I Sailed on Hurtigruten's Inaugural Galapagos Cruise—Here's What It Was Like

The bucket list trip required jumping through many hoops, but it was worth it

MS Santa Cruz II

Courtesy of Hurtigruten Expeditions

As a lifelong animal lover, the Galapagos had been high on my bucket list for years, so when I first learned of the opportunity to join Hurtigruten's inaugural sail to the Galapagos islands—a chance to get up close and personal with some of the world's most unique wildlife species—it was a no-brainer.

Regardless, I did have my hesitations. With a highly contagious variant of the ongoing pandemic on the rise, as well as almost daily reports of testing unavailability and flight cancellations, I knew the trip would require a lot of preparation—and a lot of luck. Ultimately, the experience turned out to be one of the most rewarding I've ever had. Here's how it went.

Pre-Boarding Requirements

Of course, the first obstacle standing between giant tortoises and me was testing requirements. Entry into Ecuador required a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of departure, so, just as I had done for the handful of international trips I've taken in the past six months, I headed over to the NYC Health + Hospitals testing center at LaGuardia Airport. I knew that the many testing cubicles installed in the airport's parking lot would ensure fast and efficient testing.

Except for this time, it didn't. I arrived at a long line of people waiting for testing from... one van. All of the testing cubicles stood empty, having been shut down at the beginning of December, as numbers of infections from the previous variant began to fall. I was dismayed at having such a reliable testing resource stripped away, and my dismay quickly turned to disbelief as I realized the waiting time for a PCR test would be 6 hours. With the help of several podcasts and a trusty bottle of water, I sat on a parking lot curb and waited my turn. The van closed up shop at 7 p.m. After six hours of waiting, I finally made it to the front of the line at 6:52 p.m—just barely making it in time to be tested.

Many of the other people in line with me were also there to receive a test before traveling; most could not be tested that day, throwing their travel plans in disarray. The experience was undoubtedly disappointing and highlighted the realities of how destabilizing the lack of testing availability is for travel. Luckily, I received my results in 36 hours and could board my flight.

Flight and Feeling on the Ground

Upon landing in Quito, my CDC card and test results were checked at customs, and I was on my way. I spent my first two evenings in Quito at the JW Marriott. I was pleased to see masking taken very seriously in both the hotel and the city (wearing face masks indoors and outdoors is mandatory across Ecuador). I was required to take one more rapid PCR test for entry into the Galapagos, which, as one of the most protected places in the world, required a separate negative result from the mainland. While waiting for the results, which arrived in the early hours of the following morning, I was able to visit Cotopaxi National Park, home to one of the highest volcanoes in the world, and spend time perusing a few colorful farmers' markets in the city.

I flew from Quito to Seymour Galapagos Ecological Airport on Baltra Island to board our ship. Our Hurtigruten guides provided K-N95 masks and instructed us to keep them on throughout the flight. The almost three-hour flight included a 45-minute stopover in Guayaquil, during which we were not allowed to leave the plane. As we touched down in the Galapagos, we passed through customs, where foreign tourists over 12 were required to pay a $100 entry fee in cash (the fee drops down to $6 for mainland Ecuadorians). I walked out of the airport and was immediately greeted with a land iguana sighting—I knew I had made it! My heart skipped a beat as I noticed my Galapagos passport stamp was a giant tortoise.

Galapagos Visa Stamp

Courtesy of Astrid Taran

Safety and Restrictions

After boarding the ship, I made my way to my room only to realize there was no key card or lock on my door. After an initial moment of panic, I was told that this was because our rooms would need to be sanitized three times a day during sailing, scheduled around our off-ship excursions. A safe for valuables was provided in every room, although I didn't end up using it. After all, our expedition ship—which had a capacity for 90 passengers—only had 39 people on board. While the reasoning behind so few attendees undoubtedly had plenty to do with the pandemic, the sail felt pleasantly small and intimate, and a level of trust was quickly established.

Like the airport and flight, masks were required on board at all times. While we were asked to wear the K-N95 masks provided to us, many passengers quickly slipped back into their surgical or cloth masks. The mask mandate didn't feel restrictive, but I was surprised to learn that we were also required to wear them while off the ship, on almost completely deserted islands; the Galapagos shared the same strict adherence to mask mandates that mainland Ecuador did. I quickly got used to never taking my mask off—but my face mask tan lines were brutal.

One disappointing factor was the restrictions around entering businesses on the islands while on the trip. I spotted a few souvenir shops that I would have liked to explore, but our group was told that tourists were discouraged from visiting shops and restaurants due to rising omicron cases. This meant that all of my souvenirs had to be purchased in the ship's small gift shop.

MS Santa Cruz II cabins

Courtesy of Hurtigruten Expeditions

The Ship

My accommodations on the MS Santa Cruz II were excellent. I was booked in a double explorer cabin, which I felt had just enough space for me, but might have been tight if shared with another person and their luggage. The walls were thin, and I could definitely hear my next-door neighbors' midnight conversations, but ultimately, I wasn't in my room that much—I was out exploring, of course—so it wasn't an issue.

The Wi-Fi was, well, not great. There were several days where even loading my e-mail was impossible. The ship, which belonged to Hurtigruten's partner, Metropolitan Touring, could only reach a Wi-Fi connection in Norway, which made internet reception almost non-existent. Because it was the ship's inaugural sail, we were told the Wi-Fi was included free of charge for all passengers but typically would cost $14 a day as an internet package—much too steep a price for its incredibly slow speeds.

I spent most of the time exploring the different floors and rooms of the ship, including a terrace, a library, a sundeck, and another deck adjacent to the bar. Each day, there was freshly brewed coffee and biscotti cookies for the taking in the library, where we went to sign up for excursions. The dining room felt intimate and small, as all 39 of us were able to dine together simultaneously. Due to the pandemic, the usual buffet was replaced by table service, which I preferred.

While dining, we were required to order our next meal after finishing our current meal due to Hurtigruten's commitment to sustainability; the kitchen made all efforts not to waste food that wasn't going to be eaten—but because our orders were taken by table, we weren't allowed to move to another seat at the next meal. This meant that we had inadvertently assigned ourselves our permanent dining seats for the voyage on the first day.

Galapagos land iguana (Conolophus subcristatus)
Kevin Schafer / Getty Images

The Experience

From playful sea lions and giant tortoises to blue-footed boobies and marine iguanas, the six days I spent sailing around the eastern islands of the Galapagos granted me face time with some of the most unique animals in the world. I got to explore eight of the 13 islands in the archipelago, including Santa Fe Island, the only place in the world where you can find a Santa Fe land iguana; North Seymour Island, where I spotted reef sharks and a flying flamingo; and San Cristóbal Island, home to the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Cerro Colorado Tortoise Reserve.

Everywhere I turned, I encountered species I'd never seen before. Sea lions walked right up to me as if to say hello, pelicans swooped over me as I snorkeled, and friendly sea turtles swam beside my kayak as I paddled through the clear blue ocean. Every day felt like a visit to "Jurassic Park."

With my only prior cruise experience on large ships, I found my time aboard the MS Santa Cruz II expedition ship refreshing. The three floors were a lot less overwhelming; no need to use a map to try and find your way back to your room. Our disembarkations each day were quick and organized, with passengers asked to board zodiac boats in small groups named after Galapagos animals. Better yet, I felt that the excursions selected for us on each island were engaging, exciting, and active. While there were indeed options for those in the mood for something less physically challenging, I appreciated the opportunity to spend most of my day hiking, paddle boarding, snorkeling, and kayaking. It made me reevaluate my previous notions of cruise ships primarily being vessels for pool time and piña coladas—not that there's anything wrong with that.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the food selection. While the assigned seating was initially awkward (we were later able to sit with new friends during the last two evenings), I always looked forward to what was on each day's menu. Some highlights included excellent ceviche and several Ecuadorian dishes, like the cheesy potato soup locro de papa. For those who wanted to order off-menu, pizza and burgers were also available.

Galapagos Tortoise on Isabela Island
Craig Lovell / Getty Images

Return Process

On our final day, we disembarked at Baltra Island to once again make our way back to Quito. While we were asked to provide a negative PCR test before boarding the ship, we did not need one to leave the islands. While some larger cruise ships, like Viking, have PCR laboratory testing available onboard, Hurtigruten ships can not yet provide certified test results. However, they expect to have this capability in the future. At the Quito airport, antigen and PCR tests, depending on which country you were flying back to, were scheduled for all Hurtigruten guests, though fees for testing were not included.

My flight back to the U.S. was seamless. I received my negative rapid PCR test results within three hours and felt thankful that I avoided the flight cancellations and delays that several others encountered. Oddly, I received a call from Hurtigruten customer services five days after leaving the ship, informing me that four people on our ship had tested positive in Quito. While we were told that those who were in direct contact with the aforementioned positive cases were given immediate notice, I feel it would be beneficial in the future for all of the ship's passengers, regardless of whether or not they were exposed, to be notified as early as possible. I tested negative the day that I received the call, but can certainly understand the anxiety.

Regardless of the many hoops I had to jump through to navigate my way to Ecuador and the Galapagos, my time spent there was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I won't soon forget. It reminded me that, despite the current complications of planning a trip, the joy we get from travel is always worth the hassle.