We had always wanted to visit the Galapagos Islands, but felt a trip to this isolated archipelago in the Pacific Ocean was just too expensive — it was a destination for the rich. When we decided to spend our two-month long summer vacation in one spot this year, Salinas, Ecuador, the possibility of a last minute deal to the Galapagos emerged.
We were two hours from Guayaquil, where flights from Ecuador’s capital, Quito, stop on their way to the Galapagos, 1,000 kilometers west of Ecuador. We found a travel company online that offered three last-minute options, and chose the cheapest – a four-night, five-day cruise of four islands, including air fare from Guayaquil for $1600US. It was quite the sum, but we figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and, given our age, you never know what life holds.
We signed up and it was indeed the trip of a lifetime! Our tour operator was GI Adventures, a Canadian travel firm based in Toronto, which ran the cruise boat. On the departure date, July 5, we flew from Guayaquil early in the morning (a 1-½ hour flight) and returned July 9. Before our departure date, we caught a communal cab from Salinas for $10 a person and stayed overnight in a luxury hotel —a little gift to ourselves to launch the big adventure.
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We had no idea what to expect, had no details on planned activities, how rugged it would be, how many animals and sea life we would see and how close we would get to them.
What I will always remember about this trip, and how it was different from all others, is the intimacy with the wildlife and marine life. We swam with sea lions. Irwin swam with fish, thousands of them. We posed with crabs and iguanas. We watched Albatross teens practicing their mating dance moves. We met Boobie birds. Birds flew with our boat as we sailed and hovered above us as friendly companions. Sea lions were everywhere. They tolerated us well until we came too close and then they snarled.
Never have I been so close to nature in all its brilliance and diversity. Never before have I understood more about wildlife and the way they have evolved. Never before have I been so in awe of these animals and the people who care for them.
We were 20: Six Aussies, three Americans (boys 10 and 12 and their mom), two Brits (both young doctors). Of the Aussies, one was a dentist, older and retired, with his wife, and one a young doctor, a young Swiss couple, three Chinese single women, working in Mexico, and one Ecuadorian travel agent sent by her company.
The two boys on the boat were hyperactive. They hardly stopped moving and it wasn’t easy to hike with them. It took a lot of attention from the guides to keep them out of trouble.
That said, the other passengers were a joy. Good conversations were had at mealtime and we often changed to sit with those we didn’t know as well.
By the end we were a family.
Our room was the last one available, which is why we got a discount. It was on the lower deck, with a porthole instead of a window but other than that it was the same size as the rooms above the lounge, dining hall, and main deck area. We would gather for fresh juice and snacks on the upper deck when we would return from our day’s activities, once before lunch and once before dinner. And there was a useful clothesline.
The first night was calm and restful because we didn’t sail. The next night we sailed for Espanola Island and it was so rough that many of us got seasick, including one of the doctors. Irwin lay in his bunk moaning and I spent an hour trying to focus on getting a Gravol into me and finding the water to drink it down. I was afraid to open my eyes for fear I would get dizzy, which in my case can last for a month or so. Our guides had played down the possibility of getting really sick. In the end, it felt like a roller coaster and almost no one was spared.
The third night was much better because we took Gravol before bed. If you are prone to seasickness, I would not recommend this small a boat. The bigger ones, holding 50 people, are probably less turbulent in rough seas.
The food was stupendous in variety and and the cook catered to our restrictions. Instead of meat, I was served shrimp or fish. Special vegetarian concoctions were prepared only for me! Drinks were made especially for us, sugar free. Feasts for royalty is what I will remember.
There are sea lions everywhere – At the dock in San Cristobal and on the benches by the dock where you get off the bus from the airport, on the beaches, on the rocks, and
swimming. They are in family groups and in larger groups led by one male, who is the boss and many females with kiddies. The male fights off contenders to be the “boss” of his tribe and he has scars to prove it. The younger males go off to live in bachelor colonies until they are strong enough to fight for a lead role.
We loved watching their antics: rolling in sand to get the flies off, dipping themselves to cool off, swimming for fish, suckling their babies, lying on their backs sunning themselves. They tolerate humans well and often seem to pose for us.
The tortoises are in sanctuaries and in the wild. Nests are everywhere near beaches and it is forbidden to go near them. Daniel told us it’s
uncertain how long they live, but it’s certainly a long life, more than 100 years.
The albatross were a treat to watch and we were able to get close enough to take movies of their mating dances. We noticed abandoned eggs along the trek over rocks. If an egg is imperfect, and they lay only one a year, or they feel they can’t protect it, they abandon it, often by the side of the road. I wonder whether they think we will do the job for them.
Daniel explained a lot about the bird life, how their colours, not their sizes determine their sexual maturity. We saw such oddities — blue feet, red feet, all manner of beaks, all colours of the rainbow. We walked among pelicans, boobies, and a few hundred feet from a colony of flamingos. The birds are friendly and get close to us with the exception of the flamingos. It was hard to see them, but we could observe them nesting from a distance (the dads take a turn too) and flying across the lagoon where they live.
The Snorkeling Experience
Never having done any serious snorkeling, I had no idea what to expect. The equipment – masks, breathing tube, and flippers – was offered to us in a box, and it was up to us to choose what fit. The pros dived into the water backward, I let myself in more gently and gradually got used to swimming with my head underwater, scanning the depths for fish, fauna and flora. It is an unbelievably unique experience to be there, swimming in these crystal waters, surrounding a volcanic archipelago, some 960 kilometres west of the Ecuadorean coast.
Pristine and silent, you suddenly encounter schools of multi-coloured fishes. They sparkle in the sunlight as they swim in clusters, searching for food, or shelter. Some are small, about the size of tropical fish people keep in display tanks at home. Others, usually swimming deeper, are much larger. The biggest thrill is sharing the sea with sea lions, the younger ones full of energy darting around you playfully as they search for food, or simply having fun. They do not fear the humans swimming nearby – as long as we stay a reasonable distance, allowing them the freedom to dart in and around you. Yes, at one point, with high winds and a stiff current, and having had to go back into the boat because water leaked into my mask, I did not feel I was a strong enough swimmer to continue snorkeling. But when our boat reached calmer waters, the guide coaxed me back into the water and held my hand as I swam with the other, putting more energy into my leg action so I could enjoy the best cluster of fishes on the tour. I’m thankful for that help and encouragement. It was an unforgettable experience.
— Irwin Block
Our guides, Daniel and Javier
GI Adventures runs a tight ship. Their tour boat holds 20 passengers and 11 staff, including two guides. The service was impeccable and the attention to our individual needs and limitations, including dietary and physical, surpassed all expectations.
Daniel and Javier, both Ecuadorians in their 30s were extremely well educated in their fields that include evolutionary theory, biology, geology, history, geography and overall attention to being able to answer any question in almost perfect English. Example: “Daniel, why are there no shells here on the islands?” His answer: “The Galapagos are young, only about 3 million years old.”
Each evening, we were briefed about the next day’s activities. Most mornings, breakfast was at 7 and a bell rang when we were expected on deck, outside, or in the dining room. The guides displayed the itinerary on a dry erase board, which we used to indicate how we would dress and what we would bring with us. Bathing suits for swimming and snorkeling, of course. Shorts, hats, bug repellent, lots of sunscreen. Everything had a reason and Daniel explained them all.
“Are there any horseflies on the beach?”
“Yes, but only after swimming, because they like to bite at our salty bodies. Avoid wearing yellow. They like yellow. Wear hats and sunscreen even in the shade. After all we’re in Ecuador, close to the equator!”
Lunch was usually at noon, dinner at 7. It was like summer camp, but a lot more intense.
We would set out in the dinghies (inflated rubber boats holding ten of us) with our boatman and guide, quite a ride, occasionally rocky, always wearing life jackets. I was helped in and out. They respected my knee limitations, but never made me feel like they were doing more than their normal jobs.
When Daniel saw I had bit of trouble walking on uneven ground the first day when we toured the Tortoise Sanctuary on the island of San Cristobal, he arranged for an assistant to help me with the three-hour trek to see the albatrosses on the island of Cerro Brujo Island.
The hikes, the companions, the excellent and sensitive guides, the sea and land animals we got to know — we will never forget them. Certainly ours was not the only type of experience of these islands. On the way we ran into a group of photographers with some of the biggest cameras we’d ever seen. Obviously their tour was tailor made. I don’t know whether our deal was that much of a deal but for us, it was a rich and memorable experience, one that we will cherish. Will we go again? Perhaps. Now that we’ve done just a few of these magnificent islands, we definitely have a yen to go back. And we would definitely go on a planned cruise, not on our own, although it is possible to island hop as long as you’re willing to pay huge hotel and food costs. That’s because the islands are so far from the mainland.
The Ecuadorians don’t pay nearly as much to visit the Galapagos as the foreigners. And there are strict rules about who can be a resident. At this date, you have to have been born in the Galapagos to live there. This is definitely in place to protect the islands and their wildlife.
If you have the opportunity to visit the Galapagos, try to make the trip part of a larger visit to Ecuador. It’s a beautiful and accessible country with lots of natural beauty to experience.