Introduction: Why, How, Galapagos Background and A Bit On Shipboard Life

Where? Why?

I hardly have to explain why I wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands. They're an obvious destination for anybody interested in wildlife, offering opportunities for close range viewing of several unique species. When those unique species include the only penguin that lives north of the equator, a seabird with bright blue feet, and a tortoise the size of an ottoman, how could I resist?

In fact, several of my friends assumed I'd already been to the Galapagos. I had planned to go around 1987 and had almost talked my mother into the trip. But she was afraid it would be too hard for her and I was still dealing with student loans and the like, so it got put off. Late in 2000, I decided it was time. There are a lot of options for trips to the Galapagos, but a little research narrowed things down. I wanted a cruise that would be roughly a week. A larger ship allows seeing more outlying islands than the small boats do. I was particularly concerned with the environmental reputation of the company I went with, given the inherent fragility of the region. (The gentleman with whom I'm conducting the world's longest running brief meaningless fling disapproves of the whole idea of Galapagos tourism on those grounds. That's a complex issue, but it's fairly clear that tourism is less destructive than farming and fishing are. And without the money that tourism brings in, there would be less incentive for conservation.) After looking at various brochures and web pages, I decided that my best option (albeit an expensive one) was Lindblad Expeditions.

Just after Christmas and into the New Year was a convenient time to get away. The departure I wanted offered the option of an extension - a tour of colonial Ecuador. The brochure pictures looked enticing and I was eager. Alas, not enough people signed up for the extension and it was cancelled. Lindblad offered me the option of changing dates, but I decided I could just was well keep the original date for my flight home and arrange time on the mainland myself. Armed with a guidebook (Lonely Planet - I hate their maps but it was the only one I could find that had been updated this century), my limited Spanish vocabulary, and the knowledge that even the most uncomfortable travel experiences can make a good story, I declined to make any plans whatsoever, beyond a hotel room for the night before flying home. For the details, read on.


Vacations are always exercises in discovery and my first discovery of this one was how poorly designed Miami International Airport is. The signs directing passengers to the baggage claim area were only mildly confusing. After collecting my bag, I followed the signs that said to go upstairs for hotel shuttle vans. Every other airport in the civilized world has some specific area for shuttles. Miami has settled on the "let passengers stand anywhere on the curb and wave furiously at the vans speeding by" method of getting travelers to their destinations. Fortunately, the combined efforts of six or so people imitating would-be "Let's Make a Deal Contestants" along the curbside eventually persuaded the Hilton van driver to stop.

It is inevitable that I forget to pack something on each vacation and it was minutes after arrival that I learned what I'd forgotten this time. Namely my AAA card. It's actually quite unusual to be asked for the card and, to be quite honest, I'd forgotten that the reservation I had was a AAA rate. Without the card, they hit me for an extra ten bucks a night, which was a mild annoyance. Not that I had any choice, since it was too late to cancel without getting charged for a night - at considerably more than ten dollars. It wasn't long before I discovered that I'd also managed to forget a comb, but that was remedied less expensively at the hotel gift shop.

My annoyance with the Miami airport continued the next morning as I attempted to find American's international check-in line. That proved to be roughly a mile from the ticket counter where the hotel van had dropped me off. Once I actually got in line, things were fairly quick, leaving me plenty of time to discover just how mediocre the selection at the airport bookstore was. (I had plenty of reading matter with me, so this wasn't a real problem. It just deprived me of the pleasures of bookstore browsing.) At the gate, I met a few of the other people who'd be on my trip. Lindblad had representatives there to check on us, though it isn't exactly clear what they could have done had somebody failed to show up.

The flight to Guayaquil was routine enough. On arrival, the airport was hot and humid and chaotic. It took nearly an hour to get through immigration, though it wasn't entirely clear why, since I got through in seconds once I actually reached the immigration officer. I collected my bag and got through customs with no hassles. Lindblad uses Metropolitan Touring (probably the largest travel agency in Ecuador) as their local representative and we were whisked away to the Hilton Colon. At the hotel, we got glasses of fruit juice, our room keys and information packets for the next day. We also filled out forms that would enable Metropolitan Touring to reconfirm our flights home for us. While the hotel was quite nice, I was too tired to appreciate anything more about it than a comfortable bed.

After breakfast the next morning, we were back to the airport for our flight to Baltra on TAME. The process of getting boarding passes was slow and we were scattered all over the plane, with no apparent attempt to keep families seated together. The flight was a fairly comfortable hour and a half. On disembarking, we walked over a disinfectant mat and were given pamphlets about the National Park. I believe the National Park fee got paid at this point, but Lindblad handled that, so I'm a bit vague on it. A short bus ride led us to the dock, where we learned how to put on the mandatory life jackets (a skill it would take some people the entire week to master) and took our first Zodiac rides to board the Polaris. The Zodiacs are referred to locally as "pangas," by the way, and that's the term I'll use in the rest of this travelogue.

Galapagos Background

On board, we were led to our cabins. I can't speak for anyone else, but I found mine to be quite comfortable, albeit a bit noisy. An orientation briefing was followed by the lifeboat drill, a buffet lunch and assorted administrivia (getting keys to our top desk drawers, leaving credit card imprints with the purser, unpacking). During the orientation, we were introduced to the crew and to our naturalists - Daniel, Maria Fernanda, Rafael, Dora and Franklin. All are Ecuadorean and both Rafael and Daniel are from the islands, leading to various jokes about endemic guides versus introduced ones. Late in the afternoon, we had a background lecture on the Galapagos by Lynn, our expedition leader. The notes I took include:

  1. The Galapagos Islands are oceanic volcanic islands. They were never connected to the mainland. They lie near the conjunction of two tectonic plates - the Nazca and Cocos plates. They're sinking beneath the continental plate, moving about as fast as fingernails grow. The most recent volcanic eruption in the islands was of Cerro Azul in 1998.
  2. The main ocean currents affecting the islands are the Cromwell current from the west (right on the equator) and the Humboldt current from the southeast, both of which are cold. The sporadic warm El Nino current is bad for marine animals because the algae they feed on die off, but is very good for land animals.
  3. Endemic species are those unique to the islands. Indigenous species are native, but also found elsewhere. There is an ongoing effort to rid the islands of introduced species. 97% of all original species still exist in the islands.
  4. About 16000 people live in the Galapagos. The colonized zone consists of 3% of the islands and the rest is all National Park. On 13 December 2001 the Marine Reserve was given World Heritage Status. A 1998 law pushed fishing limits to 40 miles and banned additional Ecuadorians from moving to the Galapagos.
  5. While the islands may have been discovered by the Incas, they were officially discovered in 1535 by Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, whose ship was blown off course. They were used as hideouts by pirates, who gave the islands English names and took tortoises for food. The tortoises were valuable on ships because they can live as long as three years without food or water.
  6. Ecuador claimed the islands in 1832. (By the way, Darwin's visit was in 1835.) Ecuador started sending political prisoners to the Galapagos and gave the islands Spanish names. The U.S. used Baltra (where the airport is) during World War II and tried to buy the islands from Ecuador then.

Our introduction also covered the National Park rules, which are really pretty much standard ecotourism common sense. Basically, they amount to not disturbing anything, staying with the guide, and being careful not to inadvertently transfer anything from one island to another. (Hence, we underwent sand inspections and rinse-offs with a hose after island visits.) Or, cliched as it may be, "take only pictures; leave only footprints."

Shipboard Life

Before going on to the actual trip, I wanted to include a description of shipboard life. Each evening, we received a newsletter with a description of the next day's activities and a schedule. A few days had optional pre-breakfast excursions. A buffet breakfast was typically about 7:00 a.m., slightly later if there had been an early morning excursion. There was always coffee and tea available in the library, as well as pastries and fruit in the early morning, so one needn't go hungry if they chose to go on the pre-breakfast trip. Breakfast always included lots of fruit, with some local fruit specially featured each day. The amazingly sweet Ecuadorian pineapple was a particular favorite. I'm also now obsessed with seeing if there's any source of various Ecuadorian fruit juices here, particularly naranjilla (a sort of tart citrusy fruit) and tree tomato. There were always various cereals, toast, sweet pastries and one or two hot dishes, which varied daily.

There were at least two excursions a day - panga rides, walks (often with long or short options), and/or swimming and snorkeling. In order to make sure nobody got left behind, we turned over tags on a board, corresponding to our cabin numbers, when disembarking. The bigger challenge was remembering to turn them back when we got back from the excursions and it took pretty much the whole cruise until we got it perfect. Some days had other activities, such as the ceremony for crossing the equator or commentary as the ship circumnavigated an area. There was plenty of free time, as well, letting me keep up with my journal, instead of falling as far behind as I usually do. The ship had a minimal gym (I did see one person use the exercise bike, but most people thought the excursions provided enough activity) and a library with books and board games. There was an open bridge, too. The gift shop was small but had a few interesting items, some of which I might have bought had I not been staying on in Ecuador after the cruise. You could even send email, though it was slow since it relied on a satellite link-up a few times a day, and was pricy at four dollars for a short message. Or, of course, you could just sit out on deck and watch the world - or a lot of seabirds - go by.

Lunch was generally about 1:30 p.m.. It was also a buffet and always had various salads, along with some sort of casserole or hot sandwich and dessert. For example, one day featured focaccia sandwiches (tuna, turkey or turkey with cheese) and pizza; another had an excellent paella. On New Year's Eve, we had an elaborate luncheon of Ecuadorean specialties. Starting with a delicious ceviche, to which we added aji (hot sauce, pronounced "a-hee" - which is roughly the sound you make if you use too much of it) and popcorn. The main courses included lechon (suckling pig) and fish in a coconut sauce. There were also various salads (one featuring a very small and unusual sort of potato), a sort of polenta-like dish, llapingachos (fried potato and cheese fritters with peanut sauce), and cookies filled with dulce de leche for dessert.

After lunch, there was time for a siesta. Aside from letting us recover from the meal, that also kept us from having to exert ourselves in the hottest part of the day. The afternoon excursions typically started around 3:30. Before dinner, there was a recap of the day. While we sipped cocktails and ate hors d'oeurves, one or two of the naturalists would talk about what we'd seen that day. Then, Lynn would discuss what we'd be doing the next day. Dinner consisted of some sort of appetizer/salad, soup, a choice of entrees, and dessert. To minimize waste, we checked off our entree choices on a board in the morning. The choices always included one meat or poultry dish, one seafood dish, and one vegetarian option. I typically ate the fish, which was bought from local fisherman daily, and was always quite good. One night there was a barbecue buffet on the teak deck. That included chicken, ribs, sausage, seafood skewers, apple slaw, corn, potatoes, and various types of flan for dessert. While the emphasis on this sort of cruise is the destination, one does still have to eat and it's nice that one can do that so well. By the way, all meals are open seating, which is a nice way of trying to get to know more of the roughly 70 passengers. And everything is informal. You could wear shorts and a t-shirt the entire time, though it was usually cool enough in the evening that I'd switch to long pants.

Most nights featured some sort of evening entertainment. There were a couple of video documentaries, for example. One night was clear enough for star gazing on the sun deck, with Lynn pointing out several constellations. The only live entertainment was the night after our excursion to the town of Puerto Ayora, when we were joined by musicians and dancers. And, then there was New Year's Eve. In general, though, this wasn't a late night partying sort of trip, and I was usually sound asleep long before midnight.

Finally, one particularly nice feature of the trip was that there was a professional video chronicler. Jim followed us around, taking pictures of people and wildlife. He also spliced in footage from an underwater camera, used during the snorkeling trips. The result was an excellent souvenir, well worth the $45 charge for a copy.

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Copyright 2002 Miriam H. Nadel

last updated 28 January 2002
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