(Where you find out why it’s worth the hassle and minimal expense of making the journey):
(NOTE: Part Two: Getting to the Galápagos, which follows later in this document, details the ordeal of reaching the Islands and is worth reading if you’re considering a trip there. It might even be a fun adventure, despite the hassles. It offers detailed suggestions for making the journey inexpensively.)
I had kept repeating my mantra throughout the wearying ordeal of getting to the Galápagos: “It’s going to be worth it.”
As I completed the flights and ferry crossing to reach Santa Cruz Island, on the Equator out in the Pacific East of Ecuador…
The “taxi,” which always means a white pickup truck throughout the Galápagos, drops me at the door of my hostel, “Arena Negra,” and it’s a welcome oasis: Courtyard. Community kitchen. Friendly welcome. Large fourbedded room I’m going to be sharing with a young Israeli traveler and an Ecuadorian student. And a hot water shower, unlike the double-cold Airport Hotel’s in Guayaquil that you’ll find out about in Part Two. Here’s why I prefer staying in hostels:
Conversations strike up almost by themselves. They always begin with “Hola! Where are you from?” Stories are exchanged. Everybody’s excited to be on a Galápagos adventure. The hostel’s rate, for you budgetconscious travelers, is $16 without breakfast. This hostel is several blocks away from the touristy beachfront area, and I’m glad. Walking into town, I see “real” people going about their lives. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and the locals are playing with their children, sitting in the shade or pushing their young ones on a swing set at the park. Couples are holding hands, doing not much of anything. They’re not watching CNN or obsessing about Trump. At the waterfront volleyball court, it seems that everybody in town has turned out to watch their neighbors play. Children ride bikes as mothers cradle their babies. I’m surrounded by squeals of children laughing and adults cheering as one side or the other scores. The same people cheer, whichever side has scored.
They’re all neighbors and nobody really seems to care who wins. The “main drag” of Puerto Ayora is named Avenida Charles Darwin, of course. Darwin, though he was only in the Galápagos for a couple of weeks, is sort of a patron saint around here. The street’s lined with souvenir shops displaying every imaginable ashtray and handbag, all emblazoned with tortoise images. Lots of the tee shirts depict strategically placed Blue-footed Boobie double-entendres.
I walk past the fish market right on the main street, and it’s a sure sign that I’m not in the USA anymore. Right there beside the fish-selling ladies, a sea lion is “helping” and several pelicans hope for scraps. They don’t move away as I approach. The Galapagos is a different kind of place.
I’ve been told that there are always “last minute” deals on cruises to the several uninhabited islands that allow visitors, so I haven’t booked anything in advance. I always arrive with the attitude that, “I just know something wonderful is going to happen.” And, it always does, so long as you decide that whatever is going to happen will be wonderful. Sure enough, there are plenty of travel agencies displaying “Last Minute Cruise” signs, so I stop at a couple of them and explain that I have only five days in the Galápagos. Most of the cruises are for 7-day or 8-day itineraries, but
my time is short because I’ve booked my flight back to the U.S. in order to handle some pressing business.
The 8-day cruises, booked in advance, can run from $3,000 to $14,000 !!!, depending on the itinerary and luxury level of the vessel. The biggest ships seem to cost the most. Yet, friends have told me that small ships are the best way to go. They can navigate into small inlets for nature viewing, while the big ships anchor offshore and send waves of passengers ashore in Zodiac boats, a
few at a time. And on the larger vessels, cruisers complain that the crews have to constantly corral and herd errant guests who are late for their scheduled activities.
A couple of the agencies I question phone various ships’ owners and confirm that I can get a deal for about $1000 on one of the smaller boats. One agent, whose primary sales tool is her beguiling cleavage, pencils out the cost for what she says is a luxury boat for $1050. Another agency shows me a deal that’s only $700, and it’s for the very same cruise that the cleavage woman had been
pushing. But a different agent, who strikes me as more trustworthy (though lacking in cleavage) tells me that the $700 boat is crawling with cockroaches! This knowledgeable agent offers me two other choices without cockroaches:
One is a catamaran that accommodates 16 passengers. He tells me that the vessel’s design makes it more stable than the single-hulled boats. The second choice he offers is a sailboat with a capacity of just 12 guests. He discourages me from choosing that one because the ship sways in rough seas, since it was
built as a sailboat, rather than a motor vessel.
But I want to sway. I want to sail. I’ve never been seasick. I don’t want to hear an engine during the night as the boat moves from island to island. I want to hum Christopher Cross songs over and over. I ask the agent to call the sailboat’s owner and tell him that I have a $700 offer for the other boat, which even includes the cockroaches. Within two minutes, the owner matches the $700
price. Hey, if a boat is sailing and a stateroom is unoccupied, the owner’s going to view any price he can get as gravy.
Done! I peel off 14 of the $50 bills I brought with me for just this situation. Hooray! I just knew that something wonderful was going to happen. In the morning, I’m going to go sailing in the Galápagos Islands! It’s getting exciting. The pictures of my chosen vessel, the Encantada, look enchanting. I’ll be joining the boat partway through the 8-day cruise itinerary it has already begun, which means I must get from where I am on the main island, Santa Cruz, to board the boat when it stops the next day at San Cristobal island, a two hour speedboat ride away.
Walking back to my hostel in Puerto Ayora, I pass three churches, and each is full of Sunday evening worshippers. In the Catholic Church, pews are lined with kneeling supplicants crossing themselves and repeating after the priest. But in the other two, apparently evangelicals, the worshippers raise their hands high, singing and swaying, almost in unison. Despite the Galápagos’ role in Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the evolution of species, most island residents seem to be believers in Creationism. In the morning, I walk to the dock, where I find sea lions lounging on the concrete walkway, and even relaxing on furniture (how do they get up there?) completely ignoring the “stay six feet away” rule that humans are supposed to heed.
It’s a $30 speedboat ride to the other island, and I show the handwritten receipt the agent has given me for both the ferry and the sailboat cruise. If you’re headed this way, be sure to bring cash. Credit cards are not readily accepted, and cash talks. I remember the safety-conscious five-minute ferry crossing from the airport on Baltra Island to Santa Cruz when every passenger was required to wear a life vest.
Getting to San Cristobal Island is a different story. I wait with the others who’ve booked passage on the inter-island “ferry.” When it arrives, a small “water taxi” boat takes us out to the decidedly non-luxurious ferry, which is really just a bare bones, dinged-up fiberglass fishing boat with three big outboard engines. A prominent sign specifies “Max 22 Passengers.” But 26 of us squeeze aboard. There’s no safety briefing prior to the two-hour crossing. And I don’t see a single life jacket. Oh well, the water’s probably warm enough to survive in for a while and I can swim. I’ve emailed a copy of my passport to myself, so I’ll be able to retrieve it at an Internet café if we go down and everything is lost. But, I’m sure that something wonderful will happen.
It’s a rough crossing. Fast. Noisy. Those three outboards whine incessantly and my ears ring more annoyingly than they have following any rock concert. Some of the passengers look like they’re going to barf, but to me it’s an exciting carnival ride. I want more excitement! Maybe we’ll even flip over! Two hours later, we arrive at San Cristobal Island. I love it at first sight. We pull in to a small harbor with about 20 bobbing fishing boats and a half dozen of those multi-thousand dollar luxury tour boats. Sea lions have managed to
harrumph themselves up onto some of the smaller boats and seem quite happy to sunbathe ashore. All manner of birds swoop down and scoop up fish right
beside the dock. If I were a birder (and in Antarctica I learned that they don’t like to called “bird watchers”), I’d tell you what kind they are. But to me, they’re
all just seabirds. I’m not a birder.
And there, right where the jetty meets the shore, I see a darling whitewashed adobe-style hotel, the “Casablanca.” Could it possibly have a vacancy for me?
It’s so charming that I’d forgo my youth hostel preference, and I’d even bust my budget if I could stay there.
I just knew something wonderful would happen. And it did. The owner, Jacqui, showed me a charming partial ocean view room for $70, and then another right in the front with a perfect view of the harbor’s comings and goings. That one’s $90, but Jacqui smiles and says, “For you, I can make a discount and this one will be only $70.” She’s an artist, and the walls are covered with mermaid murals she’s painted, and every little detail is creatively executed.
It just happens that there’s a small grocery store next door, where I find Bacardi rum for about $90 a bottle. But there’s also Ecuadorian rum for $17, so can you guess which I chose? Orange juice costs about what I’d expect to pay at Safeway. As soon as I’ve poured myself a rum and orange, eyes watering with happiness because I’m so glad that something wonderful has happened, my neighbors arrive at the room beside mine. They’re Texans, from Austin. They’ve just concluded their cruise among the islands and regale me with tales of their wildlife encounters.
They make a couple of derisive comments about Trump, and I ask, “Are you sure you’re Texans?”
“Well, we’re actually from the Republic of Austin!” That cements our budding friendship. Pretty soon, the sun has put on a sunset show for us, that rum bottle is empty, and we decide to have dinner together. At a place on the waterfront, with waves lapping and sea lions barking, our meals come to $20 each, including beer. I find San Cristobal Island more appealing than Santa Cruz Island.
The town’s smaller, and the airport is practically in the town, so there’s no need for a ferry crossing or bus ride. Arriving passengers can walk to their hotels or hostels. It’s a laid-back little settlement with a fishing village feel to it. If you’re flying to Galápagos and want more commercial activity and a touch of nightlife, fly to Baltra and cross to Santa Cruz. But if you just want to downshift and don’t need strings of souvenir shops hawking suggestive Boobie tee shirts, I suggest flying straight to San Cristobal. Next morning, with a hangover headache, I’m ready to board my red-hulled
sailboat, Encantada. As soon as I see it bobbing at anchor in the harbor, my anticipation overcomes my headache. A Zodiac boat picks me up and in a few minutes, I climb aboard and begin meeting the other nine passengers who will be my shipmates.
One Typical Day Cruising in the Galápagos
Even on a short cruise of four days, like this one, the days’ highlights quickly blur together, so I’m at least noting everything that happened on one typical day, June 14, 2017. At 5:00 AM, I’m up on deck, teary-aid and thinking of how fortunate I feel to be waking up virtually on the equator, seeing the first glimmer of light with profiles of islands and islets just beginning to punctuate the otherwise inky starry black sky.
Another passenger, Rebecca, is already on deck, making a time-lapse video of the sunrise, holding her camera as still as she can so it will take a single picture every 15-seconds or so. She’s German, but she’s living in Peru and working with an NGO to educate girls in a village where almost nobody speaks English. Rebecca’s parents are aboard, too, and her dad is in the process of retiring from his career as an engineer at Mercedes in Stuttgart. Her mom’s a delight with a beautiful laugh, and while they’re not fluent in English, both are gracious about catching just portions of what Rodrigo, our naturalist and guide, explains in English throughout the day.
Whenever I’m near the equator, I’m reminded of the earth’s daily cycles, especially when it comes to light. Close to the poles, people enjoy long lingering sunsets. On the equator, it’s suddenly dark at 6:00 PM. And in the mornings, the sky transitions from the first hint of dawn to full sun in about half an hour. So, by 6:00 AM, Rebecca and I and the few others who’ve emerged from their
cabins practically cheer and applaud as the sun blesses our morning. There are only 10 of us on this ship, and that turns out to be the perfect size group as we all get a chance to know each other. It also means that when Rodrigo rings the “10 minutes to get ready” bell, we’re all suited up and ready to go. Plus, the Encantada that we’ve all chosen isn’t really a luxury cruise ship. I suspect that passengers on those larger, fancier, far more costly vessels may tend to be stuffier and perhaps more demanding. Our group is compatible, pliable, and each member is worth knowing well. It’s time for breakfast. The long wooden table where I’ve been typing early this morning will soon become our breakfast table, and the other passengers will appear. It’s where we take all of our meals. Marco, the young Italian scientist working with advanced lasers at Harvard, is here with his Portuguese girlfriend, Leanor. (And talk about “last minute”! They had landed at the Baltra airport, talked to a couple of agents, found that the Encantada was casting off in two hours, offered some cash, and didn’t even go to the hotel they’d reserved for that night.) Two Texans, Renee and Pete, share my relief at being in the dark about what Trump’s been up to.
Matt and Jenn are here from Brisbane, Australia and have been engaged for six years, so my question about their wedding date plans is slightly awkward. One of the crewmembers, Ronald, has transformed our table into a nicely set breakfast spot, and soon, out come eggs and fruit salad and toast.
At this point, although we had a thorough briefing the night before, we each glance at the whiteboard to remind ourselves of the day’s schedule. Oh yes, we’re anchored just off Española Island, and we’ll begin by snorkeling at Gardner Bay. By now it’s plenty light and we see the shore skirted with white sand for a quarter mile or so. But it’s not an empty beach. Even from our anchorage, we hear the chorus of sea lions’ cacophonic barking chorus and their dark shapes on the beach are moving. Sea lions differ from seals in that they can rise up on their front and rear
flippers and hullumph along with surprising agility. This morning, we have a “wet landing,” meaning that we’ll go ashore on a rubber Zodiac boat and step out into the shallow water. At first, it seems there is no spot on the beach sufficiently far from the sea lions to avoid encountering them. We quickly realize that that’s an impossible order. You can’t avoid them. This is their beach and we’re just visiting. Noisy though they may be, they’re curious and not aggressive. The young pups, most about three feet long, approach us as we step onto shore, getting close enough to sniff at our feet. I’ve never really been much of a snorkeler. And on the few times when I do snorkel, I never look down toward bubbling scuba divers far below me and
wish I were with them. So, I opt to stroll along the beach for a while before awkwardly wriggling into my flippers. I’ve never worn a wetsuit before, and the cold current that’s upwelling at this time of year makes it slightly unpleasantly cold, so I opt for my first wet suit experience. I manage to stumble my way into the water, and as Rodrigo suggested in our briefing, swim out toward a rocky islet a hundred yards offshore. The closer I get, the more fish I see. Some people delight in identifying each of the hundreds of varieties, but to me, they’re just generic brightly colored tropical fish. That is, until Rebecca surfaces beside me and asks, “Did you see the shark?” Rodrigo knows just where the sharks hide, and sure enough, Rebecca points to the underside of a ledge in the rocks, and I see the shark, just where Rodrigo had told us to look. It’s not scary, though. This one’s maybe three feet in length, and these sharks here aren’t hostile. Kicking with my fins, I circle the islet and notice clouds of sand below, surrounded by several very active fish. What could be causing the cloud? Oh, it’s a stingray burying itself in the sand by flapping its wing-like outer edges, which stirs up the sand and seems to attract other fish, perhaps hoping for morsels of some kind. But now, it’s 10:00, and according to last night’s briefing and the whiteboard reminder, the Zodiac’s coming for us. Back to the Encantada for a short repositioning cruise to another islet for more snorkeling. This one’s more interesting, with a sheer rock wall underwater that’s like a high-rise condominium tower with aquatic residents at every level. It seems that each variety of fish is more colorful than the others. Vivid purples, bright greens, softer oranges with white stripes. At one point, I look down to see hundreds and hundreds of roundish green fish the size of dinner plates moving together as one. They’re about six feet below me, so I dive down until my ears start to hurt from the water pressure. The school seems to make way for me. They don’t split up and swim away. They just accommodate me, as if I’m part of the school. Rising to the surface again, I pop my head above water and notice one of my fellow snorkelers nearby swimming along the cliff face, but his dark gray wetsuit looks to be fulllength and I don’t see his snorkel or mask or fins. That’s because it’s a sea lion, about the size and bulk of my shipmates. He’s just out swimming, too, not bothering anybody. The other snorkelers tell me that the young pups love to play with snorkelers, encircling them, and swimming right up to their facemasks. I haven’t had it happen, and hope that I’ll get to. We’ll see. And sure enough, later, I experience what they’ve told me about. Please pardon my anthropomorphism, but I’m pretty sure the sea lion pups say to themselves, “Oh look, there are some more of those funny creatures who can’t seem to swim nearly as well as we do. Let’s dart over to them and show off a little. Even though we entice them to dive down deep like we do, they quit after just a few feet and go back up for air. They can’t keep up with us, and they’re not agile at all.” The first time a sea lion pup swims straight toward you, and looks at you eyeball-to-eyeball and blinks with his three-quarter-inch-long eyelashes, you get the feeling that we’re all in the same family. They just want to play. One of the pups has found a piece of prickly pear cactus about five inches around and takes it in his mouth, dives down beneath me, and then releases it so that it floats up right next to me. I’m sure he’s waiting for me to bite it and play take-away with him. This time, I’m really glad to have my wetsuit, and even at that, I’m shivering a little. Rodrigo stays close by in the Zodiac, which he calls a panga, with a little ladder over the side so that chilly snorkelers like me can climb aboard whenever they wish. Right now, I wish. Back on Encantada, lunch is grilled tuna, tastily served with local limes, accompanied by hearts of palm salad, and sweet rice topped with fried bananas. Each meal is different, and all are tasty and surprisingly fresh. Matt has an underwater GoPro camera and asks if I felt the sea lion nip at my flipper. What? I was “attacked” and didn’t even notice? He shows me his video, and sure enough that pup with the cactus leaf swam up behind me and nipped at my flipper, distinguishing between the exposed flesh of my lower leg and the rubber of the flipper. He’d just been giving me a further invitation, “Come on, why won’t you play with me?” The whiteboard reminds me that we’ll be cruising to another part of the island, Punta Suarez, but we won’t disembark until 2:30, which leaves just enough time to stretch out on the teak deck for a little nap in the equatorial sun. Although the common language onboard is English, I find that my high school German is coming back to me, and I ask Rebecca to remind me how to say, “Eine kleine mittagsschlafen.” This next landing is “dry,” and Rodrigo reminds us to wear shoes, as we’ll be walking for a couple of hours once ashore. The Zodiac nudges up to a concrete platform, not quite a pier, and as we step ashore, we find some iguanas blocking the path over black lava. Each is about two feet long and very prehistoric looking. Wait, there aren’t just a few. On the rocks to the left are several more. And to the right, a dozen. And then we realize there are hundreds all around us. But Rodrigo explains that there are really thousands. The regulation in the Galápagos is that a certified guide can handle no more than 16 people. So, the many small cruise ships here are usually noted as accommodating a maximum of 16 passengers. Ours holds a maximum of just 12 in its six staterooms, and Rodrigo explains that it’s his preferred size. The guides must ensure that no visitors are tempted to touch the wildlife or molest them in any way. The bigger ships must have at least one certified guide for every 16 passengers. Now, Rodrigo teaches us about the evolution of these marine iguanas that surround us. He carefully explains how sub-species mate and their offspring show slight modifications over time. It’s just as if Charles Darwin were there with us, pondering why some iguanas have flat tails, which enables them to swim between islands, while others are specialized for diving to 15 meters where they can feed on algae growing on the rocks. Their mouths are flatter, enabling them to nibble at algae growths. As the water temperature changes, such as during El Niño cycles, algae dies, so there’s less food, and accordingly the iguanas grow smaller. Rodrigo explains that the algae takes two weeks to flourish, so the whole “slaughter” of iguanas (yep, that’s the term for a bunch of them) move to another part of the beach for two weeks, and when they’ve depleted the easily reachable algae there, they move back to the area where the algae has regenerated. He doesn’t talk about global warming, but it’s clear that humans’ impact on these delicate cycles can’t help but profoundly impact the life cycles of all creatures, including homo sapiens, in our planet’s delicately balanced ecosystem. Next, we walk along a marked path toward the Masked Boobie nesting area. It’s not a paved path, though. There are a few sticks marking the way over the rocks, so that the environment still feels completely natural. Some Galápagos visitors may grumble about the mandatory $100 park fee that’s collected from every arriving passenger at the airport. But that’s what pays for the scientists who shepherd this delicate environment. I’ve not seen a single gum wrapper or piece of litter anywhere, and I’ve great respect for the Ecuadorian government’s regulation of its national parks. Local residents show profound respect for our environment. I see no graffiti, and children are taught the value of environmentally responsible lifestyles. Since water comes from de-saliniztion plants on these arid islands, it’s treated as a resource to be conserved. The white-tipped sticks marking the trail lead us to the Boobie nesting area, and it’s surprising that they go about their natural lives, paying no notice to us. Within the park, we humans all observe the “get no closer than six feet” rule, and the birds accept our presence without flapping away.
Next, we walk on past the blowhole. Each surge of waves compresses the air in a constricted passageway through the lava, and a spout of water 30 or 40 feet high makes a great whooshing sound. Many of my fellow passengers are amazed. I’m guiltily thinking to myself, “Hey, there are blowholes all over the world. My first was on Oahu, then Mexico, and they’ve all looked pretty much the same since then.”
Rodrigo now briefs us on the life cycle of the amazing albatross birds. He says we’ll be visiting the cliffs where they take their first flights after hatching. Hatchlings come into the world with the ability to live up to 21 days while slowly digesting the regurgitated fish food their parents have provided. So when mom and dad go out hunting to replenish their food supplies, the hatchlings can survive alone. Albatrosses are very awkward on land, yet magnificent in the air. When we reach the albatross nesting area, juveniles line the edges of the cliffs, stretching out their wings, though they been taught nothing about flying. It’s all hard-wired behavior. At some point, their wings are strong enough, and the wind is just right, and they’re lifted into the air with hardly a flap. And here’s the most amazing part: These birds, with wingspans that can extend up to 12 feet, never touch land again for years. They’re such efficient flyers that they literally circle the globe, sometimes resting or feeding in the sea, but the very first time they touch land again, up to four years later, is at the exact spot where they first hatched. And we think we’re so technologically advanced with our GPS. I turn to Wikipedia and find that they can fly 75,000 miles in a year and are the largest birds on the planet. Their life cycles are fascinating in that they reach sexual maturity very slowly, and live as long as 66 years. We pass a decaying albatross carcass on the rocks. Rodrigo explains that landings are treacherous for an albatross. In the air, they’re spectacularly efficient aviators, but on land, they’re anything but graceful. They’re not designed for life on land, and this dead bird probably crashed when it returned to its nesting spot. One unfortunate landing can result in a broken leg or damaged wing, and that’s the end for an albatross. If you can’t flap properly, you can’t fly; if you can’t fly, you can’t feed. It gets noisy, and we realize that albatrosses are all around us in the tall grass and scrubby vegetation. They’re right beside and sometimes right on the trail.
They don’t move away as we pass, and over generations, they’ve come to accept that these strange human creatures represent no threat. It’s mating season, and we hear couples clacking and calling all around us. And just then, I experience my highlight of the day. A courting couple is putting on a show right in front of us. This is a David Attenborough or National Geographic experience. When you watch those nature documentaries revealing the strange mating habits of various species, you wonder how they ever got the footage. Well, we’re getting it. Live. This is not TV. The albatrosses exhibit their carefully choreographed ritual for as long as we watch. You just have to see the video to believe it. Here, see for yourself: https://youtu.be/-YScP9NzCdw They extend their necks, stretch up as high as they can, bob in unison, make loud clacking noises, entwine their necks, and then each thrusts his or her beak into the other’s. And then they do it again. And again. They do this dance with multiple partners over years until they find the perfect dance partner. When they finally mate, they’re monogamously paired for life, and an albatross lives for well over 40 years.
It’s time to return to the boat, and we all pause along the way while Rodrigo explains how iguanas regulate their internal body temperature. Sure enough, they’re doing just as he explained, craning their necks to look for shady spots where they can cool off. The panga comes for us, and when we return to the boat, there’s always a snack waiting. Sometimes, it’s a bowl of popcorn, or simply a dish of Ritz crackers. It’s part of the routine of daily life aboard the Encantada, and I suspect, each of the touring vessels in these waters. The ten of us gather on the covered stern and enjoy beers or coffees as we watch the sun sink. We’re all amazed and grateful to have experienced the albatross courtship dances first hand. There’s now just enough time for a hot shower in the cabin, and even a change of clothes before dinner. Marco always turns up in something fresh and fashionable, and when others comment, he says, “Hey, I’m Italian!” The menu changes for every meal, and this time, it’s generous helpings of spaghetti with Bolognese sauce, and salad, and an assortment of vegetables. And of course, dessert, a fruity rum cake.
By 8:00 PM, a few passengers head for the back deck and relax with cocktails. I head to bed, not quite understanding why I’m so exhausted. Maybe it’s the sun, or merely the emotional excitement of seeing these varied wonders. And that’s one typical day of cruising in the Galápagos. The next day begins with swimming beside turtles whose shells are four-and-ahalf feet across, and being surrounded by schools of fish that seem to be lit up with multi-hued LEDs. And while I’d like to describe everything that’s happening, I will wrap it up by simply saying that even if my Galápagos visit ended after just one day, I’d be glad I came. As I introduced myself to anybody in the Galápagos, they often responded with, “Oh, like ‘Lonesome George’!” He’s a famous character in the Galápagos, the very last of his species. For years, scientists searched for a female so the species could continue, but alas. As Wikipedia says, Lonesome George “…was a male Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdonii) and the last individual of the species.  In his last years, he was known as the rarest creature in the world. George serves as a potent symbol for conservation efforts in the Galápagos Islands and throughout the world.”
Lonesome George lived to be about 100 years old and is now embalmed in the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island. For 40 years, he lived without a mate in the research center while concerned scientists searched for a female. Visitors who see his remains leave with a potent reminder that we humans are messing things up and we’d better wise up. Fast. At the Baltra airport, as I’m waiting to board my flight back to the US, I spot someone who looks familiar and approach him. “Is your name Richard?” Yep, it’s the naturalist I had met aboard our Russian research vessel sailing to Antarctica, the Vavilov, three years ago. He’s guiding some birders through the Galapagos. Small, small, miraculous world. “Coincidences” like this make me wonder about things I don’t understand. How much is random? Yes, my mantra has proven true: Whatever hassles you may encounter getting to the Galápagos, it’s worth it. I’ve been fortunate to experience a lot of natural encounters: 200,000 penguins in Antarctica, many African safaris and mating lions, and I’ve even been grabbed by a gorilla in Rwanda. But none of those experiences outshine the close-up encounters with the marvelous creatures living in harmony with humans in the Galápagos Islands. Everything I’ve experience and written about here, you can experience, too, and it’s not going to break your bank. It continues to surprise me when friends comment that I’m “living the life” they wish they could. They can! You can. Don’t let another year slip by without deciding to do something spectacular. Just know that something wonderful is going to happen.
Getting to the Galápagos: … For Much Less Money Than You’d Imagine Part One (the Bad Part):
(NOTE: If you’re considering a Galápagos trip for yourself, which I recommend most heartily, read these few pages for the “bad part” of the journey so you have realistic expectations about the hassle (but not expense) of getting there. Or, skip right ahead to Part Two, the Good Part: Visiting the Galápagos. There, you’ll read what you get if you undertake the trouble and expense of reaching the islands. And that’s where the photos are.) You’ve probably always heard that a visit to the Galápagos Islands, out in the Pacific, situated right on the equator off the coast of Ecuador, is a bucket list bank breaker. I’m out to prove that’s not the case, and I’m going to show you exactly how I’ve done it economically. Prices are accurate as of June 2017. First, you’ve got to get there. That’s pricey… unless you redeem miles for Copyright 2017 George Ra Walther, Inc.
an award ticket. Even booking a month in advance and choosing coach flights, if you’re paying with dollars, figure on round-trip costs of $1500 in coach, or $2300 in business. However, I flew from Denver (DEN) to Baltra Island (GPS), on United and got quite a bargain by using a mileage award ticket. So, first, some insights about redeeming miles for a trip like this: When you visit an airline’s website, in this case, United’s, assume that the chart showing dates and availabilities may be wrong. Although United doesn’t fly to the Galápagos, their Star Alliance partners, like Copa and Aero Gal do. I always book one-way award tickets rather than round trips. Unlike with paid tickets, there’s no penalty for doing so. In dollars, two one-ways will normally cost a lot more than a round trip. But for nearly every airline, a one-way award ticket is half the price of a round-trip. Booking two one-ways gives me extra flexibility if I decide to change either the departure or return date, but not necessarily both. Flying from the USA to the Galápagos, you must connect in Ecuador, either via Quito (UIO), or Guayaquil (GYE). The latter offers much better availability for awards. Onward flights from UIO to Galápagos normally stop en route at GYE, anyway, so look for GYE awards rather than UIO. I start by searching for award availability. Most carriers offer “standard” awards available almost any day for about twice the mileage required for a “saver” award. United’s availability calendar showed no “saver” awards offered for the day I wanted to fly to the Galápagos. My experience, though, has shown that those calendars aren’t reliable. Sure enough, United’s chart showed a one-way “standard” ticket was going to cost 75,000 miles. But wait. United showed 9 pages of possible flight combinations, and on page 8, I found several options for 45,000 miles at the coach “saver” level, even though the calendar view showed that none were available. But here’s the strange part: The exact same flight itineraries that showed coach saver awards for 45,000, also showed business class awards for… 35,000. Weird! Spacious seats in front were cheaper than cramped seats in back. Was it a mistake? I’ve no idea, but I sure grabbed the business class option for 35,000 each way.
(Note: As I’m typing now, on June 17th, I see that my exact same return flights are now only 20,000 in coach and still 35,000 in business. Pricing is dynamic, apparently.) So, how do you get 70,000 miles in the first place? Not by flying around the world. And not by charging lots of dinners on an airline credit card to accumulate miles. When you first sign up for some credit cards, applicants earn a sign-up bonus of, well, in the case of United’s card, 70,000 miles! In this case, that bonus is worth $2300, which is what I’d have had to pay for the exact same flights if I had purchased my tickets instead of using a mileage award. I’ve gotten as many as 100,000 miles as a credit card signup bonus. 50,000-mile bonuses are common. Of course, you want to maintain a very strong credit rating, and you will suffer a “ding” to your credit score if you quickly open lots of new accounts. Consider also opening “business” versions of each card, even if you don’t have a business. And your spouse or partner can apply for the same cards for an additional bonus. I don’t play chess. Instead, I play the Bonus Mileage Game. That’s a whole subject for another time, and I assure you that there are lots of resources on the Internet offered by my fellow expert game players. They tell you which cards give the best bonuses, and also “disclose” that they get commissions for referring new card applicants. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it doesn’t cost you, the applicant, anything extra. Oh, the plane tickets all the way to Baltra airport and back home to Denver didn’t only cost “free miles.” There were also various taxes and fees, which totaled less than $200. So now, you’ve gotten all the way to the Galápagos for some miles and just a little cash. Galápagos hotels have a reputation for being pricey. Yes, there are options in the $250-$400 range. But you’re going to see the natural world, not luxuriate in some five star hotel room watching CNN, aren’t you? Whatever search engine you use, and in my case, I nearly always prefer Kayak.com, set the sorting priority according to price, not stars.
Right in the main beach and port areas of the Galápagos’ most central town, Puerto Ayora, there are plenty of places offering rooms for $50 to $100. But why stop there? Lots of hostels offer dorm beds for $15 to $20. Now, you probably think of “hostels” as youth hostels, but there’s no age limit on who can stay there. I’m 68 and I prefer hostels. If there were a free Marriott next door to a $25 youth hostel, I’d go for the hostel. Yes, I’d probably end up in a room with four to six bunk beds. Yes, somebody might snore (and that might be me.) Maybe you want a private room and are repulsed at the thought of using a shower down the hall. Hostels usually have inexpensive private rooms with showers in addition to multi-bedded dorms. You can still mingle and swap tales in the community lounge. It’s up to you, but for me, it brings me joy to meet and talk with predominantly young travelers, excited about their lives, excited about discovering the world, excited about meeting fellow travelers, and always exuding a sense of adventure. My flight to the Galápagos required an overnight connection in Guayaquil, but I didn’t reserve a youth hostel for that night. I figured I’d need a good sleep close to the airport. While I love mingling (and snoring) with young travelers, I really just wanted a good sleep without the risk of annoying snorers. So, I pulled up a map view and saw that the two hotels closest to the Guayaquil airport were the “Holiday Inn” and the “Airport Hotel.” The former seemed too American. The latter had appealing photos, noting that it offered airport shuttle service and breakfast. So, I booked that one for $70. Sure, I know there must be plenty of $40 or $50 hotels a little farther from the airport, and even $20 hostel options, but I’d decided to treat myself to an “International Quality” sleep between my flights. After my wearying travels from Denver to Orlando to Panama to Guayaquil, I emerged from the airport with the usual trepidation about arriving in a foreign “third world” airport. Sure enough, there were throngs of noisy greeters, taxi guys hawking, and general cacophonic disarray. At least Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as its official currency, so there’s no need to head for the foreign exchange booth or search for an ATM.
Remember those dollar coins that were just slightly larger than quarters and that nobody wanted to use? Wonder what happened to them? They’re all in Ecuador, slightly worn down, and are used as daily currency. Exiting the airport arrivals area, I saw the nice, new, clean Holiday Inn bus. But where was the one for the “Airport Hotel”? A taxi driver told me that despite the website’s claims, there was no such bus, and said I must take his taxi for a $5, five-minute ride. I just wanted to get to bed, so fine, I’m not in a mood to haggle. Sure enough, it was a five minute ride, and there was a slight resemblance between the photos on the hotel’s website and the actual Airport Hotel. The lobby area was jammed with people, and none looked like tourists. It seemed to be a “locals” kind of hotel. I tried charming “Stephani” at the front desk, joking that I’d like the “Presidential Suite” with a great view, which I suspected didn’t exist. She chuckled. It doesn’t. Behind Stephani was a wall lined with four-inch-square wooden cubicles, like you might see in a very old fashioned hotel. But each of these cubicles contained, as well as a room key, remote controls for every room. Two each; TV and air conditioner. And at check-in, Stephani issued me one of each, along with my key. I see. At least the hotel has aircon, and that’s a good sign in hot and humid Guayaquil. For $70, in Ecuador, I should get a pretty nice room. I didn’t.
But I really only wanted to sleep. Who needs to doze in luxury? A thread count of 50 would do. There was a restaurant, of sorts, in the crowded lobby and Stephani told me that it had just one set dinner on the menu, and the full dinner cost five dollars! How bad could it be? I just wanted to eat something and get to sleep. She said she’d call my room when my meal was ready, so I climbed the stairs to room number 101 and could see right away that it was not quite up to international standards. By a long shot. But I only wanted to sleep. Never mind that the window faced a side street on which was parked a battered car with a malfunctioning alarm. It went off. It went off. It went off. I only wanted some sleep, and maybe some TV news. But the TV didn’t work. Or, at least, I couldn’t figure out how to turn it on. Stephani sent up a young boy who pushed a closely-guarded-secret-sequence of buttons on the treasured remote and even found CNN for me, in English! The bathroom sink, I noticed, had a single cold-water tap. Bad sign. Surely this international hotel has hot water? First, though, my nice $5 dinner. I turned out to be the only diner. Others must have already known what I was about to discover. My waiter was the same kid I saw hanging out in the lobby with the chattering locals. He’s the same kid who knew how to turn on my TV, too. And I’ll bet that he cleans the rooms, as well. Probably the dishes, too. I guess he does everything, so he really ought to have some kind of official hotel uniform instead of the ripped and soiled jeans he was wearing. If there is a KFC within a few miles, I suspect that the hotel dispatches this boy to buy a bucket of breaded chicken, then lets it sit until it’s lukewarm and somewhat soggy, then places a single wing or drumstick on a plate with a scoop of surprisingly flavorful rice. That’s dinner. Oh, and I mustn’t forget the appealing-looking bowl of beef and vegetable soup, also lukewarm. The bowl was about ½ inch deep, so there wasn’t much soup, though it looked good.
Never mind. I just needed to sleep. I bought a beer to take to my room, downed an Ambien sleeping pill, and called the does-everything boy to please come turn on my mysterious TV again. It’s CNN, all right. And still in English, too. But the bad part is that it’s showing a history of the Flynn-Comey-Trump affair. Fortunately, I’m asleep within minutes and my medication seems to have suppressed the endlessly chirping-whistling-beeping car alarm outside my window. I didn’t turn the TV off, since I might awake early and if the boy was gone, I’d never be able to turn it back on. Ah, bliss. I was out cold until my alarm went off at 5:45. In the bathroom, I flipped on the light switch and found that it activated a groaning, whining, lintclogged fan. There was no way to have just light without the noisy and ineffective fan. At least the shower had two knobs, a good sign. I turned the left knob, hoping that maybe there was hot water, after all, despite the sink’s single faucet. After several minutes of feeling guilty about water-wastage, I confirmed that the shower offered cold from the left faucet, and cold also from the right. I just couldn’t face a cold shower. Stephani had advised me to be at the airport two hours before my 8:50 AM scheduled departure and said I should leave the hotel by 6:30, though my included breakfast service touted at the hotel’s website wouldn’t begin until … 6:30. Since the airport is literally five minutes away, and it’s a small terminal, why would I need two hours to check in for a domestic flight? Graciously, the does-it-all boy anticipated my early departure and prepared an early breakfast for me: Two pieces of white bread, served with some kind of soft white cheese, butter, and a little pod of jam. The coffee, of course, was heavily sugared. He drove me to the airport in the unmarked van with broken seatbelts and I soon understood why I needed to arrive two hours early. The terminal was jammed with people waiting in hopelessly long, yet surprisingly orderly parallel lines, even though it was well before 7:00 AM. No sign explained what the lines were for. I saw the check-in counter for my flight on Avianca, but no passengers were there checking in. I began hoping that the long lines were just for international passengers and didn’t apply to my flight, since Galápagos is a domestic destination, once you’ve reached Guayaquil. But no, the agent at the counter directed me to stand in one of the long lines.
At this point I repeated to myself what became my mantra: “I'm off to the Galápagos Islands. It’s going to be worth the challenge of getting to them.” If you’re not travel-savvy, and not guided by a tour director, and haven’t slept quite enough, and didn’t care to take a cold shower, you start wishing you were “back home.” Repeat the mantra. It’s going to be worth it. Samsung must own the Guayaquil airport. Or, somebody on the airport planning commission must have received a huge bribe. Every sign and banner promoted Samsung products, but no sign told what the lines were for. I heard English! An American couple in line behind me had hired a guide, and I overheard him explaining to his clients how to negotiate the lines. First, you must wait in one line for the luggage X-Ray machine. This isn’t for the detection of bombs or weapons. It’s to ensure that nobody’s bringing food, pets, or other prohibited items to the Galápagos. As it’s an environmentally sensitive zone, the government wants to be sure visitors introduce no foreign species. I was presented with a form explaining these prohibitions, since the whole Galápagos archipelago is super-conscious of “biosecurity.” I’m all for biosecurity, myself. But the woman running the X-Ray machine was busy talking with her friend and didn’t even glance at the X-Ray monitor, so I could have smuggled in a gun, let alone a pet chimpanzee or an anaconda. Then, it was time to go stand in another line, this time to pay a $20 fee for my “Affidavit” that welcomed me to Galápagos. Following a list of potentially serious offenses, such as presenting the form without having first signed it, it warned: “These and related offences will incur a fine equivalent of up to five of the unified basic remunerations in force in Galápagos.”
I don’t know how much that is, but I may be at risk. One of the form’s questions asks, “Do you have camping equipment: tent, sleeping bag, shoes etc.?” I always travel with a sleeping bag, though I don’t intend to camp. I am wearing shoes, too. What if a biosecurity enforcer sees that I’m not barefoot and imposes a fine of several “unified basic remunerations”? Finally, I paid my $20 for the affidavit, fraudulently signed the form without disclosing my sleeping bag, and began to wonder which line was next. Relief! I didn’t need to go to the back of the very longest line and could instead proceed to the Avianca airline check-in counter. I’m grateful that I hold a “Priority Pass” membership card that has admitted me to airport lounges around the world. I got it as one of those credit card sign-up bonuses. Though small, this airport’s lounge is quiet and offers a variety of heavily sugared pastries and juices. Before leaving the lounge to board my flight, I stopped by the lounge’s bathroom and was reminded that wherever you go in Latin America, signs warn that you must not flush your used toilet paper. This is a hard one for me and most North Americans to accept. You’re supposed to wipe, and then place the soiled paper in the trashcan, never in the toilet. Huh? An international airport’s plumbing cannot handle soiled toilet paper? That’s just the way it is around here. Get used to it if you’re headed to this part of the world. Inflight, I was treated to a short video with Muppet-like characters talking about the Galápagos. “Mr. Jones” talked with “Patricia Naturalist Guide” about how he must secure a permit to take commercial photos, and refrain from getting closer than two meters, or six feet away from wildlife. Fortunately, the entertaining film was subtitled in English, with randomly capitalized words and misspellings, along with “he-he-he-he-he” transcriptions of the puppet characters’ nearly incessant laughter. After an hour and a half flight, as the sole passenger in business class, I landed at Baltra, one of the two airports in this archipelago. I saw the baggage claim rack and there was my duffel containing my forbidden backpack… but don’t touch it! A woman warned me and my fellow passengers.
that we must stand behind the yellow line and await the K-9 inspection before claiming our bags. The dog must be napping, though, so we all wait. Several minutes later, his handler brought the eager German Shepard to the baggage area and he happily leapt among the bags, sniffing for contraband in the form of foreign fruits or animals. Then, and this is important if you’re headed to the Galápagos via Baltra, you heft your bag onto the free bus that takes you to the ferry crossing from Baltra to the main inhabited island of Santa Cruz. Boys lift your bags onto the roof
of the ferry, which holds about 30 people at a shot, and everyone is strictly required to wear a life vest for the five-minute crossing. Good, they’re safetyconscious, even though you could almost leap from Baltra Island to Santa Cruz Island if you got a running start. Immediately, you start realizing that you’re in a special place. Pelicans surround the boat. They scoop up fish and aren’t in the least bothered that the ferryboat passengers sit within a foot or two of their bills. They’re clearly unaware of the six-foot rule. One pelican has a colorful bird perched on its back. Sea lions are splashing right beside the boat, and the clear water is teeming with fish. Young sharks circle the ferry. Welcome to the Galápagos.
There’s a bus waiting on the other side to take new arrivals into town, about an hour away. But, after I’d waited onboard for several minutes, the bus hadn’t moved. There were no more flights arriving, and I couldn’t imagine that there was a timetable the driver must respect, so after 15 more minutes of waiting, three others onboard asked if I wanted to take a taxi with them and split the fare. Fine, my share of the $25 fare was seven bucks, and the driver dropped me at the door of the hostel I’d reserved. A good deal, and well worth it if you’re headed this way. The hour-long ride is through rather desolate, scrubby, lava covered countryside on an almost straight, well-paved road. Not a promising landscape, though. Where are the tortoises and iguanas I’ve come to see?