Be you bucket lister or wildlife buff, the idea of a Galapagos cruise pulses with animal magnetism. It’s a science fiction adventure — ship as time machine visiting a prehistoric land of black lava, alien cactus trees, swimming iguanas and giant tortoises.
It turns out that pre-voyage planning, which includes ticking off items like “underwater camera housing” and “quick-drying pants that magically become shorts,” is almost as satisfying as traveling back in time. So with the determination of a flightless cormorant desperate for eel, I began researching, prepping and packing for a Galapagos cruise aboard Metropolitan Touring’s 48-passenger La Pinta.
As I dug through travel message boards and guidebooks, and picked the brains of past passengers, there emerged four pillars of the successful Galapagos cruise: 1) protection from the sea and weather; 2) proper footwear; 3) a touch of pre-cruise study; and 4) a means to record the experience.
Protection From Sea and Sun
The packing list skewed more backpacker’s trek than cruise due to all the protective gear I needed. Instead of a blue blazer and oxfords, I stuffed my carry-on with quick-dry shirts, Ziplock bags to protect equipment and a floppy hat to repel invisible sorties from the equatorial sun. July features the spritzing rain called garua, despite the month’s distinction as the beginning of the cool, dry season. Also part of the regimen: Two large tubes of sunblock — one SPF 45 for the delicate face, the other a waterproof 30 for the rest of the body — and aloe should I forget to re-apply either. You’ll get a workout running back and forth to Eastern Mountain Sports and CVS.
The sea poses its own problems — the wind-drawn Humboldt Current can bring with it nauseating, choppy waters from July to December — so I scored some Dramamine (which I later found that La Pinta offered in an all-you-can eat basket). Other passengers ultimately went with the prescription “what’s that dot behind your ear — is it a wart?” motion sickness patch. (It’s not prescribed in South America — get it pre-cruise if you think it’ll help.)
Simply put, the Galapagos’ omnipresent lava is unforgiving. However visitors ramble, they should make sure they’re properly out-footed. “A lot of people think, ‘oh, I’ll just bring my oldest pair of shoes and then dump them at the end of the trip,'” said John, one of our guides. “If there’s one tip I can offer, it’s to bring a solid new pair.” (Break them in pre-trip to avoid callouses.) I took a chance, leaving the hiking boots at home, and opting for the Tevas I’ve worn to trudge over rocky Greek Isles, European cobblestones and desert sands. But sure enough, a French passenger on our trip suffered a dual-sole ripping on a single walk. His well-worn boots literally ripped in half. Given his propensity for mocking American dining habits, no one seemed particularly sympathetic.
Pre-knowledge will enrich the experience, I was told. “Origin of Species” felt a little too academic, so I tapped Dominic Hamilton, Metropolitan’s Head of Communications, for something less collegiate. He suggested three: “The Beak of the Finch,” a non-fiction look at a pair of evolutionary biologists who watched natural selection, in real time, shape a colony of finches on a tiny island; “My Father’s Island,” a memoir written by a woman whose family colonized Santa Cruz in the ’40s; and “Galapagos, The Islands That Changed the World,” a photo-laden companion book to the BBC documentary of the same name. The public library had them all. All three were worth the read.
Recording the Experience
Though the wildlife remains bizarrely apathetic to encroaching, camera-wielding homo sapiens, a colleague’s husband suggested renting a telephoto lens. I discovered LensProtoGo [http://www.lensprotogo.com], which ships high-quality lenses in waterproof, nearly indestructible Pelican cases. The Nikon 80 – 400 mm telephoto lens cost about $1,600 new or $15 a day to rent, and would be sufficient for framing the red-rimmed eye of the swallow-tailed gull or spying on other boats sharing the harbor. If you do bring the “bazooka” and plan on switching lenses frequently, don’t forget the accouterments (like a sensor cleaning kit). Jumbo-sized ziplock bags, procured from Amazon, would shield my camera equipment, already in a water-resistant bag, during the wet landings (when zodiacs pull up to a beach rather than a natural “dock”).
A second splurge, derived from Galapagos cruise vets who shared regrets, was an underwater camera. I went with the waterproof case instead. The camera was just over $300 when I purchased it a few years back. The waterproof housing, which fit my canon S90 point and shoot like a glove, was half that. The video I took underwater, include a spiritual moment with a baby sea lion, was worth the cost.
The one thing not on the packing list: The cat, a dangerous invasive species, had to stay at home.
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