I traveled on the M/V Evolution on a 7 day adventure cruise in the Galapagos Islands. I traveled with my spouse as part of a medium group. Our group was all people associated in some way with NIH. Most of us lived in the greater Washington DC metro area and had a least a few things in common, and nearly half of us were working scientists, but we did not go to the Galapagos as researchers, we went as eco-tourists. The flights to Galapagos are relatively short and painless, but because of the scheduling of flights from mainland Ecuador to Baltra Island, it took two days of travel to get there. My group left washington DC Friday morning, had a layover in Miami, and arrived in Guayaquil Friday night. We stayed at the Hotel Oro Verde (fantastic) overnight and flew to Baltra the next morning. The airport in Baltra is very small, and although they process literally hundreds of visitors a week, patience is required getting through the "customs" counter. Because all of the Galapagos is a nature reserve, the government of Ecuador tightly controls the number of visitors and where they go. That means that each person must be individually identified and checked off a list of approved visitors, and must pay for a permit to visit. Once my group got through the gauntlet, we were met by our naturalist guides, Samuel and Rafael, as well as two other crew members from the Evolution. All of the crew members were friendly, asked our names, and helped us with our luggage. We had a very short (less than 10 minutes) bus ride to the pier, where we all board small rubber rafts (pangas) and were ferried to the ship. From our first step on the ship, it was a delight. We were greeted by the cruise director/hotel manager, Michelle. We were given fresh fruit juice and directed to the lounge, where we were oriented to the ship, introduced to key staff members by name, and given an overview of the evening's activities. Michelle had the list of passengers and cabins, and we all trundled off to our cabins to put away our carry-on items (our checked luggage was delivered a bit later) and settle in. In general, each day on the Evolution followed a similar pattern: Wake up call at about 6, breakfast at 6:15, and depart for the morning hike at 7:15 (we needed to get out there before it got too hot). We would hike or stroll on a gorgeous island for and hour or two, then come back to the ship between 10 and 10:30. Change into swim gear, then snorkel until lunchtime. Have a fantstic lunch prepared by the ship's chef, then rest or nap while the ship repositioned, until early afternoon. Assemble to go to ashore for a hike on a different island around 3 pm. Come back to the ship at about 5, have fresh juice, cocktails, and appetizers. at 6:30, there was a briefing explaining what would happen the next day in detail, including what time to get up, what kind of shoes would be necessary, and how far we would walk. They crew was extremely organized and although we crammed a lot of sightseeing into 7 days, I never felt rushed.
The cruise was the absolute best vacation I have ever had. The service on the boat was above and beyond anything I have ever experienced. I am sure that it helped that there were only 30 passengers on the boat, but it was amazing. All of the crew members knew our names, and all of the crew seemed genuinely happy to be on the ship, and to know us. Each meal was prepared fresh, often before our eyes, and the food was customized to each person's dietary needs. Every single time we boarded the ship, which was 3 times each day, we were greeted with damp washcloths for our hands and faces and fresh fruit juices. A different juice each time, all delicious. By coincidence, My wedding anniversary occurred while we were on the ship. I had thought "wouldn't it be neat to have the captain renew our vows?" but had hesitated to ask for such a personal favor. So, at lunchtime of my anniversary, I mentioned to Michelle, the cruise director, that I would really love it if the captain could come down and say a few words and "marry" us again. Michelle was immediately excited, and ran off to talk to the captain at once. By the time we had returned from our afternoon hike, Michelle had arranged for our cabin to be decorated with balloons and towel swans (surprise!), had the chef make us a heart-shaped cake, and prepared a wedding ceremony, complete with the captain and first mate in full uniform and a certificate of marriage (and all the other passengers as our guests). She also got another passenger to write us a wedding poem that the captain read at the conclusion of the ceremony. It was very touching, and she got it all together without any guidance from us, on 4 hours' notice. Incredible.
The hikes and snorkeling sites were fantastic. We saw sea lions, a vast array of huge tropical fish, rays, sharks, penguins, flightless cormorants, blue-footed boobies, nasca boobies, herons, flamingos, finches, gulls, Galapagos hawks, land iguanas, marine iguanas, lava lizards, bright red lightfoot crabs, and frigate birds. All up close. the animals were completely unafraid of humans and you could literally get within a few feet of them without them even moving. We also walked on lava flows, went into a giant lava tunnel underground, and saw tortoises that were alive during the civil war. I cannot overstate how truly wonderful the wildlife was. If you are interested in nature and conservation, this is a vacation for you.