How long have I dreamed about visiting the Galapagos Islands? I think it goes to back to about the third grade, when I had to read a story aloud to my class from the Weekly Reader (anyone remember the WR?) about the giant tortoises. Given that my school was in a small West Texas town in the late 1960s, the emphasis was on the animals rather than Darwin and his famous theory of evolution. But animal lover that I was, I was hooked – and fascinated that there could be a place on the planet with creatures that literally exist nowhere else. I knew I would see the Galapagos someday.
It took about 50 years, give or take, but that lifelong dream finally came true last week when John and I took a five-day cruise through Darwin’s fabled isles. If the word “cruise” conjures up an image of an enormous ship, thousands of passengers, and lots of free time to lollygag around eating and drinking, think again. We joined only 14 other passengers aboard the Tip Top II, a 100-foot motor catamaran, and we were constantly on the go – packing in up to three shore or snorkeling excursions every day. Our onboard naturalist made sure that we’d see as much as we possibly could over those five days – even if it meant getting up at 5:30 one morning! It was anything but relaxing, but we would not have changed a thing.
I’m going to be doing a lot more posting on the incredible bird, reptile, and mammal life we saw – but here I’ll focus on the “how tos” for anyone that would like to follow in our wake.
We flew from our home in Panama to Quito, Ecuador, a two-hour Copa flight from Panama City, where we spent three days exploring that lovely city (yup, the Quito blog post is a-coming). From Quito, it’s less than an hour by air to the even larger city of Guayaquil, and then about an hour and a half to Isla Baltra in the Galapagos. Our air travel from Quito to the islands was part of our cruise package, and it was our first time to fly LATAM Airlines. We were less than impressed with LATAM (a Chile-based airline); water was the only complimentary thing they offered and the plane was far from pristine. But it did get us where we were going.
To visit the Galapagos, you have two basic options: you can be land-based and stay in hotels or hostels ashore, or you can
book passage on one of the boats that cruise around from island to island. Understandably, tourism is HIGHLY restricted and the Ecuadorian government is doing the best-possible job of protecting this special place, one of the most sensitive environments on the planet, from human impact. Therefore, it’s pretty hard (and expensive) to see much if you’re land-based and freelancing it.
The advantage of going on a boat like the Tip Top II is that it has official sanction from the Ecuadoran government to visit islands that are otherwise unreachable, with a government-licensed naturalist that can access areas that are off-limits to folks on their own.
After months researching tour and cruise companies, John booked the Tip Top II through the Galapagos Travel Center. And we can say without hesitation that our onboard experience was OUTSTANDING. Good and plentiful food, an attentive and very service-oriented crew, and a small and intimate group of fellow passengers with whom we shared our love of travel and the great outdoors.
It ain’t cheap to visit the Galapagos, no matter how you look at it. But this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for us and way up on our bucket list. In addition to the $20.00 transit control fee, paid before you board the flight to the the islands, you also pay a $100-per-person national park fee when you arrive. Doing a cruise might seem like a more expensive choice at first, but a do-it-yourself land-based trip requires separate costs for lodging, guides, air-ground-water transportation, and meals, all of which were included in the cruise fee.
Don’t be put off by the list prices for the cruises offered by the Galapagos Travel Center – think of them as rack rates. For the Tip Top II, John did a great wait-it-out job of getting the tour company down to a reasonable price — almost half. In other words, the longer you wait to book it, the lower the price as long as the cruise isn’t filled. We also saved money on the airfare by booking it as part of a package with the boat. THIS JUST IN: Galapagos Travel Center regularly publishes a list of last-minute deals here.
And here’s one more tip: the Community Hostel in Quito, Ecuador offers great last-minute deals on Galapagos trips. We took two different tours with Community and got to spend some time at this fantastic hostel, and we can testify it’s a button-up operation.
We got lucky. Our naturalist, Etienne De Backer, was born in Belgium but has lived in the Galapagos for over 30 years and knows the place inside and out. He’s mostly retired now but still gets out to do a guiding job now and then, and his perspective on the animal and plant life, as well as the history of the islands’ human inhabitants, was outstanding. With “ET” at the helm, we saw frigate birds in their full mating, inflated-red-pouch glory. More sea lions that we can possibly count, nursing their young and cavorting on the beach. Two
of the three kinds of boobies (birds, you gutter-minded people!) that live in the islands. Giant tortoises in all of their slow-moving, timeless dignity. We swam with sea lions and sea turtles. We snorkeled on living and healthy coral reefs. We hiked across beaches so thick with marine iguanas sunning themselves that we had to step around them.
And most of all, we got another reminder of just how precious, and fragile, is life on this planet. If I could have one wish for all of the misguided (well, downright crazy) politicians that are doing their best to destroy our only home, I would plop them down in the Galapagos for a few days. It’s a perspective that few of us may ever have, but all of us need.