GALAPAGOS ISLANDS M/V XPEDITION JANUARY 7 - 14, 2007
My name is Phil Haggerty and my wife is Edith Goble. I am a retired city attorney and Edith is a homemaker and former health services provider. We live in Phoenix, Arizona and this would be our 20th cruise. Our prior sailings have been on Carnival's Elation to the Mexican Riviera; on the now defunct Commodore Line's Enchanted Isle to the Caribbean for 11 days; a 7 day cruise, also in the Caribbean on Celebrity's Galaxy; followed by a marvelous cruise from Santiago to Buenos Aires on Mercury, another Celebrity vessel. We then did our Alaskan cruise on Sun Princess, followed by a third 7 day Caribbean trip aboard Norwegian Sun and a trans-canal on Celebrity's Infinity. We then sailed on Millennium for a Mediterranean cruise in May 2003, followed by a Baltic cruise tour on Regal Princess later that year. We then went to Hawaii for the first time on Infinity in November 2003 and did our first HAL on Veendam in the Caribbean the next spring. In March 2004 we took Galaxy from Baltimore to Rome, and returned to the Caribbean in October on Zaandam. In November 2004 we went back to the Mexican Riviera on Diamond Princess. We enjoyed our first Oceania experience on Insignia for a very different Amazon River cruise in March 2005, followed by a short repositioning cruise up the west coast from San Diego to Vancouver in May that year on our only Royal Caribbean ship to date, Radiance of the Seas. In November we spoiled ourselves on Crystal Serenity for eleven days on a Caribbean trip. In May 2006 we returned to Oceania; this time on Nautica for a cruise from Istanbul to Athens and in September of 2006 we sailed from New York to Quebec and back on Celebrity's Constellation. All except the first two cruises have been reviewed on another site; and from Insignia on, they have been on www.cruisecritic.com.
Why This Cruise?
We both wanted to do this cruise because it is completely and utterly unique. There is absolutely no place in the world like the Galapagos. Their place in history as the genesis of Darwin's Origin of Species as well as their status as a totally different and unmatched naturalist's nirvana makes this a part of the world that stands alone in its appeal and flavor. It exceeded our expectations.
The Cruise Format, Itinerary and Shore Excursions
This was a very different sort of cruise. The itinerary is actually chosen by the Ecuadorian government through its National Park Service managing the islands. The order of visitation of each island can vary with each cruise. 90% of the land comprising the islands and 100% of the seas around them are part of the National Park, and Ecuador limits the number of visitors to each specific island on a daily basis. Everyone starts at Baltra, a small island noted only for its airfield, with a small harbor; and you also return there for your return flight to Quito (or Guayaquil).
The format of this cruise is also distinctly different. This is truly an almost 100% all-inclusive cruise. All shore excursions are included in the price, as are all gratuities, liquor (with perhaps a few exceptions for very expensive brands) and coffee, soft drinks etc. We paid only for laundry, while a few others purchased massages or other spa services. Even the doctor was free when she treated my cough, and later, a cut hand.
Planning This Cruise
Despite the fact that control over the cruise excursions is basically surrendered to Celebrity, who paid for everything; there was some pre-planning required. If you go to Celebrity's website, you will see that it offers 7 day, 10 day and 11 day packages; all covering the same 7 day Island trip. The other days are pre-cruise packages in Quito. The 7 day package is cruise-only while the others provide a hotel stay in Quito, some local tours and meals as well as transportation from Quito to Baltra and return. We had originally thought that we would try to combine the cruise with a trip to Machu Picchu, so we booked the 7 day cruise-only trip. After a great deal of research and contact with several travel agencies; we determined that the Peruvian side trip was far too complicated given our time constraints, and dropped it. By then I had done enough research to determine that we could handle our own travel arrangements. This involved contacting TAME (pronounced ta' may) Airlines. It took some web work to do this, but fortunately they have several agents who can communicate in English quite well. There is some difficulty however arising from the fact that I could not pay by credit card over the net, and had to show up at the airport to buy the tickets. I believe the website allows credit card payments, but I never was able to make the site work. Our airline flight was with Continental, which had quite convenient connections from Phoenix through Houston.
As usual when leaving the country. We bought travel insurance from CSA, specifying a low trip cancellation value, but making sure we had medical and medical evacuation coverage as well as lost or delayed baggage protection. The cost was only $227.00.
Arrival and Embarkation
We arrived at the Quito Airport at about 10:15 on Saturday night. We had contacted our hotel, the Dann Carlton, and they had a driver to meet us. Picking up the luggage and exiting was quite fast and the drive to the hotel less than 15 minutes. It is a very nice hotel; recommended by both Frommer's and Tripadvisor.com. The only problem was that our room was above a night club and we were treated to boom-box type music until 2:30 A,M. Because of TAME's requirement that we purchase our tickets at least two hours prior to flight time we had to be at the airport by 7:00 for the 9:30 flight. The hotel shuttle apparently was not operating so they gave us a cab voucher which the bellhop handed to the taxi driver. We went to the international entrance by mistake, but it was only a short walk to the domestic check-in area. We located the TAME desk and bought our tickets, $792.00 for two round trips. We then went into a check in area. We were told to place our bags through a separate inspection machine dedicated to Galapagos passengers, which went very quickly. They are only interested in plants and animals not going to the Islands. We then went to the normal check in desk and were told we had to wait until 7:30 to check in for the 9:30 flight. While we waited we noted a number of tour groups going through the Galapagos Inspection machine area, and by the time we went up to the TAME desk for our boarding passes, there were more than 50 people waiting. While my two bags weighed slightly more than 20 kilos; the weight limit; nothing was said. Edith's single bag did not even come close to the limit. We boarded promptly, flew to Guayaquil, about 40 minutes away, with a snack provided. After about a 50 minute wait on the ground in Guayaquil; with about a 75% turnover in passengers, we took off to Baltra. TAME provided lunch on this hour and forty minute trip.
Arrival and Boarding
The Baltra Airport is somewhat primitive, with a metal roof; open sides, and one store. We went to a desk marked with the Celebrity X. There someone took our baggage tickets and said they would get the luggage to our stateroom. We talked to a representative, who we later found out was one of the naturalists. He kept promising a bus ride. Outside the terminal were a few shops with unimpressive tourist stuff. After about an hour the bus arrived and we were joined by a host of fellow passengers who had been inside a VIP lounge that we had not been told about. While waiting, I found all the Celebrity luggage; and then watched while it was being loaded into a truck. Naturally, our pieces were the last loaded. The bus took us to a very small pier overlooking the harbor, which had about 10 or so mostly small craft. The bench by the entrance to the pier was occupied by three large sea lions who had no interest in moving. We then went down some steps for our first Zodiac experience. We were carefully instructed on how to put on our life jackets, and boarded (about 16 people per trip) to go out to Xpedition.
Our Stateroom and the Ship
After a perfunctory check in at the Guest Relations desk, (they did not even ask for a credit card imprint; merely gave us our room card) we went to our Stateroom, Number 414. Of the 46 cabins on the ship, 33 are this standard size, 160 square feet. The sole difference between cabins on Deck 3 (Deluxe Stateroom) and on Deck 4 (Premium Stateroom) is that the Premium cabin has windows, and the Deluxe portholes. In addition there are five smaller cabins (145 square feet), four on Deck 3 and one on Deck four. Deck 5 has seven Xpedition Suites with 230 square feet and one Penthouse Suite with 460 Square feet.
Our stateroom had two twin beds with a night stand in between. Next to the wall bed was a wooden wall decorated with curved smoked glass piece about 3 by 5 feet with etchings of dolphins and back lit. Opposite the bed was a framed large photograph of trees. Next to the other bed was a small angled sofa, with another large photo of a flower on the wall. There was a small round table under the window (which measured approximately 36 inches wide by 32 inches high) and an angled desk opposite. The desk contained a refrigerator which was kept stocked with water bottles, a drawer which contained a hairdryer, and another cabinet which held glasses. The desk had a very small TV and a mirror above with good side lights. A desk chair was provided. The bathroom was small, but had a nice, glass door shower, a single cultured marble sink and, as usual, very adequate shelf and cabinet space. The toilet was of the true flush variety, and not the vacuum type found on all other cruise ships we have been on. The closets, one on each side of the entry to the bathroom, had a clothes hanging space about 15inches wide and several open shelves, one of which was taken up with a safe. There was a full length mirror on the wall opposite the bathroom. The night stand had a lamp, and three small drawers. The walls were covered with a cream colored textured paint, with some brown wood framing around the window. The ceiling lights operated off one switch at the entrance and gave very adequate light. The carpeting was a patterned orange-beige mixture. The beds were covered with duvets. Although somewhat smaller than a normal cruise ship stateroom, the accommodations were perfectly fine, and everything was in perfect condition.
Xpedition itself is a delightful craft. Of course, with a gross tonnage of only 2400, length of 296 feet and beam of 43 feet it is tiny compared to a standard cruise ship. It is extremely well laid out and as one might expect, very easy to get around. From the top: Deck 6 has an observation deck with lounge chairs forward, the small spa, gym and sauna and then a further lounge area with a hot tub. This deck only goes about halfway aft. Deck 5 starts with a small observation area stretch from port to starboard, directly in front of the bridge. The ship has an open bridge policy, which means you are welcome to visit it except when it is maneuvering to stop. Behind the bridge are the eight suites. Aft of these luxury accommodations is another open deck with the small Blue Finch bar and a few tables. The rest of the deck has the life boats and a center section with the funnel. The aft portion of this deck has the booms used to raise and lower three Zodiacs. The other two are raised and lowered from the prow area on Deck 2. Deck 4 has the Premium 20 staterooms and 1 Ocean View cabin. The midships area has the stairs and Guest Relations. Aft of this is the Discovery Lounge used for all briefings and a generally busy gathering place. It has a bar leading to the aft deck, and three library shelves with about 100 titles. One has to ask Guest Relations around the corner for the key to the shelves. The aft portion of this deck also has the Beagle Grill used for casual food service. It has its own food preparation area. This portion of Deck 4 also has a number of tables and chairs, and the aft stairs leading down to the Zodiac loading preparation platform. This small area contains the lockers for storing wet suits, the life jacket storage, a padded bench for changing, and the stairs down to the Zodiac boarding platform. Forward on Deck 3 are the 14 Deluxe and 3 Ocean View staterooms. Aft of these is the small shop and Beauty Center, followed by Darwin's Restaurant. Deck 2 has the medical office, which you can enter only through a door marked Crew only. The total brochure passenger occupancy is 92, and we had 91 on board for this trip.
The ship is fairly new, having been constructed in Germany in 2001, and placed in service for this use by Celebrity in February 2003. Everything is in top notch condition, and regular maintenance is apparent. One could not ask for a nicer ship on which to cruise the islands.
How This Cruise Operated
The cruise was centered about activities which meant either trips to various islands or water based events. These activities were divided by intensity into high medium and low categories. Each activity was directed by a naturalist/guide. There were seven naturalists under the direction of Jason Heilmann, the Cruise Director; who also is a naturalist. It should be understood that a naturalist is a professional, certified by the Galapagos Government through the Galapagos National Park Service. To reach that status certain education is required, followed by a test, in which the pass rate can be only 25%. Naturalists are also National Park Rangers with statutory authority to enforce the Park rules. Jason is from California, but has lived on the islands since 1995, is married to an Ecuadorian, and has a son. Because he has lived there so long, he was able to be grandfathered into the Naturalist program, and was recruited by Celebrity when they started their program. All this was explained to us by Jason at a briefing at 3:15 after our arrival on board. Information concerning the first day's activities was contained in the four page small newsletter given to us on arrival, and then, for the following day, in the newsletter provided before dinner each day. Recommendation on shoes, clothing and camera equipment were also included. The briefings for the following day supplemented the information in the newsletter, and were held each evening at 7:45. Sign up sheets were provided so each person could indicate what activity they wished to do, if any at all. The list was not set in concrete, but was used by Jason to assign guides and Zodiacs.
Overview of the Galapagos Islands
According to the encyclopedia, there are 13 main islands, six smaller islands and over a hundred rock formations or islets. We visited eight of the main islands (if you include Baltra, a fairly small island as one of the main islands) the small island of North Seymour and many of the islets or rock formations. Some of the smaller islands were low lying. They ware notable for lava rock formations, boulders and sand. The vegetation we saw was largely grey and brown, very dry and appearing dead. We were assured that in a few weeks, when the rains arrived, these plants would come to life, and most of the chain would have green over all the surface. The islands were called Las Islas Encantada the Enchanted Islands, by the Spanish because of the soft haze that hovers around them during parts of the year, giving them a mystical appearance. The name is deserved I think because of the sense of complete isolation from human contact that is true of much of the archipelago. The larger islands had haze around the mountains. On Isabela, the largest island, there are four volcanoes, the most active having erupted last year. These conical mountains rise to more than 7000 feet in one case, and above 5,000 for the others. You feel that these lands are, and should be, untouched by human contact, belonging to the birds and animals who have made this their unique home.
The archipelago runs about 150 miles from northwest to southeast, about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The northeast to southwest depth is about 60 miles. Isabela, the largest island, looking like an upside down hammer, is about 90 miles long, 45 miles across the hammer head and 51 miles across the handle. Santa Cruz, in the center with the most people, is a slightly flattened circle, about 35 miles across and 28 miles in its other dimension. Fernandina, about 15 by 15 miles square, is in the bay formed by Isabelas angle between hammer head and hammer shaft and thus the westernmost island. Floreana, the first island to receive human inhabitants on a regular basis is almost the southernmost and most remote. It is roughly circular and about 15 miles across. It is about 49 miles southeast of Isabela and the same distance south of Santa Cruz. It is 60 miles west of Espanola, a small island we visited on our second day. Espanola is at the southeastern edge of the archipelago, 35 miles south of San Cristobal, and only about 10 miles long and 3 wide. San Cristobal, our first stop, is about 50 miles east of Santa Cruz, and our easternmost site. Baltra, with the airport, is just off the northern edge of Santa Cruz, and probably runs about three miles in each direction. San Salvador , a rectangular island about 30 miles long and 15 wide, is about 10 miles northwest of Santa Cruz, which puts it about 10 miles east of Isabela. So it is possible to see many other islands from Santa Cruz and San Salvador, and even, on a clear day, from Floreana. The equator runs through the northern tip of Isabela, and is north of all the other islands forming the main part of the archipelago; although there are outlying islands to the north, including Pinta, the home of Lonesome George. There are a number of good maps available on the web; found by googling Galapagos Islands Map.
After a short life boat drill, we were able to start our activities at 4:30 the same afternoon that we boarded; a far cry from the usual cruise where nothing much is done the first day until dinner. The high activity, which Edith and I opted for was a Zodiac trip to North Seymour Island, very close to Baltra, for a 2½ walk. The low intensity involved a Zodiac cruise past the Island, followed by a landing for a shorter walk, involving about 2 hours overall. Each Zodiac will hold up to 16 people, and had a naturalist on board and a boat pilot. Both landings were dry landings, meaning that the Zodiac would pull into an outcropping of rock or rock landing spot, and we could disembark without getting our feet wet. Each boatload stays with their assigned guide. We walked along an uneven path, and over some boulders on this low lying island. The first major sightings (beyond the omnipresent sea lions) were of frigate birds. These creatures, with their beautiful slender wings, live on the land and have to scoop fish from the sea without landing on the water. Their wings are not waterproof, and if they got wet in the sea, they would drown. We also saw our first marine iguanas, which live nowhere else on earth. They are masters at ignoring people, much like the sea lions. Then we turned inland and came upon a colony of blue footed boobies. These are actually very attractive birds, slightly smaller than a goose, with long, nicely marked necks and with truly bright blue webbed feet. From about ten feet we watched a male trying to persuade a female of the honesty of his intentions by whistling and poking with his long beak. True love did not run smooth as she sent him packing, with the commiseration of our group. All during the walking tour, which had many stops for photo opportunities, the naturalists would explain the various birds and animals, and other natural phenomena about the islands. All the naturalists (except Jason) were natives of the islands. As we walked back along the western shore we passed a very rocky section of the coast. Winds had sprung up and we were treated to a magnificent surf, with breakers several hundred yards long crashing against the rocks. As they just started to break, with foam along the top and dark water below, there was a long narrow line of translucent surf through which the setting sun was shining; a very beautiful sight.
The dining room opened at 7:00 and since we were back on board by 6:30, we decided to eat when it opened. We walked in to find only one other couple waiting so we sat down with them. After a while we realized that no one else would show up because of the Captain's welcome and next day's briefing at 7:45. We therefore rushed out at the end of the entrEe up to the Discovery Lounge, not so much for the welcome, but because we did not wish to miss the briefing. Thereafter we, and virtually everybody else, went to the briefing and then went to dinner, which meant we were dining at about 8:00 every night. After this first briefing we went back to the restaurant for dessert.
Just as a foretaste, we got up very early to partake in a Zodiac tour around Kicker Rock, near San Cristobal island. This is a large rock, probably 200 feet high, cleft at one end so the Zodiacs could actually travel between the small portion and the main island. I took some photos, but it was still early and they did not come out well, but the rock formation was intriguing anyway. We returned to the ship and about an hour later made a dry landing on the main island with its town, San Cristobal, the capital of the Galapagos Province. We visited the Interpretation Center, which had a number of photos of pioneer settlers from the late 19th and early 20th century as well as an explanation of the overall history of the islands. We then went into the town, which has a population of approximately 3300 and strolled around for a while. The streets were very clean, but had the somewhat unfinished look of tropical towns. Not surprisingly, it had a somewhat laid-back atmosphere and all the local folks were friendly.
We returned to the ship for lunch and afterwards I went to the snorkel gear handout session. I found out that although I normally wear a medium in everything, it took an XL shorty wet suit to fit me. Since I had brought my own mask and a brand new dry snorkel with me, I did not plan to use a ship's mask or tube. At 3:00 there was a lecture on the geology of the islands which we did not attend; opting to avoid education in favor of stretching out for a while. The afternoon again provided a three intensity level of visit options to Espanola Island, and we again chose the high intensity, being persuaded that this label is a tad exaggerated; not exactly requiring a triathlon level of stamina or skill. On this sojourn we walked up to a cliff area from which we had a great view of both albatrosses and great frigate birds. We were also visited by Galapagos Mocking birds, with beaks more curved than our mainland types; but who were absolutely fearless, hopping among all of us. We then saw a blowhole in action. The next bird colony was of masked boobies, several of whom had chicks around, from ones a few weeks old with down instead of feathers, and others who were newborns. We even saw the beginning of one trying to chip its way out of its egg. On the way back we saw a Galapagos Hawk, which is an attractive, somewhat small typical raptor. I should mention the Sally Lightfoot crabs (entertaining name) which are bright orange and yellow with traces of what looks like blue. They are seen everywhere on the rocks near the sea. The other two options were similar to ours except that they involved less walking and more Zodiac cruising. Once again, all landings this day were dry. As would be the drill every day, the evening consisted in cleaning up for dinner, attending the briefing followed by dinner and then to bed.
This entire day was spent at Floreana Island, one of the first to attract settlers as well as Charles Darwin.. Edith took the medium intensity wet landing and trekked to a brackish pond which had a great many flamingos. I opted for an advanced snorkel activity, in which we took a Zodiac to an off shore rock formation called Devil's Crown. This did not work out well since there were choppy waves which immediately closed my dry snorkel, and hence my ability to breathe. On my return I obtained a ship's mask and tube. The afternoon activity was another Zodiac snorkel swim near another off shore island called Champion's Island. Our initial attempt ran us all into a school of jelly fish. The resulting stings, while not acutely painful for most, caused us to get back in the Zodiac and proceed a few hundred yards away to try again. This time we had a good time, being visited by a couple of sea lions who simply wanted to show us how to swim. The visible fishes were pretty good also, and there was one phenomenon none of us had ever seen. There was a huge school of small brown fish, so densely gathered together that we could not see the sea floor beneath them, although outside the school it was clearly visible a few feet below them. Our guide dove into the middle of this school and swirled them around making a hole; which immediately closed up when he left. So, despite the jellyfish stings, it was a good snorkel.
That night dinner planned to be outside, but evidently the crew thought the weather was too risky, so we ate as usual in Darwin's Restaurant. Later that evening as we arrived at out next anchorage, they shone searchlights into the water looking for sharks. We saw some shapes which might have qualified as well as a few - guess what - sea lions.
The morning featured two very similar low intensity activities on Santa Cruz Island, both starting with wet landings in the surf. I wore Teva type sandals with fairly substantial soles that could go virtually anywhere. Edith wore Speedo Water shoes in the surf which had less sturdy soles, so she changed into regular walking shoes on shore. My group walked along the shore known as Bachas Beach, which is a corruption of Barges beach where the U.S. Military abandoned several landing barges at the end of WW II. There were small pieces of rusted metal, about six inches high. Looking like shark's teeth, at the edge of the water. This was purportedly a sea turtle nesting area, and we could see their tracks leading into the sea, and a couple in the water. Prior to that we also saw three flamingos in their own pond; as well as American Oyster Catchers on the beach. On returning to the landing beach I did some off shore snorkeling with some success near a group of rocks, which were a little tricky in the surf, but worked out nevertheless.
The noon hour offered two post lunch activities; the first being a tour of the negine room with the Chief Engineer, and the second, which we both attended being a lecture on early inhabitants ( a rather dubious lot) of the islands
That afternoon we went to Bartoleme Island where Edith joined a group climbing to the top of a small hill, 375 feet thigh, with steps to the top. She reported that there were several stops on the way and she had no trouble with this. My choice was to cross the island to a beach where we were fortunate enough to observe a green sea turtle at the edge of the shore, and thus get some good photos. Thereafter I took a series of pictures of another American Oyster Catcher from about three feet away. I also got a good photo of a small lava lizard, which has attractive spotted markings. We then saw several land iguanas, which are less common on the islands and have good color markings.
That night we crossed the equator for the first of four times, so there was a King Neptune Ceremony, which was amusing. We all got certificates, although Edith and I had crossed via ship (as contrasted with air crossings) on Insignia traveling from Manaus to Barbados in 2005.
We both took an early morning Zodiac ride to the Mariela Islands, three small islands with a large population of the Galapagos penguins, which are small birds, and the most northern penguin in the world. Out pilot was able to bring the Zodiac up to the edge of the rocks, with the penguins cheerfully ignoring us. We were reminded again not to use flash photos since we were so close to the birds. At a turn near a beach which had some sea lions, we saw a flight of about eight frigate birds swooping down on the beach. When they are about four feet over your head in a Zodiac, they are large and impressive birds.
Lunch featured an Ecuadorian Buffet. We have a local Ecuadorian restaurant here in Phoenix, and enjoy the food very much, so we were quite pleased with this buffet. We skipped the history of conservation talk after lunch.
The afternoon started with a Zodiac trip past some Flightless Cormorants, unique to these islands. We had a dry landing and another shore excursion past a huge colony of marine iguanas, and some nesting areas for more of the flightless cormorants with their stubby wings. We both did this trip in separate groups.
When we returned we saw that cushions had been places on the chairs in the rear deck area of Deck Four for an evening dinner, but later it was announced that dinner as usual would be in the Darwin Restaurant because of the possibility of rain.
In the morning Edith went on the Santiago Island Survival of the Fittest hike after a wet landing. Only 13 people participated, but she said it was not difficult at all, merely involving about 4 miles. It visited an abandoned salt mine which had filled in with water that resulted in a pink colored pool. Our group hiked along the shore where we saw fur Galapagos sea lions which come from southern South America. Their dense fur will have up to 1300 hairs per square inch. We also walked over a lava bridge near the sea, and saw lava pits that had collapsed into the sea, but filled up with sea water as the waves surged in. Land iguanas were also visible here. We returned to a black sand beach for some fairly decent beach snorkeling.
Lunch featured an Italian buffet which was quite good with everyone raving about the lasagna. There was an IMAX video about the islands at 3:00. Edith did the high intensity hike on Santa Cruz island while I tried another Zodiac snorkel with less success due to the strong current. I like more relaxed snorkeling. I did enjoy sitting in the hot tub after returning. We skipped the Winged Migration movie in the lounge.
We sailed overnight to the south side of Santa Cruz island and were moored in the harbor of Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the islands with a population of about 15,000. The morning trip and afternoon activities were either the highland trip or the Charles Darwin Research station trip. If you did one in the morning you did the other in the afternoon. Most people, Edith and I included, opted for the highland trip in the morning because the attraction was to see the giant Galapagos land tortoise in its natural environment, and they were purportedly more active in the cool morning. We took a small bus (actually there were several of these) through farming areas and the small town of Bella Vista to a farm of some 700 hectares owned by an American whose parents had settled there in the early 1950s. He had pretty much given up farming for the easier job of licensing tours to the various cruise operations serving the islands. The farm was in what is known as the highlands and appeared to be several hundred feet above sea level, with rolling hills. By way of contrast to the rocky barren lava and rock shores seen on most of the rest of the trip; the higher rainfall in this area provided lush green meadows, with bushes and trees. We left our buses and walked to the farm while exploring a cave on the way. When we came to the meadow area we could approach a number of the giant tortoises of the domed variety. They weigh from 300 to 500 pounds, and seemed to be quite content in their pleasant surroundings, with ample food and shade if they needed it. The farmer operated a small coffee stand on the site. With 120,000 visitors to the islands each year, most of whom will want to see the tortoises in a non-strenuous free environment; I imagine he does better with tourists as a cash crop than with anything else he could grow. We were not charged for the coffee, but I am sure Celebrity paid for this as well as our visit. This was a very pleasant and relaxed morning excursion.
After lunch we took another bus about a mile through a different part of Puerto Ayora to the Charles Darwin Research Station. The Charles Darwin Research Foundation is an international non-profit research foundation, set up by UNESCO and the World Conservation Union to study and preserve the Islands. It is administered by the Foundation in partnership with the Galapagos National Park Service. We walked through the Research station which has a lot of information about tortoises, and conducts a breeding program. There were originally about 14 sub-species of these animals, each particular to a different island. When Darwin visited Floreana, the governor told him he could distinguish tortoises from each separate island by their shells, or carapaces. Darwin originally thought this was simply spoofing the English visitor, but later consideration of this helped form his evolution theory. Three of these species no longer exist, and a fourth is represented by a single specimen at the Station. He is from Pinta Island and is called Lonesome George due to unsuccessful efforts to mate him with females from other islands, although the researchers have not given up all hope. We saw a small group of saddleback tortoises here, whose high, slightly notched shells and long necks enable them to reach up four feet or more to feed on prickly pear cactus pads which hang down from their trees.
We walked back to the ship through town, down a street which was lined with stores, some selling very attractive wares, priced to match. I noted a medium sized woven grass basket for $1550.00. It was quite nice, but not that much better than our own Gila River Tribe baskets which sell for a lot less, although they are not cheap. Edith did buy our only souvenir, a T shirt with a blue footed booby, for $11.00. We were not charged the omnipresent Ecuadorian VAT of 12%.
A scheduled Dinner under the Stars was again moved back to the Darwin Restaurant; following the farewell party and demonstration of the CD which we all received. This CD consisted of a slide show composed of the best of the more than 1000 photos taken by our guides as we were on our activities as well as more standard photos of the staff of Xpedition. The CD actually contains extra photos not part of the show. After dinner there was a folkloric show put on by dancers from Puerto Ayora, which had some nice costumes. The dancers got several passengers involved and it was fun for a while, but we retired at about 10:30.
We had purchased our own airfare from TAME. When we made our reservations we were told that the earlier of the two daily return flights from Baltra was fully booked and that we would not be able to leave until 12:15. When we landed in Baltra originally, I went to the TAME desk and confirmed this. When we boarded the ship, Guest Relations saw our ticket and asked for it. When we received our disembarkation material, it said that we all would be taken to the airport and placed on the earlier, 10:15 flight. This included us, which we appreciated since it would give us a few hours of daylight to see Quito. We were not required to put our luggage out until 7:00 A.M.; but almost everyone, us included, had our bags in the hallway by midnight.
Saturday dawned with the first threat of rain. After breakfast we picked up our bill, which amounted to $20.16 [$18.00 laundry + VAT]. We also picked up a list of e-mail addresses of several of our fellow passengers; which we had been invited to supply. We then boarded our Zodiacs and donned our life jackets for the last time and went ashore. It started raining as we went to the airport, but we got inside and went to the VIP lounge without getting too wet. We were a little more concerned about our luggage, but it arrived in Quito pretty dry. The flight back stopped in Guayaquil and arrived in Quito about 2:00. Jason was with us as far as Guayaquil since he was joining his wife and 5 year old son who were spending the holidays with her family on the mainland.
On arrival in Quito almost everyone else went to the Marriott, and we went back to the Dann Carlton. The time was a little confusing since the ship ran on mainland, and not Galapagos time, a difference of one hour. We had enough time (and the weather in Quito was fine) to take a cab for $5.00 to the old city and wander around; a self guided tour that was marked by observation of the preparations in the main square for the inauguration of Ecuador's new president which was to take place the following morning. We visited three churches, and a plaque on a wall with the names of the founders of the city - in 1534! The cab driver took us back to the wrong hotel at first, but corrected himself. Although neither cab was metered, they both charged only $5.00 and I imagine this means that cab drivers in Quito are honest. We had an excellent dinner with very fine fresh fish for $35.00 including wine for Edith and a desert (of course) for Phil. Our room for this stay was a sort of mini-suite, and both quiet and comfortable. We had to get up early the next day for a flight that was scheduled for 7:40. We arrived at the airport at about 6:15, paid our exit fees of about $37.80 apiece and went to check in. We were told that the flight had been moved up to 7:05 and that they were being extremely gracious to allow us to board. The security people took our 1.5 oz toothpaste, a 1 oz jar of hand cream, and a small bottle of aftershave, although they allowed me to keep and identical bottle of pre-shave. This made no sense, but it would have done no good to argue with someone who could not speak English anyway. I think he was both new and confused by English rather than metric measures. We made it on board with about 20 minutes to spare, and the flight was full. The young lady in the seat next to me, an Ecuadorian going back to her job in San Francisco, said that when she arrived at the airport on Sunday an hour and a half before her flight, she was told that because she was not there two hours prior to the flight that she could not board. This seems ridiculous. In any event, our return was successful, and our bags arrived with us.
As noted; all-inclusive means just about that. The food was generally very good. Obviously the menus cannot be as extensive as on a full size cruise ship; but the staff did a good job. Dinner provided a choice of two soups, two appetizers, two salads, four entrees and two desserts, plus two choices of ice cream. Lunch had several hot entrees, a pasta station, salads, cheese and a fairly decent dessert selection. Breakfast always had bacon and usually sausage, plus potatoes. An omelet station was also available as well as juices, fruit and cereals. When we cam back in from our activities there always was a cold washcloth for your face and a tray of cold fruit juices. Of course you could get bar service at virtually any time during the day or night, as well as coffee, tea and cappuccino. Room service is available. Although I did not think it was used much except by one lady who was ill at the time she boarded.
Passengers seemed to form loosely structured groups, apparently based on age and interests. There were a number of younger passengers on board, including a couple of apparent college students with their parents; a graduate student from Chapel Hill, N.C and several younger couples. There also were a small group of Spanish speakers, but we never did find out from where they came. At age 74 I was probably one of the older people on board, with most of the balance composed of couples in their 50s or 60s. One couple was the object of everyone's sympathy because their baggage had been lost en route. Now if one is on a normal cruise, it is possible to buy some make up clothing, but they could do no more here that purchase a few souvenir T-shirts. Their luggage arrived on Wednesday to cheers from one and all. There were a few assorted injuries in addition to my cut hand. One gentleman had fallen in his Quito hotel room, and there were a small assortment of falls and bruises on land and sea. The sea itself was never rough, although I noted a rocky passage moving from Santiago to Santa Cruz Island on Friday. There were times on a few of the high intensity walks that some people had difficulty in keeping up; although it never bothered hiker Edith or even me. The general atmosphere was extremely friendly, and some of our dinner conversations were outright hilarious. The drill at meals is that you could find someone you knew and ask to sit with them, or simply grab a seat and wait for others to arrive.
Clothing was causal, the only rule being that bathing suits were not to be worn in the dining room. Men wore khaki pants or shorts, with collared golf type polo shirts. I like long sleeve sport shirts at night, but probably was the only one wearing them. The ladies dressed for dinner with nice casual tops and usually slacks. We had read that cool nights might require a light sweater, but neither of us used the ones we brought. Fortunately we did not have to use any rain gear; although it would be a good idea to include a light poncho in making this trip.
Cameras were seen firmly clutched in many hands, although it is a good idea to be selective and not to forget to see what is all around you in addition to photographing it. There are as many opinions on what type of camera or cameras to bring as there are budding Ansel Adamses; so I will not offer any advice. I used a Konica Minolta digital with an 8X optical zoom, which worked for almost everything except long rand shots of the Galapagos Hawk. Be sure to bring extra batteries. The CD you receive at the end of the trip has enough photos to provide a lot of memories.
The crew were among the friendliest we have ever experienced; although their language skills were not great. We had difficulty explaining not only to our cabin stewardess, but Guest Relations what we meant by a facecloth, when we were shorted in that department. One dining room guest had to try three times before he was able to obtain an omelet without cheese. I used the word medico ; which my Spanish dictionary says is the word for doctor when I wanted to get Guest Relations to contact her to change my bandage; and had trouble with that. But they were always trying, and always with a smile and effort to comply. We were told that Celebrity had bought the ship in Europe, bought the cruise franchise slot from another Galapagos cruise line along with its ship; scrapped the old ship, and hired the old crew at salary increases refurbished Xpedition and started this cruise in February 2003. The crew has reason to be happy with their jobs. We found out that there are about 650-700 licensed naturalists in the island group, so there is probably some competition for jobs. One of our naturalists, and perhaps the most educated with a college degree, was in fact a free lance naturalist who was working on a six week contract.
I have remarked with some accuracy that this is a cruise in which you do not gain weight, but lose it while bounding over rocks and lava fields. There is some truth in this; although if you want a relaxed trip you can get that by confining your activities to low intensity outings. This is also a cruise which requires an interest in wildlife and the remote and unusual; with little or no night life or on shore bars and restaurants filled with margarita consuming party goers. But I would not imagine that anyone plunks down the fare required without knowing that.
There are other cruises to these islands. Two ships, Galapagos Explores and Galapagos Legend are very close to Xpedition in size, number of passengers, naturalist guides and on board amenities. There are many other expeditions available on smaller yachts carrying from 10 to 20 passengers. We noted that we were never at a location, after Baltra, and excepting Puerto Ayora with any of these two larger vessels because the Park Service wants to limit daily visitors to the more ecologically sensitive islands. There are several websites which will carry descriptions of all these cruises; but I would think that none would match Xpedition in its amenities, crew dedication and skill, and overall experience. And considering the all inclusive aspect, the pricing was not bad.
This was a very special cruise. If you love wildlife and nature in an absolutely fascinating and totally unique environment; it is not to be missed. It will rank way up there in our list of favorite trips. Our general South American cruise experiences have been among the best we have taken, and we look forward to a Rio to Barcelona cruise in March 2008 on Insignia. The idea of returning to these enchanted islands to stay for a few days with less exploration has some appeal, although I doubt that we will actually do that. We have seen as many sea lions (although the one and two month old pups are marvelous) marine iguanas and marvelous birds as we need to, but we will always remember carefully stepping around them, and having them look up at us in a friendly and fearless way. Read Less