"The Galapagos is the jewel in Ecuador's crown," observed a fellow traveler. So how should one best view this marvel of nature? For us, the answer was to board the luxury yacht, Isabela II, and allow its gracious crew and knowledgeable naturalists to introduce us.
The Galapagos, for the uninitiated, are a string of volcanic islands 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. They have been designated a national park and a biological marine reserve -- thankfully since these islands are nothing less than "a living laboratory of evolution." To craft an experience best suited to our interests and requirements, my husband, Bob and I again turn to Kristina at Adventure Associates. No decision is more important than the vessel for an eight day Galapagos cruise. Smaller boats can visit more islands, but some are cramped and uncomfortable. Kristina listens to my concerns and recommends the 40-passenger Isabela II which can go anywhere, but provides amenities usually only found on a larger ship.
We fly from Quito (having just returned from an amazing four days in the Ecuadorian rain forest) to Baltra Island in the Galapagos. Kristina has arranged every transfer with the Ecuadorian company, Metropolitan Touring, and the service they provide is nothing short of outstanding. We are thrilled to discover Metropolitan also owns and staffs the Isabela II and sure enough someone is waiting to greet us, pick up our luggage, and transport us to the pier. When did travel become so hassle-free? We climb into zodiacs (locally called pangas) for the quick ride to the boat waiting at anchor.
Introductions are made, lunch served, and we are escorted to our cabin. Bob (whose business is ocean shipping) immediately gives the Isabela the "two thumbs up" for design and sea worthiness. He's had a look at some of the other boats in the harbor and assures me we've made an excellent choice. In no time we are underway, headed for North Seymour island and our first encounter with Galapagos wildlife. Guests are divided into groups of twelve, each with a naturalist. Carlos, the Expedition Leader, is our guide. His knowledge, enthusiasm and humor are in abundant supply and he knows we are anxious to see birds and animals that have never learned to fear mankind.
We step onto the rocks and follow a walkway to a sandy beach (a crew member always lends a hand but moderate mobility is necessary.) Everywhere baby sea lions are napping in the late afternoon sun, waiting for their mothers to return from feeding out in the ocean. As their fur dries, it turns from black to golden, from cool sleekness to chubby warmth. Occasionally one opens drowsy eyes, shifts to a more comfortable position or decides to cuddle up to a companion. Carlos allows us to "savor the moment." As we watch mesmerized, adult females climb back onto the beach, barking their return. Pups hurry to nurse and one hungry youngster tries for a snack from someone else's mom. The harried mother will have none of it (she recognizes her pup by scent) and chases off the interloper.
Back on the boat, we have an informational meeting at 7:00pm (as we will every evening to go over the next day's schedule and options) and then dinner at 7:30pm. Breakfast and lunch are buffets, but dinner is served and there is always a meat, fish and vegetarian choice. The meals are tasty and close attention is given to presentation. After dinner guests check email, watch a DVD in the study or, like us, head back to their cabin to be rocked to sleep as the captain set course for the 92-mile trip to Espanola Island.
We wake to a brilliant day and spot Espanola (originally christened Hood Island by the British) rising from the ocean 10 miles to our south. The Isabela II anchors in Gardner Bay and we can choose to kayak, snorkel on the beach or take a glass bottom boat ride. We opt for the glass bottom boat but within minutes (actually more like seconds) I know I've made a mistake. Looking down while the boat rocks makes me so nauseous that I announce I plan to swim to shore. Such a desperate measure turns out to be unnecessary. The panga is called and I'm quickly motored into the beach. The glass bottom boat is for those with a strong stomach and who are unable to snorkel -- definitely the better way to see marine life!
For the afternoon excursion, we move to a second site with access to nesting areas for the island's sea bird colonies. Even the novice bird-watchers among us are hoping to see the famous blue-footed boobies. No worries. They sometimes stand so close to the path, we have to be careful not to step on them! The males are noticeably proud of their bright blue feet -- needed to impress the ladies. The females fly overhead to scope out their options and land when they see a suitable candidate. Now the pressure is on. The male lifts and lowers his blue feet. But has the dance been suitably impressive? Will she stay and mate or move on? We witness a number of false starts and downright rejections. All part of being a male, my husband assures me.
Each day brings a new island, a new landscape and new species to discover. On the fourth day we return to Santa Cruz Island allowing guests who have signed on for only half the itinerary to depart and new guests to join us. Today's highlight is a trip into the highland region and a visit to the giant tortoises who roam there (albeit at a very slow pace). From a distance, they look like boulders littering the landscape but as we approach, we discover something far more wondrous. Carlos counsels us to avoid the sudden movements that cause them to retreat into their massive shells. The most ancient of these males are over 150 years old and a few were alive in 1835 when Charles Darwin made the six-week visit here that led him to reconsider the very timeline of creation.
The Isabela II stops at Genovese, the most north east of the islands and off-limits to larger vessels. Here we find some of our best snorkeling. There are no coral reefs in the Galapagos but along cliffs and ledges that plunge abruptly into the sea we find an abundance of sea life. It's a late morning snorkel and clouds limit visibility when suddenly fur seals and sea lions decide to investigate...us! One swims up to Bob and peers into his mask, perhaps perplexed by our swimming style so ungainly in comparison to their darting grace.
By the time our cruise ends, we've seen flightless cormorants, blue-footed boobies, pink flamingos, and salt snorting marine iguanas. We've swum with sea turtles and an armada of penguins who take out time from feeding to play around us. (I recommend wearing a wet suit) We've watched frigate birds chase red-footed boobies and a waved albatross spread its wings. We've also made new friends from several continents and acquired a taste for Ecuadorian dishes. We've learned about Charles Darwin, volcanoes, and the fragility of ecosystems. On the Isabela II we've contributed to preserving this unique habitat that is the Galapagos. How's that for an awesome vacation!
When you go:
Begin with a call to Adventure Associates to discuss your options! They book on several vessels and will help you select the cruise that is right for you. In addition, they will apprise you of the conditions you might find depending on the time of year, arrange for all transfers, and book your internal flights. It is also possible to stay at the Finch Bay Hotel on the island of Santa Cruz and take day trips. You won't see as much, but this is a good alternative if you are prone to severe motion sickness or simply are unhappy unless you spend most of your time on dry land!
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