The Magic of Galapagos - The Cruise
Due to the amount of information here I’ve split this report into separate blogs, this one specifically about the cruise itself, and there will be another one to follow telling you everything you need to know about before and after the cruise, how we did it and why. More photos can be found here
I’m sure, like me, you’ve seen the brilliant tv series about the Galapagos with David Attenborough, but I had always assumed that these “Enchanted Islands” were closed to visitors, so was very surprised when Ian told me he’d love to go there. Several of the Islands in the UNESCO World Heritage site are indeed closed to visitors completely, however several of them are populated by people and many of them are accessible within strict guidelines.
To get to Galapagos from Europe, you first need to go to Ecuador (more about our time there on the next blog). After two nights in Quito, we flew on the Sunday to San Cristobal, the most easterly and geologically oldest island in the archipelago.
Most cruises depart from and return to San Cristobal or Santa Cruz. We were met at the airport by our Ecoventura guides and taken to the harbour, and then on to our home for the week, the MV Theory. We met our fellow guests (there were 20 of us) and had lunch and a safety briefing before being shown to our cabins.
Theory is a luxury class yacht and Ecoventura have done their best to fit everything you may consider necessary for luxury accommodation on to her. The cabins are large, the bed was huge, which we had been warned might not be the case. They are extremely well designed, with easily enough storage for us both, including all our photographic equipment. There was a panoramic window in the main cabin, and in the shower cubicle too. A loo with a view! They have even accommodated tea and coffee making facilities.
The rest of the yacht was equally well equipped, with a large communal top deck and mid deck. The mid deck contained the bar and restaurant, along with the complimentary snack and coffee bar, and was where there daily briefings and most meals took place. Split between a comfortable lounge and the restaurant it provided a great place to chill away from the cabin. The top deck was open and offered a jacuzzi and space to do yoga or pilates. Apparently there was also a small gym…
There was easily enough space to accommodate us all, and there was restaurant seating for 30 people which meant no one had to sit with anyone they didn’t want to! Our safaris have given us good training for being in the presence of the same people in confined spaces for several days, but there was no time on the cruise that I felt I couldn’t get some peace if I needed it. We actually really enjoyed the company of all our fellow travellers on the cruise. There’s always someone you think might drive you to (more) drink on the first day but people tend to find their stride fairly quickly, and you soon know who needs a little more space than others.
Life on the Theory ran pretty much on the following lines..
There was usually an early start - around 7:30, ready to go by 8:30. Being on a cruise means you travel overnight and wake up in a different place each day. This also means that you beat the day trippers onto the islands.
A trek or panga ride around the island. We were divided into 2 groups of ten for each expedition. There were no set groups, whoever arrived at the back of the yacht first got on that panga. This was a really good system because it meant we all got to spend time with different people and we got different perspectives from Yvonne and Karina, our guides.
Back for lunch. Breakfast and lunch were buffets. If the weather was nice we ate on the top deck.
After a brief rest, another trek, and/or the opportunity to snorkel/kayak around that day’s island, often both of these!
Back to the yacht for a quick shower/change, the day’s debrief and dinner.
As you can see, the days onboard are very full on - whilst safaris mean a very early start, you are essentially sat in a jeep for the rest of the day. This was constant activity and I would recommend a fair level of fitness for this trip. Snorkelling especially was mainly deep water and you do need to be able to climb back into the panga from the water.*
Cruises have to keep to strict itineraries set by the national park. An 8 day cruise will take in either the Northern and Western route, or the Southern and Central route and our week took in the Northern and Western route. As well as Yvonne and Karina, our guides, we were very lucky to be joined by marine biologist Jack Grove. Jack is a leading authority on the fishes and marine environments of the eastern tropical Pacific and for seven years he lived in the Galápagos, where he carried out extensive marine biological studies. He added a fantastic extra dimension to our trip.
All Galapagos guides are trained and licensed by the National Park Service and have all received extra training on islands’ environmental issues. To keep their certificates they must take exams every 3 years and complete a new course every 3 years.
From San Cristobal we sailed overnight to Genovesa, and we woke to find ourselves in the magnificent horseshoe of Darwin Bay. Also known as Tower Island, it is one of the three most remote islands that can be visited in the archipelago and is known particularly for its bird life, especially the worlds largest colony of red footed boobies. Our introduction to the Galapagos Islands was a sandy bay (these are actually few and far between) with rough lava rocks and tidal pools, swarming with Nazca and Red-Footed boobies, Darwin’s finches, mockingbirds, herons and lava gulls. Not to mention the sea lions. A quick snorkel revealed a group of 6 reef sharks just basking in the shallows by the rocks.
After lunch we had a chance to deep water snorkel along the cliff sides of the bay where among the shoals of brilliant coloured fish we saw hammerhead sharks lurking below us. Later that day we climbed Prince Phillip’s steps and walked along the eastern crest of the bay, among the nesting boobies, and vampire finches, and were lucky enough to get a rare sighting of a Galapagos owl.
Having sailed overnight from Genovesa to the north point of Santa Cruz, the yacht refuelled at Baltra, a tiny island just off the coast of Santa Cruz that was a US military base during WWII. This meant we had a later start for the day, but we were still out in the pangas by 10am to explore Black Turtle Cove, a shallow mangrove lagoon, abundant with birdlife, and plenty of turtles looking for a mate at this time of the year. We also spotted eagle rays, more reef sharks and finally, to Ian’s delight, some blue-footed boobies, the only time on our trip we saw these blue-footed legends.
In the afternoon we moved round to Cerro Dragón (Dragon Hill) named for it’s population of land iguanas, who are much trickier to spot than the marine iguanas. We followed a 2km trail past a lagoon and strange cacti to the top of the hill which gave us great views over the surrounding area. One thing to point out is how barren the Galapagos Islands feel at this time of the year. Coming to the end of the dry season there is hardly any greenery at all, and coupled with the vast expanses of lava rock, it makes it feel other-worldly.
Another overnight sailing brought us to Punta Espinoza on Fernandina Island, one of the most pristine spots on our planet, as no animals have been introduced to Fernandina, maintaining its ecosystem intact. It is home to flightless cormorants and the largest colony of marine iguanas in the archipelago. It takes a while to realise it, as they blend in so well against the barren landscape, but the marine iguanas cover most of the island. You really have to look where you are going because what you think is a rock may suddenly move!
Colour is provided by the ever present Sally-Lightfoot crab, a crab so colourful it looks like it may have been dreamt up by Walt Disney himself.
Whilst snorkelling off Punta Espinosa that morning we swam with sea lions, sea turtles and marine iguanas and were lucky enough to see some sunbathing Galapagos Penguins from our vantage point of the sea.
Over lunch we sailed through the Bolivar Channel to Urbina Bay, Isabella. We had been told to keep an eye out for dolphins, or maybe even whales, but nothing prepared me for the sight of a pod of at least 50 dolphins swimming alongside our yacht for over half an hour. It was my first time seeing dolphins in the wild and it took my breath away.
That afternoon we got our first glimpse of wild giant tortoises at Urbina Bay on the island of Isabela. It really was just a glimpse though as mostly they were giving us the “tourist view” (ie their backsides). It’s at this point that I would point out again how un-green everything was. Galapagos isn’t a landscape photographers dream like it is a wildlife photographer’s.
Still on Isabela, we started the day with another panga ride, this time through Elizabeth Bay where we encountered flightless cormorants, and Galapagos penguins, and, obviously, some sea lions up a tree. That afternoon we anchored up in Tagus Cove, another port of call only accessible to those on a cruise. There is graffiti in Tagus Cover that dates back to 1836 when whalers visited the island.
Here we had the option of a strenuous hike up the steep cliff to see Darwin Lake, or, as we opted to do, kayak in the bay, something I had never done before and loved. Another fear faced!
Snorkelling in Tagus Cove offered us the best viewings yet of turtles, diving cormorants and penguins, and amazingly, in a blink-and-you-miss-it moment, we spotted a tiny seahorse, along with spotted eagle rays, some Disney-esque starfish and a lobster.
Overnight there was a very rough sailing to Puerto Egas on Santiago Island. Fortunately I slept through most of it.
Puerto Egas (another landing point you can only visit via a cruise) was my favourite stop of the entire trip I think. It has a long black lava shoreline that is home to lots of sea lions and another large population of marine Iguanas. We trekked around the island in a 2km loop for about 3 hours, across the lava rock and little lagoons which it creates. Afterwards we snorkelled from the beach swimming with the friendly sea lions like we were one of them.
Over lunch we sailed to our final uninhabited island, Rabida, the geographical centre of the archipelago. Here we finally found a few flamingos, more sea lions and plenty of brown pelicans whom we watched feeding greedily from the water.
Following our final deep water snorkel of the trip it was back to the boat to sail overnight to Santa Cruz Island, the final full day of our cruise.
For the final full day we spent the entire day in Puerto Ayora. The town comes as quite a shock after a week of seeing hardly any other human beings. It has a permanent population of 18,000 and many temporary visitors. The facilities here are some of the best in the archipelago with a big selection of cross-budget hotels and accommodation and lots of restaurants and bars. There is lots of noise and traffic and if you go just a couple of blocks inland there are half-finished building projects and piles of construction rubble. The water here is completely undrinkable, however it is one of the best places to stay if you are travelling independently or want to see the Galapagos via day trips rather than a cruise.
One of the main attractions here is the Charles Darwin Research Centre which houses the tortoise breeding
centre. This successful breeding centre has preserved all the individual species of giant tortoise (each island has a different species). It’s biggest success is repopulating the island of Espanola which at one point was down to just 14 individual tortoises.
You can also meet Diego who seemingly single-handedly is responsible for most of the repopulation!
For the rest of the day we were free to roam the town and there was the opportunity to visit the lava tunnels in the highlands, and see the tortoises roaming free.
Our final night on board was somewhat raucous as we welcomed King Neptune himself to dinner to celebrate our final crossing of the Equator…
Overnight on the Saturday we sailed back into San Cristobal harbour where we disembarked for the next part of our Galapagos adventure.
The Galapagos Islands really are the Enchanted Islands. There is no place like them in the world and if you are considering visiting I cannot recommend Ecoventura highly enough. It was a pleasure spending time with such passionate and knowledgable guides, Yvonne and Karina and a real bonus to have had Jack on the trip with us. The crew of MV Theory were amazing, nothing was too much trouble. If you love wildlife you will be in your element here. I didn't take anywhere near as many photos as I thought I would just because sometimes you just have to put the camera down and breathe it all in.
*A word about snorkelling. It isn't essential that you snorkel in Galapagos but you will miss out on so much if you don't. Ecoventura provide everything you need to snorkel and there's an off-beach snorkel before anything more tricky to ensure you are happy with your equipment. I will never forget snorkelling with sea lions and turtles for as long as I live.