Coming from Northern California, it was a long flight to Quito, though not as far as our fellow passengers who came from Canada and Europe. We arrived in Quito at about 9:30 p.m. local time, picked up our luggage and were escorted by Celebrity representatives to the bus that would take us to the J.W. Marriott hotel. Our bus guide shared tips on how to combat altitude sickness (Quito is nearly at 10,000 feet), what to expect the next day and a few hints on how to maintain our personal safety in Quito.
It only took about 15 minutes to get to the Marriott. We were checked in quickly, and our luggage was brought up to our room. What a beautiful room it was! It was spacious, with a nice view and a fabulous bathroom. It had a wonderful deep tub, perfect for soaking, and some nice amenities. We were also supplied with two bottles of purified water at no cost each day.
My DH was hungry, so we stopped at one of the hotel restaurants before turning in for the night. The food was continental and was mediocre and overpriced. I would not recommend eating at any of the hotel restaurants, unless it is included in the package.
The next morning, we went downstairs for breakfast before our excursion into the city. Breakfast was a buffet, and it offered typical American fare as well as local Ecuadorian specialties. The staff was very willing to explain the more exotic items, and it provided a nice opportunity to try new foods.
We boarded our busses and headed into old town. Each tour group had about 20 people, and each group had its own guide. Our guide was Mauricio, who was very pleasant and knowledgeable. All of the guides spoke English very well, and though their English was heavily accented, they were not difficult to understand.
We saw several churches, including one whose interior was covered almost completely in gold leaf. We also saw the presidential palace and the residences of the mayor and the archbishop. There were a number of children selling scarves and other trinkets on the streets, but our guide recommended avoiding them because of the risk of being pick-pocketed during our transactions.
The tour of old town took about an hour and a half. The walk would not have been too taxing under normal circumstances, but due to the altitude and the heat, it took its toll on several people, especially those who were out of shape to begin with, such as myself.
After the walking tour, we boarded the bus and headed to El Crater, a restaurant just past the equatorial museum. It was touted as one of the premier restaurants in Quito, and it took over an hour to get there. As it turned out, it was something of a disappointment. The soup was very good, but the main courses that my husband and I had were nearly cold. We ordered coffee at the end of lunch, for which there was a charge, and it tasted like it came from a fish tank.
Our next stop was the equatorial monument and museum. It was pretty cool to actually stand on the equator. Step one way, and you're in the Northern Hemisphere. Step the other way, and you're in the Southern Hemisphere. It was a great photo op. The museum had some very interesting artifacts and photos of the indigenous peoples, and there was a great view from the top. There was also a small shopping area, for my fellow shopaholics.
We returned to the hotel for a nice dinner, which provided a good opportunity to meet our fellow passengers. The meal was decent, and there was a gentleman who sang and played the saxophone (not at the same time!) during our meal. Several passengers were unimpressed by him, but DH and I enjoyed him very much.
The next day, we boarded our plane for Baltra. It was only about an hour and a half, but we were served a light meal onboard. They also sold duty free items on the plane, which I had never witnessed before. (This may be commonplace. I am not a world traveler - yet!)
We were all very anxious to see the Xpedition and see the islands. We were greeted at the dock by two sea lions, lying on a bench next to the pier. There were also several sleeping under the pier. We saw a gigantic male slip into the water. One of the guides told us he was the beach master, and that this area was his domain.
The ship was small compared to cruise ships, but large for a yacht. The ship could hold 90 passengers, but our cruise only had about 80, which made it even nicer. Xpedition is the largest ship that sails the Galapagos.
We were very pleased with our cabin, and found it to be more spacious than most cabins we have had. (We tend to stay in lower-category inside cabins.) Every cabin on Xpedition has an ocean view. Our cabin, #315, was on the Marina deck. I think this is the most convenient deck, because this deck also has Darwin's Restaurant (the dining room) and the Gift Shop. Our cabin was near the bow, which meant the sound of raising and dropping the anchor was quite loud. However, this was never an issue, since it always took place when we were already awake.
The afternoon of our first day in the Galapagos was probably my favorite. I took the medium intensity excursion, while my husband took the high intensity. There were so many animals! I never thought I would ever visit a place where I would have to watch my step to avoid stepping on a sea lion. They were everywhere! We also saw frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas and lava lizards. My husband and I felt that this excursion alone was worth the entire price of the cruise.
Every day there was an excursion in the morning and one in the afternoon. Usually, you could choose from low, medium or high intensity. I took mostly low intensity, while my husband tended to take medium or high. You are asked to sign up the night before for the type of excursion you want, so the cruise director can schedule the guides accordingly. Each excursion requires a trip on a Zodiac (a motorized raft), which holds about 15 people. There were about seven naturalists on board, and they were all very friendly and knowledgeable. They were very attuned to the individual needs of passengers. We found Manuel and Tommy to be especially helpful, as was Jason, the cruise director.
This cruise is probably best suited for people under 35 in good physical shape. Unfortunately, most people who can afford this trip are older than that, and as we get older, we often are not in the best shape possible. The median age on our cruise was probably 65, and we saw many passengers who probably should not have tried to take this trip. Quito's altitude was very hard on people with a heart condition or respiratory problems. The islands have a lot of uneven surfaces, either do to rocks, boulders or lava flows. There are also several beaches that are hard to walk on due to the depth of the sand. For a person with no physical hindrances, there would probably be no problems whatsoever. Anyone with cardiopulmonary problems or joint/balance issues should think long and hard before considering this cruise.
If you love animals the way we do, you will not be disappointed. Every day there were new wildlife experiences, either on the land, in the air or below the water. If you like to snorkel, this is probably a paradise. We do not snorkel, but there were several opportunities to see things like sea turtles and rays just below the surface in the clear waters of the mangroves.
Come prepared. Bring a sunscreen of at least SPF 30, for you are on the equator, and it is very easy to get a serious burn, especially when it is overcast. A strong insect repellant is also recommended, as there are some really nasty critters around that would love to make you their next meal. (Our travel nurse strongly suggested a repellant that contains DEET.) You will want good, supportive walking shoes, and something to walk in the water with, since there are several wet Zodiac landings. Many people wore the strappy waterproof sandals with a covered toe that are supportive enough for hiking. Just be aware that there are a lot of cacti and other spiny flora in Galapagos, which would not feel good sticking into your bare flesh. Wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face and neck, or pick up one of the Xpedition hats on board. They were only $15, and offered good protection and included a chin strap. In fact, most souvenirs in the gift shop were very reasonably priced. Finally, you will take more photos and video than you ever intended, so brings enough memory, or film or whatever you might need. Also bring some ziplock bags to protect your camera equipment on the Zodiacs and during wet landings.
We knew this would be a once in a lifetime experience. We did not take this cruise for the fabulous food, which is a good thing, since the food overall was good but not excellent. We did not take this cruise for the free booze, even though beer and wine were included at no additional cost. We did not take this cruise to be pampered. We were taken care of very well, but we have never worked so hard on a vacation. We were up by 6:00 every morning, and in bed by 10:00 almost every night, exhausted by the physical demands of the day.
We took this cruise to see wildlife, and we were not disappointed. My favorites were the sea lions, the penguins and the tortoises. The guides were top rate, and we met many people like ourselves who want to conserve and preserve the islands and the wonderful animals they contain. You are asked on this cruise to, Take only memories, leave only footprints. Our memories will last a lifetime.