Navigating through the hectic crowd, Diane and I headed for the AeroGal airline counter, eagerly anticipating the next five days of our Expat Destination Research Vacation. Fresh off an incredible three-day, four night expedition to Sacha Lodge, an amazing rainforest lodge in Ecuador’s Amazonian region, we spent one quick night in Quito and continued the journey. Leaving the expat research in Cuenca for later in the trip, we splurged on the Ocean Spray, the newest 16 passenger luxury catamaran in the Galapagos Islands but chose the shortest trip available, a five night journey. Traversing six different islands including a long overnight cruise to Genovesa Island, so distant that hardly any tours go there, it’s home to some of the oddest wildlife ever and was worth the choppy ride that caused most of us to forego a lobster and shrimp dinner due to acute sea-sickness.
Although Malaysia is our destination in 2015 as soon as my 50th birthday rings in an opportunity to file our MM2H visa, my layoff was unforeseen and South America was still high on the list of possible early retirement destinations. Although pricey, missing the Galapagos Islands while visiting Ecuador is akin to ordering lasagna in a Chinese restaurant. (dumb). Although it’s possible to arrange lodging on the largest island and try day-tripping, budget options are not the way to go. Justifying the phrase, “you get what you pay for”, an overnight excursion on a ship is the best way to enjoy the amazing array of incredible sights and many different types of cruises are available from five to sixteen nights on a variety of vessels.
Offering a variety of options from 20 person boats to 100 passenger cruse ships, choosing which one to take is often the hardest part. Generally speaking, the smaller the vessel, the better the opportunities are for wildlife viewing. Perhaps the most regulated ecosystem anywhere besides Antarctica, habitats are so sensitive that they prohibit large ships from some of the best spots to keep visitation to a minimum. Realizing only the longest trips with astronomically high price tags afford an opportunity to visit all the islands, it’s best to research what each of the islands offer and narrow it down to trips that meet the criteria.
The Galapagos Islands are a nature lover’s paradise. Isolated from the mainland for thousands of years, some of the world’s strangest and most different species evolved there including giant tortoises, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies and the only penguins in the world living in an equatorial zone. After determining what was available for a five-day cruise, Diane and I chose the Ocean Spray, a 20 passenger luxury catamaran built more like a hotel and operated by Haugen Cruises, the premier tour operator in the islands. Determining what vessel to choose was no easy task and we learned the problem with five-day cruises was the limited range of islands they visit for logistical reasons. Wanting to experience as much as possible but unwilling to shell out a few month’s pay for a longer cruise, we chose the Ocean Spray for its overnight trip to Genovesa Island, one of the most interesting and least visited islands due to its remote location. Requiring an all night cruise and dinner-time return in choppy and often violent waves of open ocean, Diane took the prize as only female passenger able to eat dinner while navigating through swells fit for deep-sea fishermen and the very seaworthy. Knowing maps and routes make boring posts, below is a small “teaser” video of what we saw on our first beach landing.
Perhaps one of the few places where you need a new passport stamp even though it’s the same country you departed from, the small airport is on Baltra, a long flat island near the center of the Galapagos. Arriving on AeroGal, one of two possible commercial airline options, Diane and I walked off the plane, entered the terminal building and headed for a long line of immigration officers. Given paperwork detailing the strict enforcement of “nothing leaves the island except crap from tourist shops”, we felt like scientists about to explore uncharted territory. Leaving the terminal to meet our group, we admired the strange island vegetation of salt bushes, prickly pear cactus and palo santo trees.
After about an hour or two, our group was all together and they drove us to a dock where everybody got their first look at our home for the next five days. Only in service for about six months, the ship was brand new and felt more like a hotel than a catamaran. Spacious, spotless and luxurious, the boat sat docked in the middle of the bay and a zodiac took us from a pier to the boat’s back deck where the staff greeted us. Removing our footwear, we headed to the back and enjoyed a complimentary cocktail before a one hour briefing.
Gathering everyone together, the crew came over and introduced themselves. Looking more professional than your average booze cruise, the staff played a short video detailing the history and geography of the Galapagos Islands, gave us some champagne and explained some of the things we’d soon be experiencing. Orientation concluded with a meet and greet where we all described our backgrounds and reasons for choosing this trip. Unsure who might be on such an expensive trip, we were pleasantly surprised to find a great variety of guests both young and old.
Introducing themselves as two professionals from Russia, Alex and Olga became our first Russian Facebook friends and we exchanged hometown stories with each other. Neal and Frannie were a young couple from The Bay Area living in a small Ecuadorian fishing village while working on a public works project. Their parents joined them on the trip. (they also paid for it). Oddly enough, a Swiss couple apparently missed their flight connection from Peru but had no problem chartering a small boat that delivered them to the trip on the third day, meaning they missed the best part. Guessing they were bankers with too much money, they kept to themselves so we never found out much about them. Rounding out the group was Connie and Marci, retired teachers and twins from Philadelphia. Not filled to capacity owing to the transitional change of season, one cabin was empty.
Feeling like a jet-setter, intrigue set in when I learned Jed Lowrie, current shortstop of the Oakland Athletics baseball team and his wife Milessa were also among the guests. Jed is an accomplished professional photographer who runs a business during the off-season and spent most of the trip taking pictures with a very expensive camera. Getting to know them, we discussed average things like clipping coupons and shopping at Costco with his wife and their down to earth attitude quickly dispelled any preconceived negative notions of professional athletes not being regular people that enjoy the same things as we do.
Setting sail for the short trip to Bartolome island, our first landing, they encouraged us to settle in and explore the amenities of the ship. Featuring staterooms larger than many Best Westerns we’ve stayed at, the room had a huge king sized bed, a bathroom larger than the one I use at home, ample cabinet space and a balcony with table and chairs. Complete with large dining room, comfortable chaise lounges on the deck, an outdoor hot tub with jacuzzi, and a sizable outside bar, the amenities ranked up there with a nice hotel. Including a sous chef, professional concierge and a support staff of 12, it felt like an expensive luxury cruise condensed into a small group.
Unable to dock directly at any island, landings are either “wet” where everyone dons flip-flops, jumps into a small zodiac and wades in shallow water to a beach or “dry” where the boat pulls up to a small landing area and you walk directly to a path. Strictly limited to a few hours per visit per ship regardless of how much you pay, visitors always stay within close watch of guides and they prohibit venturing off on your own, although there are opportunities to explore patches of beach without the entire group if you’re willing to give up a snorkeling opportunity. As crappy swimmers, Diane and I took advantage of our pathetic incompetence and experienced some alone time with a few sea lions.
Opting out of an afternoon snorkeling option, Diane and I chose the solitary option as a zodiac took us onshore for our first beach landing of the trip. Immediately rewarded with adorable Galapagos fur seals that acted oblivious to our presence, we knew this was no Sea World exhibit. Allowing us over an hour, we had the beach to ourselves and felt an overwhelming sense of satisfaction surrounded by pups, parents, and penguins.
Exploring further down the beach we stumbled on a little penguin. Solitary by nature, Galapagos penguins are the smallest in the world and the only species found north of the equator. Sharply contrasting with tens of thousands of emperor penguins huddling together for warmth while stuck in the frigid Antarctic winters, this little guy stood on the rocks without a care in the world, oblivious to curious onlookers.
Venturing as far as possible while still visible to the zodiac, we paused because the rules state you can’t ever be out of the boat’s eyesight so I stayed behind while Diane wandered a bit past the jetty to get some photos of beautifully colored crabs and an insect whose origin slips me but was mighty funky looking.
Basking in the serenity, we parked ourselves on the sand and observed awhile longer before wading back to the zodiac. Returning on the ship, everyone enjoyed their snorkeling but given the strict rules of the islands, we had no regrets choosing the solitary beach option among the call of the sea lions and our new penguin friends. Activities for late afternoon included a dry landing and sunset visit to Pinnacle Rock, the infamous rock structure most seen in tourism photos of the islands.
Approaching the landing site on Bartolemew Island, the environment had a moon-like feeling, reminding us of a set from Star Trek. Formed by volcanic activity and relatively young by geographical standards, colonization is very fragile and the staff reminded us to stay on the trails. Navigating an 800 foot ascent, we marveled the beautiful views and Javier, our primary guide, explained the origin of lava formations, volcanic peaks and barren landscapes.
Settling into our new environment, we returned to a cleaned room complete with turndown service and comfy pillows as we changed for dinner. Complete with soup, salad, several main courses and homemade desserts, all the meals exceeded our expectations and everybody gathered at the bar exchanging stories about the day and anticipating what lied ahead. Having never slept on the open sea before, the motion of the boat took awhile to get used to as we began the long overnight trip to Genovesa Island where we’d experience the strange phenomenon of walking past red footed boobies, large birds that sit on the ground guarding their eggs while you walk past them.
Wrapping up the first successful day of our Galapagos trip, we drifted off to sleep with the mellow sound of the boat’s motor and gentle rocking motion of the ocean waves. Requiring over six hours on the open sea, we’d awake to a totally different environment each day for the rest of the trip. Here’s a sample of what we saw in days two through five. Please follow my weekly posts over the next month for the stories.
On Black Friday, skip shopping and join us for the next post featuring birds and owls that don’t use trees, prehistoric looking iguanas on both land and sea and giant tortoises. Please stay tuned.
Do you have any questions about The Galapagos Islands? Please ask or comment