Day 1 - Boarding the Evolution and Snorkeling off Punta Carrion
Like most people, I've always dreamed of visiting exotic places around the world like the Galapagos Islands. When I first started this job as a cruise travel writer in 2000, I had my own list of places to see during my lifetime. Years later, I've traveled to hundreds of places around the world and enjoyed them all--even the ones I didn't have on my original bucket list.
I've finally scratched off the last destination (for now) on the "must see" top 10 list I entered this century with--the Galapagos Islands. I've always been a lover of wildlife and science, and this Galapagos archipelago of islands that straddles the equator about 600 miles west of Ecuador has long enticed me. The island group is quite large, with 13 major islands, 6 small ones, and dozens of named and unnamed islets. One island, Isla Isabela, is the 12th largest in the South Pacific. The islands are volcanic in origin, with the tallest peak over 5000 feet. Most cruises are on small ships that focus on either the eastern group of islands or on Islas Isabela and Fernandina in the west. Quasar Expeditions alternates between the two itineraries so that guests can stay on two weeks and see different islands, harbors, and flora and fauna.
Because the islands are so isolated, the wildlife has evolved over the centuries, with many species of animal and plant life seen only in the Galapagos Islands. Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands in 1835 while on an adventure on the HMS Beagle. Although he was only in the islands for five weeks, his research on the different species of mockingbirds on all the Galapagos Islands and the 13 different species of finches he observed on the different islands led to the publication of his landmark book, "On the Origin of Species". The guidebooks stress that you shouldn't visit unless you are fascinated by wildlife, the outdoors, and geology. Most of the islands we visited in the Galapagos Islands are not inhabited, and only 28,000 people live on the five inhabited islands. So, those who prefer urban or indoor activities when vacationing might not be a good match for a Galapagos cruise vacation.
Travel to the Galapagos with LAN Airlines
I traveled to the Galapagos on LAN Airlines from New York City non-stop to Guayaquil, an Ecuadorian coastal city of over two million residents that has most of the flights to the Galapagos. LAN has non-stop flights from JFK to Guayaquil or to Quito. Most flights to the two airports in the Galapagos Islands depart from Guayaquil. We arrived in Guayaquil in the very early morning after an overnight flight, and then had a long layover until our flight to the islands, allowing plenty of time for our luggage to get transferred and for us to use the free WiFi at the airport.
Boarding the M/V Evolution of Quasar Expeditions
We landed on the small island of Baltra and were met by Dolores Gangotena de Diez, one of the owners of the Quasar Expeditions' small expedition yacht the Evolution and her son Fernando, who also works for the family business. She lives in Quito with her husband, the other owner. Dolores fell in love with the Galapagos when she first visited in the 1960's, passed this dedication to the Galapagos to her family, and still is very enthusiastic about the islands 50 years later.
Our group boarded a shuttle bus, which took us to the pier where one of the ship's pangas (the Ecuadorian word that equates to a small boat like a Zodiac, RIB, or dingy) met us for the transfer to the Evolution. Our group of seven arrived at the Evolution about 1 pm in the afternoon of the second day of the cruise. We had a nice lunch outdoors on the deck before donning our swimsuits for the afternoon's activity--snorkeling at 2:45. The dozen other guests were resting after a busy morning of hiking; they had eaten lunch earlier.
The Evolution was formerly a fishing ship that was significantly refurbished as a small expedition yacht. It's really lovely, with larger cabins than I've had on other small ships and nice wood paneling. Not luxurious, but very nice, with a classy feeling. Like other expedition ships I've been on, this one did not have keys to lock the cabin while you were gone, so don't bring along any valuables. Passports and any money can be secured in the cabin's safe. The cabin's private bathroom was especially impressive compared to other yachts. I was on the lowest deck in the most forward cabin (D2). I had a tiny window about 8 inches in diameter, but it was level with the ceiling, so I couldn't see outside. Just good for telling if it's daylight or dark. I was afraid this cabin might be rough, but it was actually very stable since it was mostly below the water line. Those staying in the D level cabins don't need an alarm clock; the anchor is right underneath, so you are awakened when the ship anchors each morning, which is usually not long before the daily wake up call.
After our first lunch, we quickly found our swimsuits (suitcases were delivered to our rooms while we were eating), got changed, and went up on the deck to select snorkeling gear and the shorty wet suits that come down to your knees and have short sleeves. The ship was still anchored off Baltra, so we boarded two pangas and went over near a rocky cliff called Punta Carrion to do snorkeling in very calm water. The water is crystal clear (like the Caribbean) and cold, but the wetsuits kept us warmish after the original shock. We saw many tropical fish this first snorkeling expedition, but I think it was more like a kind of a "get-acquainted" snorkel for Samuel (the naturalist) and Victoria (his assistant) to check out our skills.
We stayed in the water about 45 minutes and then returned to the Evolution. Many of us hopped in the hot tub on the Beagle Deck after we shed our wetsuits. The hot water felt good!
Day 1 - Sea Lions of Mosquera Island
I quickly unpacked while the Quasar Evolution repositioned to an anchorage near Mosquera Island, a small sandy beach where Galapagos sea lions like to rest. This little spit is only about 120 yards by 600 yards and is like a giant sand bar. We left the ship about 5 pm on the pangas and stayed on the island until sunset. This was the type of adventure the Galapagos is famous for--dozens of sea lions, and none of them the least bit afraid. It's like they are missing the fear factor gene for humans. We were told to keep about three feet away and to not touch them, but the curious little things would waddle right up to us, touching our legs with their long whiskers. We saw a baby sea lion nursing and the colony seemed to be all ages. The alpha male woke up about the time it started to get dusk and began patrolling his island, swimming up and down the beach, barking and encouraging the younger pups to get back on shore since the sharks start feeding at dark. This is just the way I pictured the Galapagos--unique wildlife completely unafraid of humans. What an experience.
Returning to the ship at dark, we enjoyed snacks and a cold drink before showering and attending the nightly briefing and dinner. Sam (the naturalist) led a briefing in the lounge each evening before dinner and discussed our itinerary, wildlife interactions, and activities for next day. A copy of the daily schedule was posted on the reception desk, and I took a photo of it each day to remind me.
As I noted before, all meals are buffet, and both lunch and dinner start with an Ecuadorian soup, which is served by the waiters. All the soups were good, which is surprising since the weather is warm. Our first night's dinner started with vegetable soup, followed by a buffet with green salad, grilled wahoo with capers, turkey with fig sauce, potatoes, steamed veggies, and turnips. Dessert is cheese, fruit, or the nightly dessert, which was a brownie with ice cream our first night.
After dinner, I slept like a log (or a sleeping sea lion) until about 5 am the next morning. Some people went out on deck to see if the ship's lights attracted any sharks, but I couldn't keep my eyes open. They saw one shark. I didn't even hear the anchor raised in the middle of the night as we sailed for Sombrero Chino Island, a small island off the southeast coast of James Island.
Day 2 - Panga Ride, Hiking on Sombrero Chino Island, and Snorkeling
Our first morning on the Evolution of Quasar Expeditions, we had a 6 am wake up call. The ship played quiet music over the loud speaker for a few minutes before an announcement was made that the pangas would sail at 6:30. I was already awake, and the ship was anchored near James Island, which is also called Santiago Island and San Salvador Island. (Note: All of the Galapagos seem to have three names--an Ecuadorian, English and a Spanish one).
We boarded the pangas and rode near one of the more recent lava flows. The stark black lava against the crystal clear, blue water reminded me of Hawaii. We saw Galapagos penguins, blue footed boobies, lava herons, and one great blue heron like we have at home.
After riding around for a while, we landed at a gorgeous sandy beach on Sombrero Chino Island and had great fun watching the sea lions play and bask in the sun. The lava flows and rock formations were interesting, and we also saw many brilliant orange Sally lightfoot crabs, marine iguanas, lava lizards, and other wildlife and birds. Since it was still early, the morning was a perfect time to hike and be near the beach. However, it was already obvious that multiple sunscreen applications would be important on this trip!
We returned to the ship at 8:30 for a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, pancakes, fruit, muesli, etc. Very good.
Before we could get rested, it was time to put on our swimsuits for the 10:30 snorkeling or beach expedition. The "deep water" snorkeling panga returned to the lava flow area where the water was so brilliantly clear, and the other group went to a sandy beach on Sombrero Chino Island where they could swim, lie on the beach, or snorkel from the beach. I went with the "deep water" snorkelers, which just meant we snorkeled from the panga, and thank goodness they had a ladder for us to use to get back on the panga!
This crystal clear water with a white sandy bottom bordered by the black lava was a great snorkel for me, and I saw two things I had never seen under water--two white tipped reef sharks (one lying on the bottom sleeping and the other up under a lava ledge at the shoreline) and Galapagos penguins. These little birds can swim very fast under water! We also were entertained by a sea lion for quite a while. What an underwater acrobat he was. The water seemed a little colder than the first day. Sam said it ranged from 21 to 24 degrees Celsius, which is about 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit. Very nice to have on a wet suit. Of course, we saw many reef fish like I have seen in the Caribbean and Hawaii like parrot fish, Sargent Majors, etc. According to Sam, the opening of the Panama Canal in the early 1900's contributed to the movement of the reef fish of the Caribbean into the Pacific Ocean.
We also saw a couple of sea cucumbers, which almost became extinct in the Galapagos. They were "fished out" in the mid 1990's, with over 7 million harvested in just 2 months in 1994. These are not good to eat, but some Asians think they have aphrodisiac properties. Millions more were harvested in the next few years, even though the government outlawed the taking of sea cucumbers in December 1994.
I felt like I had done a full day's activities by lunch. However, we had an outdoor traditional Ecuadorian lunch to enjoy. The meal started with ceviche, which is seafood "cooked" in lime juice. We had 3 types--jack fish, octopus, or squid. Most people tried all three, but I stuck to the fish one. It was so good, most of us had seconds. I was about full after that, so just ate a little salad (lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes) and some fruit and skipped the roasted pork, cabbage with apples, and banana cake.
Day 2 - Exploring James Island - Marine Iguanas and Fur Seals
Finishing lunch about 2 pm, we had a whole two hours before our next Galapagos Islands adventure. I actually took a short nap in the cabin. We rode the pangas ashore from the Evolution for a wet landing on James Island, Charles Darwin's favorite island, which is also called Santiago or San Salvador. This island was once inhabited, but is not any more. It's the archipelago's fourth largest island and has several walking trails for visitors.
We landed at Puerto Egas on James Bay on the west side of the island. It was a wet landing on a black sandy beach--quite lovely. We all toted our walking shoes so they wouldn't get wet, and the ship kindly provided small towels for us to sit on the rocks surrounding the beach and dry the black sticky sand off our feet.
We were all a little surprised to see the remains of when James Island was once settled for salt mining in the 1960's. After the settlers left, the island was overrun by ferral goats by the 1990's, and almost all the vegetation was destroyed. The government hired a New Zealand firm to use helicopters to fly over the island and kill all the goats with machine guns. The goats were left to rot. It sounds a little gruesome, but the island rebounded.
We hiked along a trail that skirted the lava shoreline. The tidal pools and black lava were covered with hundreds of marine iguanas. Very creepy to see a dozen or so of them kind of piled up on the rocks or sand, making it easy to see why a group of iguanas is called a mess! I loved exploring the tidal pools (without getting my feet wet) and the grottos where we saw our first Galapagos fur seals swimming. Many sea birds flew overhead while the marine iguanas patrolled the lava rocks and sand. All of our group got into photographing the iguanas.
The walk was fairly easy, but we were all happy that we did it in the late afternoon to avoid some of the heat. The sun sinks quickly when you are at the equator, and we saw it go down over the ocean before we got back on the pangas and returned to the ship after our two hours ashore.
As usual, delicious snacks and fruit juice greeted us upon our return. The ship usually had two hot snacks, plus chips of some sort and then a cold tropical juice like passion fruit or maybe lemonade. I quickly took a shower just in time for the nightly briefing and dinner.
Dinner was lentil soup (another good one!), fish, chicken, veggies, and chocolate cake, fruit, or cheese for dessert. Off to bed by 10 pm or so.
Day 3 - Genovesa Island - Snorkeling and the Birds of Darwin Bay Beach
The Quasar Evolution sailed during dinner and then overnight to the northernmost Galapagos Island, Genovesa, which is also called Tower. We even crossed the equator back into the northern hemisphere sometime during the night. When I awoke the ship was anchored in Darwin Bay in a caldera much like the crescent shaped one at Santorini. The cliffs at Genovesa are not as tall, but it's still the same concept--a volcanic caldera that was once the site of an eruption. This island is not inhabited and is not as frequently visited as some of the other Galapagos Islands, but the trip north of the equator was worth the sailing time.
Our naturalist Sam wanted to possibly show us a creature that often frequents the waters of the caldera. Since the creature is shy, we needed to go snorkeling very early since he also knew that four other small ships would be at Genovesa the same day. So, we ate breakfast and were in the pangas by 8:30. What creature were we seeking? Hammerhead sharks! Never thought I would go looking for a shark, but the waters are so rich and the food is so plentiful in the Galapagos that snorkelers/divers who behave themselves are safe (or so we were told). Anyway, this snorkel was only recommended for those of us who were more experienced since it was much deeper water and the water was very choppy.
We slipped into the water from the pangas and slowly moved along the cliffs overlooking the caldera. Quite magical since the water was deeper than I am used to, but you could still see fairly well. The chop made it a little less brilliant than the day before, but the fish were MUCH larger. We saw huge parrot fish, angel fish, and other marine life. Sam and one other person saw a hammerhead but I missed it. We pressed on, kind of circling back and forth along the cliffs where Sam and Candace had seen the hammerhead. Finally, many more of us, including me, caught a glimpse of the shy shark. I wasn't nearly as scared as when I had seen the reef shark up under the ledge the previous day, maybe because this one was deeper and further away. Believe it or not, the hammerhead wasn't the highlight of the snorkel. We also saw a huge school of manta rays--must have been about 30 of the giant black rays with white bellies. They were swimming in the opposite direction of us and went right under us. Wow!
We were back on board by 10 am, quickly changed clothes and got back into the pangas for a walk along Darwin Bay beach, a small coral beach inside the caldera. It was a wet landing, but since the walk wasn't long, I just wore my teva sandals. There's a flat, half-mile trail that goes inland just a short distance, and we saw many red-footed boobies nesting in the small bushy trees. We also saw some Nazca boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, yellow-crested night herons, lava herons, and other birds.
The most exciting (and most photographed by our group) Darwin Bay beach birds were the great frigatebirds who were in their mating season. The males have a giant red neck pouch that they can inflate like a balloon. This pouch can stay inflated for a long time and is used to attract females. They can even fly with it slightly inflated. The female great frigatebirds don't have the bright coloring of the males, but do have a red ring around their eyes. This is one of the easiest ways to differentiate them from the magnificent frigatebirds, which is a separate species. Strolling along the beach trail was interesting, and we even came upon a lava grotto formation that linked to the caldera.
I can't describe how mesmerized we were by the male frigatebirds with their inflated bright red balloons. Often the balloons were so large that the bird had to rest his chin on the balloon. They looked like they would pop very easily. Some male frigatebirds would be off by themselves, others would be grouped together. I must have taken 100 photos of this mating ritual. Once a female selects a male, they might mate 100 times over a two week period. Enough said.
At the end of the hike, we returned to the beach to see some sea lions, one of whom was nursing. A few who hadn't changed clothes for the walk waded into the water for a swim. They were joined by one of the sea lions who played with them a little. These creatures are so unafraid. I can't seem to say that enough.
We returned to the Evolution for another nice lunch. Some of the guests went kayaking after lunch. The ship has four, 2-man kayaks, so people had to take turns. I passed since we had a hike along the cliff at 4 pm.
Day 3 - Genovesa Island - Hiking on the Top of the Cliff
At 4 pm, we were back in the pangas for the short ride from the Evolution to one of the caldera cliffs of Genovesa. It was across the bay from the morning's hike in Darwin Bay. The cliff top is accessed via Prince Philip's Steps, which were named after a 1964 visit by the British royal. The stairway is 81 feet up to the top of the cliff, and the stairs were steep and difficult. Sam said this hike would be our most difficult, so I didn't think the 92-year old member of our group would try it, but he climbed the cliff and did the entire hike of about 2 miles.
The hike along the cliff top began with a trek across the caldera, stopping at the other side where we had great views of the sea. The path was rocky and uneven, but flat with desert plants like cacti. We saw many birds--boobies, frigates, storm petrels, tropicbirds, short-eared owl and even a waved albatross, a species the ship owner Dolores said she hadn't seen in many years. The short-eared owl is very territorial, so Sam was able to point him out in a dark gulley cave off the trail since that was one of his usual daytime haunts.
When we saw what we thought were two boobies "fighting", we didn't realize that one was the chick of the mother and he was trying to get her to feed him. The boobie-babies (gotta love that) do not fly until they are about 1 year old, and their mothers feed them regurgitated food until they are able to fend for themselves. After one year, the babies are often larger than their moms, so feeding them can be quite challenging. The mother we saw was trying to tell her son that she didn't have any food for him! She kept running away and he kept trying to grab her neck and open her mouth to start the regurgitation process.
The sun was setting as we climbed back down Prince Philip's Steps, but we rode the panga along the rocky cliffs and got to see our first close-up view of the Galapagos fur seals that we had seen in the grotto at James Island.
Only time for a shower before the nightly briefing and dinner. Dinner started with zucchini soup, followed by salads, shrimp and veggies over rice, beef stroganoff, cauliflower, or French fries. We had "make your own ice cream sundae" for dessert. Nice ending to the day.
The ship had sailed before dinner, so by the time we finished dinner, the ship was almost at the point to where we would cross the equator. So, several of us went up to the wheelhouse to watch the GPS for the latitude reading of 000. Since we crossed the equator during the middle of the night on the northbound trip to Genovesa, and it was about bedtime during the southbound trip, this ship didn't have a Poseidon ceremony to honor the equator crossing like I've seen on other ships.
Day 4 - Blue-Footed Boobies of North Seymour Island
The next day was another glorious day on the Evolution. I woke up about 5:30 am, and the anchor was dropped not long afterwards. In order to re-fuel the Evolution, we had docked back on Baltra Island where our adventure had begun. As the ship was refueling, we were told to stay inside until we sailed for North Seymour Island in the Galapagos Islands.
The official soft music wake up call was at 6:45, with breakfast at 7 am. Doesn't take long to get ready when it's all-casual, all the time. We had an omelet station, plus the usual fruit, yogurt, muesli, granola, etc. Our first activity of the day was a hike at North Seymour Island, so the pangas left the Evolution at 8:00 am, not long after anchoring near the island. Sam, our naturalist guide, had announced at the nightly briefing that he wasn't going to caution 92-year-old Douglas on the difficulty of any more planned hikes. He had successfully negotiated Prince Philip's Steps, and the rest of the trip would be easier.
The North Seymour Island hike started out very rocky, but got smoother. It was about a one-mile hike, was mostly flat between the beach and the inland area, and was filled with scrubby bushes and trees. Glad I wore my closed-toe walking shoes again. Seymour is famous for its colonies of blue footed boobies and magnificent frigatebirds. The blue footed boobies were amazing to watch. They have a very complicated mating dance, and we were entertained by several pairs for over an hour. The female blue-footed boobies perch on a rock and the males "dance" by walking slowly and lifting their feet high. This dancing is followed by wing flapping and tail and beak pointing. The males continually whistle while the larger females honk. We watched two males court one female by alternating their dances. She ignored both for a while, but finally chose the one with the brightest blue feet! Apparently, this is common since the brighter the feet, the "stronger" the male in booby-land.
How quickly we forget. The day before, we all snapped hundreds of photos of the male great frigatebirds at Genovesa Island. On North Seymour, we practically ignored the red-ballooned frigates, giving most of our attention to the blue footed boobies. In addition to the great frigatebirds, we also saw magnificent frigatebirds on North Seymour. The two species can most easily be differentiated from the great frigatebirds by the ring around the eye of the female birds--the great ones have a reddish-pink ring and the magnificent ones have a blue ring around the eye. The male great frigates have green iridescent feathers on their backs, and the male magnificent frigate birds have blue feathers on their backs. These two very-similar-looking frigates are separate species and never mate. Good piece of cocktail party trivia, isn't it?
We were back on the ship by 10:30, quickly had a snack and fruit juice, changed clothes, and went snorkeling near a cliff on North Seymour. It was another successful snorkel, although the water was choppy. We saw gazillions of tropical fish, many much larger than I've seen in the Caribbean and Hawaii. We saw a large sting ray lying on the bottom and one very brilliant yellow puffer fish. I also saw two other puffers--one black with white spots and the other brown. The highlight of the snorkel was the sighting of yet another large (more than 6 feet) white tipped reef shark. He was lying on the white sandy bottom in about 15 feet of water. He laid there for about five minutes or more (long enough for all of us to get a close look) before slowly moving off.
Returning to the Evolution, several of us jumped in the hot tub for a soak before showering and changing clothes for lunch. It was Mexican day, so we all enjoyed the "make your own" burrito with ground beef and beans, along with all the fixin's (guacamole, salsa, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, oninons, etc), chicken enchiladas, and a beef stew. The starter was a tuna/tomato salad, which was a little odd, given the theme, but was tasty. Dessert was either apple pie or passion fruit mousse. We had another delightful lunch outdoors on the covered aft deck, and at one point saw a whale (think it was a minke) frolicking in the wake of the ship.
After lunch, a few of us did a tour of some of the cabins, the galley, and the engine room. When living in comfortable air conditioning, I often forget just how hot these "other" places on the ship can be. We wore ear protection in the engine room, which was roaring with all the machinery going.
Day 4 - Hiking and Kayaking at Santa Fe Island
The Quasar Expeditions' Evolution had sailed south for the Galapagos island of Santa Fe during lunch, and we arrived about 3:30. One group went kayaking while the other hiked on the island, and then we reversed. It was a wet landing on yet another gorgeous beach. This one was well-protected by volcanic lava flows, making the cove attractive to sea lions. The sandy beach was almost covered with either sea lions or a few large rocks, and we had to pick our way through the (mostly) slumbering giants to access the trail.
The small island of Santa Fe (24 square km) is one of the oldest islands in the archipelago, and has had many issues with invasive species like goats, black rats, and fire ants. Over 3,000 goats were removed between 1964 and 1974, and continual monitoring has been used to prevent the return of the little fire ant since it was eradicated in the late 1980's.
Approaching the island on the panga, at first I thought I saw palm trees dotting the landscape. As we got closer, I realized that these towering "trees" were actually giant prickly pear cactus, many over 30 feet tall. The trunks resembled pine trees because of their size and reddish-brown coloring, but looked like palms because the thick cacti vegetation doesn't start until about 20 feet up. Some of the cacti had lovely yellow flowers.
We hiked up into the highlands a ways on a 1.5 km (less than a mile) trail that was very rocky, one of the toughest we had. It was difficult walking, but we all made the circle trail, glad we had on our walking shoes. The trail ended up at another beach near the landing beach. This one was also filled with sea lions. While hiking, we had great views of our ship and two others in the bay.
Again, we saw different wildlife---two huge Santa Fe land iguanas, both lying in the middle of the trail, and two Galapagos snakes, also sunning themselves in the middle of our trail. Couldn't believe the snakes just laid there. One was a "baby", about 18 inches long, but no bigger than a fat pencil. The second was over two feet, but was much fatter, so we could see his yellow stipes. The snakes were rather drab compared to photos I've seen of other tropical snakes. Still not as big as even a garter snake back home. The Galapagos snake is the only one in the islands, and probably arrived on floating pads of vegetation from the mainland, like some of the other wildlife did. The snakes are not very poisonous, but Sam said they have fangs in the back of their throats. They mostly feed on lava lizards and baby iguanas. It is very unusual to see one, so we got extra lucky. We also saw a Galapagos hawk flying overhead, the first one I had spotted.
Arriving at the second beach, those who wanted to go kayaking took the panga back to board the kayaks out in the bay. The rest of us hiked back to the first beach (just a short ways away) to retrieve stuff left behind on our hike. The sea lions were much more active on this island than those we saw the first day on Mosquera. It was a little scary watching some of them, and we kept our distance from the large males. Many were playing in the water or on the beach, and some demonstrated terrific yoga moves (like a downward dog) that I wish I could do as well.
Back on the ship, it was time for fresh juice (we had so many different tropical juices, I can't begin to name them) and snacks (chips, beef empanadas, and some type of plantain ball). The ship sailed for our next island as soon as we were back on board. By the time I showered (another two-shower day), it was time for the briefing and dinner. I was really zonked, so dozed through the part of the briefing where Sam turned off the lights and showed slides about climate and water currents. Dinner was a chicken soup, salad, fried calamari, turkey with peach sauce, potatoes, and ice cream and crepes for dessert.
A few of us went outdoors after dinner to check out the constellations. Even I could spot the Southern Cross hanging low in the sky--we were back in the southern hemisphere for sure. As we moved south, it moved higher in the sky.
Into bed by 10:00. The next day we would be on Floreana Island (also called Santa Maria or Charles Island).
Day 5 - Post Office Bay on Floreana Island
Woke up a little after 5 am, and the Evolution was already anchored off Floreana Island in the Galapagos. Dressed and went up on the covered top deck for a cup of tea. Surprised to find a few other guests up there. Guess it's "the" place to hang out for many of us. We didn't have the wake up music until 7:30, followed by breakfast at 8 am. I ate healthy, only having a bunch of fruit and some muesli mixed with granola and fruit. Yummy, and proud that I skipped the eggs and crispy bacon!
Off the ship at 9 am to go ashore with a wet landing at Post Office Bay. The history of Floreana is fascinating. Pirates, whalers, and convicts visited and stayed on Floreana in the past, and three groups of Germans (not together) once settled here in the late 1920's and early 1930's. Two German doctors (man and wife) were the first to arrive in 1929. They even had their teeth pulled before leaving Germany to avoid a possible health problem. According to the legend, Dr. Ritter (male) was a dentist and very controlling over his wife. They even shared a pair of dentures.
When a German family the Wittmers arrived in 1932, Dr. Ritter forbid his wife to socialize with them. Mrs. Wittmer had read Dore Strauch's (Dr. Ritter's wife) book she had written about the island paradise they lived on. Evidently she only talked about the good parts and omitted the struggles, lack of fresh water, lack of arable land, lack of other people, etc. Or, maybe her controlling spouse edited out all the bad parts.
I guess the abusive Dr. Ritter got his comeuppance. Although Dr. Ritter was reportedly a vegetarian, he died of food poisoning after eating chicken. His wife immediately returned to Germany. Some speculate she killed him.
The Wittmers stayed on the island and wife Margaret even had children without any assistance. Some speculate the family fled Germany because of the Nazis, but they certainly didn't know what they were getting into. They definitely should have done more research than just reading Mrs. Ritter's book. However, Margaret lived a long life, dying at age 95 in 2000, so she must have been a strong woman. Her surviving children and grandchildren still run a small hotel/restaurant on the island, which has less than 100 full-time residents, most of whom are sustenance farmers. To be near the limited amount of fresh water, they primarily live up in the highlands away from the beach since we saw no signs of civilization. A passenger boat brings supplies/visitors every two weeks. Talk about a Robinson Crusoe life!
The third group of Germans were even more unusual than the first two. It was a (self-proclaimed) Baroness, her husband, and her two male lovers. She apparently kept things stirred up on the island. She died mysteriously, as did her entourage. Our guide showed us a photo of a "party" at her home--there were 8 men and she was the only woman. Maybe she was a little bit of a courtesan rather than a baroness, but this Galapagos affair certainly makes a fascinating story, especially for those who have visited the islands.
Floreana "Post Office"
Enough of Floreana history. You might be wondering how Post Office Bay got its name. Back in 1793, British sailors set up a barrel as a post office, leaving letters to be picked up by other ships. Ships going to England (or wherever) would sort through the letters and hand deliver to those who lived in destinations they were visiting. No postage necessary. Today, visitors leave behind post cards in the barrel (a different one), sort through those that are there, and do the same--hand deliver those going where they are. Since we knew where everyone on our ship lived, we sorted through the couple of hundred in the box, calling out towns in the states/provinces where people lived. I didn't take any cards, but did write down the address of someone in Decatur, GA and another person in Hartwell, GA. The ship provided three cards for each of us. I addressed a card to Ronnie and I, dated it, and left it behind. I also did a card for two young kids I regularly send post cards to. Doubt if anyone ever delivers them. In fact, we speculated that someone regularly throws a few hundred away since all those we saw dated were from 2013. It was fun to go through the cards and see where people were from. (Update: Received card 8 weeks later with USA stamp, but unreadable postmark. Would love to know who was kind enough to mail it to me!)
Following the short walk to the post office, we had an hour's free time on the beach--a real rarity for this trip. We were supposed to explore some lagoons via panga and kayak, but the Galapagos National Park officials pulled the permission from the ship just the day before. There were two other small boats' guests enjoying the beach, swimming. and snorkeling, and we found their lagoon permits were pulled, too. It's important to know that like any cruise, things can change and itineraries change. No one complained since we were so busy otherwise.
Day 5 - Snorkeling at Champion Island and Devil's Crown
One panga went back to the Evolution early, and I joined it. I'm not much for sitting on the beach and didn't feel like applying more sunscreen. Back on the ship about 10:30, I had 1.5 hours until our next Galapagos Islands' adventure--snorkeling off Champion Island. We had snacks on the top deck, so I sat up top in the shade and the breeze with some of my companions while we sailed to Champion Island, a tiny islet where no humans are allowed ashore (except maybe some scientists).
The wind was whipping the panga when we got into the water, and the waves were about the highest I've ever snorkeled in. However, once I put my face in the water, I almost forgot about how much I was having to fight the waves and keep my snorkel tube above the water--the number of fish off the point where we started was by far the most I have ever seen at one time. Schools of millions of fish were all around; and since the water was deep, you could see even more. Wow! I felt so insignificant, much like when you look at the sky on a clear night. All shapes and sizes of fish were holding on this rocky point, fighting the waves and the current. We were told to move with the current, but to avoid the rocks. It wasn't difficult to swim since we had on wetsuits and flippers, but a little creepy to realize the vast numbers of fish all around us, some of which were very large.
We snorkeled down along the coast of the island and the numbers of fish decreased. When we got around the backside and out of the wind into calmer waters, we didn't see as many fish, but sea lions were all around un in the water, diving and playing. A couple even nibbled on some of the flippers (not mine). All too soon it was time to go back to the ship for lunch.
As usual, lunch was delicious, and was another traditional Ecuadorian meal. We started with a cold fish soup with about a half dozen large nice shrimp in a gazpacho-type broth. Next came salad, fish in a coconut sauce, small hunks of pork breaded and fried, bright yellow potato pancakes with a peanut sauce, fried plantains, huge-kernel South American corn, and rice. (I skipped the rice.) We had rice pudding or cheese cake for dessert. The rice pudding had nutmeg and cinnamon in it, and was topped with a sweet pepper whose texture reminded me of a prune. It was 2:15 by the time we finished lunch. Our last snorkeling adventure of the week was to follow at 3:15. Not much time to get lunch digested, re-apply sunscreen, and squeeze into that wet swimsuit.
Our last snorkeling adventure of the week would have been the best one, had the clouds not rolled in with the wind, lessening the visibility. It was still fantastic, with tons of marine life. We rode in the pangas to Devil's Crown, which is right off Punta Cormorant on Floreana Island. This rocky outcropping looks like a jagged crown, with cacti growing on some of the rocks. It's a paradise for marine life, and one of the best snorkeling spots in the Galapagos Islands. The current was strong, making it tough to stay in one place, especially given the winds and waves. I was exhausted when we finished, but the snorkel was a good one. We saw a very large white tip reef shark patrolling right below us in about 10 feet of water. You could really see the white tips on his fins. Like the morning dive, the water was teeming with many types of marine life and we enjoyed watching the sea lions swimming with us again.
All too soon it was time to reboard the pangas and head back to the Evolution. We all hopped in the hot tub (or at least 14 of us did) for a quick soak before taking a shower to continue to warm up. The cloudy weather and rough seas contributed to the coldest water we had snorkeled in.
Day 5 - Hiking at Punta Cormorant on Floreana Island
We only had a short time on the Quasar Evolution before heading off to a beach near Punta Cormorant in the Galapagos Islands. We had a wet landing on a beach with greenish-sand, and hiked to a hyper-saline lagoon and saw a half dozen flamingoes wading in the water. We hiked across the point to a second beach where many frigatebirds were circling. This beach is popular with turtles laying their eggs, and the pesky frigates eat the baby turtles when they are making their way from the nest to the water.
Although this second beach was gorgeous, we didn't swim there since it was teeming with sting rays and sharks, many of them in only a foot or so of water. We didn't see any baby turtles, and Sam speculated that the frigates had fed on most of those that had hatched. We did see some adult turtles in the surf, along with the numerous sharks and rays. Fun watching them, and we almost stayed until dark.
Snacks awaited us when we reboarded the ship. Fish fingers and some type of stuff on a tortilla chip. The nightly briefing was very nice, and since Dolores and Fernando were leaving the ship the next day, they had a little farewell champagne with all of us. Several people gave testimonials about the great trip we've all had. Douglas wrote a little ditty about Sam our guide, which we were supposed to sing to the tune of the song, "Twas on the Isle of Capri". Unfortunately, no one (not even his kids) knew this tune. So we just kind of chanted it. Sam was quite touched.
Dinner was a yummy cauliflower soup; green salad, pea salad, and Greek salad; creamy mixed seafood on pasta, vegetarian moussaka, and cooked carrots. Dessert was birthday cake for one of the other guests.
The next day would be our last full day, and we would finally see the giant tortoises of the Galapagos.
Day 6 - Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz - Giant Tortoises, Lava Tubes, and Civilization
Our last full day in the Galapagos Islands was a little bit of a shock--we were back in "civilization". When we awoke, the Quasar Evolution was docked in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, one of the few settlements in the Galapagos. The town has over a third of the 28,000 archipelago's residents, plus there were many boats in the harbor. Those living/staying on the other inhabited islands can take day ferries back and forth, so the harbor was very busy. We anchored and took the pangas into the dock.
Charles Darwin Research Foundation
Our first visit was to the Charles Darwin Research Foundation, a poorly funded society that continues his research and tries to keep the tortoise population flourishing. The museum was un-inviting and a little depressing. However, the live giant tortoises were very interesting and made the visit worthwhile. Like many of the other wildlife, each island has a different species of tortoise, some of which are extinct and others endangered. When pirates and other sailors first arrived in the Galapagos, they quickly found that these animals could live up to a year with no food or water. So, they filled up the holds of their ships with hundreds of the creatures and lived off them, throwing the shells overboard when they were finished. Most of the tortoises lived in the highlands, so since the females were smaller (and weighed a lot less), the sailors toted mostly females down to their ships, decimiating the population even quicker.
The most famous Galapagos tortoise was Lonesome George, who died in the summer of 2012. He had been discovered on Pinta Island in 1971 and brought to the Darwin Research Station in 1972 at about age 90-100. Scientists tried to find other tortoises on Pinta Island, but never could, giving him the name of "lonesome" since they weren't sure how long he had been alone. Then they tried for years to get him to breed with other tortoise sub-species from other islands, but they soon found that for tortoises, if the males didn't "use it", they "lose it". Poor George had gone for decades without mating, so his sperm count was too low to reproduce, even by artifical insemination. So, the last of the Pinta island tortoises is gone.
We saw many baby tortoises, plus adults used for breeding. Since it was early in the morning, the keepers were feeding them, and it was interesting to watch them eat. I was especially impressed by the long necks and height of these creatures, which enables the plant eaters to reach taller vegetation.
Rancho Primicias - Giant Tortoise Reserve
All too soon, it was time to leave for the Galapagos highlands, where we hoped to see Santa Cruz giant tortoises in their natural habitat. We rode up into the hills in an air conditioned bus for about 30-40 minutes, and it was nice to see some of the countryside, which looked like Costa Rica or other tropical countries. Soon we arrived at the Rancho Primicias, a wildlife preserve that borders onto the national park. Tortoises move freely between the two areas, but the wildlife preserve has trails that cross prime tortoise territory (muddy and swampy). If it is muddy, visitors are given rubber boots to wear, but since we had been lucky enough to have dry weather, we didn't have to put on our socks and boots.
Our group immediately saw three tortoises very near the gift shop/reception building. I couldn't help but wonder if the food is supplemented here to attract them. The animals are huge, with some weighing over 800 pounds, and they often live over 100 years. Although giant tortoises move very slowly (about 1/4 mile per hour), they migrate on islands between the highlands and the lowlands to follow the green vegetation. We struck out on the trail and saw a few more near the swampy areas they like. The biggest tortoise we saw was completely blocking the trail, so we all got a few good photos of him (remember the males are bigger).
After searching for Galapagos tortoises for a while and wandering around the nature reserve/park, we had a little free time to check out the -- gasp!-- souvenir shop, which had all the expected goodies. Sam had thoughtfully told us to bring some money, so everyone fully utilized our first shopping opportunity in a week.
Walking in a Volcanic Lava Tube
Leaving the tortoise area, we stopped at a large lava tube on the way back to Puerto Ayora. This one goes on for about 400 yards and is quite large. It also looks man-made with the walls so perfectly formed. I've seen lava tubes elsewhere on Hawaii and Lanzarote, but this one was surprising since there weren't any visibly active volcanoes nearby.
We rode back to the harbor and were on the Evolution in time for a late lunch. One funny thing was a sea lion lying on the pier under a bench. The animal had to climb up on the dock and then up a bunch of steps to get to his preferred resting place. At first I thought it was a dog, but then saw it was actually just a sea lion. I can't decide if humans are invisible to them most of the time or just another warm-blooded creature.
After lunch, we had the departure briefing, and then I grabbed my notebook computer, went back into town, and found an Internet cafe ($3 for 2 hours) where I caught up on email for the first time in a week. Back on the ship at 5:30, we had the farewell briefing and dinner--lobster tails, French fries, salad, steamed veggies, calamari, etc. It was a great memory meal to leave the ship.
The Captain of the Evolution pulled up the anchor after dinner and we started back to where we started--anchored off Baltra Island where the airport is located.
Day 7 - A Sunrise Panga Ride and Off to Guayaquil
Six of the 19 of us had signed up for a sunrise panga ride and exploration of a mangrove area for our last morning on the Quasar Expeditions' Evolution in the Galapagos Islands. The sea was perfectly calm--the first time we had seen this phenomenon. The panga moved slowly into a large bay, and we watched the sun rise at about 6 am. It is easy to forget how quickly it comes up near the equator since it has so much further to go before sunset.
The quiet mangrove lagoon was filled with pelicans, feeding fish, and even a huge school of cownose rays, which were interesting to watch as they quietly patrolled along the edge of the mangroves. All of us agreed we were glad for the early wake-up call at 5:30 am.
Back on the Evolution, we ate breakfast, loaded the luggage in the panga, and were off to the airport. We had a LAN flight at 11 am to Guayaquil, where we would spend the night before flying non-stop and overnight back to New York on LAN the next night. This Guayaquil layover would give us about 30 hours in Ecuador's largest city, just enough time to get a taste of the city.
All too soon we were flying away from the Galapagos, each of us with special memories of these amazing islands. The islands were even more spectacular than I had anticipated, with wildlife and activities I've never had before. Although the Galapagos Islands were the main highlights of this vacation, Quasar Expeditions and the crew of the Evolution planned an excellent itinerary, which greatly facilitated and enhanced our Galapagos expedition. They seemed to know what we wanted to see and do, where we needed to be, and when we needed to be there. Then, they gave us time to soak up the environment and the memories. I spoke to every guest on the ship, and each felt the same way I did about the experience on the ship and in the Galapagos Islands.
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