Six-Day Galapagos Islands Cruise
By Randy Mink.
Prehistoric-looking iguanas skittering across the sand. Playful sea lions frolicking in the waves. Giant tortoises you almost want to hop onto and ride. Snorkeling with sea turtles in blue-green water so pretty that you go crazy taking pictures.
The Galapagos, far removed from the world we know, seem like another planet. Many of the strange creatures inhabiting this remote chain of volcanic islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, are found nowhere else on earth. Unafraid of humans, they don’t run, swim or fly away when you’re framing photos.
For snap-happy nature fans, the Galapagos are a fantasy-fulfilled, a bucket-list dream come true.
Indeed, my recent eco-adventure in this Pacific paradise, onboard the 16-passenger Sea Star Journey operated by Ecuador-based tour company Latin Trails, really was — pardon the cliche — the trip of a lifetime. Though landscapes on these parched, rock-strewn islands straddling the Equator are rather desolate and many of the animals not especially attractive, my memories of the Galapagos — and sharing one-of-a-kind experiences with my daughter — are etched in living color.
Trip of a Lifetime for Most
A Galapagos cruise is not for everyone. Despite chances to sink your toes into beautiful flour-like sand, it’s not primarily a beach vacation. Only five of the 13 major islands have settlements, so there are few shopping opportunities. Shore excursions with your licensed naturalist guide follow a set path — you can’t go wandering off in this isolated kingdom populated by more than 100 threatened or endangered species of flora and fauna.
The passenger limit on cruise ships in the ecologically fragile Galapagos, a protected national park administered by Ecuador, is 100. Most ships, however, are yacht-like vessels that fall into the 12-to-20-passenger range, and though some, like our newly renovated, 137-foot Sea Star Journey, are quite deluxe, cruise travelers accustomed to larger ships may miss the variety of dining and entertainment options.
One thing is certain: a Galapagos trip has an air of exclusivity — and definite bragging rights. Also, a cruise at the comfort level that Americans expect is not cheap — figure to pay up to $1,000 per person per day.
Day 1: The Giant Tortoise
Reptiles dominate the animal scene in the Galapagos, and we encountered one of the most iconic — the giant tortoise — the first day of our six-day, five-night cruise.
Soon after arriving on the island of San Cristobal on a flight from Quito, the capital of Ecuador, we were shuttled on a national park bus to La Galapaguera, a breeding center for the largest species of tortoise in the world. Walking along a lava-rock trail, we saw several of these lumbering land tortoises vegetating in the grass, plus lots of babies in the “nursery” up the hill. The young stay at the reserve three or four years before being released into the wild.
Of the 1,710 tortoises on San Cristobal, 370 reside at La Galapaguera, with an estimated 15,000 in all the Galapagos islands. Thousands were killed for their meat by whalers in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Galapago is an old Spanish word for a saddle similar in shape to a tortoise shell.) The slow-moving giants exist only in the Galapagos and in smaller numbers on a few islands in the Indian Ocean.
After returning from La Galapaguera and before boarding our ship for the evening, we had 45 minutes to explore the sleepy San Cristobal town of Porto Baquerizo Moreno with its brightly colored buildings housing tour companies, dive shops and cafes. Here in the Galapagos Islands’ administrative capital and second-largest city (pop. 6,000), we watched Galapagos sea lions lounging on the rocks in the harbor, popped into the only souvenir shops we saw the whole trip (outside of the airports) and had our last chance to access the internet and cell phone service for five days. 😱😳
Marine Iguanas & More
At 7:45 the next morning, our group of 15 was ready to board the ship’s two dinghies (inflatable rafts called pangas) bound for a dry landing at Suarez Point on Espanola, the most southerly island in the Galapagos. (Our itinerary covered only the southeastern region of the archipelago.) These early-morning departures, with breakfast at 7:00, were designed to let us explore before the equatorial sun reached its height. Though we could feel the heat on Espanola, a cool breeze helped a bit and made it pleasant for hiking the rocky, unshaded paths, which were mostly flat except for two spots that called for a little uphill scrambling.
Most intriguing on this morning hike were the Galapagos marine iguanas, a species endemic to these islands and the only seagoing lizard in the world. (Of the archipelago’s 22 reptile species, 20 are found only here.) Unfazed by human visitors, the iguanas littered our path, requiring us to gingerly step around them. As our guide advised early on, national park rules restrict visitors from getting more than two meters (6½ feet) from the wildlife, but in many cases shortening that distance is unavoidable.
Most of the marine iguanas were black with specks of red and white, but a few sported a mating-season coloring of pale red and turquoise. We learned that they can stay underwater up to an hour. On land, their tails leave tell-tale impressions in the sand, like bicycle tracks.
Bird life on Suarez Point included Galapagos hawks, pelicans, Nazca boobies and nesting waved albatross. Espanola is home to nearly the entire world population of waved albatross, the largest seabird in the islands. Another highlight of our Suarez Point hike was the blowhole spurting water more than 200 feet high.
We were back on the Sea Star Journey by 10:45 a.m. and greeted with what would become typical after time ashore — a hot towel and snacks, which might consist of juice, tea or hot chocolate and fruit, cookies or empanadas. After a noon lunch, we had a little time to rest and then were off to Gardner Bay and its long white coral-sand beach, also on the island of Espanola. It was here that my daughter filmed me being “chased” along the beach by a sea lion, a video later viewed all over social media (“run, Dad, run”).
From Day 1 the friendly sea lion became everyone’s favorite mammal. We never tired of watching them clamber on the rocks, body surf in the waves, roll in the sand and bark at each other. They even swam with us at the beach and on our snorkeling outings, the first of which took place around a rocky outcrop off Gardner Bay, where we also spotted rays, sharks and sea turtles in the gorgeous turquoise waters. (Though sea lions may seem playful, it’s best not to push it — they occasionally will attack a human.) All snorkeling equipment is included; wetsuit rental is $30 for the duration of the cruise.
Snorkeling, Hiking & Kayaking
On Floreana Island the next day we hiked and snorkeled at two locations. At Punta Cormorant, where we had a wet landing on powder-soft Flour Sand Beach, we spotted two Galapagos penguins, the most northerly penguins in the world and only species that lives in the tropics. Then we hiked to a brackish lagoon to look for Galapagos flamingos. (We found none but had better luck the next day on another island.)
The afternoon snorkeling session was one of our great memories as we got really close to Pacific green sea turtles, which weigh about 200 pounds and measure more than three feet long. One passenger with an underwater camera got fantastic pictures of the graceful reptiles, which can be found throughout the Galapagos archipelago.
Most of the time we felt as if we had the islands all to ourselves, though occasionally we crossed paths with other small groups or shared snorkeling sites. There were often three or four ships anchored near ours. (Enjoying the camaraderie of our tight-knit group, we wondered what the Galapagos experience would be like with ships carrying 100 people.)
Soon after the afternoon snorkeling session, we were taken in dinghies from the Sea Star Journey to a lagoon and boarded kayaks. Paddling past sea lions and pelicans, we made our way back to the ship in an hour, then met at 6:30 for the nightly briefing in the lounge. These get-togethers, orchestrated by our expert Ecuadorian guide, Hanzel Marcinetti, went over the next day’s schedule and focused on aspects of life in the Galapagos, sometimes with a PowerPoint presentation on a screen that dropped from the ceiling.
This night the topic was boobies — Nazca, blue-footed and red-footed. Though we saw plenty of the former two, our itinerary did not cover territory inhabited by the red-footed variety. (The feet of the blue-footed, we learned, get their color from the blue-green algae eaten by the fish they feed on.) Hanzel also showed us photos he had taken of sea turtles and of our group kayaking.
As for the word “booby,” early Spanish sailors, unimpressed that the birds did not fly away from them, called the birds bobo (“stupid”). The reason that these and other Galapagos creatures roam without fear, unconcerned by the presence of visitors, is that there are few natural predators to threaten them.
Another night the talk centered on human history in the Galapagos, covering European explorers, whalers, buccaneers and a certain young Englishman named Charles Darwin, who visited four islands on a scientific expedition in 1835. Darwin’s notes from that trip, detailing differences between plants and animals on islands so close to each other, formed the foundation of his revolutionary theory that all species are always in a slow state of change and evolve to adapt to their physical surroundings. His conclusions, published in the groundbreaking On the Origins of Species (1859), would provide the basis of the modern theory of evolution.
More Iguanas + Blustering Frigate Birds
We got good looks at several subspecies of Galapagos land iguanas on Santa Fe and South Plazas islands. With spiny backs and a fearsome appearance, these harmless vegetarians are the most prehistoric-looking reptiles in the Galapagos. Mostly drab, though some are a golden yellow, they blend in with the landscape. Like marine iguanas, land iguanas are not afraid of people and will stay put for your picture. On Santa Fe, we spied some as we trudged up a bluff overlooking the sea, taking shade now and then under prickly pear cactus trees whose fruit and flowers provide food for the mini-monsters.
On North Seymour Island the big attraction was the frigate birds perched in the bare trees. These are the seabirds whose males create a spectacle during mating season when they inflate their scarlet chest pouches to the size of a basketball. Though it wasn’t mating season, we saw some pretty big bulges, which our guide said was just a sign of machismo.
International Passenger Mix
Besides communing with nature, we enjoyed this trip for the chance to socialize with fellow passengers from all corners of the world. Curiously, there were three dad-and-daughter groups in our contingent of 15. I was traveling with my daughter Amanda, a veterinarian. A man from New York City was with his college-daughter; they were doing back-to-back cruises on the Sea Star Journey. We also had two ladies from Western Australia accompanying their 83-year-old father on an extensive South America/Antarctica trip; he was a real trouper and made every hike, using a cane and getting support at times from crew members. Other delightful passengers included a couple of doctors — he an orthopedic surgeon, she a child psychologist — on their way home to Sheffield, England, after working a year in New Zealand.
Cocktails & Dinner
We looked forward to meals and the cocktail-hour briefing, being able to share the day’s experiences uninterrupted by people staring at their cell phones. The lounge has a bar (drinks extra, cash only) and is separated from the three-table dining room by the buffet station. Also in this comfortable “living room,” decorated with framed photos of Galapagos wildlife, are Galapagos books and a TV for viewing DVDs. Making ourselves at home, we went around in bare or stocking feet.
All meals were buffet-style, and the wide selection of foods was impressive considering there were only 15 of us. For breakfast we could have made-to-order eggs, toast or rolls, hot and cold cereal, pancakes or French toast, sausage or bacon, and fresh fruits like pineapple and papaya. Lunch and dinner, which sometimes started with soup, usually included two or three meats or fish, three or four salads, and pasta, rice or potatoes.
Many dishes had Ecuadorian touches. The last lunch featured a whole roast suckling pig, the last dinner a whole turkey. Our favorite meal was an al fresco barbecue dinner in which the entire group gathered around the oval wooden table outside the lounge for a feast featuring grilled chicken, steak, tuna and sausage. To cap off the festive evening, sea lions and flying fish put on a show off the stern.
Each of the Sea Star Journey’s eight generously sized cabins has a large bathroom with lots of counter space and a mirrored wall, air conditioning with individual controls, a mini-refrigerator, closet with safe, couch and two twin beds (or faux queen). Our Galapagos Suite (one of seven) measured 271 square feet, giving us more than enough elbow room. I liked all the little touches, from the bedside reading lights and silver, padded-fabric wall panels to the whimsical towel animals that would greet us after the room was made up. The ship’s largest cabin is the extra-spacious Sea Star Suite at 377 square feet.
Up the stairs from our suite was the partially covered sun deck, appointed with two hot tubs, cushioned loungers and wicker chairs, and a dryer for wet clothes. Our deck had its own patio with tables and chairs. The four cabins on the deck below us included small balconies, which were added in last fall’s massive renovation, a project that included new wooden flooring throughout, new showers and sinks in the bathrooms, new furniture and wall decor in the lounge, a redesigned kitchen and updated technology. Shipshape by any standard, Latin Trails’ Sea Star Journey (constructed in 2011) was named the Best Boutique Cruise in South America by the World Travel Awards in 2017.
The cheerful Ecuadorian crew of 12 was there to serve, taking good care of us from morning to night. I was especially impressed by the concern the captain and his men showed for our safety in getting us on and off the dinghies. Most crew members knew only a few words of English, but Hanzel spoke it fluently. A guide with 27 years’ experience and a resident of San Cristobal Island, he really made the trip with his knowledge of the plants and wildlife. The whole program, well-orchestrated and delivered on a professional level, translated into a carefree South American vacation.
Seemingly light years away from winter back home and the worries of the world, we reveled in an equatorial bubble for six days, easing into the routine of living on our very own luxury yacht, a congenial refuge where every detail was taken care of.
Each day brought new discoveries as we island-hopped around this living lab of biodiversity, a land of innocence suspended in time.
Know Before You Go
➢Getting There: Flight time from the coastal city of Guayaquil, Ecuador to Baltra or San Cristobal in the Galapagos Islands is about an hour and 20 minutes; from Quito (with 40-minute layover in Guayaquil) about 2½ hours total. We flew from Quito on Avianca Airlines. Airfares range from $150-$550, depending on season.
➢Cruise Fares: A six-day, five-night trip in a Galapagos Suite on the Sea Star Journey starts at $5,799 USD per person; a five-day, four-night trip is from $4,649 per person. Latin Trails operates the 90-foot, 16-passenger Seaman Journey catamaran at a different price point, with a five-day trip costing from $3,739. Fares include all excursions, but not drinks.
➢Money Matters: Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as its official currency, which makes it easy for North American travelers. Bring plenty of cash as most businesses in the Galapagos do not accept credit cards. Everyone arriving in the islands must pay a $100 Galapagos National Park fee at the airport, but note that $100 bills are not accepted in the Galapagos. ATMs are available in the two largest towns. Cash is also needed on the cruise — for bar drinks, wetsuit rental and tips. On the Sea Star Journey, recommended gratuity for the guide is $10 per day per passenger, $25 or $30 for the entire crew per day per passenger.
➢Weather: The climate is subtropical, with temperatures well into the 80s during the warmest time of year, December through May, when the sea is at its calmest and rain is more likely. The cooler, drier low season lasts from June through November, with highs in the upper 70s or low 80s and a greater possibility of rough seas at some point.
➢Travel Tips: Bring plenty of sunscreen and apply it everywhere, including overlooked places like the tops of feet and ears. Also bring a wide-brim hat, and consider lightweight pants and long-sleeve shirts for further protection from the sun. For crouching down to take pictures, wear knee pads for protection from the rocks. We found that regular gym shoes are fine on the rocky trails, but hiking boots would be ideal. Be sure to drink only purified water from the water cooler in the ship’s lounge, not tap water. Though seas tend to be calm, bring seasickness medication just in case.
➢More Information: Go to www.latintrails.com or contact a travel agent.
To make the most of our adventure to Ecuador, we extended it with a two-night stay in the country’s capital city following the Galapagos Islands cruise. The Quito visit was arranged for us (and other Sea Star Journey passengers) by Latin Trails, the boutique tour outfit that operates the ship.
Our Quito home was, appropriately, a Latin Trails boutique property, the new Illa Experience Hotel. Located in the historic San Marcos neighborhood, it made a good base of operations for exploring colonial Old Town, with its cobbled streets, lively plazas and beautiful churches. Sitting at an elevation of 9,350 feet in the Andes Mountains, Quito is the second highest capital in the world (after La Paz, Bolivia) and has spring-like weather year-round.
Latin Trails’ small-group “Quito Six Senses Tour” tour (limited to seven people) kept us busy the first day with a mix of traditional sightseeing and hands-on experiences. We met with a master craftsman in his wood-carving shop and tried our hand at metalworking in La Ronda, a pedestrian zone with shops, restaurants and music clubs in postcard-perfect 17th-century houses with flower-decked balconies. At Pacardi, a chocolate cafe owned by a cacao producer, we donned chef hats and aprons in a truffle-making class. Then we stocked up on chocolate bars to bring home, choosing flavors like yucca, fig and Andean rose.
Luckily, we were touring Old Town on a Monday and got to see the weekly changing of the guard ceremony at the Presidential Palace. With a marching band, soldiers on horseback and speeches by political leaders from the balcony, it’s quite the patriotic spectacle. The most eye-popping historical site on our tour was La Compania de Jesus an ornate Baroque church bathed in tons of gold leaf.
The next day we shopped in New Town at the Artisanal Market, whose narrow lanes are crammed with vendor stalls selling brightly colored bowls and trays, wall hangings, tablecloths and blankets. We loved the electric pinks, yellows, oranges and turquoises. Also tempting were the silver jewelry, Panama hats, and alpaca gloves, hats, scarves and shawls. Similar wares were offered in stalls at nearby El Ejido Park.
The plush Illa Experience Hotel (www.illaexperiencehotel.com) opened in late December in a high-ceilinged building dating to the 1700s. It features 10 rooms on three floors, each floor decorated to mark a historical period — colonial, republican and contemporary. Top-hatted bellmen greet guests at the door, and stately touches like decorative brick arches and stone-like columns in the central courtyard also set the stage. Exquisitely appointed with fresh flowers, artwork and designer furnishings, the hotel has a sophisticated ambience and emphasizes personal attention.
To immerse guests in the culture of Ecuador, the Illa organizes a late-afternoon “experience” in the lobby. One day we learned how to make hot chocolate like grandmother did. Following tradition, we dropped in cubes of white cheese (eaten with a tiny spoon).
The hotel’s Nuema restaurant, a foodie favorite, showcases innovative Ecuadorian farm-to-table fare in a six-course tasting menu, and has its own herb garden and wine cellar. The dining room and rooftop bar offer grand views of El Panecillo, a hill dominated by the landmark Virgin of Quito statue. And the charming tourist sights of Old Town are just steps away. 🐦
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