We traveled on American Airlines from Philadelphia to Miami and connected to a direct flight to Quito, Ecuador where we met our Celebrity hosts, Tatiana and Vladimir. While in Miami for a long layover, we opted to buy a day pass to the American Airlines Admiral Club where we could enjoy a quieter, relaxing environment complete with free beverages, snacks, newspapers and internet access. We were also able to order from a limited menu at the bar. The price of $75 (2 adults, 2 children) was well worth it, given that we were there for 8 hours!
Our flight to Quito was on a Boeing 757 and was quite full - we suspected that a number of people were traveling like us to the Galapagos but we had no way of knowing who was on our trip.
The Quito airport was quite modern and the people were very polite. We went through the usual immigration and customs routine. I think this took a little longer than usual in an international airport because they enter all your passport data by hand into the computer and print out the "stamp" in your passport. Since we didn't check any luggage, we were able to find the Celebrity guides rather quickly. We boarded a small touring bus stocked with a cooler of bottled water and waited for the other passengers to join us. Celebrity branded headrests helped us easily identify our buses later in the trip. The buses were very clean and featured foot rests in each row.
At the hotel, we were greeted by a special host serving welcome cocktails and were provided with our room keys - two large rooms next to each other. The JW Marriott is a first class hotel with huge bathrooms and comfortable bedding. We were pleased to see that you need your room key to access the sleeping floors. Our rooms did not connect so we opted to sleep with one child and one adult in each room. We were cautioned not to drink the water so we brushed our teeth with bottled water provided in the bathroom and fell into bed.
The JW Marriott in Quito is a large modern hotel with an atrium style lobby. It was bright and airy during the day in the lobby. There is a small shopping area with a gift shop, ATM machine, various galleries and a cafe where you can purchase a cappuccino or latte. The rooms are "classic" Marriott with green lattice style carpeting, flowery bedspreads and marble bathrooms. We later learned that they are changing their decor as our rooms at the end of the trip featured high quality white cotton bedding including down duvets. The huge bathrooms featured a separate soaking tub, large neo-angle shower that was lighted and separate stall for the toilet. A marble top vanity featured a single sink basin. There is a wall-mounted hairdryer with a built in night light. There was no makeup mirror. Bathroom floors are limestone. The lighted hall closet is stocked with bathrobes, umbrellas, slippers, shoe horn and safe. A nice feature is shelving in the closet - we didn't use these because our stay was short, but it was a nice feature for a longer visit. The beds sit rather high and at first seem quite hard, but we discovered that they are very comfortable. Linens are high-thread count cotton and the ample pillows are a combination of down/feather or polyester. There were ample 110 (US-style) outlets both at the desk and in the bathroom. Furniture and woodwork are cherry wood in color. In the morning, we discovered that our rooms faced a big, free form swimming pool with bridges, waterfalls and alcove and a separate hot tub and shallow children's pool. Palm trees, greenery and an outdoor bar and eating area completed the area. The kids were anxious to explore, but the cool temperatures did not invite us in until we discovered that the water was heated (and comfortably so).
August 4, 2007 - Quito, Ecuador
?We woke and went down to breakfast. We gave our room numbers at the cafe and helped ourselves to a large buffet that featured stations of hot and cold foods. There were separate stations for breads, meats, cheeses, cereals, hot eggs and breakfast meats, fruit and juices. Many options were available. Again, we saw many people that we suspected were our shipmates but hadn't acquired that comfort level yet to approach people.
Quito is a mountainous city that appears quite large. It reminds me a little of Athens the way the buildings climb up and down the many hills, as far as you can see. The weather is cool - 60s with no humidity. The altitude (9,200 ft.) gives us headaches and light-headedness, but this is easily remedied by aspirin and lots of water.
After breakfast, we boarded the same touring buses and we traveled into the older section of town to see the cathedral, government buildings and other churches. We toured a "typical" hacienda with an interior courtyard and visited a church completely covered in gold leaf. The palaces in St. Petersburg, Russia had nothing on this ornate church. Beautiful wood floors with hues of red and brown were common inside of the buildings and I imagined they were exotic woods from Brazil. All through the downtown area, darling children dressed in Otavalan traditional dress approached us with beautiful scarves, bags and paintings. We wanted to buy things but we didn't have much time. It is worth noting that the children were polite and respectful and the wares were incredibly inexpensive. We would have loved to buy things and I encourage others to do so. You can bargain here, but the savings almost don't warrant it.
We boarded a bus for lunch at El Crater Restaurant that sits on the top rim of the Pululahua volcano at nearly 14,000 feet. Their website is located at www.elcrater.com. This astounding experience features beautiful grounds, a contemporary restaurant with innovative dishes and incredible views down both sides of the mountain. There is an art gallery with outdoor sculptures and meticulous gardens and a small hotel. Fog rolled in and out with ever changing winds and we could see homes nestled in the bottom of the volcano, the only inhabited active volcano. Do stop in the restrooms near the front door for an interesting surprise on the outside of the doors. The art that described which bathroom was men's or women's were quite humorous.
We re-boarded the buses and traveled to the Mitad del Mundo (Center of the Earth) - latitude/longitude of 0/0. We took some pictures and shopped in the various shops. We purchased some of the same beautiful multi-colored scarves, a wool poncho, small alpaca shoulder bag and some Tagua ivory figures. Prices were great and the shops were willing to bargain as well. There is also a shop that will stamp your passport with a stamp from the center of the earth for $1. Note that Ecuador dollars are tied to the United States Dollar so there is no exchange rate.
We returned to the hotel and the boys were able to get into the pool, which they thoroughly enjoyed. The nearby spa provided ample (and warm) pool towels. We cleaned up for dinner and boarded the buses. We learned that we were eating at Theatrum, the restaurant at the Teatro Nacional Sucre in the old section of town. This is a dramatic restaurant featuring deep red velvet drapes on the walls, large crystal chandeliers and elegant table settings. We enjoyed great service and a performance by one of the tenors affiliated with the opera company housed in the same building. Pictures and menu are available at their website (www.theatrum.com.ec/english). The performance by the singer was terrific, especially his rendition of "Time to say goodbye."(Con Te Partiro)
August 5, 2007 - Fly to Baltra, board the ship and North Seymour Island
4:30p - high intensity dry landing at North Seymour (1.5 hours) 4:45p - low/medium intensity zodiac ride and dry landing at North Seymour (1.5 hours)
We left our bags outside our hotel room at 8:00am, returned to the cafe for buffet breakfast and retrieved our boarding passes for the flights at 9:15am on TAME airlines, the national airline of Ecuador. Our flight is direct to Baltra Island (with no stop at Guayaquil) on an Airbus A320. Buses were due to leave at 9:45a, but were delayed until 10:30a. We learned that the flights were delayed so we stayed at the hotel and enjoyed getting to know our shipmates while we waited. Luggage that was previously collected outside our hotel rooms were lined up in the library where Celebrity staff secured everything with cable ties. We later learned that our bags had already been inspected for seeds and other prohibited items on the Galapagos. Note: TAME has a 30lb limit per person for checked bags. We carried medium size LLBean duffel bags that were only about 18lbs each (packed). This gave us room for shopping. We also were permitted one 14lbs carryon. A full backpack meets that restriction. There are no restrictions on liquids, gels and aerosols so these can go into your regular luggage and we did not have to take off our shoes. The airplane was SPOTLESS and the flight crew was extra polite. We were served a full lunch in coach (no first class). Lunch consisted of sliced chicken rolls with ham and cheese, rolls, mangoes, grapes and a Galak bar (white chocolate crispy). While we were in the back half of the airplane (rows 22 and 23), we learned that we could walk down steps at the back of the plane - a plus for a full flight. The flight was quite bumpy - not a surprise given the mountainous terrain, but we were comfortable at 37,000 feet and the crew allowed us to walk around once it settled down a bit. The flight was exactly 1 hour and 50 minutes (as planned).
We landed on a starkly volcanic island landing strip - reminded me of Death Valley with an occasional cactus but no other sizable vegetation. We passed the small airport on the landing, turned around and taxied back on the runway. There is no taxi lane and we saw that there was one other plane parked by the airport. It was an AeroGal plane and people were assembling to board the plane. The airport sits up on a plateau that rose up to meet us as we landed. We learned that this airport remains from a WWII era U.S. military base, intended to protect the pacific campaign. After we landed, two sets of steps were rolled out to the plane and we were able to disembark from the back of the plane (great bonus for sitting in the back!). We walked about ¼ mile to the airport and watched our luggage being transported on wagons to the airport. We were greeted by Celebrity staff holding paddles and escorted through an inspection process to ensure that we did not bring seeds or other damaging goods to the islands. We enjoyed the Royal Palm VIP Lounge while we waited for the buses that would take us to the ship. This open, airy lounge was furnished with wicker furniture and had a bartender that was serving complimentary drinks. We waited about 10 minutes and then were escorted to buses that looked like typical city buses in any major city. The bus ride is about 5-10 minutes. We saw that we just had to descend the plateau down to a small harbor with about 3-4 smaller boats moored close to a small dock. We could see our ship anchored further out. We assembled on the dock and listened to instruction for putting on life jackets and boarding the zodiacs. The "Galapagos handshake" was an essential part of ensuring safe boarding of the zodiacs. The naturalists will grab your right arm and you simultaneously grab theirs so that you have an interlocking grip on each other's arm. Sea Lions lounged on the seating area and Sally Lightfoot crabs crawled on the rocks. Soon we were heading out to the ship. I have to say that I got very sentimental as we approached the ship, realizing how lucky I was to be taking this journey. We had never done anything like this and it already felt special to me. ? Once onboard, we took off our life jackets and walked up a few steps to the Discovery Lounge where we were asked to sit and wait for assistance with checking in. Unlike a larger cruise, where you wait in line before embarking the ship, here you were personally assisted while being served refreshments. A guest relations representative took our Celebrity contracts and passports and then escorted us to our rooms where we found our keys and various welcome materials. Like other Celebrity cruises, we received a booklet a few weeks earlier than our trip with the contract, luggage tags, etc, but these were contained in a nice faux leather folio that we will keep for future trips. Our luggage arrived about 5 minutes later (Wow!) straight from the plane.
Because our flights were delayed, we were quite hungry and proceeded to Darwin's restaurant for a buffet lunch while the ship pulled up anchor and we proceeded to North Seymour Island to see frigate birds.
At 3:15p, we joined fellow passengers in the Discovery Lounge for a briefing on our visit to North Seymour and also learned about the rules of the National Park. The excursion options were : 1. High intensity dry landing for 1.5 hours 2. Medium/low intensity zodiac ride along the coastline with a dry landing at North Seymour for 1.5 hours (total)
Note, throughout, you will see this reference to high intensity or medium/low intensity. Generally, assume the high intensity excursions afford you the greatest opportunities to see wildlife and the terrain. Passengers seemed to know their limits and we had a good mix of ages and abilities on our trips but with one or two exceptions we always took the high intensity trips because we didn't want to miss anything.
At 4:00p, we participated in a muster station drill with life jackets provided in our room (typical for any other cruise). There are two muster stations, both on deck six. We were arranged by odd and even room numbers - so everyone on the starboard side of the ship went to the starboard lifeboat and the same for the port side. These appeared to be standard size covered lifeboats (like tenders) - more than enough for all passengers and crew.
At 4:30p, we boarded a zodiac for the High Intensity dry landing. The water was rough but the zodiac driver was expert at pulling up to the rocky lava "dock." The routine was similar from here out - the first zodiac driver to leave the ship brings another crew member who jumps off first, lays down slip resistant material on the rocks and stands ready to receive life jackets as they are removed. The naturalist and this assistant help all passengers disembark safely. I never saw anyone fall or hurt him/herself getting on or off the zodiacs. The bag of life jackets is put back onto the zodiac and leaves for the next group. The crew member on shore stays there to assist the next zodiac and then leaves with the last one. Very efficient.
Our naturalist escorted us over a red rock path and pointed out small wooden stakes that mark the trail. We take hiking sticks and set off for the hike, heading inland. Another group that follows us heads toward the beach on the other side so we figure that we will be making a circle and pass this group later in the hike. Our trail is a boulder strewn "path" that is quite difficult to maneuver without a stick. This is not for people with mobility issues, but I was very impressed with how well the more senior members of our tour managed. These were clearly determined people, like us. We saw many blue footed boobies, including nests with babies. We were able to get within a few feet of the birds as their nests lined the trail. Frigate birds and doves were also visible on the ground and in the air. There was a mother boobie and baby that played with the carcass of its dead sibling. We learned that the stronger of the two babies pushes the weaker out of the nest to die. Large Frigates, particularly the males, sit on nests with their large red throats puffed up to attract females. Back toward the beach, we see sea lions as well. The walk here is much smoother and sandy.
This was a fantastic first day, but we quickly observed a few things about how to dress and what to expect. First, in spite of cloth seating on the zodiacs, these are wet. You can expect to disembark with a wet backside - don't worry - everyone else is in the "same boat." It can also be windy and wet on the zodiacs. If you are traveling with some speed, the front of the boat can be wetter because of spray from the bow. I began to take my rain jacket for both the wind and the water on the zodiacs. Later, I might tie this around my waist. Also, guest relations will provide zip lock bags for your camera - be sure to take one. Finally, I recommend a hat with either a wide brim or a sun flap in the back and a chin strap. You are so close to the Equator that the sun can burn even with the cool temperatures we experienced. And, the windy rides stole at least 2 hats from fellow passengers. Expedition style hats are ideal. I saw one passenger with a cap/sun flap design and the flap could be pulled under the chin and snapped in the front if wanted - this would solve the wind problem. Finally, dry landings don't always mean totally dry conditions. And I don't advise that you bring brand new white sneakers on this trip. The terrain is rough and the soil can be any number of colors. The red soil here at North Seymour turned everything an orange color, including my new white sneakers. hiking sneakers or sports sneakers in shades of gray, green, blue or brown would make more sense.
Note, this was one of only two islands where we saw another group - in both cases, Lindblad Expeditions. But there was never a time when we felt crowded by the number of people on the excursions.
Around 6:30p, we returned to the ship to clean up and have dinner. We sat in the dining room tonight and discovered that we were one of the only families to eat before the briefing later. Most people seemed to hang out at the bar until the briefing and then have dinner later.
At 7:45p, the captain and officers toasted us on the beginning of the trip and we got a briefing on the next day's activities. We always signed up for our activities at night to ensure a spot the next day.
We also went to the bridge to take a look around, since this ship has an open bridge policy. We just walked in and were able to browse around.
August 6, 2007 - Kicker Rock, San Cristobal & Espanola Islands ? Excursion options: 7:00a - early circumnavigation of Kicker Rock (zodiac ride only - for about 45 minutes) 9:00a - Dry landing at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal island, including a visit to the interpretation Center and a short walk on the main street (2 hours) 4:00p - High Intensity Dry Landing at Espanola (2.5 hours) 4:15p - Medium Intensity Dry Landing at Espanola (2 hours) 4:30p - Low Intensity zodiac ride with optional landing at Suarez Point (2 hours)
We woke early to board zodiacs to circumnavigate Kicker Rock. A continental breakfast of coffee, juice and various rolls and croissants was available outside at the Beagle Grill. At 7:00a, we boarded zodiacs and approached Kicker Rock. Leon Dormido (Spanish for Sleeping Lion) is located off the northwest shore of San Cristobal. It is a huge rock that rises straight out of the water with wildlife living in the cracks and crevices. There is a large opening that can be navigated but the currents were high so our zodiac driver skipped it. But, the sun was rising as we passed around the rock and the interplay of light, water and stone was breathtaking. Here we saw crabs, sea lions, doves and blue-footed boobies. We returned to the ship and prepared for the next morning excursion at 9:00a to San Cristobal where we visit Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, a small city that features the Interpretation Center. This highlights the geological development of the islands, information on conservation and history of the islands. The Government of Spain finances this facility - not the first such investment we encountered here and in Quito. We took small buses to the facility where the highlight was an assortment of very large cactus plants. The bay is beautifully blue and peaceful. Small beaches feature many sea lions lounging on the sand. We returned to town to shop for 1 hour. Here you will find hats (I bought a wide brimmed hat with the logo of the National Park), T-shirts, other clothing, various knickknacks and groceries. We purchased a woven runner from Otavalo in beiges and oranges, 2 stuffed blue-footed boobies and patches for our backpacks. Others purchased unique teas, candies and t-shirts. We enjoyed the sea lions on the dock before returning to the ship.
After lunch onboard, we were instructed to pick up snorkeling gear at 1:30p on deck six. We found piles of snorkeling gear based on size and we were assigned equipment, which was tried on before taking it. You sign a waiver for the equipment and for snorkeling and then collect a wet suit, flippers, snorkel, mask, safety vest and mesh bag with your stateroom number on it. We took these to our rooms until needed. After our first snorkeling trip, the ship stores these in lockers by room number at the back of the ship. We will use the same equipment for the duration of the cruise. Note: there are a limited number of full-length wet suits but most are shortees. The long wet suits are in smaller sizes and we learned these were available mostly for the children on board. I was fortunate to get one as I was worried about the temperature of the water. A demonstration of the gear follows in the lounge - don't miss this because the cruise director and one naturalist will describe the proper fitting, emergency signals and the appropriate way to board zodiacs with snorkeling gear.
At 3:00p, we got an afternoon briefing on Espanola island and at 4:00p we left for a high intensity walk with dry landing. We land onto black lava flows and walk on the beach, through the low brush and mangroves and then along majestic cliffs on the other side of the island. We stopped to see bull sea lions, red marine iguanas, yellow warblers, fly catchers (small pale yellow birds that seemed to follow us), Nazca boobies, Blue-footed Boobies, waved albatross and their eggs (very large), Galapagos Hawks and a 50-ft high blowhole. We see the nesting grounds for iguanas and got to see some struggling in the water returning after feeding on underwater algae. We found a flying-fish that was discarded or dropped well-inland, most likely dropped by a Frigate or boobie. The terrain is gray rocks and sand - most of the trail is large boulders and was tiring by the end of the walk.
This was one of the best excursions for the variety of wildlife and terrain. The cliffs and blowhole are magnificent. The waved albatross nesting area was stunning and it was a thrill to see these huge birds aloft. Some have a 7 ft. wingspan and stay in the air for days at a time.
We returned to the ship and were greeted by staff with trays of snacks and drinks. Jacobo was playing calypso music on the keyboard and we enjoyed the sun and breeze on the back deck before getting ready for dinner.
Note: after disembarking the zodiacs, depending on the terrain, faucets are available for washing off mud, dirt or sand. After climbing the stairs, the staff are there to help with the life jackets and provide cold towels to wash your face and hands. From here, you sign back into the ship and can access hand cleanser before proceeding up another level to the grill, refreshments and seating area.
With regard to the zodiacs, you board these from the bow of the zodiac where there is a staircase. A zodiac driver is ensuring that the zodiac remains pushed up against the back of the Xpedition while a naturalist collects your things and grabs your arm with the Galapagos handshake. From there, you proceed toward the back of the zodiac and sit on the inflated edge of the boat. The floors of the zodiacs are teak and the sides are covered with a cloth (which can be wet). There is also a cooler filled with bottled water, which are offered routinely. You always wear a life jacket while on the zodiac. About 12-14 people sit on each zodiac. Walking sticks are always available for your use for each excursion.
We clean up and go to the Discovery Lounge to listen to Jacobo perform on the piano before the briefing for the next day. Jason (our cruise director) explains that we will be visiting Floreana Island the next day to see flamingoes, sting rays, crabs, etc.
Dinner follows in the Darwin Restaurant
August 7, 2007 - Floreana Island
8:00a - Medium intensity - Cormorant Point - Wet Landing (2 hours) 10:30a - High intensity - Advanced Snorkel Activity (1 hour, 45 mins) 2:00p - High Intensity Snorkel - Mystery Bay (1 hour, 30 mins) 4:00p - Low Intensity Wet landing - Baroness Lookout (1 hour 45 mins)
Once again, I was up early for coffee and rolls on the back of the ship. I discovered that the bread onboard was delicious toasted and this became my routine for the mornings. I enjoyed the dark on the back of the ship and fresh coffee while others were asleep. My family enjoyed a buffet breakfast in Darwin's Restaurant and we boarded zodiacs at 8:00 for Floreana. This is our first wet landing on a green sand beach. It is chilly and I am glad that I have my rain jacket because it is misty in the morning. We head toward the hills through foliage that consisted of mangroves and Jerusalem trees. Almost immediately, we reach a brackish pond with 20+ flamingoes walking through the very shallow water. The males are bright pink and the females are lighter. We learned that the flamingoes diet consists of shrimp that live in the ponds and turn the fur the bright pink color. We see one juvenile that is almost white. We view the lake from several vantage points including a viewing platform up a short, steep set of steps. There is a railing which is helpful as the steps are uneven. The flamingoes walk through the water leaving a darker trail behind them, digging up the shrimp as they go. The trails, interestingly, remain for some time, leaving a free form design on the floor of the pond. We observe flora and fauna as we climb over the hill to the beach on the other side. This beach has beautiful, white and pink sand. We find a display of carcasses of puffer fish - apparently left to provide education for passersby. We see the nests for the sea turtles in the dunes. Small sting rays float in the surf at our feet and further up the beach, Sally Lightfoot crabs cover the rocks.
We returned to the green sand beach where the boys snorkeled, seeing turtles, sea lions, parrot fish and schools of small white/silvery fish. The water was quite cold. We returned to the ship and rinsed our shoes and ate lunch at the Beagle Grill.
After lunch, I wandered into the gift shop and discovered that all the naturalist gear is available for sale - shorts, climber pants, expedition shirts, vests, hats, rain jackets, waist packs and various other logo merchandise. They also stock an assortment of picture books, small knickknacks and sundries. Note that the shop does not stock an assortment of memory cards for digital cameras. They only had 2 types of memory sticks - no SD or CF type cards. It is also noteworthy that the gift shop is available after hours if needed. If you would like to purchase something when the shop is closed, they will open it for you. Amazing!
At 4:00p, we left for Baroness Lookout on Floreana, which is located in a quiet harbor with a shallow, mottled color. Baroness Lookout is up a short climb to a wooden platform and the view is of the harbor, water and vegetation on the back side of the lookout. The path to the platform is strewn with very loose, gravely lava rocks and the platform steps are uneven. This requires care to navigate safely, but it is not treacherous. It just can be slippery given all the loose stone. I was glad to have a walking stick for added stability. After the climb, we wandered through the tidal pools back at the beach, searching for squid or octopus. We did not see these, but spotted Sally Lightfoot crabs, sea cucumbers and small fish. We boarded zodiacs and slowly circumnavigated the small harbor observing pelicans, sea turtles (in the water), a sting ray and sea lions playing in the water. The mangroves and lava rock were strikingly juxtaposed here. Otherwise, the island was quite desolate.
Back onboard, I purchased a shirt, enjoyed music on deck 4, listened to the briefing, enjoyed dinner and other guests. Because drinks, including expresso drinks were free, the atmosphere was very convivial - people lingered to have a glass of wine, coffee or frozen hot chocolate. This treat was created by one of the teenagers on board and the bartenders gladly obliged, repeating as frequently as possible.
At 10:15p, we dropped anchor and turned on the anchor lights. Almost immediately, numerous birds and sea lions appeared in the lights. They were attracted to the lights because fish are also attracted to the lights. We saw 5-10 pelicans floating in the water until they spotted fish. We were anchored off of Santa Cruz island where the surf is calm. It is an overcast night so we could not enjoy the star gazing that was on the agenda.
August 8, 2007 - Santa Cruz and Bartolome Islands
Excursion options: 9:00a - Flamingo search - wet landing, low intensity (2-3 hours) 9:30a - Beach activity - wet landing, low intensity (2-3 hours) 4:00p - To the top - high intensity dry/wet landing at Bartolome island (2.5 hours) 4:15p - Isthmus hike - medium intensity - wet landing at Bartolome island (2 hours) 4:30p - Coastal exploration - low intensity - wet landing at Bartolome island (2 hours)
We wake early to look at the stars since the sky has cleared. With no lights in sight, the stars seem incredibly close to the ship. Today, we go ashore at Bachas Beach on Santa Cruz for a low-intensity beach stroll and snorkel. Our snorkel bags easy to carry onto the beach where we pile them up before our hike. It was surreal to pull the boat up to this pristine white/beige beach. I could easily imagine how awful it would become in another place. But here, the sea lions rest on clean undisturbed sand and the water is crystal clear to the bottom of the shallow harbor. We see small birds and nests for baby turtles. There were sea urchins and molted crab shells on the beach. We also saw a very large blue heron perched on a lookout rock near the shore. Small puffer fish swim close to shore and are easily spotted in the clear water. We saw 2 sunken barges left by the United States after WWII. All that were visible were metal posts that poked out of the beach. We learned that certain times of the year, the sand is much lower and more of the barges can be seen. Bachas Beach is "Spanglish" for Barges. The surf here is "lapping" at most. Blue skies invite me into the water, which is cool, but not horrible!. After trekking back to our snorkeling gear, we hop into the water - quite doable given the warmer water and clear bottom. There wasn't much to see in these waters, but we did see puffer fish, one large parrot fish, sea cucumbers and schools of small fish.
We took the zodiacs back to the ship for lunch and a lecture on the people of the Galapagos. Lunch was Mexican today, but it was hard to distinguish from some of the Ecuadorian food we'd enjoyed up to now. We met two more well-traveled people while our children enjoyed cards in the lounge with their friends. Carlos, the bartender, entertained the young people with magic tricks and there were a number of board games they enjoyed too. We learned that Carlos had been on the Infinity when we sailed on it to the Caribbean.
We signed up for a tour of the engine room for the next day. Note, this tour only gets offered 2-3 times and is limited to 8 guests. If this interests you, be sure to sign up early.
We sailed to Bartolome Island and at 4:00p. Here the water was a deep blue and the swells and winds were much higher. The terrain here is a deep orange/red color - volcanic and stark. This is the island most people refer to as lunar or mars-like. We take the zodiacs to a lava dock. From here, we hike almost 400 steps up to the top of a volcano. This walk is a combination of sand, dirt, loose stones and wooden walkways. The steps are uneven but the handrails are sturdy. The wind was also strong at times - I recommend a strap here for your hat and sunglasses. Several people complained of sand in their eyes, so larger wraparound sunglasses would pay off here. There are 3 viewing platforms where our group stopped to catch our breath and to learn about the numerous volcanoes that we could see from here. At the top of the hike, there is a lighthouse and a large area to walk around and take pictures. The view below is probably one of the most famous of a peninsula with twin beaches and greenery between. There is also an interesting pinnacle rock formation to the right. We could see 15-25 volcanoes from this vantage point. On the way down, we had an opportunity to "play" with some of the volcanic rocks that were very light to pick up. Numerous "he-man" photos were taken here! Please note that most of the passengers made this assent and they all made it. It was tougher than our prior hikes, but well worth the climb. We returned to the zodiacs so that we could tour the coast looking for penguins, which were perched on rocks or swimming in the waters near the island. We also saw the coastal end of the many lava tubes that results from cooled floes. Snorkelers went to shore where they had a very cold swim. I think the penguins were the first clue! They saw swimming penguins, schools of fish, a giant starfish, chocolate chip starfish and sea cucumbers. The water was about 30 feet deep. They also indicated that the submerged rock formations were very interesting along the shore.
Back onboard, we enjoyed dinner and a performance by Jacobo on the flute. We had our briefing for the next day. Unfortunately, we chose to go to sleep because we later learned that this evening, when we crossed the Equatorial line, a surprise visitor (King Neptune) arrived and picked a queen from among the passengers. King Neptune was actually one of the naturalists. From the pictures, we gathered that everyone had a really good time, so be sure to consider staying up for this. It is also noteworthy that we did not hear any of this, in spite of the fact that our room was directly below the lounge.
August 9, 2007 - Isabela and Fernandina Islands
Excursion Options: 8:00a and 9:30a - Zodiac Ride - Mariela Island - low intensity (1.5 hours) 11:00a - Scenic cruising (onboard) to view whales, dolphins and sea lions 4:00p - Espinoza Point - high intensity dry landing at Fernandina Island (2.5 hours) 4:15p - Zodiac Ride and optional dry landing - low intensity (1.5 hours)
This morning, we woke early to board an 8:00a zodiac at Isabela Island to see penguins, sea turtles and flightless cormorants. We approached the shore which was lined with mangroves. We entered a narrow mangrove lined passage into protected coves where we turned off the engine of the boat and paddled in very shallow and clear waters. We floated gently through this area and saw many sea turtles - at first just their heads, but after a while, they swam around our boats and bobbed up for air. We spotted 5-6 Galapagos Hawks in the trees and the mangroves were large and lush in this area. Exiting the mangroves, we enjoyed 2 small sea lions that frolicked around our boat. We also saw sea lions sleeping on the mangrove trees. We returned to the open water to circumnavigate small rocky islands covered in guano. Cormorants, penguins and blue footed boobies covered the surface of these rocks. The overcast and sunny skies allowed us to see the ship, water and rocks cast in many different colors. Sometimes the boat glistened in the sunlight and other times, it was shrouded in mist. We also saw one of the most extraordinary events - hundreds of blue footed boobies circled overhead looking for schools of fish. Seemingly all at once, hundreds of the boobies would dive like torpedoes into the water to pull out a fish. This repeated itself over and over. We lingered in this area to enjoy this spectacular sight.
Back on board, we enjoyed an Ecuadorian lunch. The Yuca rolls were fabulous. I enjoyed the Otavalan textiles in bright shades of blue, yellow, green and red that decorated the buffet.
At 2:15p, we took our tour of the engine room where we learned about the generators, fire safety, the propellers and the onboard desalination plant. We had to wear headphones while in the engine room because of the noise but back in the control room, we were able to see all the controls and even saw the team addressing various needs elsewhere onboard.
We rejoined a conservation talk by Jason, our cruise director. We learned about efforts to protect the islands and the challenges faced by the National Park.
At 4:00p, we boarded the zodiacs for a high intensity walk across lava floes on Fernandina. We see large colonies of marine iguanas, a displayed whale bone, a colony of flightless cormorants - mostly the young ones waiting for their mothers to return with dinner. It was interesting that they were mostly facing the direction of the water, just like humans looking for the first sign of their mothers. Sea turtles lounged on the protected beaches and swam in tidal pools. We learned that a river flows under the lava where we walked, when the tide is high. We watched marine iguanas coming in from the sea. Here the clouds cleared and we enjoyed very hot sunshine while walking among the mangroves and on the black lava floes. There is a large piece of equipment left over by the ship "Radio" that sank here in the 1930s. Tidal pools are covered with bright green algae. We also see many spines from sea urchins - almost like walking on sand they are so plentiful. Manuel shows us hermit crabs, a mollusk and a baby sea cucumber all under a lava rock. We also see endemic lava cactus.
Returning to the ship, we enjoy calypso music, small snacks and fresh cold towels. We relax for the lecture on the next day. We quickly chose the fur seal hike for the morning on Santiago Island and the inland hike to see land iguanas for the afternoon on Santa Cruz. Dinner is served as a buffet on both decks 4 and 5 with choices of Ecuadorian fare. "Candlelight" is provided by yellow globe lights that are affixed to the outside decks. Beautiful Otavalan linens grace the tables and I decide I need to purchase some of these when we dock in town or back in Quito. Everyone is in a festive mood and the waiters bring on multiple bottles of wine.
August 10, 2007 - Santiago and Santa Cruz Islands
Excursion Options: 8:00a - Survival of the Fittest - high intensity hike with wet landing (3 hours) 8:15a - High intensity hike to see fur seals with wet landing at James Bay (3 hours) 8:30a - Low intensity zodiac ride with wet landing at Port Egas (2 hours) 4:00p - Inland hike - high intensity with dry/wet landing (2 hours) 4:15p - Advanced snorkeling activity - high intensity from the zodiac (1.5 hours) 4:30p - Beach and swim - low intensity dry/wet landing (1.5 hours)
We realize this morning that we only have 2 more full days. We have been really busy, but not ready to leave. In surveying the options for today, we decided not to do the survival of the fittest hike because we would miss the fur seals and there are no animals to view on this hike. We boarded the zodiacs for the morning excursion and landed on black sand at James Bay. The terrain here is interesting. Rock formations are sandy and clearly wind-swept. You can break apart the formations here so we are careful not to touch the rocks. We walk inland across sandy terrain to see lava and ash deposits along the coast. A large lava tube that collapsed in sections frame a beautiful grotto where we find sea lions and fur seals hidden down in the rocks. We see more marine iguanas, yellow warblers, a finch nest, Darwin finches, blue heron and Sally Lightfoot crabs. A baby sea lion is nursing on hits mother and several quite young sea lions lounge near a very large bull seal. Morning glories with their long tentacles reach along the dunes, crisscrossing and creating a natural barrier against sand erosion from the winds. The sun begins to creep out occasionally, but the morning remains misty and cool. We reached a point where we were able to see the fur seals and then returned inland to return to the beach.
After lunch, we have an opportunity to sit with one of the naturalists that will share stories about their careers and lives in the Galapagos. We chose to sit with Ivan Lopez who is 26 years old. He is the 9th of 9 children, born to parents that were a surgeon and director of the university in the Galapagos. His dad founded the university in the islands. He has one young child and a wife and works for both Celebrity and the Park. He described the extensive education and training required by the park service. He started a dive master company and shared his experiences setting up an international dive festival in the islands. He works to educate fishermen about the dangers of overfishing and heads the Chamber of Commerce in his home town of San Cristobal. He remains active in local issues and interacts with the local officials regularly. We were impressed.
At 4:00p, we leave for Santa Cruz. We have a dry landing on lava rocks. A blue heron greets us as we disembark. We see many large cactus. We walk down to a small beach where we drop our snorkeling gear. The sand is beige and we walk over black lava rocks to another similar beach but here you can see that the tide is low and many lava rocks with algae line the shore (in front of the sand, interestingly). Inland, we pass a couple brackish ponds with no flamingoes. The water level is quite low and from here, the terrain becomes red with small lava rocks (all red) with touches of blue, gray and black. Cactus and white trees cover the hilly landscape. Cactus trees are 10-15 feet high. As we turn inland too, we see tall grasses 3 ft. high and the soil is very red. We spot several solitary land iguanas and large holes that we learn are their nests. The holes are 8-12 inches in diameter and face downward or into the hillside. The air is much hotter here and an occasional breeze or shady cactus is very welcome. The land iguanas are quite large and bright yellow from the cactus fruit they eat. We learned that they will stay underneath a cactus for a long time waiting for a piece of fruit to fall off the tree. We climb a hill and continue to see similar terrain before descending to the other side and back to the beach. We spot finches, warblers, 2 brown pelicans near the beach, oyster catchers and grass hoppers. Some stay at the beach for snorkeling and swimming. Note that this was the driest and hottest excursion so be sure to grab a bottle of water before disembarking. There is not a lot of shade and I advise a good hat and sunscreen for this trip. ? August 11, 2007 - Santa Cruz Island
Excursion Options: 8:00a - Highlands medium intensity dry landing at Port Ayora (3 hours) 8:15a - Charles Darwin Research Station - high intensity with dry landing (3 hours) 3:00p - Beach activity - Tortuga Bay - fast paced hike with dry landing (3 hours) 3:00p - Highlands medium intensity dry landing at Port Ayora (3 hours) 3:15p - Charles Darwin Research Station - high intensity with dry landing (3 hours) Note: the morning and afternoon excursions are repeated so that ½ the passengers will do the reverse of the other ½ the passengers.
We have 2 choices today and both are repeated in the morning and afternoon so that everyone will get a chance to do both, but not all at once. We chose the Charles Darwin center in Port Ayora in the morning, followed by the afternoon tour of the highlands to see the tortoises in the wild. But, at breakfast, Jason asked if we could reverse our trip because of load balancing. We disembark at 8:15a and find the surf is quite rough. But, the guide says it is actually mild compared with some days. The swells make the disembarking process a little challenging with the zodiac pulling away from the ship from time to time. But the naturalists were expert at ensuring everyone boarded safely. It was an impressive effort that we repeatedly watched throughout the week. Here, we are quite far out, but this is a harbor with many smaller boats moored closer in. We work our way through the maze of boats to a dry dock where we board a small bus for the ride up to the farm where we will see the tortoises. The bus is only 2 seats on one side and 1 seat on the other side. We find that the roads are paved out of town. This contrasts with the pavers we have gotten used to seeing in the port/city areas of the islands. As we rise to the higher ground, the foliage changes dramatically. Now we see papaya, bananas, ferns and what appear to be old growth trees, with ferns growing out of moss on the tops of the branches. The enormous cactus are replaced by grasses and moss. At higher altitudes, we also have mist and rain. The roads say 50km/hr but are controlled by speed bumps that we reach repeatedly. We visit a private farm down a muddy red soil road among high brush and trees. As we turn off onto this red dirt road, we slow considerably. We wind back into the interior of this 300 acre farm. We stop up near the house after passing 10+ tortoises in the fields. We hike back into the back area after stopping to view a tortoise shell carcass. The grass is wet and high and the soil is muddy. We pick our way across the fields to approach 8-10 tortoises and saw maybe 5-6 others. The smaller ones are females and the larger ones male. They live to be 150-200 years old. Most retracted into their shells as we approached, as expected. These tortoises were not raised in captivity so they are inclined to hide, but we learned the ones at the Charles Darwin Research Center will not do that. They make a hissing noise that is the sound made when they retreat. It was kind of like air brakes! We learned the only other sound like this is a humping noise when they mate. We see grapefruit trees, white egrets (migrated from Africa), Darwin finches and fly catchers. The terrain is muddy and rocky with tall grasses that make our shoes and pants quite dirty. We walk to a huge lava tunnel with hanging vines and rocks. Pictures in this area are quite tropical. We returned to town to shop for t-shirts and textiles. We returned to the ship for lunch - sushi is on the menu! There are also a few artists that have set up tables to sell jewelry and artwork.
At 3:15p, we boarded zodiacs for shore again. The sun has come out and we take a short bus ride to the Charles Darwin Research Station. The bus drops us off outside the facility and it is a short hike back through the grounds to a series of smaller buildings dedicated to information and updates on the status of the Galapagos species. We learned that destructive goats have been eradicated from the islands which will help with increasing the iguana population. We also saw a display of the incubators used to raise the baby tortoises and a display of tortoise shells that help us understand the different species. We walk outside to see pens where baby tortoises are raised until they are old enough to be returned to the wild. We see Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta tortoises. Efforts are under way to figure out how to save the species, but a solution has not been derived yet. We walk through more pens of female and male tortoises and land iguanas. A little boy dropped his yellow sunglasses into the iguana pen and the iguana quickly walked over to the sunglasses and began licking them - attracted to the color with is similar to the prickly pear fruit. Manuel retrieved the sunglasses, but not before the iguana ran very fast in the other direction. We also saw 2 female tortoises fighting in another pen. We were able to walk among some of the males and take pictures. We then wandered back to town and purchased some tablecloths before boarding the zodiac to return back onboard. We purchased 2 ice cream cones for $1.20 and noted that gas in town is $1.45/gallon.
Well, we are at the end on the line. Tonight, we realize its over, but we also got to see everything we came plus much more that we didn't expect. Before I go through disembarking, I want to comment on a few things related to the experience.
1. The naturalists are unbelievably knowledgeable and interested in their work. We were all inspired and you will be too. They will make your trip extremely interesting and they tirelessly answer a million questions. 2. The staff on the ship and in Quito could not do enough for us. We never had a better experience with any category of staff - waiters, doctor, purser's desk, bartenders, cabin crew - they were the best we've ever experienced. 3. We saw 10 times more of every animal than we thought we would. 4. We took over 800 pictures on two digital cameras 5. The whole experience was first class - We could not have been happier with hotel, restaurants, ship and buses. 6. The all-inclusive nature of this trip cut down on stress - there is a lesson in that for us and for the tour operators we will seek out. 7. While reports abound about the condition of the Galapagos (being endangered), we found the areas we toured to be pristine and we were delighted about that. We left committed to help our own environments. 8. The passengers were unfailingly pleasant. We enjoyed all generations and interacted like friends and family on an adventure together. Most people had cruised before. 9. The logistics of this trip were much easier that it would seem. 10. Pack light and pack right.
Okay, now back to the rest of the trip. We received a letter in our room providing us with instructions for disembarking. We received green luggage tags (everyone did) that we put on our checked luggage with our names. We received a preliminary bill and were instructed to come to the office to settle up as soon as possible. Note that 12% VAT/sales tax was added to our purchases in the gift shop. Also, we paid $60 for 3 hours of internet service. Finally, there were 2 laundry charges. I found that the laundry charges on this ship were VERY reasonable and I always received my clothes the same day I submitted them, but did not pay a fee for expedited service.
Before dinner, we enjoyed one last lecture with Jason who shared a slide show of photos taken during the trip. This was great because there were many photos of our fellow passengers and some funny ones that we all enjoyed. Jason surprised us with our own copy of the show and 400 photos that would be delivered to our staterooms after dinner. We were thrilled. Proof again that Celebrity exceeded our expectations.
Captain Ponce sponsored a farewell toast, followed by dinner in the dining room. We enjoyed a folkloric show following dinner. Three beautiful Ecuadorian ladies danced in dresses hand painted with pictures of the wildlife in the Galapagos. A small quartet provided music.
Sure enough, when we returned to our rooms, the photo disks were in our rooms along with a signed letter from the captain, cruise director and hotel director thanking us for joining them on this trip. In addition, we received an e:mail list for our fellow passengers.
August 12, 2007
We left our checked and tagged baggage outside our rooms at 7:00a and had breakfast in the dining room.
We watched as our luggage was loaded onto zodiacs for the trip to the airport. At 8:30a, we began disembarking and boarded the same buses to the airport. When we arrived at the airport, we were dropped off in front of a row of small shops where we could purchase last minute items before we picked up our boarding passes.
Boarding passes were later handed out in a private section of the airport and this was done by floor on the ship (i.e there were three rows). Our luggage receipts were attached to our boarding passes. We waited a short while in the main airport terminal, which is an open air (but covered) area that was quite crowded. We were instructed to proceed through security and then were escorted to the Royal Palm VIP Lounge where we were able to get coffee and other soft beverages. We boarded the flight that would stop in Guayaquil and then proceed to Quito. Travel time was about 3.5 hours. We picked up our luggage at baggage claim and quickly found our hostess in Quito. Our bags were taken directly to the hotel where they were sent up to our rooms. We were greeted at the hotel by the welcome staff and provided with our keys to our rooms.
We were delighted to find out that our rooms this time were connecting and that the boys each had a double bed, while we had a king bedded room. Fabulous! We cleaned up and joined the group for a trip to a local gallery, Galeria Latina where we were able to purchase quality goods at a discount. I purchased an incredibly soft alpaca poncho with a curly alpaca color in a deep red color. We also purchased an alpaca sweater for my husband and some smaller souvenirs. I am sorry we didn't have more time because they had beautiful silver jewelry, scarves, rugs, woven bowls, bags, leather goods, etc. It is a two story place and the prices seemed very fair to me. We then proceeded to the open air market where we could purchase much lower priced items, like scarves, hats, belts and bags. We purchased my son a fedora and a few more gifts.
We returned to the hotel for a quiet dinner in their upscale restaurant where we enjoyed complimentary wine and beer and a 3 course meal. The dEcor is Mediterranean and there was a live saxophonist performing for us. We were very tired so we ate quickly and said goodbyes to our fellow passengers before retiring for an early morning flight from Quito.
August 13, 2007
Celebrity provided buses for early morning departures leaving the hotel at 4:00a and 5:40a. Later departures used the Marriott shuttle service and left at 7:20a, 9:15a, 2:15p and 4:11p. It appeared that these were set up based on the actual flight arrangements provided to Celebrity prior to the trip. Other departures from the hotel could be arranged through the hotel.
We arrived at the Quito airport and proceeded to the American Airlines counter to pick up our boarding passes. After that, we had to go to the counter to pay our departure taxes, which were ~$42/person. Note - this is cash only. There is an ATM machine in the lobby of the JW Marriott in Quito. My bank charged a $3.60 ATM/foreign fee for the withdrawal I made for this purpose.
After that, we proceeded through immigration and then security. Once we arrived at our gate, we went through another level of security, I believe because the airline was required to comply with FAA and TSA guidelines for flights going to the United States. No problem! We once again boarded a very full flight. My husband was pulled out of line for a search. We had no problems storing our carry on luggage because most people seemed to check their luggage. Good for us. We met up with a few of our fellow passengers and enjoyed a few last minute laughs.
I noticed right away that we were back to the usual grouchy flight attendants from the United States - oh well...back to reality. But, it will be a long time before the smile comes off my face - we just had the best vacation of our lives.
Clothing for this trip: 1. Lightweight and breathable rain jacket or shell 2. Expedition style hat with sun flap and chin strap (or a hat with a firm and wide brim and with chin strap) 3. Keen or similar brand sandals - waterproof, good traction and toe guards. This is a great investment! 4. Hiking sneakers in a dark color - don't bring nice white sneakers like me - they were destroyed. 5. Polarized sunglasses with strap fastened to the back (so you don't lose them) 6. 1-2 long pants like climber pants, cargo pants or athletic pants 7. 1-2 shorts or capris 8. I nicer outfit for dinners out. Accessorize with a sweater or scarf to keep the bulk down. 9. Sweater or fleece jacket for cooler nights 10. Waist pack or back pack for excursions - you will want to have a Ziploc bag for your camera, a tissue or two, and a bottle of water
While this trip is advertised as strictly casual, you will want to dress up a little for dinner. I found that we were a little too casual compared with our fellow passengers. I didn't mind because I followed the outlines, but others seemed to be better prepared for the dressier places in Quito.
Also, don't bring lots of clothes. Even as light as we packed, we did not use all that we had. And, the inexpensive and efficient laundry service on Xpedition is a good alternative to lugging lots of clothes with you.