The Galapagos Islands are a special place. Located about 600 miles east of continental Ecuador, they contain many species and varieties of species of flora and fauna. The National Geographic/Linblad Expeditions (NG/Linblad) expedition gives you the chance to visit several of the places that Charles Darwin visited on the (second) voyage of the HMS Beagle. The pluses: unique wildlife (blue-footed booby, magnificent frigatebird, giant tortoises) knowledgeable naturalist guides, Zodiac boats to land you on the shore, snorkeling in different marine environments, programs for kids, friendly staff, tasty food, excellent service in the handling of the delay departing Galapagos Islands, pre- and post-departure hotel in Guayaquil. The minuses: no advance warning about fumigation on one flight, incorrect checked and carry-on baggage allowance information, and inadequate wetsuits for dry season (my trip was in July).
This trip has been at the top of my wife's bucket list for many years. Seeing the island by ship was an excellent way to visit the islands and experience the diversity of wildlife and marine life. She selected National Geographic (NG) based on the itinerary, relatively small passenger size (96), and recommendations from her sister (on other NG trips). For me, it was an OK selection; it fell short of my high expectations due to the minuses identified in this write-up.
My family arrived one day early so that we could recover from jet lag and be rested for the start of the cruise. One night at the hotel (pre- and post-cruise) was already included in the price of the cruise. The pre-departure (and post-departure) hotel was the Hilton Colon Guayaquil (recommended). It is only a few miles from the airport, has a nice atmosphere, inexpensive spa treatments, and can arrange safe, inexpensive cab rides for visiting the city--which we did prior to the cruise ($10 US per hour). Go see the Iguana Park, the Boardwalk (Malecon) and walk up from the Boardwalk through the Barrio Las Peas to the lighthouse (faro) for a view of the city. If time permits, stop at the General Cemetery to see the above ground crypts (they are like those in New Orleans, USA). There are some emotionally moving sculptures on several of the crypts. At the hotel, we had a minor snafu with the number of breakfast vouchers and free drink coupons for our arrival, as well as with one charge in the Atrium Bar and lounge (the credit card info for our first night stay was not automatically carried over to the second night stay). Those problems were quickly fixed.
All transfers were handled smoothly and efficiently between the hotel and airport in Guayaquil, between the airports in the Galapagos Islands and the marinas, and between the marinas and the ship--the NG Endeavour. Embarkation and debarkation was done by Zodiac boats. Most people from the USA flew American Airlines through Miami to Guayaquil. From Guayaquil, we flew AeroGal (Aerolneas Galapagos) to and from the Galapagos Islands. We flew into the airport at Baltra Island, and left by the airport on San Cristobal Island. Our luggage was delivered to our cabin in a timely manner.
The Expedition Guide provided online, as well as the final itinerary provided by NG/Linblad with the travel documents before we left the USA, stated that checked luggage could not exceed 40 pounds per person and that carry-on luggage could not exceed 12 pounds. We should have been suspicious, because many international flights use a limit of 20 kilograms for checked luggage, which is 44 pounds, and 10 kilograms (22 pounds) for carry-on luggage. Believing the Expedition Guide, we removed clothing and other items from our suitcases before leaving home to meet the 40-pound limit. I was very disappointed when I learned that I could have brought 4 more pounds in each of our suitcases. It was helpful that the ship offers laundry service. So fewer clothes are needed.
One unpleasant surprise occurred on our inbound flight to the Galapagos Islands. About 15 minutes before landing, the flight attendants opened all the overhead bins and started spraying cans of fumigation chemicals into the bins. My wife is very sensitive to chemicals, and I'm just thankful she didn't have a reaction to the fumes. It was a major, regrettable oversight for NG/Linblad not to have given us advance notice about this. Curiously, none of the backpacks, etc. stored under the seats in front of passengers were sprayed, so the attempts to kill any insects in carry-on luggage would not have been totally successful.
You don't know your exact itinerary until you get the final travel documents about 30 days before the cruise begins. Ecuador controls which ships and tours visit where in the Galapagos Islands to minimize crowding and impacts to the native ecology. We visited the following islands and areas: Baltra Island, Las Bachas (Santa Cruz Island), North Seymour Island, Rabida Island, Fernandina Island, Isabela Island, Santiago Island, Santa Cruz Island (including the must-see fish market with pelicans and sea lions, and Charles Darwin Research Station), and Punta Pitt and "Kicker Rock" (San Cristobal Island).
NG/Linblad wasted a valuable resource for the cruise. I was happy to see a webcast before the trip with tips for taking photographs on the island. The advance information on the expedition team noted that several were NG-certified photo instructors. While the photo instructors were around, not much was done to maximize their potential. There was only one scheduled photo session onboard the ship to learn how to use your camera. There were two photo themed hikes, but they did not occur until later in the cruise. I would recommend that there be scheduled sessions on typical photo challenges freezing wildlife in motion, using ISO to compensate for lighting, and using exposure compensation to compensate for backgrounds (wildlife on white sandy beaches, wildlife on gray volcanic rock, etc.). I brought my computer along on the cruise, so that I could download pictures to the computer and free up memory on my camera's memory cards. I noticed that many of my photos looked "blah", with either poor lighting or bland backgrounds. I looked for the photo instructors in the afternoon on the ship to ask about this, but they were difficult to find. So, on the excursions, I started asking the naturalist guides how to take better pictures and compensate for some of the environmental factors. That helped me to improve the quality of my pictures (though late in the cruise). I'm sure they are others who could also benefit from such information.
We saw a variety of wildlife: blue-footed boobies, red-footed boobies (supposedly rarer than their blue-footed cousins), magnificent and great frigatebirds, flamingos, pelicans, Sally Lightfoot crabs, a few finches, land and marine iguanas, giant tortoises, hawks, manta rays, sharks, sea turtles, Galapagos penguins, sea lions, a few fur seals, and a few whales.
One of the highlights of the trip was the chance to go snorkeling on most days. It was a very cold experience for many. We traveled in July when the water temperatures can be 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit (the actual temperatures were in the middle 60s). That is cold! The Expedition Guide noted that NG/Linblad provides 3-mm shorty wetsuits. I considered that inadequate, at least for me. I stopped by a local dive shop before the cruise, to see about getting a hood to keep my head from getting so cold. I was told that 60-degree water is cold, and that I should bring a full wetsuit (I have a 3-mm one), and wear booties, gloves and a hood. I purchased a 3-mm wetsuit vest and hood. That gave me 6 mm of insulation for my torso. Of course, this added weight to my suitcase, but it was a very smart decision.
Onboard the NG Endeavour, I asked the staff member assisting people with the shorty wetsuits about why full wetsuits were not provided by NG/Linblad. He said he didn't know. Later, during an orientation session, the Expedition Leader brought up this issue, and said that full wetsuits are not provided, because guests do not ask for them. I was very surprised (and shocked) by that comment. I continually heard people complaining about how cold they were while snorkeling. Even my wife complained about her hands (she did bring booties). All my gear allowed me to be the last one back to the Zodiac whenever we went snorkeling. I was still a little chilled, but could easily stay in the water for 30-45 minutes. My wife and I mentioned to Sebastian, the Hotel Manager on the ship, that the onboard shop could make a nice profit if it sold snorkeling gloves and booties. In the long run, NG/Linblad should suggest that passengers bring gloves, booties, and hoods for snorkeling when the water temperature is in the 60s, and NG/Linblad should provide full wetsuits.
Several passengers did bring full wetsuits and booties. The staff graciously allowed passengers to hang their gear on the upper deck so that it could dry out between trips. You could not use the bathroom in the cabin to dry out anything. Wet items never dry out in the bathroom.
On the first day of snorkeling, I saw a manta ray with a wing span of more than 20 feet. I was in awe as I watched it move gracefully along the face of the cliff. On most days, I saw lots of colorful, tropical fish. Some areas had fire coral. I also saw sea turtles, sea lions, black-tipped reef sharks, and Galapagos sharks (no worries, they did not bother the snorkelers). My wife hoped we would be able to snorkel with penguins, but no such luck (we only saw them during Zodiac cruises). Snorkeling was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
The onboard store, the Global Gallery/Market, was open several times each day. My wife and I bought some t-shirts made in Ecuador that featured a blue-footed booby. She also loved the quality of the Alpaca blankets and bought several as gifts for family and friends. One night after dinner we were looking into the store. The Hotel Manager Sebastian came by and graciously offered to open the store up for us. He did, and my wife and I bought several items. The Shop Manager Jessica came by and helped me find a polo shirt in my size. Other passengers stopped by, and Jessica kept the store open. This is the kind of customer service that makes me happy and willing to recommend the NG/Linblad cruise to others.
My family had cabin 300 on the lowest desk of the ship. The cabin had 2 rooms and a bathroom. I think all bathrooms are small, and the shower is particularly small. There were two beds in one room and a pullout sofa in the other (for my family of three). The portholes in each room were a couple of feet above the sea surface. The rooms were smaller than some cruise ships we have been on, but we knew we were on an expedition and would have different, but suitable accommodations. We were missing a few things in the room when we arrived, but that was easily fixed. The beds were comfortable. They were two pillows per bed. There was adequate storage space in the closet (one per passenger in the rooms with beds). Suitcases easily fit under the bed. There is no safe for valuables. There is a small drawer in the desk that you can lock for a few valuables. We locked stuff in our suitcases under the beds. Note that passengers are NOT given keys for the cabins. You can lock the door from the inside, but not from the outside. Passengers are informed about this, prior to the expedition, in the Expedition Guide, and during the Orientation Session onboard the ship the first day. Not having a key for the cabin was not a problem.
We enjoyed the afternoon "debrief" in the lounge by the expedition staff. We could enjoy beer, wine, cocktails, tea, and soft drinks while we socialized with other passengers, shared our adventures during the daily excursions, and showed photos we took during the day. Typically one of the expedition staff would give a short presentation on some topic of interest. Then the Expedition Leader would tell us about activities for the coming day, before we headed for dinner. All meals were served buffet style in the dining room, except that soups were delivered to your table. The soups were excellent.
Overall, there were many positives about the trip, and a few negatives. It was exciting to follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin and wonder about the nature paradise that he experienced back in 1835 that led to his historic insight into the origin of species and natural selection. The Galapagos Islands are truly a special place.