This review concerns the 5 day/4 night Eastern Galápagos Islands cruise on the MV Santa Cruz, operated by Metropolitan Touring, through which you can book directly. I think I would use the term expedition, as opposed to cruise, as this is a fulfilling, active adventure that is inclusive of all excursions. We opted for this shorter itinerary so that our children (ages 11/14/16) would remain engaged. Frankly we saw most of the animals that we would have seen on a longer cruise (with a few exceptions), but I'd highly suggest doing your homework on itinerary and time of year to ensure that you are visiting the islands of most interest to you. Another important factor to consider is the size of the boat. The Santa Cruz is one of the largest ships navigating in the Galápagos with a passenger capacity of 90. It never felt overcrowded whatsoever, but was still SIGNIFICANTLY rockier than a larger cruise ship. So again, know your preferences. A quick note regarding passengers...as a family, we were by far in the minority. My estimation is that near 80% of fellow passengers were aged 50-70s. That said, we felt completely welcome and not at all uncomfortable, which I note because that isn't always the case with an older demographic.
About embarkation...Embarkation in San Cristobal, handled entirely by Metropolitan Touring, was absolutely seamless, from directions given at Quito airport all the way to being loaded onto the Santa Cruz via zodiacs. There were short wait times and helpful employees as we first arrived on the boat, at which juncture we had a bit of time to orient ourselves to our cabins (more about cabins below), had a quick muster drill and then a buffet lunch (more about food below). Thereafter we had a wonderfully comprehensive, informative orientation to the boat, as well as the excursions, during which time our luggage was delivered to our cabins. After a quick unpack and change, we were on a zodiac boat headed out on our first excursion by 4pm.
Excursion to Punta Pitt...Our first excursion, which commenced with a tricky boat-to-zodiac transfer with the help of very adept staff members, brought us to Punta Rock (a rocky outcropping where gulls, frigates and boobies roosted) and then Punta Pitt (island of San Cristobal) where we wet-landed (i.e. we swung our legs over the side of the boat and exited with feet FULLY immersed through shallow water) and were greeted by sea lions and their pups lounging on the beach. The zodiac ride was pretty choppy, but this was not the case throughout the trip. We enjoyed a leisurely 2-hour hike (walk) which I would describe as easy, at a slow pace, with the occasional steeper incline/descent. Animals seen in addition to the birds on Punta Rock: sea lions, boobie chicks and adults (red footed, blue footed and Nazca), and lizards.
Excursion to Santa Fe...After a very rocky (and I mean rocky!) overnight, we started the day with another wet landing to begin a 1.5 hour walk that was again fairly easy, although it did involve maneuvering over stable lava rocks for much of the way. We spent a lovely time ashore observing lots of sea lions on the beach; spotting lizards and finches; and also finding several specimens of a land iguana endemic to Santa Fe. Mid-morning, half our group went deep-water snorkeling (from a boat, as opposed to beach entry), where they frolicked with sea lions and observed lots of fish; the other half enjoyed a glass bottom boat ride (note: there are often "tamer" options offered for the less adventurous or those who prefer a less strenuous activity). Note that all snorkel gear, including shorty wetsuits which we were happy to have in August, can be rented on the boat.
Excursion to South Plaza...After lunch, we arrived at South Plaza island, making a dry landing for a late afternoon walk. Again, nothing strenuous with occasional volcanic stones with which to contend. Animals seen: colorful crabs, marine iguanas, sea lions, land iguanas, lizards.
Excursion to Santa Cruz...entire day post breakfast spent off boat. Morning visit to Charles Darwin Research Station where we gained a deeper appreciation for the conservation efforts being made on behalf of the giant land tortoises on Galápagos. Some free time allowed in town for shopping etc. before doing a bike ride in the highlands of the island. A word of warning: this bike ride IS NOT easy. We felt the information provided was inaccurate in terms of distance and difficulty. The 2-mile up-and-down route was quite arduous and the quality of the rental bikes so-so, so I wouldn't have done it had I known. The bike trip ended at a sugar cane/coffee farm where you could tour the facilities and sample/buy the goods. We were transported to lunch at a local restaurant where we had free time to relax, swim (it was a bit cool) or play games (pool, soccer, cards). After lunch we visited a private ranch that had free roaming land tortoises. It is touted as seeing the creatures in the wild, but it isn't a true wilderness trek, rather is more like a small privately-run tourist attraction. I felt it was a bit contrived, boasting of a lava tube on the property, alongside a snack bar and souvenir shack. One word of recommendation: WEAR THE FREE BOOTS! It was muddy even though it wasn't raining and you need them. Trust me.
Excursion to Española...the rockiest walk thus far, but not too taxing otherwise (2.5 hour). Rewarded by seeing many animals: a marine iguana endemic to Española, waved albatross, blue footed boobies, crabs, sea lions (including a newborn pup with its mother, amazing). The afternoon was spent at a beach on the other side of this island, where you had the opportunity to snorkel. The beach entry snorkeling offered literally no sea life viewing, but there was a deeper water option near a rocky outcropping where snorkelers saw fish, turtles, and sharks. Oh yes and the beachgoers were treated to a far off peak at a humpback whale or 2 making their way in the distance.
About the food...breakfast and lunch were served buffet style with a multitude of options, from vegetarian to carnivore to pescatarian. Dinner is a multi-course, served affair that you order at lunch. Lovely, attentive service on the part of the dining room staff, with the exception of drink service. We were never quite sure whether we should ask our waiter or go directly to the bar for our drinks, to say nothing of the fact that the Darwin Elite Level includes free soft drinks and we never heard much about it. It seemed that the onus was on us to take advantage of that part of the offer, giving us the impression they were happily saving money by not bringing it up.
About the cabins...Our family of 5 occupied 2 side-by-side cabins on the Darwin Elite Level, both good sized doubles with 2 twin beds, one of which had a pullout sofa bed probably best suited to a child or small guest. Cabins had spotless floors, good quality linens, fabulous floor-to-ceiling window, efficient temperature control, and good overhead and task lighting. A bit more attention to detail when dusting is needed, especially in harder to reach areas (interior of drawers, crevices, etc.). Although there was ample storage in wardrobe and under beds, you might have a challenge if you wanted to unpack and store all your clothing. Safe provided and used, as rooms are left unlocked and although safes were not large enough for your tablets/laptops, security was absolutely not a concern. Bathrooms were quite clean, although showing a tiny bit of wear. There was also a pretty gassy sewage smell emanating from the drains in general, which you could not smell if you closed the door. Plenty of towels, hair dryer available, and shampoo/hair conditioner/shower gel provided. No body lotion. Stewards did a wonderful job with refreshing towels, turn down service and general timely housekeeping.
About the Guides...it is very hard for me to write this but unfortunately I found some of the naturalists, the guides who led the small groups on their excursions, disappointing and somewhat lackluster. It wasn't for lack of information or expertise: they were extremely knowledgeable about the animals and the islands, but what they lacked was passion. Some seemed pretty disinterested, like they were going through the motions of any old job. Our assigned guide also played the role of overseeing the guide team. While he was engaging, excited and quite compelling when he talked to the entire boat during lectures/info sessions, he had absolutely no interest in connecting with us. He led us on walks, fed us facts and disinterestedly answered our questions. Frankly it made me disgruntled when I was called upon at the end of the trip to tip. The 2 absolute standouts were MariCarmen and Edison. Each had a warm and welcoming affect which really set them apart from the rest of the naturalist staff. The saving grace about being expected to tip so much was that the rest of the ship's staff was simply wonderful. From the waitstaff to the zodiac drivers, from the hotel manager Pilar to the stewards, from the pursor Lupita to the barmen, every last one of these folks went out of their way to improve our experience.
About Disembarkation...as anticipated, the crew was informative before/during and the process went smoothly. The only complaint would be that we were expected to vacate our cabins by 8am, but did not leave the Santa Cruz until 10am. Of course this allowed for the crew to start preparing for the next group of boarding guests, but just was a long wait in the lounge for those of us ready to continue on our travels.
Assuming the ship specifications and the itinerary met your expectations, I can wholeheartedly recommend the MV Santa Cruz.