Boarding a ship in the Galapagos puts you in a different world. Your cabin is compact, the windows and decks reveal water everywhere, the ship rolls, and you rapidly become accustomed to constant movement underfoot. I didn’t get seasick, and enjoyed most of the motion. Being surrounded by water was a pleasure. Any free time we had could be spent staring at the sea, waiting for a dolphin to jump or a turtle’s head to emerge for a moment. In the distance whales spouted. While we were having lunch looking out over the water, a huge manta ray leapt into the air, somersaulted and slapped back into the water. I couldn’t believe it.
The biggest plus to our visit was having two of our children and one’s partner, along. They made it much more fun, and it was a pleasure to have time to sit together and chat. We tended to stick with the kids, wanting to soak up as much time with them as possible, so we may not have been as sociable as we should have. Other people on the trip all had interesting stories and I was always impressed when I got talking to one of the other passengers. Everyone had traveled different places, had interesting careers or hobbies. It was an excellent group.
We cruised the Gapalagos on a relatively large ship the Lindblad/National Geographic Islander, with room for 48 passengers. Perhaps because of the season, the boat only carried 29 passengers, so there was always extra space in the dining room, the lounge, and on deck. It was the best possible cruising arrangement. Larger ships like ours are able to travel further, and as a result we managed to visit both Isabela and Fernandina Islands, a trip that would take too long for a land based group to reach and might be too rough for a smaller vessel. In addition, we stopped at N. Seymour, Rabida, Santa Cruz, and San Cristobal. We did not stop at Floreana, however, the island with the famous mail box (You leave a letter and perhaps take one going to a destination near you to deliver/mail).
By far the best way to see the Galapagos is by cruise ship. Not only can you see more of the islands but you don’t have to pack and unpack every day or two. All your visits are already scheduled, permissions applied for, fees paid. These are significant advantages. With all the advantages we had, I still have to say that I don’t enjoy organized tours. Sometimes it’s the best way, or the only way, but overall it’s not my favorite mode of travel. I am not a cooperator. I dislike mandatory timetables, even when I benefit from them. That is, there were two or three time slots for activity each day. Often the early slot was a walk, which I usually skipped to sleep in. Each of the other time slots offered two activities, one in the water and the other a hike or boat ride. There was always something for those who didn’t want to get wet. Scheduling all this meant that people had to wake up and have breakfast at specific times. Some announcements over the ships PA system could be muted, but many were mandatory and broadcast in all cabins and public areas. I found it difficult to accept that these were necessary.
Our cabin was the best on the ship, large and comfortable, the best bed we’ve had away from home that I remember. We had great views over the bow of the ship and off to the starboard side, as well as seating areas and a desk. We had a real shower in our bathroom, not the mini shower that wets the entire bathroom. Staff straightened up three times a day! They left us chocolates every night–it was fabulous.
The pictures of our room show how good we had it. Though the other cabins were much smaller, the public spaces were very nice, and with a smaller than average number of passengers, there was plenty of space for people to spread out and avoid spending time in their cabins during the day.
In addition to snorkeling and bird-watching, I went stand-up paddleboarding and looked at a animals at the same time. Another day I went kayaking along the coast and saw graffiti that has been left behind over the years. (It’s not permitted today.) Add snorkeling and boat rides and we were busy all the time and we knew what to do, very important in the Galapagos. There are lots of rules, one of which is that you cannot visit most places outside the towns without a guide. Each tour receives permission to visit specific places at specific dates and times. There is no pulling in to a pretty white sand beach to explore, as large areas of the Galapagos are closed to anyone without a specific research permit. It’s limiting, but also protective. No plastic is allowed, even on cruise ships. I appreciated the effectiveness of the Galapagos rules and regulations on the beaches where there was no trash at all. Not any. In a full week I found one tiny knot of nylon rope (1/2″ clump), Jimmy found a Gatorade bottle, and we saw a floating apple core and two halves of an orange. That was it. I have not been on such clean shores in many years.
We had guides who were qualified at the highest level, all Ecuadoreans who speak English. One had a background as a biologist, the others completed a training course for Galapagos guides. I would have preferred that all our guides had a background in science, and I regretted that our ship didn’t have a guide interested in birds, but that wasn’t promised. Our entire staff, guides, crew and captain were Ecuadorean–not a single American or Brit apart from the passengers. Now and then passengers filled in a word when the guide couldn’t come up with the correct one, but they got the job done.
The staff was well trained and rapidly instructed us on how to do what was required. This included wearing life-jackets, how to board and disembark from small boats, where to clean swimming gear, how to make onboard purchases.
Although we had a wonderful trip, why don’t I want to go on another cruise, ever? Most are built-in aspects of cruising that I would prefer to avoid if I have a choice.
-The tour companies exaggerate, even Lindblad/Nat Geo. You’d think they wouldn’t need to. Our trip was billed as ten days and it lasted seven. They count every minute of travel as part of the tour, and it’s not.
-On the final day of the tour, the seventh actual day, we were awakened at 6 am, told to have our luggage outside our doors at 6:15, given breakfast at 7 am and required to completely vacate our rooms at 8 am. Our flight back to Guayaquil didn’t leave until after 11 am. Why were we given the shove? Another tour was arriving on the plane we were taking back to the mainland and they needed time to spruce the place up. Wait! We were still guests! (No, by then we were nothing but outgoing flotsam). The final hour was spent in the lounge where a long loop of Lindblad cruise ads played. This was a tour day? Seriously?
-The tour was very expensive. Yes, we got the best cabin, but even the least expensive cabin was costly. Yet every evening during the 30 minutes before dinner there was a “recap” that never reviewed the day. Rather, someone spent 20 minutes telling us about how much our donations to Lindblad/Nat Geo organizations are needed. We had to sit through this to get to the final ten minutes before dinner, when they told us the details of the next day’s events. These are not provided in advance, so that you don’t forget, and so that you attend the briefing. It was a frustrating experience. We weren’t the only ones with a newspaper or crossword.
-Tipping. I hate the common practices of cruise tipping. I’ll leave it at that.
-Begging. We were all asked to donate at least $500 to the Lindblad/Nat Geo good works funds.
-Food. My husband is a fabulous cook and I am utterly spoiled. Only rarely are meals out better than what I get at home.
Ending on the bright side, here are some of my favorite photos from the trip.
Someone who shares my opinion:
At Sea and Underwhelmed, by Joyce Wadler