it again.
TIP: Take your time, know your limits and move at your own pace. No matter the expectations or the comparable achievements of others, heat and altitude affect different people in different ways, so be sure to listen to your body.
We crossed the huge lava fields of sharp rocks of Punta Moreno, Islabela Island; a place where the landscape reflects the sun and intensifies the heat, but somehow life survives. On this surreal island, we found small bodies of water, some with fish, some with flamingos, along with cacti plants pushing their way up from the surface. We arrived by dingy very early in the morning, so that we could explore before the morning heat became overwhelming. Our water bottles filled with ice melted within minutes and the cooling neck scarves we wore, though helpful, warmed quickly. It felt as if the world suddenly became an intense outdoor sauna, with nothing but thick hot air to breathe and wade through. Albeit tough, the struggle is worth the experience and the phenomenal view.
We landed on Espumilla Beach on Santiago Island just as an exhausted sea turtle finished laying and burying her eggs. We watched her slowly make her way back to the water and let the tide carry her away. This was one of the few "water landings" we experienced, which ultimately meant the dingy that shuttled us from The Odyssey dropped us off on the shores of the beach. We were meant to quickly spin our legs over the side and hop into the shallow water, which was something no one seemed to be able to do gracefully. Gustavo gathered everyone to share a few facts about the island, but most wandered the sandy beach on their own, struggling to step in the thick sand. Sometimes covered with sea turtles, the beach that day was empty, save for the one lone turtle, our small group and a few Boobies diving like torpedoes into the ocean.
Throughout the trip, in addition to our island excursions, we had many opportunities to snorkel in the surrounding waters of whichever island we happened to be visiting. We swam alongside playful sea lions, Galapagos penguins, sea turtles and marine iguanas (not to mention the plenitude of sea life). One time, we happened upon a marine iguana feasting on the moss underwater. He took little notice of us, just inches away from him. Quickly thereafter, he "swam" to the surface to warm up back on land. Underwater, his limbs moved like a rubber toy. Rising up to the surface, he didn't seem real, but nothing more than bad prop in a old Godzilla film.
On our last morning, we landed on Lobos Island, San Cristobal, where we stood inches away from Blue-Footed Boobies and had the unique opportunity to witness their curious mating ritual. The small male wiggled his bright blue feet in front of a much larger female, then presented her with gifts of rocks and sticks ( to proving what a great nest-builder he is) until she finally accepted him and they waddled away together into the bushes.
TIP: Do your research. Learn as much as possible about the animals and their unique qualities before you arrive. Limiting yourself to only the information provided by the Naturalist Guide will inevitably leave you wanting, as they can only provide snippets and are charged with informing everyone in the group.
As we came upon the Boobies, we identified immediately what we were witnessing and became excited. Those around us did not, and with Gustavo attending to someone else, we began explaining to the group what was happening. On the same island, we came face to face with Frigate Birds with their inflated red neck pouches and sea lions snoozing in the sun. Needless to say, every day blew our minds.
All that being said, one’s experience is very subjective. Some people expect to be entertained by nature. These are the tourists who appeared bored and unimpressed when surrounded by the same beauty that leaves others in awe. We had difficulty finding specific information on the itinerary, which we understand now is due to the regulated schedule of the visits to the islands. We expected to be amazed by our experiences, and we were. What we didn’t expect was how fast paced the cruise itinerary actually was. Knowing only the island stops and some indication of what to expect to see, we foolishly assumed we would have plenty of time to relax on the boat. We were so very wrong. Perhaps it was preparations, the dingy rides, the sometimes rough land and water landings, or just the heat, but we were left every day utterly exhausted, but blissfully happy.
The Galapagos cruise we chose (Itinerary C) focused on the islands further away from mainland Ecuador. These islands are younger and less inhabited by animals and lush vegetation. We will return to explore the remaining islands one day soon. When we do, we will be sure to make time to explore more of Ecuador, a beautiful country rich in culture, history and magic.