Friday, November 22, 2019

Galapagos Islands Two Ways Part III: By Sea

This is the third post about my adventures in the Galapagos Islands. So far I have described how to visit the islands independently and on a budget, as well as how and why I decided to book a last minute cruise. Here's more about my adventure at sea:

I booked and paid for my cruise in cash at Galapagos Mockingbird Travel Agency in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz less than two days prior to embarkation. As mentioned in my previous post, the Millennium was the only boat that met my requirements regarding the itinerary and a schedule that would fit my travel dates. Since I had already spent one week on San Cristobal island (including taking two day trips to other islands and places I could not visit on my own) plus five days on Santa Cruz, I was not interested in repeating any of those experiences during the cruise. The Millennium's northern and western islands itinerary was almost exactly what I would have designed myself if I was chartering a boat.
A screenshot from a travel agency's website showing the typical
northern and western Galapagos Islands cruise itinerary.
The Millennium is a 16-passenger first class catamaran. It is one of the oldest boats currently operating in the Galapagos. It has been refurbished so, besides the fact that it is heavy ("military-grade steel!" our guide said repeatedly throughout the week) and therefore slow, it is quite comfortable and well-appointed.
A stock photo of the Millennium.
The boat has six double cabins featuring two twin beds and a split bathroom (the toilet and sink are separate from the bathtub/shower). Five of these cabins are on the main deck; the one on the upper deck is actually a triple with three twin beds. There are also two suites on the upper deck; they are twice as large as the standard cabins and feature king size beds, a sitting area, and a huge bathroom with walk-in shower. All of the staterooms are air-conditioned and most have balconies.
Stateroom #4 on the Millennium.
There is an indoor dining area and a lounge/bar area on the main deck forward. On the rear upper deck there is an outdoor dining area. The top deck is completely open air, though partially covered, with lounge chairs and bench seating.
The dining room set up for dinner on Day 1 of the cruise.
Since I was traveling alone and the cruise was fully booked, I had to share a cabin with another passenger. My roommate was Helen, a fun-loving girl from Stuttgart, Germany who had been traveling around South America for five months. Helen was wonderful, as were the other 14 guests plus nine crew on board the Millennium. Including myself there were five North Americans (all from the U.S.), a couple from Denmark, a couple from France, two couples from Switzerland, and a mother and daughter from China. The average age was early 30's. None of the passengers were smokers. Everyone was very friendly, relaxed, well-traveled, physically fit, and eager to make the most of our adventure together.
My cruisemates and our captain (lower right) on Day 4 of the cruise.
Our naturalist guide was Whitman Cox, a San Cristobal native who coordinated all of our meal times and activities, led our excursions, and educated us about everything in the Galapagos.
Whitman and I at the Centro de Crianza de Tortugas Terrestres
(Land Tortoise Breeding Center) on Isabela island.
The crew consisted of the captain and his first mate, an engineer, two dinghy drivers, one cabin steward, two cooks, and one bartender/waiter.
The crew gathers in the common area for a welcome toast.
I will elaborate more about the itinerary below but first I want to say a few things about my experience overall. On a small boat like the Millennium, your fellow passengers can make or break your cruise. You are in close quarters and will spend an average of 14 hours per day together eating, riding in the dinghies, hiking, and snorkeling. The atmosphere is very relaxed; the crew prefers that you don't wear shoes inside and there are no locks on the cabin doors. There are no private spaces to hide away and just chill for awhile, with the exception of your cabin, which you are likely sharing. There is a schedule to keep, so if other passengers are late it affects everyone. Meals are served buffet style and seating is open, so conversation is a big part of the dining experience.

I feel like I hit the jackpot regarding my cruisemates for the first five days. I say this not only because they were all super friendly and enthusiastic about the cruise and about making the most of our experience, but also because everyone was very conscious of how their actions affected the others. No one hogged the photo ops, or was constantly late or lagging behind, or interrupting the guide, or taking too much food on the first pass at the buffet, or always talking about politics, or whining when the weather wasn't perfect or when we didn't get to see or do something as planned.

I actually have something to compare to because the entire group, with the exception of myself and two other North Americans, disembarked on the morning of Day 6 and new passengers boarded later that afternoon. The new group was completely different! The average age was now mid-50's to 60's and there was also a family with three children (approximate ages 8, 10 and 12). While everyone was still very friendly, the vibe was much more low key. About half of them were not in great physical shape (i.e. they were overweight) and they skipped some of the excursions. The kids, while generally well-behaved, had a tendency to scream or shout especially when snorkeling. Several of the passengers were carrying expensive photographic equipment and often fell behind the group during our hikes because they were taking so many photos. You get the idea.

Now, without further delay, here are my daily notes from the cruise.

Day 1: Wednesday, July 17 - Santa Cruz highlands
I met my fellow cruisers for the first time this afternoon at Rancho El Manzanillo where you can walk among the free-range land tortoises. About half of the group came directly from the airport; others had already been on the islands for a few days and thus had taken a taxi from Puerto Ayora. Whitman led us on a tour for about an hour and then we ate a late lunch at the onsite restaurant. We bused back to the port and took our first dinghy ride to the Millennium at 6 p.m. We received our cabin assignments and had time to unpack before dinner. We set sail shortly after we ate which forced everyone to go to their staterooms as the boat was rocking violently and most of us felt motion sick. While I never got physically ill, it was the first of many times that week where the only thing I could do was lie in bed; it felt like being in a washing machine on agitate cycle!
Our group observing a land tortoise at Rancho El Manzanillo.
Day 2: Thursday, July 18 - Isabela (Tintoreras and Puerto Villamil)
The original itinerary included a trip inland to hike Volcan Sierra Negra but, because it was overcast and we wouldn't have been able to see much, we opted to stay closer to the water. We ate breakfast at 6:15 and boarded the dinghies at 7:00. First we landed at Islote Tintoreras and hiked around the lava for 1.5 hours. We saw tons of wildlife including our first sharks and penguins. Then we took the dinghies to Puerto Villamil and transferred to a van for the trip to the Land Tortoise Breeding Center. We spent an hour there observing the tortoises (saw one pair mating!) and then followed a trail/boardwalk through a saltwater lagoon (flamingos!) to the beach. We watched some marine iguanas swimming and climbing around the lava rocks, then transferred back to the dock and took the dinghies back to the boat for lunch.
White-tipped reef sharks rest in the Tintoreras Grotto.
We had a couple of hours to rest, then returned to the beach for a free "do what you want" afternoon. I decided to walk along the beach to the old cemetery outside of town which took about an hour each way. I also went back to the lagoon for more birdwatching, and spent the remaining time chatting with my cruisemates and relaxing with a beer at a beach bar. Back on the boat we were served a complimentary welcome cocktail before dinner. We had another long night of rough sailing ahead, so most of us retired to our staterooms shortly after dinner.
I mostly had the beach to myself on my long walk to the cemetery.
Day 3: Friday, July 19 - Isabela (Punta Moreno) and Fernandina (Punta Mangle)
We ate breakfast at 7 a.m. then took the dinghies to shore for a two hour hike around the lava fields. We passed several lagoons (more flamingos!) and saw lots of interesting lava formations and cacti. Then we reboarded the dinghies for a ride around the shoreline where we saw our first flightless cormorants, some penguins, and lots of marine iguanas. We returned to the boat for lunch and then set sail for Fernandina around 1 p.m.
A couple of hours later we had reached the island and went deep water snorkeling for one hour. After taking a quick and much needed hot shower (the water was very cold!) we went for another dinghy ride around the shoreline and saw lots of birds and boobies diving for dinner. We set sail again just before sunset and within just over an hour were anchored for the night. After listening to an informational lecture from Whitman, we ate dinner at 7 p.m. Since we were anchored and the sea was calm, we went up to the sundeck to look at the stars before going to bed.
The Millennium at anchor off of uninhabited Fernandina island.
Day 4: Saturday, July 20 - Fernandina (Punta Espinoza) and Isabela (Tagus Cove)
We ate breakfast at 6:15 and by 7 a.m. we were in the dinghies heading for shore. We spent two hours hiking around the lava formations and a small lagoon where we observed rays feeding. We also saw a large marine iguana colony, flightless cormorants nesting and our first snake, plus I spotted a whale spouting in distance. Then we went deep water snorkeling (tons of sea turtles and marine iguanas feeding underwater) before sailing across to Tagus Cove.
After lunch we hiked up to the Darwin Lake overlook. We saw a pair of hawks and were entertained by a lonely sea lion that followed us up the path from the water and back down again when we left. We didn't have time to snorkel and Whitman said there wouldn't be much to see anyway, so about half the group took turns jumping off the back deck into the water.
A selfie at Darwin Lake, formed in a volcano crater.
We spent the rest of the afternoon sailing north and finally saw some whales plus lots of manta rays jumping and flipping. A large group of frigates stayed with the boat, flying overhead and occasionally landing on the roof of the sundeck. We had an informal party (it's the first time we had a chance to sit around and drink during the day) and then the captain invited us into the bridge just before sunset. We celebrated as we crossed the equator near the northwestern-most point of Isabela at 6:30 p.m. and eventually went inside for dinner. The sailing was rough again later so most of us retired to our staterooms after we ate.
Can you see the equator? ;)
Day 5: Sunday, July 21 - Santiago (James Bay/Puerto Egas) and Sombrero Chino/Chinese Hat
Per routine, we ate breakfast at 6:15 and were on the beach just after 7 a.m. We hiked for almost two hours and saw tons of birds feeding, a few sharks, plus our first fur seals (they are actually another species of sea lion) and our first land iguana. Then we had one hour for optional snorkeling or beach time. I chose to hike alone around the shoreline and then up to an old house (there was once a salt mine here) and viewpoint. I also found an adorable baby sea lion that was less than one week old. We returned to the boat and set sail for Sombrero Chino.
A quiet morning on Egas Beach.
After lunch at noon and some time to rest, we went deep water snorkeling. The water was a bit rough but it was a great snorkeling experience because I got to swim with some playful penguins and sea lions. After a quick shower, we hiked around Sombrero Chino for one hour. The scenery was completely different from the other islands and was really beautiful. We also found a baby sea lion that was probably only one day old. Back on board, we had a complimentary goodbye cocktail and took some group photos before dinner. It was a beautiful, clear night so most of us went up to the top deck to stargaze and admire the Milky Way.
See the baby sea lion? It blends in so well with the rocks!
Day 6: Monday, July 22 - Santa Cruz (Black Turtle Cove) and Seymour Norte
This morning we went for a dingy ride in Black Turtle Cove at 6:30 a.m. We saw sharks, rays, lots of birds, and turtle tracks from where they nest on the beach. We ate breakfast at 8 a.m. and then everyone disembarked at 9 a.m. except myself, Debby and Jack.
One last dinghy excursion with my original cruisemates.
Here we are looking at blue-footed boobies.
From 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. the three of us were not given any activity options or information other than that the crew would be resupplying the boat and we would wait for new passengers to arrive. I spent most of the day on the sundeck reading. The new passengers finally boarded around 2:30 p.m. and we sailed to Seymour Norte.
Returning to the boat after a dinghy excursion.
We took the dinghies ashore and hiked for about two hours. This island is known for its bird life and it did not disappoint. We saw nesting cormorants and boobies with their chicks plus many other birds, along with land iguanas and sea lions. We returned to the boat just before sunset and set sail for Bartolome. After dinner I spent several hours on the sundeck watching the shooting stars.
Those puffy white balls are baby frigates. They have black wings.
Day 7: Tuesday, July 23 - East Bartolome and Santiago (Sullivan Bay)
We ate breakfast at 6:45 and then took the dinghies ashore. We hiked to the summit of East Bartolome where there is a 360 degree view of the beautiful and diverse island landscape that epitomizes the Galapagos. Just under two hours later we were back in the dinghies for a ride around Pinnacle Rock where we spotted a lone penguin. Back on the boat, we changed into our wetsuits and went snorkeling on the beach near Pinnacle Rock. We ate lunch on the boat at 11:30 then sailed the short distance to Sullivan Bay.
Notice all of the boats in the background. Bartolome and Sullivan Bay are
on most cruise itineraries and are also popular day trips out of Puerto Ayora.
In the afternoon we hiked for about an hour around the spectacular lava formations. We saw a small snake and penguins as well as a large shark in the bay. Immediately afterward we went snorkeling off the beach in that same spot! We returned to the boat without incident and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening sailing back to Santa Cruz. I went up to the sundeck to enjoy a few cocktails and to watch my last Galapagos sunset.
I love the contrast of the lava, the dried salt, and the ocean at Sullivan Bay.
Day 8: Wednesday, July 24 - Santa Cruz (Bachas Beach)
There was a bit of chaos this morning because the crew, particularly Whitman, didn't realize I was booked on the first flight out of Baltra at 10 a.m. We took the dinghies to the beach at 6:15 a.m. and walked around on the sand for an hour. We were hoping to see flamingos in the lagoon but only saw a few other birds and a couple of iguanas sleeping in the mud. Back on the boat we ate breakfast
and Jack, Debby, and I disembarked on Baltra at 8:30 a.m. We took the shuttle bus to the airport and my flight left on time at 10 a.m.
My last Galapagos sunrise in July.
Summary
With the exception of the crazy, somewhat stressful process and effort required to book this cruise at the last minute plus some wasted time and lack of organization on Day 1 and especially on Day 6, my entire Galapagos cruise experience was fantastic. The wildlife and scenery were amazing. Most of the time we were the only visitors on the uninhabited islands. The boat, while not perfect, was clean and comfortable. The food, snacks, and drinks were delicious. The crew and my fellow passengers were awesome. In the end, while of course I would have liked to spend less, I think it was worth $2,000 for the week. But I'm not sure I could say the same if I had paid the regular $4,000+ rate.

If anyone asks me for recommendations for visiting the Galapagos, I would generally tell them to do something similar to what I did: Fly into San Cristobal and spend a week or so sightseeing independently with a couple of excursions (to Espanola and maybe a 360 tour) and then ferry to Santa Cruz and spend a couple of days sightseeing on your own there. Then do a full week cruise to the northern/western islands (same itinerary as mine).

One final note about cruising and the Galapagos in general. While I did have wifi access at my accommodations in San Cristobal and Santa Cruz, it was very slow. I didn't have wifi or cellular service for the entire week on the boat. I had to wait until I was back on the mainland to upload all of my photos and videos. Thus it is a good idea to have a way to back up your photos daily to another drive or device in case something happens to your cell phone or camera during the trip.

You can read my abbreviated daily summaries, which are split into two posts per day for morning and afternoon activities, by searching the keyword "Galapagos" on my Facebook,
Instagram, and YouTube accounts, or by scrolling to the posts that occurred between July 24 and August 8, 2019. There are also photos from my independent Galapagos adventures prior to the cruise that start on July 5.

This is a slideshow of some of my favorite photos from the cruise. Enjoy!