John and I (Carolyn) are retired university professors in our early sixties, who have been cruising since October, 1991. This was our first cruise with Celebrity. We are Elite Captain's Circle members on Princess but have also cruised on Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Costa, and Commodore. Most of our cruises have been in the Caribbean but we have also cruised to Alaska, the Panama Canal, the Mediterranean/Greek Isles, Scandinavia/Russia, Hawaii, French Polynesia, South America/Antarctic Peninsula, the Far East, the North Atlantic (Greenland/Iceland), and the Norwegian Fjords.
For shore excursions, we prefer nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving, or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves, or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, forts, castles, and anything else we can legally climb up on for a good view. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food and good times. Our preferred souvenir is a small regional or national flag. On this trip, I was looking for a flag from Ecuador.
ABOUT THE REVIEW
Other reviews give extensive information on the ship, cabins, food, etc. Our reviews are usually not like that; they are primarily a diary of what we did in the various ports, including links to tourist sites and maps. However, the details of this ship and the daily excursions have been exhaustively discussed on the CruiseCritic.com megathread "Xpedition - Anyone recently back?" (boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?t=158948) and in the member review section. Therefore, I will not be repeating many of those details, but instead will be mentioning a bit more about Quito and some hikes we were able to do on-our-own on two of the islands (Days 4 and 9).
Galapagos: A Natural History Guide, Seventh Edition (Odyssey Illustrated Guides) by Pierre Constant (2009) This book has been repeatedly revised and the new additions as not integrated seamlessly into the text. In fact, it reads like a high school term paper. Nevertheless, it has good, concise descriptions of the history, geology, and flora/fauna of the Galapagos Islands and includes many useful illustrations, tables, checklists, and color photographs. It also has maps (slightly outdated) of hikes that you can do on-your-own at two of the stops. It is available on www.amazon.com.
Galapagos Islands 1:420,000 Travel Map by ITMB (International Travel Maps and Books) This waterproof map has icons to indicate the wildlife typically found on each island. It is available on www.amazon.com.
Galápagos: The Islands That Changed the World (2007) This is a 3-part series from BBC (Parts 1 and 2 were shown onboard the Xpedition). It is available for rental from Netflix or for purchase at www.amazon.com.
We each brought a 22-inch rolling suitcase (clothes, shoes, personal care items) and a carry-on bag (travel info, cameras, binoculars, medicine, change of clothes) that would fit under the plane seat. After packing, the suitcases weighed 30 lbs. each and the carry-ons weighed about 10 lbs each.
We each wore or packed a hooded wind breaker, a fleece shirt (needed to get to/from RDU and in Quito), 2 pairs of convertible pants, 2 pairs of shorts, 2 bathing suits, 6 long-sleeved travel shirts, 4-5 t-shirts or polo shirts, wide brimmed hat, lightweight rain poncho, and 6 changes of underwear/socks. We brought our bungee cord clothesline and washed out socks and underwear a couple of times. Some people brought dressier clothes for dinner. However, we merely showered following each afternoon excursion and changed into the clean clothes that we would wear to dinner and on our excursions the next day.
While many people bring large backpacks for the excursions, we used belt packs that have sufficient room in the pack section for a rain poncho and sundries plus two water bottle pockets; we attached our binoculars to the waist strap. We also brought/wore 3 kinds of footwear:
Keen Voyageurs (low-top, warm-weather hiking boot) - for the plane, Quito,
and all dry landings
Columbia River Runners (water sports shoes/hikers) - for all wet landings
Teva-type sports sandals - for wearing on the ship
DAY 1 (FRIDAY, DECEMBER 10) RDU TO QUITO, ECUADOR
We flew from RDU to MIA to UIO on American, arriving at 7:00PM. On the flight, you fill out an Ecuadorean entry form that should be kept with your passport and surrendered at passport control when you leave Ecuador. However, if you lose it, no sweat --- you can fill out another one upon departure before entering the passport control line.
Immediately after passing through passport control and claiming our luggage, we were met by a Celebrity representative. She told us to turn our luggage and baggage claim checks over to a porter (bags would be delivered directly to our room) and led us to a bus for the 15-20 minute ride to the J. W. Marriott (www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/uiodt-jw-marriott-hotel-quito). It was raining lightly and the traffic was horrendous, so the ride took over 45 minutes. During the ride, we received a brief overview of tomorrow's schedule and the first of many warnings not to venture out from the hotel on our own.
At the Marriott, we received a welcome fruit juice drink. There was a special table set up where we checked in (no credit card imprint or cash deposit needed) and received a handout with the next day's schedule. Celebrity also had a courtesy desk set up in the lobby. Because we had gotten up at 3:45AM to make the flight to MIA, we turned in soon after our luggage was delivered. The room had two bottles of water, the usual bathroom amenities, plush bath robes, and bath slippers. We did not notice any problems with the altitude, aside from a slight headache that was easily remedied with aspirin.
DAY 2 (SATURDAY, DECEMBER 11) QUITO
The day started with a buffet breakfast --- typical American breakfast items, some Ecuadorean dishes and eggs/omelets cooked to order. At 7:30AM, we were directed to board one of 4 tour buses, each identified by a sign (ours was a toucan), to begin the Quito city tour (www.frommers.com/images/destinations/maps/jpg-2006/2830_quitoattractions.jpg). Throughout the tour, we were discretely accompanied by Celebrity security personnel to chase away peddlers and beggars. On the way to the Old Town, we filled out forms for our lunch and dinner choices. The lunch was 3 courses, with 3 choices for each course; dinner was a choice of one of three 3-course meals. Several people wanted their food plainly cooked (e.g., broiled chicken or fish with no sauce) and such requests can be noted on the form.
Our first stop was at La Basílica del Voto Nacional (www.frommers.com/destinations/quito/A30930.html). The exterior is interesting because the gargoyles include local fauna, such as tortoises and iguanas, as well as mythical beasts. The interior was not particularly impressive, except for the stained glass and a view of La Virgen de Quito through a doorway. Although our guide repeatedly called this statue of the Virgin Mary an angel, she is winged because she is depicted as the Woman of the Apocalypse (Revelation 12:1-18). The statue is visible from many places in downtown Quito.
Next on the tour was El Centro Cultural Metropolitano (www.centrocultural-quito.com/ccmq.php) for a pit stop followed by a brief tour of the ground-floor exhibit on Joaquín Pinto (the Michelangelo of Ecuador). Next we visited the foyer of the Government Palace and our guide pointed out other buildings around La Plaza de la Independencia (www.frommers.com/destinations/quito/A30937.html). This was followed by a tour of La Compañía de Jesús (Jesuit Church) (www.frommers.com/destinations/quito/A30933.html). This church is a mixture of Gothic, Moorish and Baroque styles and is lavishly decorated with gold leaf. This was the only sight where photos are not allowed, but picture postcards are available at the gift shop (50 cents each). Our final visit was to Iglesia de San Francisco (www.frommers.com/destinations/quito/A30939.html). This church is under major renovation, which it desperately needs. A huge banner imprinted with a color photograph of the main altar completely obscures that altar and most of the church's major works of art. Two older ladies did not feel that they could negotiate the steps up to this church, so the security person stayed with them while the rest of us toured.
At this point, we were bused to Carmine Ristorante (www.carmineristorante.com) for lunch. We were welcomed with a glass of sparkling wine, but only water and fruit juices were included with the meal. We thought the food and service were very good and enjoyed the outdoor seating area (although most people sat inside). However, it seemed odd to be eating Italian food in Ecuador.
After lunch, we drove for about an hour to La Mitad del Mundo, where there is a monument marking (inaccurately) the equator. Despite the fact that the real equator is about 600 feet to the north, we all took pictures straddling the equatorial line painted on the walkway. It was very windy here, especially at the top of the monument --- we were glad to have the wind breakers and fleece! After taking an elevator to the top, you walk down the stairs and there are exhibits at each landing. Outside the monument are some other museums (not included in our tour) plus many souvenir stands and food outlets. I found a nicely-made embroidered Ecuadorean flag that was a step up in quality from the usual printed variety.
After the long ride back to Quito, we had about an hour to relax before heading out (in a downpour, but there are umbrellas on the buses) for dinner. We were strictly warned not to leave the restaurant on our own under any circumstances. The Theatrum Restaurant and Wine Bar (www.theatrum.com.ec/English/index.html) is on the second floor of the Teatro Sucre. Here we were supposed to have a beverage (fruit juice, soft drink, or beer) included with the meal. However, the waiters only seemed interested in serving those who were purchasing wine. Our table mates had to ask 4 times for a beer and were well into their main course before it was finally served to them. Those of us who ordered wine were never offered our complimentary beverage. The waiters seemed harried and not particularly happy to be serving our large group. However, the wine was excellent and the beef was very good. Towards the end of the meal, we were entertained by a tenor (www.stahlmusic.com) with a fine voice.
After dinner we returned to the hotel to prepare our bags for the flight to the Galapagos Islands. We brought them to the Librería, where Celebrity personnel applied flexible locks and guarded the bags all night. After being opened for an early-morning inspection by the Galapagos Agriculture Authorities, they would be re-locked and taken directly to the airplane and then to the Xpedition for us; we would next see our bags in our cabin. Because this was a charter flight, we could carry liquids of any size in our carry-on luggage.
DAY 3 (SUNDAY, DECEMBER 12) QUITO TO BALTRA (EMBARKATION DAY)
After breakfast, we were given our boarding passes and Galapagos entry form at the Celebrity Courtesy Desk. Although our guides repeatedly stated that the $10 pp entry fee would be charged to our shipboard account, ours had already been paid through our travel agent. We were warned that if we lost the entry form, we would have to pay another $10 to replace it. Celebrity was so concerned that we could not hang onto these pieces of paper that they collected them right after we boarded the ship and returned them to us the night before disembarkation.
After milling around the lobby for awhile, we were bused to the airport for the flight to Quito. Despite repeated statements by the guides that there would only be two people in each 3-person row, the flight had few empty seats. During the flight there were great views from the left side of many volcanic peaks around Quito. One was smoking and was probably Tungurahua, which erupted most recently on December 4. A snack and breakfast (not worthy of comment) are served during the flight. Shortly before landing, all of the overhead bins are sprayed to eliminate pests. This flight seems to be delayed frequently and we arrived almost 2 hours late.
Once we finally landed in Baltra, we were hustled to buses and whisked away to the marina in Aeolean Cove. There we saw our first wildlife --- sea lions, colorful Sally Lightfoot crabs, and frigate birds --- as we boarded the Zodiacs (pangas) and motored over to the Xpedition. The Xpedition never docks, except when it goes into dry dock every 2 year for maintenance; access to and from the ship is exclusively by means of the pangas. We were welcomed onboard with sparkling wine, completed some embarkation formalities, were shown to our cabin, and had a quick lunch before the lifeboat drill and our first excursion.
Our cabin was cozy but adequate. The large shower had a glass door, which was a nice change from the usual body-hugging curtain. Bath robes appeared on the second day. There is one small pair of binoculars in the cabin for use during the cruise; bring your own. Chocolates were left on the bed at turndown on a few nights.
Food on the ship was good to very good, but note that we mostly ate the seafood items. Breakfast was a buffet in the Darwin Restaurant or a continental breakfast at the Beagle Grill on deck. The buffet lunch always included an excellent mixed seafood ceviche (with traditional accompaniments, such as popcorn). The BBQ lunch on Day 7 was outstanding; we had seconds of the grilled shrimp, fish, and lobster. Each afternoon, snacks and beverages are available on deck as you return from the afternoon excursion. The open-seating dinner had a surprisingly large number of selections. The dinner menu is always displayed in the lounge and there is a sign-up sheet to indicate your choices. However, it was never announced or mentioned in the daily program that we should sign up, so few people bothered to do so.
There is not a huge amount of evening entertainment on this ship, which was fine for us. A young man played a keyboard on deck and a piano in the lounge. There was a talent show, karaoke night, and a "Crossing the Line" ceremony to initiate the pollywogs. This crossing ceremony was very tame compared to those we have seen on other ships (which have involved being smeared with spaghetti, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, etc.) and King Neptune had only a stuffed fish to kiss (not a real one). Other evening entertainment included turning on the ship's lights to attract marine life. Often star gazing is also offered, but the skies were mostly overcast every night of our cruise. The last night, the Cruise Director presented a slide show of 200 photos taken by the naturalists during the cruise. A disk with 900+ photos taken by the staff was given to each couple or single and is a great souvenir of the cruise.
DAY 3 (SUNDAY, DECEMBER 12) NORTH SEYMOUR ISLAND
As those who have followed the megathread or read the reviews know, almost every Xpedition excursion comes in a long walk/short walk version; the short walk activities include extra time exploring in the Zodiacs. Each excursion is led by a trained naturalist and passengers go ashore in groups no larger than 16. A briefing is held each evening to describe the next day's excursions (degree of difficulty, gear needed, what you might see, etc.). Following the briefing, you sign up for the excursions you want. Everyone gets the excursions he/she wants, but it is not usually possible to change your choice the next day (unless you decide not to go at all). The excursions are also described in the daily program, which is distributed to each cabin.
Celebrity lists excursion descriptions for the Xpedition online at www.celebritycruises.com, but those descriptions are out of date. Nevertheless, I will reference the excursion codes below in case that might help someone.
The two choices for the first excursion were:
4:30-6:45PM Long Walk Activity - Dry Landing at North Seymour Island (YG03)
4:45-6:45PM Short Walk Activity - Zodiac Ride & Dry Landing at North Seymour Island (YG04)
On our long walk (about 2 K/1.2 mi), we first passed through a large colony of Blue-Footed Boobies. Here we saw many chicks and some limited adult dancing activity. The booby nesting area overlaps that of a large frigate bird (both Great and Magnificent) colony. Again, we saw many chicks and adults plus some eggs. The males were quite diligent about inflating their red throat pouches to attract females. Some of the inflated pouches were huge in comparison to the rest of the bird's body. Along the path we saw an abandoned warbler nest (with eggs) in a cactus. We were also fortunate to encounter a large Land Iguana standing on its hind legs and snacking on an Opuntia (prickly pear cactus). As we looped back to the beach, we began to encounter Galapagos Sea Lions (including pups) and Marine Iguanas. One section of the beach had great surf and we were thrilled to see sea lions body-surfing in the waves. Other wildlife/plants that we saw for the first time on this excursion: Galapagos lava lizard, Red-Billed Tropic Bird, Brown Pelican, Swallow-Tailed Gull, Yellow Warbler, some sort of Ground Finch, Ruddy Turnstone, Carpenter Bee, Sesuvium. The overwhelming number of wildlife encounters on this excursion made it our favorite!
DAY 4 (MONDAY, DECEMBER 13) SAN CRISTOBAL & ESPAÑOLA ISLANDS
Today there were 3 official excursions plus our unofficial on-our-own excursion.
Early morning excursion (only one choice):
7:00-8:00AM Early Circumnavigation around Kicker Rock - Zodiac Ride Only (YC02)
Geology buffs should not miss this magnificent tuff formation, illuminated by the rising sun. The sheer cliffs of Kicker Rock (AKA Leon Dormido - Sleeping Lion) are home to many sea birds and crabs. This was where we first saw the juvenile Sally Lightfoot crabs, which are black for camouflage against the lava. This formation actually has several channels between the cliff walls, but we were not allowed to pass through these in the panga. After viewing the rock from many perspectives, we returned to the ship to prepare for the morning excursion.
Morning excursion (only one choice, but we did an on-our-own hike instead):
9:00-11:30AM Dry Landing at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (YC03)
This excursion features a very short bus ride to the National Park's Centro de Interpretacion on San Cristobal Island, followed by a return bus ride to the end of the main street of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and ample shopping time. After reading reviews of this excursion, we decided that our time would be better spent doing an on-our-own hike on the trails above the Interpretation Center. Our guide book had a rough map of the trails and we ran our plan past the Cruise Director, who simply warned us to take extra water and be sure to make the last tender back to the ship at 11:30PM; he said that Celebrity is considering adding this hike to the Interpretation Center visit to provide a long walk activity option. The CD also informed the naturalists that we were approved to leave the organized groups once we arrived at the Interpretation Center.
The paved trails begin at a sign behind the Interpretation Center. We were unsure of the distances and time needed, so we headed directly for the stairs to the mirador (viewpoint) atop Cerro de las Tijeretas (Frigate Bird Hill). We reached the viewpoint in about 15 minutes (quick pace) and were rewarded with a panoramic view of the coastline. Due to the sparse vegetation, we could also see almost the entire paved trail system beneath us. It was clear that we would have plenty of time to hike the entire loop back to the Interpretation Center, as opposed to retracing our steps. Now that we knew the extent of the trails, we could explore a bit of the unpaved trail along the cliffs at the top of the hill and then hike the remainder of the paved trails at a more leisurely pace. Along the path we saw San Cristobal lava lizards and Mockingbirds.
From the mirador, the trail drops down to the shore of Las Tijeretas Cove, where there is a sea cave that resounds with sea lion barks (although w did not see any there); pelicans were nesting on the cliffs. The trail climbs another hill to a statue of Charles Darwin surrounded by examples of Galapagos wildlife. Continuing on, there is a spur trail to Playa Carola. This beautiful beach was covered with sea lions and featured biting flies. The flies did not bother John, but they got some of my A- before I was able to protect my arms and legs with insect repellent wipes. In contrast to other areas we visited in the Galapagos, there was a lot of trash along these trails. I picked up as much as I could (including a snorkel mask) and discarded it at the Interpretation Center. I wished I had brought a bag to collect more.
We hiked for about an hour including multiple stops and estimate that we covered about 2 K/1.2 mi. We had expected to walk back into town, but there were still people from the Xpedition and one of the naturalists touring the Interpretation Center. We made a quick pass through the exhibits, but did not feel that they added significantly to our Galapagos experience (especially since we had already seen the BBC show and read the guide book recommended above). We took advantage of the bus back into town, where we walked along the waterfront (many sea lions, crabs, and birds) and did some window shopping. Although we are not great shoppers, there appeared to be more souvenirs available here than later in Puerto Ayora. After returning to the ship and enjoying lunch, everyone was outfitted with snorkeling gear as the ship proceeded to Española Island. During the passage, we saw Spinner Dolphins.
Afternoon excursion (two choices):
3:30-6:00PM Long Walk Activity - Dry landing at Española Island (YC04)
3:45-6:00PM Short Walk Activity - Dry landing at Española Island (combined YG05/YG06)
The long walk (about 3 K/1.8 mi) at Punta Suárez provides an opportunity to observe vast numbers of Espanola Marine Iguanas, also known as Christmas Iguanas due to their red and green coloration. As we left the jetty, there was a lighthouse that was being used by a Galapagos Hawk as a perch for spotting prey. Crossing the point, we proceed through the marine iguana nesting grounds to a rocky beach area where Nazca (Masked) Boobies were nesting. We saw many chicks, including ones that seemed to have hatched within the previous few hours. There were also many Blue-Footed Boobies and Swallow-Tailed Gulls (which we saw mating). Continuing on to a cliff area, we had a striking view of a blowhole. Above the cliffs, Red-Billed Tropic Birds and Waved Albatrosses were soaring. Turning inland, we entered the "Albatross Airport" where we saw an adult's distinctive take off and other adult pairs rubbing beaks. This nesting area was filled with albatross chicks, which would fledge within the next couple of weeks; many were flapping their wings for practice. The chicks were also well along in shedding their brown down to reveal the white feathers underneath --- one seemed to be sporting a Mohawk haircut! Returning to the beach area near the jetty, we encountered a multitude of sea lions and many nursing pups. Other wildlife that we saw for the first time on this excursion: Green Sea turtle, Española lava lizard, Audubon Shearwaters, Lava Gulls, Lava Heron, Yellow-Crowned Night Heron, American Oystercatcher, Galapagos Dove, Galapagos and Española Mockingbirds, Large Cactus Finch, and Wandering Tattlers.
DAY 5 (TUESDAY, DECEMBER 14) FLOREANA ISLAND
Today there were 3 excursions offered.
Morning excursion (only one choice):
8:00-11:30AM (8:00-10:0AM for those doing the Champion Island snorkel) Long Walk -Cormorant Point - Wet Landing (EF02)
Heading inland from the beach, we were fortunate to find Flamingos feeding in a very large brackish pond. As we crossed the isthmus to the beach on the other side, the naturalist pointed out many indigenous plants: Scalesia; Galapagos Daisy; Black, White, and Red Mangroves, and Salt Bush. Although this is a beautiful white-sand beach, we could not swim here because the water is teeming with Diamond stingrays, which are easy to see against the white sand through the clear water. We could also see Sea Turtles mating offshore. The dunes along the beach are turtle nesting areas. This hike was about 2K/1.2 mi. When we returned to the landing beach, those of us doing the Champion Island snorkel returned to the ship to gear up for that. The other passengers could relax longer on the beach or snorkel there.
Mid-morning excursion (only one choice):
10:30AM-Noon Advanced Snorkel Activity - "Champion Island" (EF03)
For the deep-water (12 - 15 meters; 40 - 50 ft) snorkel at Champion Island, we were asked to don our wetsuits on the ship and not wear our shoes. We rode in the pangas past the Devil's Crown Volcanic Cone to Champion Island; this takes about 25 minutes. This is a drift snorkel; the naturalists are following each group with a panga and you can signal to get out whenever you wish. We, of course, stayed in until the last possible moment because this was a spectacular area to snorkel. Although the Galapagos's cold waters (it was about 68 °F this day) do not allow the extensive reefs found in the Caribbean, we saw brain coral and barrel sponges. We also saw 2 Galapagos sharks, a school of about 2 dozen Golden cow-nose rays, pencil sea urchins, sea stars, and many tropical fish (King angelfish, Yellowtailed surgeonfish, Galapagos grunt, Panamic sergeant major, Blue chin parrotfish, Mexican hogfish). Near the end of the snorkel, we were joined by sea lions, who spiraled around us playfully. The water was a little cloudy and the sky was overcast, which made it hard to get good pictures. Nevertheless, this was the best snorkel activity of the trip.
After returning to the ship to warm up and have lunch, we saw whale spouts and dolphins as the ship sailed to the other side of Floreana for the afternoon excursion.
Afternoon excursion (only one choice):
3:30-6:00P Zodiac Ride, Short Walk- Wet Landing - "Baroness Lookout" (EC03)
As we approached the landing beach, we first explored a shallow area looking for juvenile sharks. We could only see their shadows. Then our panga went to the other side of the small bay, where we a rocky outcropping with a few Galapagos penguins. There were also many sea turtles in the bay. We landed on the beach for a short hike (about 90 m/300 ft) to steps that lead up to a viewpoint and great views. Along the way, we saw Floreana lava lizards and more finches. Back at the beach, we saw sandpipers (Spotted and Least) and Semi-palmated plovers.
Later in the evening the ship repositioned to an anchorage off Bachas Beach on Santa Cruz Island. This was a night for marine observation, with wildlife being attracted to the ship's lights. We could not get good photos but managed to see several sharks swimming around. Then we saw a flying fish that suddenly disappeared when it was eaten by a sea lion!
DAY 6 (WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 15) SANTA CRUZ AND BARTOLOMÉ ISLANDS
Today there were 2 excursions offered.
Morning excursion (two choices):
9:00-11:30AM Wet Landing - Long "easy" Walk (YB02)
9:30-11:30AM Beach Activity - Wet Landing (YB03)
The long "easy" walk went to two brackish ponds in hopes of seeing flamingos. We did not see any flamingos; however, we did see Black Necked Stilts, White Cheeked Pintail Ducks, and a Great Blue Heron. This beach is also a favorite nesting area for sea turtles; we saw turtle tracks leading to a nest. Walking back to the landing area, we saw a hermit crab and some remnants of the World War II barges that ran aground on this beach ("bachas" is distorted pronunciation of "barges"). Although advertized as a good "practice-your-snorkeling" site, we thought the wave action was very rough for beginners. We are experienced swimmers and SCUBA divers, but still managed to get roughed up by the heavy surf. The visibility was not very good because of all the sand roiled up by the waves. Nevertheless, we did see a good assortment of fish. When we were reboarding the ship, there was a group of frigate birds hunting nearby. One caught a small eel (Moray?) and they began fighting over it. The eel was dropped into the water, but quickly recaptured and swallowed.
Afternoon excursion (two choices):
3:30-6:00PM Long Walk "To the Top" Hike Activity - Dry / Wet Landing at BartolomE Island (YB04)
3:45-6:00PM Zodiac Ride/Isthmus Hike - Short Walk - Wet Landing at BartolomE Island (combines YB05 and YB06)
Our excursion started with the infamous 1.5 K/0.9 mi, 358 step hike "To the Top" of the central volcano for fantastic view of BartolomE Island' tuff and spatter cones, as well as the iconic Pinnacle Rock. Our young naturalist and a few of the passengers had some difficulty with this climb, even though there are several overlooks where you can catch your breath and enjoy the view. Along the way we saw lava tubes, lava cactus and Tiquilia (which only grow on lava), the Galapagos Painted Locust and, of course, the ubiquitous lava lizards. After returning to the Zodiac, we motored over to the beach where the short walk groups had landed. On the way, we saw several Galapagos penguins. We hoped to snorkel here with penguins and sea turtles, but again the sea conditions were not very good and we only saw some fish. The short walk groups had better luck as they walked to the beach on the other side of Pinnacle Rock and saw a sea turtle come ashore.
DAY 7 (THURSDAY, DECEMBER 16) ISABELLA AND FERNANDINA ISLANDS
Today 2 excursions were offered, plus scenic cruising.
Morning excursion (two choices):
8:00-11:30AM Long Walk - Urvina Bay - Wet Landing
8:00-11:30AM Walk and Beach - Urvina Bay - Wet Landing
As we approached the beach at Urvina Bay, a Spotted Eagle ray swam right alongside the panga. There were many sea turtles in the water as well, some of whom were mating. The long walk (about 4 K/2.4 mi) goes along a rocky shore before turning inland. We saw more turtle tracks leading from a nest where eggs had probably been laid the previous night. This area was uplifted in 1954 due to a volcanic eruption. Bleached coral heads (now 5m/7ft above sea level) abound and sea urchin spines litter the ground. Many land iguana nest in this area and their burrows were everywhere. The trail was blocked in several places by males, which we had to walk gingerly around. Wasps were buzzing around but did not bother anyone in our group. We also saw cattle egrets and Small Ground finches. However, the highlight was observing a small female giant tortoise. We had been discouraged by the Cruise Director from snorkeling at this site and were kicking ourselves when we saw others snorkeling with the sea turtles. We had to content ourselves with walking back along the first part of the trail and watching them and some mating rays from the shore. As some consolation, we spotted our first flightless cormorant. After returning to the ship, we saw a pod of dolphins hunting. One group was still returning in a panga, so their driver was able to approach the pod and get some great photos of the dolphins' performance.
Scenic Cruising along Isabela and Fernandina Islands (YK03)
The Bolivar Channel between Urvina Bay on Isabela Island and Espinoza Point on Fernandina Island is noted as a good place to spot whales and dolphins. We did see some whale spouts and (with the aid of binoculars) see their backs and dorsal fins. These could have been Fin, Sei, or Minke whales, but there was no way to know for sure which kind. We also saw a disturbance in the water that was getting closer to the ship. Eventually we could see that this was a dorsal and tail fin snaking sinuously through the water. It didn't look like a shark, but the question was resolved when a marlin leaped into the air! John went off to ask the Cruise Director about this. While John and the Cruise Director were talking and looking out the lounge window, the marlin swam right alongside the boat and they got a close-up look at its beautiful blue back. They also got to see it leap a couple of more times.
Afternoon excursion (two choices):
3:30-6:00PM Long Walk Activity -Espinoza Point - Dry Landing Fernandina Island (YK04)
3:45-6:00PM Short Walk Activity Dry Landing
The landing at Espinoza Point is on a tongue of sharp lava rocks. Marine Iguanas are everywhere: underfoot, sunning themselves on the rocks, and swimming in the water. The trail passes through an iguana nesting area and it is difficult to comprehend the enormous number of these creatures that we saw on this excursion. Most of this walk (1.5 K/ 0.9 mi for the long option) is over lava flows --- both aa (rough) and pahoehoe (ropey) types --- and the footing is uneven. Some Flightless Cormorant nest at this site also. We saw them swimming in the water (along with sea lions, iguanas, and sea turtles) and holding out their vestigial wings to dry. One thing we had thought we would NOT see on this trip was the elusive Galapagos Snake. However, one was spied in a sand-bottomed lava crevice. Further along, fishermen had assembled a partial whale skeleton, stark white against the black lava. As we walked back to the landing, we passed tide pools containing tropical fish, such as the Blue-Eyed Damselfish and the Four-Eyed Blenny.
DAY 8 (FRIDAY, DECEMBER 17) SANTIAGO/SAN SALVADOR/JAMES AND SANTA CRUZ ISLANDS
Today there were 2 excursions offered.
Morning excursion (two choices):
8:00-11:00AM Santiago Island - Wet Landing at James Bay - Long Walk Activity (YH03)
8:00-11:00AM Santiago Island - Wet Landing at James Bay - Zodiac Ride Activity (YH04)
The long walk (2 K/1.2 mi) activity here is another geology-buff's dream. After the wet landing on a black-sand beach, the trail climbs past the remains of Puerto Egas, a former salt-mining operation. Once atop the small tuff cliffs, the trail passes through a dry open area where we saw a flock of Smooth-Billed Anis hunting in unison. The trail ends at a large lava flow, with many lava tunnels that have collapse to form grottoes and bridges. One grotto is called "Charles Darwin's Toilet" --- the round lava shaft fills to the top and empties with the surge of the surf. This is also the place to see Galapagos Fur Seals (actually a type of sea lion, not a seal). We also saw an American Oystercatcher with a chick and an abandoned oystercatcher nest with an egg. Returning to the beach, we had a fantastic snorkel opportunity. Numerous sea turtles were feeding in this area and seemed totally oblivious to the snorkelers. John was able to take some wonderful photos of the turtles feeding and swimming.
Afternoon excursion (two choices):
3:30-5:30PM Santa Cruz Island - Dry Landing at Dragon Hill - Long Walk and Beach Activity (DH02)
3:45-5:30PM Santa Cruz Island - Dry Landing at Dragon Hill - Short Walk and Beach Activity (DH04)
Although Dragon Hill, or "Cerro Dragón," is named after its population of land iguanas, we only saw a couple on our long (2.3 K/ 1.4 mi) walk. We didn't see any of the feral donkeys or flamingos either. We did get to see a forest of Palo Santo (incense) trees and some great views from the top of the hill. Back at the beach, some people snorkeled but we passed on this one. The naturalist said there are sometimes nurse sharks under a ledge but no one saw them.
DAY 9 (SATURDAY, DECEMBER 18) SANTA CRUZ ISLAND
Today there were 2 official excursions plus our second unofficial on-our-own excursion.
Morning excursion (only one choice):
8:00-11:30AM Charles Darwin Research Station - Long Walk Activity - Dry Landing at Puerto Ayora (YI04)
This excursion starts with a short bus ride down Charles Darwin Avenue to the Charles Darwin Research Station. Because it was Saturday, the Research Station was only lightly staffed. Our naturalist showed us a nursery that sells native plants and encourages the local residents to use them in their gardens. She also explained an exhibit that displayed the different types of Giant Tortoises and their ecology. After this introduction, we went to the tortoise rearing cages, where the young are raised until they are old enough to be released into the wild. There were many other enclosures with mature tortoises that are part of the breeding program. One enclosure houses "Lonesome George" --- the last remaining Pinta Island tortoise. George has two seductive females of a related species cohabiting with him, but unfortunately no hatchlings have ever resulted. The tour ended at another enclosure where we could mingle with a half-dozen large males --- a wonderful photo op.
At the previous evening's briefing, the Cruise Director had said that passengers were free to remain in Puerto Ayora after the morning excursion and either join up later with one of the groups for the afternoon excursion or return to the ship when the afternoon groups landed. We decided to take advantage of this second opportunity to strike out on-our-own.
After we had our fill of the tortoises at the Research Station, we used a map from our guide book to walk over to the mirador on the other side of town. This is the start of the trail to Tortuga Bay, which was formerly an excursion (YI02) offered on the Xpedition. When we ran the idea of this idea past the Cruise Director, he said that on future voyages he would include a better map of the town in the daily program for others who would had the stamina and interest to make this hike (round trip distance about 6 K/3.6 mi).
At the mirador, you should sign the trail register. The attendant there spoke limited English (and I have limited Spanish), but she was pleased that we wanted to hike the trail, explained about the wildlife we might see, and warned us against trying to swim at the beach (Playa Brava) because of the strong currents (our Cruise Director had also mentioned that there are a lot of sharks there). There are refreshments for sale at the mirador, free restrooms, and a viewing platform, which has a good view of Puerto Ayora and the harbor. The trail is paved all the way to Playa Brava and passes through a typical arid coastal zone with large prickly pear and candelabra cacti plus many lava lizards.
Playa Brava is another beautiful beach and the surf was up; we saw a sea lion body-surfing. The dunes above the beach are sea turtle nesting areas and are posted with warning signs. Further down the beach is a large colony of marine iguanas and a huge forest of Opuntia (prickly pear cactus). There is a trail through a forest to a large protected lagoon, which is popular for swimming. There were many people (local and visitors) enjoying the warm water. We merely walked along the shore of the lagoon, spotting a pelican nesting in a mangrove and a few fish in the lagoon. We relaxed for awhile under the shade of a mangrove. John was resting his hand on the trunk and a curious finch seemed to think he was a potential lunch; it hopped right up to his hand and almost pecked him before deciding to fly away (and before I could get a photo).
Hiking back along the beach to the trailhead, we saw four young men attempting to surf. We watched for a while and they were joined by more surfers. As we walked back to town along the trail, we continually encountered surfers carrying their boards to the beach. We also were mildly surprised to meet a group of 6 other people from the Xpedition heading to the beach; apparently they had previous visited to Puerto Ayora and knew the beach was worth the hike.
Once back in town, we attempted to do a little window shopping. However, most of the stores were closed, perhaps due to siesta or because they knew the majority of the turistas from the Xpedition would not be back until after 3:00PM. In any case, we had some time to kill before the afternoon excursion. We walked along the harbor and found a good place to sit in the shade and watch the boats, sea lions, and iguanas. One iguana doggedly swam completely across the harbor for some inscrutable reason. There were many small iguanas at the harbor, but only a few sea lions. When we saw the first panga head to shore for the afternoon excursion, we went over to the pier and were allowed to join that group.
Afternoon excursion (only one choice):
3:00-6:30PM "Highlands" Activity - Dry Landing at Puerto Ayora (YI03)
This excursion starts with a 30-minute bus ride to the Santa Cruz highlands. Along the road, there are many farms, which border the National Park. Those of us on the left side of the bus began to spot giant tortoises in the fields and even right alongside the road. We stopped at Rancho Mariposa, a private farm where the tortoises roam freely. Our group started its hike (1-1.5 K/0.6-0.9 mi) in a lightly wooded area and quickly encountered a female tortoise blocking the trail. Many pictures were taken; she did not appreciate being considered so photogenic and hissed at us. As we continued on, we began to see more tortoises --- a few here, a few over there. We also stopped at a large collapsed lava tube that is now filled with ferns and other vegetation. Our guide led the more agile down into the tube in hopes of spotting owls; alas, none were home on our visit. Finally, we emerged into a very large pasture area where there were dozens of tortoises doing various tortoise-y things. There is a pond where we saw tortoises drinking, as well as some ducks. This sounds matter-of-fact but these giant tortoises are amazing creatures. We had been warned that rain was forecast for the highands and this was the point where it started to rain lightly. John and I pulled out our dorky plastic ponchos so that we could spend a bit more time marveling at these creature; those who were unprepared departed for the visitor center, where complimentary hot coffee and tea awaited. We reluctantly headed to the visitor center and tried the coffee. We generally only drink coffee with chicory or other strong versions (like espresso), but the Galapagos coffee was very good. It did not hurt that the proprietor added a shot of rum to each cup. There is a small gift shop selling bag of coffee beans, hand-painted t-shirts, and various souvenir items. There was time to shop when we returned to Puerto Ayora, but we just walked back to the pier to catch the Zodiac back to the ship.
DAY 10 (SUNDAY, DECEMBER 19) BALTRA TO QUITO
After breakfast, we boarded the Zodiacs for the last time to return to the dock on Baltra. After arriving at the airport, we had about an hour to patronize the various gift shops before being herded through the security and check-in lines and into the VIP lounge. I'm not sure what made it VIP except that there were ceiling fans, more comfortable chairs, and two small bathrooms. Some of our group tried to occupy an air-conditioned room that was designated as reserved for guests of some resort, but they were evicted by airport personnel. Eventually, the plane with the new load of Xpedition guests arrived and we boarded the same plane to return to Quito. There was an unmemorable lunch served on the plane and beverage service was spotty.
Back in Quito, we were glad that we had put the wind breakers and fleece in our carry-ons. In addition to being chilly, it was raining and would continue to do so for the rest of our time in Quito. After checking back in to the Marriott (another welcome fruit juice drink, special check-in table, and handout) we had a short break before about one-third of us took the shopping tour. We spent about 45 minutes at a local market that had many, many stalls with all sorts of souvenirs (multiple versions of La Virgen de Quito), jewelry, blankets, and scarves. I did not find the vendadores pushy or aggressive. It was helpful to know a little Spanish, especially because I wanted some scarves in shades of brown (marrón). After that, we went to a much more upscale (translation: expensive) craft store, Galería Latina (www.galerialatina-quito.com/english.htm), for another 45 minutes. We returned to the hotel a few minutes before dinner at the Marriott's Don Porfirio restaurant, where we had a Mexican buffet (one soft drink included). We thought the food was OK.
DAY 11 (MONDAY, DECEMBER 20) QUITO TO RDU
We did not have to set out our suitcases last night; we simply had to bring them to the lobby prior to boarding the buses for the ride to the airport. Our flight was at 10:30AM, so our bus left at 7:30AM. Once at the airport, we said goodbye to our Celebrity escort, checked in, paid the $40.80 pp exit fee, and went through passport control and security with no problems. When you pay the exit fee, stickers are placed on the back of your boarding pass; these were checked at least 4 times before we boarded the plane. Another interesting thing was the additional security check (search of hand luggage) at the entrance to each gate waiting area. We saw bottles of water being confiscated at this checkpoint, even though they had been bought after the main security checkpoint. Also, if you leave the gate area (e.g., to visit the restrooms), you must show your boarding pass to re-enter. We had more than enough time to visit all the airport shops.
The flight to MIA was uneventful, with another forgettable lunch. John had worried about the 2-hour connection time in MIA, but we arrived early and (once we had negotiated the airport maze) passport control and customs went quickly. We arrived at our gate well before boarding started for our flight home to RDU.