Seven days in Ecuador's prehistoric landscape, cruising and watching unusual wildlife together with family, may be the ultimate bonding experience.
After decades of travel, no other destination pops so readily into my mind. I need notes of my trip only to provide lost names of islands, boats and fellow travelers – the image of every bird, lizard and animal remains vividly imprinted:
- Sun baked marine iguanas rudely spitting salt from their nostrils.
- Booby birds with webbed feet of a blue I previously had not seen in nature.
- Countless frigate birds, with their hysterical, throaty warbles and ballooned, crimson breasts.
- Sea lions attacking my son’s sand castle and chasing him down to the surf.
Exploring the Galapagos Islands is not a Disney-esque, sanitized eco-adventure tour, but it’s also not an exercise in self-deprivation, thanks to the civilized touches of Ecoventura and its three small, 20-person ships. For connecting or reconnecting with a loved one, a child or a grandchild, Ecoventura’s Galapagos excursions provide a mix of adventure and comfort in an other worldly setting. All it takes is a healthy pair of legs, an ounce or two of stamina – and a little letting go.
After passing through the low slung airport and scruffy port town on San Cristobal Island, a few hundred miles west of mainland Ecuador, my 10 year-old son Jamie and I were whisked by dinghy to Ecoventura’s Flamingo, our home for seven days along with 16 other adult passengers. After a quick tour of the ship, a safety drill and lunch of fruit, salads and pasta, we pulled up anchor and headed out to sea, stopping at a nearby beach for swimming, snorkeling and an introduction to the friendly Galapagos sea lions that playfully dive and twirl around us humans in the water. As we chased the sun that first evening aboard the Flamingo, hundreds of bottlenose dolphin danced beside us for an hour, a spectacular welcome to the islands.
Days of Exploration
The daily itinerary was well balanced between mesmerizing, meandering nature hikes and free time for exploring. Following a buffet breakfast, we boarded dinghies for a brief cruise along an island wall to catch sight of adorable Galapagos penguins, colorful Sally Lightfoot crabs and sea turtles before disembarking via a wet landing (hopping into shallow water) or dry landing (stepping onto volcanic rock or a slippery dock). Our two delightful Ecuadorian naturalists Melina and Juan Carlos, would split the group and (usually) slowly hike for two hours along designated paths through varied, otherworldly landscapes amid seemingly prehistoric lizards, birds and animals.
Dinghies then took us back for lunch and a break, and then it was snorkeling time amid starfish, sea lions, sharks and walls of fish or simply beach time to build sand castles near the surf. Upon re-boarding the Flamingo, our friendly bartender was waiting with empanadas (Jamie’s new favorite food) or some other tasty Happy Hour pastry or other snack. Then it was lazy time up top the ship as we cruised to the next island (usually through much of the night). In the early evening Melina or Juan Carlos would review the day in the ship’s cozy conference room and map out the next day’s adventure. We dined with other passengers in comfortable booths overlooking the water, and then it was homework time (Jamie was missing a week of school), a look at the unfamiliar stars and off to bed before a 7am wake up call. Never rushed, never bored.
The hikes were the highlight, if sometimes a little long for a 10-year-old boy’s attention span or a person with weak legs. I expected to see the occasional bird or animal, perhaps at a distance with binoculars. Instead, I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity and proximity of these odd little (and not so little) creatures. We had to step around hundreds of blue-footed booby nests to avoid being pecked by the black-eyed fowls. Marine iguanas by the thousands lazed in the sun and moved only if you challenged their space. Scores of sea lions roamed the shores, covered the docks and played with us in the surf. Male frigate birds, with their breasts proudly inflated to attract their mates, littered the landscape. And I even was challenged by a massive albatross to get off his path to his waiting bride.
The funniest sights were the elaborate mating dances of the blue footed boobies and the Wave Albatrosses (perhaps not as funny as some human rituals, but…). After finding an appropriate twig or stick, the male booby hovers in the sky above the waiting female before landing a short distance away. He lets out a whistle that would make a construction worker proud while she honks back in pleasure. They goose-step their way toward each other, he presents his twig with a grand flourish and then arches his back and flays his wings and feathers while offering another affectionate whistle before they peck at each other’s beaks and lovingly rub their necks together. After all this effort, the actual act of mating takes only a few seconds. It was exhausting — for me, at least, due to all the laughing.
Wave Albatrosses mate for life and must rediscover their mates on Espanola Island year after year following their migration to the South Pacific. These massive birds with 10-foot wingspans take off and land like jumbo jets, waiting for the right wind conditions before running off a cliff and searching for a breeze to help them land in a clearing. To find their mate, the males and females will search among the hundreds of options (apparently they all look alike to each other, too). It appears to take them quite some time – a male and female approach each other warily, waddle side to side, make a low “gaaaaugh” sound, then lift their heads high with beaks wide open. Then snap! – they shut their jaws with a loud crack and practice swordplay with their beaks, making an awful racket. They pull back briefly, drop heads down low, then raise back up high with open beaks – and then crack, crack, crack, they fence again, drawing howls of laughter from observing humans. Not mates? On to the next one!
Most people (except me) had heard of “Lonesome George,” a tortoise with no known female counterpart of his subspecies. A true dying breed. He hangs out at the interesting Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, which is dedicated to breeding tortoises, while scientists search worldwide for a mate. To see the famed Galapagos tortoises in the wild, we drove by rickety minibus into the hills above the park to a farm where we traipsed through fruit trees and high grass to observe four impressive tortoises in their natural habitat.
Life Aboard Our Small Luxury Ship
Few of the hikes cover much distance or require high tech hiking boots – I usually wore topsiders and Jamie wore sneakers. Most of the hiking time is spent listening to our guides explain in occasionally confusing English the islands’ history, topography, flora and fauna. For my tastes and Jamie’s, only a couple of hikes were longer than they needed to be. Melina and Juan Carlos were able to answer nearly every question and provided just the right amount of detail, but a finicky kid with a low tolerance for sunlight, dirt, or a pack of adults with cameras, may find the hikes tedious.
The Flamingo was a wonderful home for a week. Cabins for guests, plus the captain and crew quarters, were split among three levels of gleaming wood and brass. However, the interior and exterior stairs are skinny and steep, and require sturdy legs and some healthy respect to keep from slipping or knocking heads on low ceilings. Not for the weak of heart. People may quibble over whether it truly is a luxury cruise, as stated in Ecoventura’s marketing materials, but the ship provided all the expected amenities of a small ship (just over 80-feet-long), a very friendly crew and a good variety of decent food.
Jamie really enjoyed the adventuresome nature of life on a ship, with its expansive top deck for catching rays and whale watching, a cozy bunk in the bowels of the ship and unlimited Sprites from the bartender. In our cabin, the three single beds (one bunk bed), a half closet for clothes and a modest water closet and full size shower provided adequate space for a small (tight knit) family. The cabin across the hall is identical, so a larger family can rent both and keep close together. The other cabins have two bunks or one double bed, and a crew to clean the rooms daily and make the beds.
We ate in four-person booths every meal, as well as one evening at the Captain’s table, so we got to know the other passengers, all Americans, many retired. The galley crew mixed foods familiar to Americans (breakfast cereal, leafy salads, boiled potatoes) with exotic fruits, vegetables and Ecuadorian specialties, particularly fish. Jamie widened his eating repertoire a bit on this trip and scored the food “8” on a scale of 10. Although the crew accommodates special diets, such as no meat, vegetarian, etc. Jamie would have scored it higher if there had been French fries.
There is a full bar with complimentary soft drinks and reasonably priced (US$3-US$4) beer, wine and alcohol. The ship’s conference room has a 25-inch TV, DVD player and films including “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” with its spectacular scenes of the Galapagos Islands. There also are books to help identify the fish we observe each day, as well as chess and other board games, some in need of repair.
Commitment to the Environment & Family
Ecoventura conducts tours aimed specifically at families during spring break and summer. However, the itinerary and food remain pretty much the same, according to Melina and Juan Carlos. The only difference, they said, is that the schedule gets out of whack due to the difficulty of corralling kids. I can imagine that the Flamingo full of kids would be a raucous good time, and I suspect that my son would have spent more time away from my side had there been other kids on board.
Selfishly speaking, I’m glad there were not. For me the best part of the trip was spending seven days on a cozy ship with my son, crossing the Equator six times, being chased by sea lions, laughing at funny looking birds, making castles of black volcanic sand and cruising into truly foreign harbors. How often do you get to do that?
All of this is done as Ecoventura takes great pains to leave as small an ecological “footprint” as possible. In the last decade, the company has refurbished its fleet so that each and every ship is as eco-friendly as possible, in order to receive a “green seal approval” from The Rainforest Alliance for helping preserve the fragile state of the Galapagos. In 2007, Ecoventura became the first in the region to install oil filter systems on all of its yachts to reduce oil lubricants, gas emission and even fuel consumption. In 2008, they received the “Best in Marine Environment” award from Virgin Holidays for these environmental precautions, as well as for their ongoing commitment to sustaining the communities they visit. These efforts made this journey through the stunning Galapagos even more enjoyable, as travelers get to see nature in its truest sense, while not harming any of the landscape, marinelife and culture of the area.
The Galapagos Islands are served by air from Quito and Guayaquil on mainland Ecuador. From the States, plan on spending a day flying to Ecuador and then the night in a hotel before jumping off to the Galapagos in the morning.
Cruise rates include cabin accommodations, all meals and snacks, non-alcoholic beverages, mineral water, guided shore excursions and use of snorkeling equipment, wet suits, sea kayaks and transfers on the islands. Adult rates for a eight-day cruise range from US$2,300 – US$3,775 per person depending on season, cabin and number of people per cabin; five-day cruises range from US$1,345 – US$2,600 per person. Rates do not include international airfare, domestic flights from Ecuador to the Galapagos, Galapagos reserve entrance fee (US$100) or gratuities to guides and crew (approximately US$175 per passenger).
Children under 7-years are not accepted unless special pre-arranged conditions are met. Frankly, 7 and 8-year-olds would need to be quite mature to enjoy the pace of the hikes, and I would be concerned for their safety on a small ship in the middle of the ocean. Children 11-years-old and younger pay half the adult cruise rate, airfare and Galapagos entrance fee (check the web site below for rather complex rules and exceptions). Children 12-14 receive a 25% discount off the cruise rate on special family-focused departures during the summer and spring break.
Ecoventura provides snorkeling gear and wet suits and you can reserve one in advance for US$25. Even better, bring your own snorkel/mask and wet suit since some on the ship are in poor condition and proper fitting can be a problem. A wet suit makes snorkeling and swimming a bit more comfortable from June to November, when the sea temperature is between 65 and 72 degrees F (19-21 degrees C).
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