July, 2016: For me the Galapagos islands conjure up images of ancient looking iguanas, giant tortoises and vast, sun drenched volcanic landscapes. An impossibly blue ocean twinkles in the distance and a soundtrack of David Attenborough’s soothing voice echoes in the background. After five weeks negotiating the food shortages, rolling blackouts and endless political tension of Venezuela a little slice of this Darwinian paradise was exactly what we were after. A luxury Galapagos live aboard was our second big expenditure for the trip and we couldn’t wait!
We flew into San Cristobal, the second airport of the Galapagos on a glorious Monday afternoon. We had intended to walk into town but ran into a Brooklyn expat named Danny who offered us a lift in return for a look at his guesthouse. Danny proved to be a great host and his guesthouse, Fragata Home was just what we wanted. Danny gave us a tour of his favourite restaurants, a free lift down to the beach when we wanted it and his snorkelling gear. The beach had to wait though as we spent our first 24 hours shopping about for a live aboard cruise. Thankfully, before long we were sharing some lovely white sand with cavorting sea lions and some aforementioned, salt sneezing sea iguanas. We had seen the abundance of Galapagos wildlife on television but to be experiencing it first hand was amazing.
Day three on the Galapagos we boarded a speedboat over to the Galapagos main island of Santa Cruz. We spent the day peering into volcanic craters, crawling through extinct lava tubes and hanging out with with giant tortoise. Standing two metres away from a creature which had been alive while explorers first strode across the Australian interior; or while the French revolution was drawing to a close, was an absolute honour. These massive creatures had survived whalers coming ashore to harvest their brethren for food. They were still just poking around the grass like they had done for centuries. We were standing right beside them and they couldn’t have cared less. It made us realise how insignificant we were but at the same time how dangerous our human race can be. That evening we joined our Galapagos live aboard against the backdrop of a blazing sunset. We both knew we were in for a special few days.
The cruise itself was bliss. Each morning aboard the Millennium we were woken for an early morning excursion. Some days it would be a hike over old lava flows and others a boat ride to see a natural aquarium filled with white tipped sharks. A sumptuous breakfast would be served on the back deck and then we’d be back out for another excursion or into the water for some snorkelling. Each excursion was led by our quality guide Enrique, while we were well looked after by a crazy crew of pirates led by an ex-fisherman named Wilson. As the day drew to a close we’d take a shower in our ocean view bathroom and then retire for a few drinks until dinner was served in the main lounge. Dinner was always delicious but you had to be quick if you wanted seconds. As darkness would descend the rum would flow and lead to a raucous game of cards and maybe some dancing. Late in the evening we could climb up to the roof to watch the stars explode across the night sky.
Nearly everywhere we went we had the quirks of evolution slapping us in the face or swimming past our snorkels. From the abundance of sea iguanas lazing in the sun to the sea lions playing with us while we snorkelled; from a squadron of cute penguins, to the giant manta rays flipping beside our boat because, well, they could. Beautiful blue footed boobies went fishing in front of us, diving at break neck pace like arrows into the water; on the nearby shore what appeared to be a pile of rocks actually turned into hundreds of prehistoric looking iguanas. There was unique and wonderful wildlife everywhere!
Our second last morning on our Galapagos live aboard saw us walking the deserted coastline of Isla Santiago. The ruins of an old whaling community were the only signs of other humans. Other than that, we had the place to ourselves. We were led to a set of rock pools where a group of fur seals lazed in the sun while one of them marshalled a school of fish into an ever tightening ball of breakfast. It was at once a brutal but fascinating display of nature at work. From there we donned our fins and went snorkelling off the black sandy beach. Almost immediately as we peered below the surface of the crystal clear water we had nature in our face. Mother and pup sea lions glided inches from our face or stopped to stare inquisitively into our eyes. Turtles, sharks and rays glided below us while huge schools of tiny bait fish engulfed us. Massive tuna and barracuda stalked their lunch. There was such abundance of wildlife that I often found myself giggling into my snorkel. It was an amazing morning; truly amazing!
We were gutted to finish our Galapagos live aboard. But, the final few days we spent on Santa Cruz were no less magic. Most people come to the Galapagos as part of a package deal which includes their flight in, a live aboard cruise and then a flight out of there. We chose a one way ticket and while this almost brought us unstuck, it give us more time to explore the islands. Sea lions seemed to own each street corner and iguanas each sun drenched path; birds ruled the mangrove branches while fish and crabs ruled their roots. Delicious locally grown coffee provided a welcome morning kick while white sandy beaches brought sunset solitude. To finish, night markets delivered the tastiest feasts of outstanding seafood.
I first went overseas in 1997 on a grade 11 school trip to Indonesia. Since then I have visited every continent on earth and over 50 countries. There is very little in all of that which can compare to what we experienced in the raw, unbridled beauty of the Galapagos.
Galapagos live aboard travel and feasting tips:
- While one way flights to Galapagos can be purchased, technically you need to prove a departing ticket to be allowed onto the islands in the first place. Airport officials can turn you away if you don’t have a return ticket.
- On San Cristobal island, we stayed at Fragata Home (USD30/night/self contained apartment). This included a twin room with private bathroom, our own kitchen, free use of Danny’s snorkel gear not to mention free lifts down to the beach when we wanted.
- Choosing a Galapagos live aboard cruise:
- Main considerations when choosing a Galapagos live aboard boat include boat class (economy up to luxury), duration of trip (4 to 8 days) and itinerary. Make sure you also read the fine print on plenty of reviews to get the right boat for you.
- Most cruises starts at dusk on day one and finish at dawn on the final day meaning you need to take 2 days off the advertised itinerary. Our cruise was advertised as 6 days but in reality we only got 4 because we boarded at 5:30pm on day one and disembarked at 9am on day 6.
- Different itineraries will take you to different islands which will feature different wildlife, different landscapes and a varying degree of human habitation. Some islands will be visited by all boats while some only one or two. Think about what you want out of your trip and choose your itinerary accordingly.
- If you have the time and flexibility wait until as late as possible to book your boat. Do a morning lap of the agencies in the main port (usually Puerto Ayora) to find out what’s leaving that day. Do another, evening lap around 5pm to find out which boats are trying to fill their final berths. Basically the later you can hold out the better chance you have of getting the cheapest price.
- Our Galapagos live aboard cruise:
- We sailed aboard the Millennium which is a steel hulled catamaran of Luxury class (the second best). The boat was a little rough around the edges but still very comfortable with good sized rooms, bathrooms which open onto the water, delicious food and a super friendly crew.
- We chose a 6D/5N western island itinerary. It took us from Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz to Isla Isabela, Isla Fernandina, Isla Santiago and then back to Isla Baltra. Baltra is connected to Santa Cruz by a very short ferry ride. For most of the trip it felt like we had the whole Galapagos to ourselves. We barely saw any other boats which was amazing.
- We secured our berths for USD1350/person (down from USD3120) by booking two days before. Some people got theirs for USD1000 by booking less than an hour before sailing.
- In Puerto Ayora, for high quality if not slightly pricey espresso and frozen yoghurt, head to OMG! Galapagos (Ave. Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora). Also has good wifi.
- If you looking for a super tasty, cheap feed in Puerto Ayora, head to the night market on Charles Binford street. It’s three blocks up Avenida Batra from the park. We had the best feed of ceviche and whole fish for around USD5 each. Plus, were able to bring our own alcohol!