One of the two things about this trip that we (well mostly I) decided were non-negotiable was the Galapagos islands off the coast of Ecuador. We knew that we’d get a better deal if we looked at the last minute so we left it until about a fortnight before we wanted to depart. During our Manta week we discovered that the Spanish school did some last minute deals, but when we asked for quotes it turned out that although they had good deals they were more at the budget end of the spectrum with dates that didn’t really suit us. Fearing that we’d left it too late we frantically starting searching on the internet and realised that, although there wasn’t a lot available, there were still a few options with good dates, itineraries and discounts.
We made a few enquiries including one directly with a luxury boat, the Majestic, that is the newest in the Galapagos. The boat was offering a 50% discount, however for the week we wanted to go they only had two spaces remaining which were already on hold. I decided to e-mail them anyway and the next day we had a reply implying that they had space. We had Spanish all morning and by the time we were able to call them they told us that the last two spaces were on hold until 4pm. It was Friday just before a long weekend and businesses would be closed until Wednesday, so we held tight until 4pm. Just after 4pm we had an e-mail to say that the spaces were now gone as the other couple had confirmed. We immediately e-mailed another contact to see if we could book the Beagle, a sailboat that looked very nice and had a discount that was not quite as good as the Majestic. Twenty minutes later however the Majestic team emailed us again to tell us that they’d had a last minute cancellation and we would be able to reserve the last room on the Majestic with the half price deal. We were really excited and immediately arranged to transfer the money. Luckily the agent for the Beagle had already left work for the day so hadn’t already gone ahead with that booking! In the days that followed all the booking details were firmed up, our money was received and by the time we got to the city of Guayaquil (for our flight to the Galapagos) everything was arranged for our trip.
We woke up after our night in Guayaquil very excited and quickly checked out of the hotel. We boarded the hotel’s airport shuttle bus with all of our luggage and the driver said something about shopping. We assumed he was making a remark about the size of our luggage and ignored it. Five minutes later when we pulled up at the local mall we realised what he meant. Apparently this shuttle didn’t only go to the airport and our massive backpacks obviously hadn’t served as a clue that we weren’t just off to the shops!
A few minutes later we arrived at the airport and a Majestic representative met us with boarding passes already checked in and helped us get our bags inspected and pay the $20 tax for going to the Galapagos. He then ushered us through security and we were on our own again. We grabbed a bite to eat and went to sit down. We were just wondering if we should go and check our gate when we heard our names announced over the tannoy. For some reason there had been no boarding announcement, and since only a few people were joining the flight in Guayaquil (it had started in Quito) we hadn’t noticed an exodus of people boarding. Luckily were we right next to our gate so we were onboard moments later. On the plane we sat next to a guide from another tour who told us a bit about the Galapagos and what we were going to see. As a result the flight went pretty quickly and, as we were coming down to land we looked out of the window and spotted our boat in the harbour! Our guide for the week met us at the airport and we handed over our luggage to the boat crew. We climbed onto a bus and headed to the harbour for our dinghy transfer out to the boat. We quickly transferred onto the boat to find lunch waiting for us and the baggage already there. After a very tasty lunch we were shown to our cabins.
The Majestic is a 16-person modern boat with three decks. On the bottom deck are the five cheaper cabins. These are slightly smaller than the ones on the upper deck and only have small windows, high up in the room and above the waterline. A double bed takes up most of the room in the cabin but there is a small wardrobe and a tiny desk, just about enough space to hold our giant rucksacks. Through a door we had our own private bathroom with a toilet and double shower, and again a small window to the outside. Although the windows on the bottom deck are small they are a lot bigger than some of the portholes on other boats. Being the last to book we had the cabin furthest back in the boat closest to the engine, however in our opinion this turned out to be a bonus as the engine effectively worked as white noise blocking out the sound of the anchor being lowered and raised and the crew moving around during night time navigations. Being the lowest and furthest back in the boat also meant that we suffered the least from the boat rocking on the two nights that the sea was rough.
Above us was the main deck where you enter and leave the boat and also where the lounge, dining room and remaining cabins were located. At the front of this deck were the other four cabins, identical to ours except for being a little larger due to the curve of the hull and they also had huge, floor to ceiling windows in both the bedroom and bathroom. At the back of the boat was the area where we would board/leave the boat and also where we’d eat the piles of snacks that the crew constantly plied us with.
Finally up top was a partially covered sun deck complete with tables in the shade, sun loungers and a jacuzzi. For 16 people, what little free time we did have didn’t feel cramped at all as the top two decks had plenty of space to sit around in or out of the sun, without all being crammed together.
On the evening of the first night the entire crew turned out in the smart white uniforms and we were introduced to all of them (some of whom we barely saw again until the last day). We had our first evening briefing from our guide Billy who would tell us the activities and timings for the next day, as well as what wildlife we were likely to see in and out of the water.
For the Galapagos I’m not going to give you a detailed itinerary of what we did every day, but I have included a map of where we went, and will tell you the types of activities that we did.
A typical day started with a wake up call over the tannoy, at 06:45 exactly some music would start on the speaker in our room and a minute later we’d hear the following in the soft gentle voice of our guide: “Good morning everyone, today is another beautiful day in the Galapagos. It is now six forty-five in the morning and breakfast will be ready in fifteen minutes.” We’d quickly dress and get ready for breakfast served on the main deck, which would include fresh coffee, tea and two types of freshly squeezed juice as well as cereal, toast and a range of hot food. Exactly one hour after starting breakfast we’d be leaving the boat to start our morning walk which usually lasted 1-2 hours. The landing would either be ‘dry’, which involved stepping out onto a pier, or ‘wet’, which involved jumping off the dinghy into knee deep water. By starting early with the walk we often had locations completely to ourselves or with just one other group of 16 (which the guides would carefully plan so that we kept well away from). After the walk we’d return to the boat to find a mid-morning snack and more fresh juice. No time to hang around though as we’d usually only have 30 minutes to turn around for snorkeling. We’d snorkel either from the dinghies or from the beach for usually an hour and then return to the
boat for lunch. During the morning walks we’d often see a wide variety of wildlife such as land and marine iguanas, interesting birds such as the blue footed and nazca boobies, penguins, sea lions and many subspecies of the above that often only existed on one particular island. We also saw a huge variety of plant life including cactuses that could grow on inhospitable lava, and a huge number of plants that were specially adapted to survive on the harsh conditions of some of the Galapagos islands. All this was fascinating but we’d also been told that half of the life on the Galapagos is underwater, from what we saw however I’d put this at 2/3 or even 3/4. During the snorkeling sessions we saw an incredible amount of wildlife even closer than we saw it on the land. In the water we swam with Penguins, Sea Turtles, Sea Lions, White Tipped Sharks, Stingrays, Flightless Cormorants and Pelicans and probably 40 varieties of fish that I won’t even try to name. We also saw countless starfish, sea urchins, anemones and many other underwater creatures. Many times we saw all or nearly all of the above during a single hour of snorkeling. The best part of this was that in all but a couple of the snorkel sites the visibility was excellent.
We’d return to our cabins to shower and find the beds made and the towels folded into some kind of animal shape, usually penguins or tortoises and once a hammerhead shark! After a quick shower, lunch was served at midday and was usually enormous. The crew always made sure that I had a special vegetarian option (even when there was already plenty of vegetarian food on the buffet), and without exception the food was delicious and generally very varied even for me! After lunch there would be a siesta for a couple of hours usually while the boat moved to a new site. At 3pm we’d do everything again always with a walk and more often than not followed by a second snorkel, although generally this time we wouldn’t return to the boat between activities.
After the walking/snorkeling in the afternoon we’d return to the boat to be greeted by yet more juice and snacks and with enough time to shower and change before dinner. On a couple of evenings there was time before dinner (and before it got dark) to sit on the top deck and enjoy a beer and on one evening even enough time to get in the jacuzzi. We’d get our evening briefing at 18:45 followed by dinner at 19:00. After dinner people would sit around and chat but thanks to the activities and early starts most people we’re heading towards bed before 10pm. With this general pattern the days passed extremely quickly.
We’d been worried that considering our cruise was not at all cheap, our companions on board would either be a lot older than us or rather rich! In reality (and compared to other groups we saw walking around the islands) our group had a good mixture of young and older people and everyone was fit enough for the activities. In fact there were two couples of around our age, one of whom were on honeymoon (and from Guernsey) and the other were an Australian girl and a transplanted English guy who together were probably the most similar to us. There was also a single American woman, an older Australian couple and five related Americans. This American family were however not quite what they first appeared to be as of the two couples (brother and sister plus partners) three of them were originally from South Africa, and one was a Scottish relative of the writer Alexander McCall Smith. The fifth American was the 23 year old daughter of one of the couples. Finally there was an Austrian couple in their 40s. They were the most worrying at first, as they didn’t speak a lot of English and the guy was rather large however he had no problem keeping up and, in the water, all we’d see was him constantly diving down to get some fantastic photos of the aquatic life!
While we didn’t exactly make any lifelong friends, we did have a fascinating group who all had interesting stories and similar expectations. In fact on our final morning the guide suggested a final early morning snorkel which is apparently something he only suggests to the fittest, most motivated groups. This is not to say that the Galapagos is a particularly active holiday however as the vast quantities of incredible food totally cancelled out all of the good work we were doing snorkeling and walking every day!
Sunday was a slightly different day as the boat had to refuel in the morning in Baltra. After breakfast we offloaded onto a bus for the day in order to visit a site where we could see giant tortoises in the wild and then in captivity at the Darwin research centre. While we were off the boat it moved to the other side of the island and, after a quick stop in the town we transferred back to it via the dinghies. Sunday night was the last night and as such the crew turned out in their whites again. We all thanked each other for the week and gave tip envelopes to the captain for distribution among the crew.
On Monday morning we had an early start for an early morning snorkel on an island with a colony of sealions and after breakfast we left the boat for our flight back to Guayaquil.
We were very lucky to be able to enjoy this experience in such a luxurious way for a comparatively cheap price. We were even luckier that before we left the UK when Alex parents heard that we were debating whether we could justify the expense of this week they gave both of us, for our birthdays, a sizeable contribution to the cost so that we could afford this once in a lifetime experience! Alex in particular loved the week of getting back into biology and seeing first-hand a lot of the things she covered in at University.
After our week of luxury in the weird and wonderful Galapagos we were back to the backpacking lifestyle. We hope you’ve enjoyed a few of the thousands of photos that we took during our week in the Galapagos!