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Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands


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Dee and I recently returned from a week on a Linblad trip to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. It was a delightful, and somewhat strenuous excursion, but I'd do it again in a minute.

 

This was a package, with some incentives thrown in for late booking (we finalized the trip early in September). Other guests had booked up to three years ahead. The incentives included airfare from NY to Guayaquil, extra nights and meals in Ecuador, a room upgrade on the ship, etc.

 

Linblad met eight of us at the airport in Guayaquil (at 4am), and brought us to the hotel where rooms were waiting. No registration necessary. We visited the artisan stalls market and bought a few alpaca knit sweaters ($17). And took a five person tour of the city with a local guide.

 

Special conditions apply to Galapagos visits. You need a permit to visit the archipelago. That's a hundred US dollars. You need to be on a tour or have a scuba / snorkel / fish package in place. You need a return ticket. All of these are checked at an internal customs / immigration facility on the island when you arrive. Bus to the ship, which was waiting at San Cristobal.

 

Our boarding was delayed due to sea lions blocking the ramp to the zodiac dock. Once that was addressed, nine zodiac trips were required to move the 75 passengers and about 15 incoming crew members. Luggage came out later.

 

Passengers were largely older people, average age probably 60. Other than four or five children, nobody was under 40. Almost entirely white, with a few people who identified themselves as Hispanic. About half would finish the trip and go on to Macchu Picchu, or raft down the Amazon, or visit Lima. Several guests were travel agents, two were travel writers. Three people said they were in their 80s (!). Many were experienced travelers with Vietnam, Cambodia, Niger, Kazakhstan, etc on their passports. Almost all were US, with a few Australians. I was told a mostly German group was scheduled for the first week of November.

 

Dinner on the ship was usually open seating, waiter served. You selected among a single meat, fish, or vegetable entree in the morning. Very much a 1960s approach. Lunch tended to be a selection of a local dish / fish stew, and conventional bread, sliced deli meats, salads, etc. In general, the lunches tended to be the best meal of the day for me.

 

There are over 300 islands in the archipelago. Only four or five are inhabited, with everything else under the administration of the National Park Authority. The GNPA issues permits to visit specific islands, handles security, and is the regulator. It also certifies naturalists, who are often PhD candidates specializing in underwater biology, wildlife, etc.There were seven aboard, all land tours or snorkel activities had to be accompanied by a naturalist. Although most naturalists are not government employees, they can lose their permit if they allow visitors to engage in prohibited activities. Of which there are many. Going off the approved and marked path is a big one.

 

We had a contingent of birders on board. Eight people who selected this trip because of the islands that would be visited. Many birds are unique/endemic to a single island, and many islands are only visited two or three times a year, often in different combinations. The birders were able to get early / dawn access to some islands, with a guide. One fellow told me he had 17 birds in his wants list, and saw 14 of them. Their passion and huge camera lenses were both impressive.

 

Each trip is constructed to offer an opportunity to see giant tortoises at least once, to see blue footed boobies and red footed boobies (both are birds), and to see a selection of land and marine iguanas. We saw the tortoises in three locations, and the birds in several. And the iguanas and marine penguins. The Galapagos penguins are smaller than their Antarctic cousins, but had better tans.

 

The weather in early October was warm with light rain overnight. Very bright sun, with spf 50 necessary. A few islands have black fly infestations, similar to Maine's. Most islands are arid and desert like. Fresh water is only found on two islands, while extensive desalinization is used. Oddly, solar panels are rarely spotted. That may be due to heavy subsidies on gasoline ($1.50 per US gallon) and diesel fuel ($1.20 per gallon). Ecuador is a member of OPEC.

 

Snorkeling was wonderful, with clear weather, clear and warm water. Brightly colored fish, squid, sea lions frolicking, and currents stirring up lots of plankton, etc. Many people brought underwater cameras and produced amazing video results. Each evening there was a recap, and showing of contributed video and still pictures.

 

Generally, a day would consist of a wake up call at 6.45am, breakfast 7 to 8, begin loading zodiacs for a shore trip at 8.15, back on board at 10.30. Snorkeling or another shore adventure , with lunch at 12.30p. Afternoons involved trips in the zodiacs to observe wildlife or fish from the boat, with another shore adventure toward 5pm. Sunset was around 6p, and was abrupt. It was dark by 6.20 most nights. The photo recap, outline for the next day followed. Usually with greasy empanadas, plantains, etc. Very good local sauces similar to a chimichurri. Cash bar. Dinner was usually 7.30.

 

The ship generally repositioned at night, and was in position the following morning. I was told that the next cruise of the Endeavour would be of the "western islands" and would only include one visited on our trip.

 

Shore opportunities usually offered three choices. A "long hike", or a "short hike" or a swim at the beach, often with sea lions. Long hikes were typically two to three miles, sometimes up steep stairs and over sharp lava fields. These tended to be the best for seeing animals away from the busier landing areas. One hike, on Genovesa, included an area off limits for the prior seven years, and now limited to 50 people per day. We saw owls, boobies, several colonies of infants and fledglings, iguanas,albatrosses landing, etc. That hike included about a half mile along razor sharp lava. I cut my hand, trying to break a fall. Another guest hurt her leg, and a third nearly pitched down the 90 foot rock stairway when she missed a step.

 

By day three or four, a relatively small group was still doing the long hikes and others had migrated to the shorter hikes. The naturalist guides were superb, weaving the wildlife into the history of their country, the role of Darwin, etc.

 

The ship also has a deep-dive remote operating vehicle, which is funded in part by a grant from Linblad. Equipped with GPS, the ROV is able to video the seabed, take still pictures, obtain water samples, measure temperature and currents, etc. Jason, the operator of the ROV, shared output at the recap most nights. he works closely with the government's naturalist operations to review the output.

 

Port Ayora was interesting. That's the dive capital, with many day boats and overnight boats based there. And plenty of bars, guest houses, etc. The fish market processed the day's catch (wahoo, yellowfin, spiny lobster, and an orange snapper looking fish) and sold the steaks etc on the spot. A contingent of pelicans and one sea lion were in the midst of the cutters.

 

The ship operates on a cash bar system. So an awful Ecuadorian red wine was $7 ($30 for a bottle), a good Chilean red was also $7, and local beer was $5. Soda was free. Mixed drinks were $10, I believe

 

If there's an interest, I can post more about the trip, specific islands, etc. And, I hope to open a photo link when I finish reviewing the 1500+ pictures. PM if you're interested in a link to that.

 

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