Cruis­ing the Gala­pa­gos is the next step in the evo­lu­tion of ad­ven­ture

Cruise the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands and ex­pe­ri­ence the ar­chi­pel­ago’s unique wildlife Michael Bene­dict

National Post (Latest Edition) - - WEEKEND POST - Michael Bene­dict,

When cruis­ing the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands, size re­ally does mat­ter. If your ves­sel is too large, there are places you won’t be able to visit – and you will be cur­tailed in how much time you can ex­plore those shores where your boat is al­lowed to an­chor. And if your ves­sel is too small, you won’t be able to sail overnight and ex­pe­ri­ence more of the 13 scat­tered is­lands and their unique wildlife.

Ecoven­tura, an award- win­ning re­spon­si­ble tourism op­er­a­tor, has got the siz­ing just right with its lux­ury MV Ori­gin. Launched two years ago, the sleek Ori­gin can nav­i­gate every­where in the ar­chi­pel­ago and get to more places faster, so its max­i­mum 20 pas­sen­gers spend more time with the ar­chi­pel­ago’s 1,600 dis­tinct species. In­deed, you need a boat to visit most of the some 70 per­mit­ted vis­i­tor land­ing sites, and the Ori­gin de­liv­ers its pas­sen­gers there in style.

“When it comes to knowl­edge, ex­pe­ri­ence and com­mit­ment to sus­tain­abil­ity, Ecoven­tura is the very best,” says Colorado-based tour op­er­a­tor Mario Corvetto, a pas­sen­ger on his fourth trip to the Gala­pa­gos in the past 15 years. “With the 100- pas­sen­ger ves­sels, the shore tour groups are larger and there is no in­ti­macy with the guides.”

The Ori­gin’s com­par­a­tively spa­cious state­rooms fea­ture al­most floor- to- ceil­ing, one- way win­dows in­stead of port­holes that are typ­i­cal of most Gala­pa­gos ves­sels. As well, Ori­gin pas­sen­gers can even look out onto the wa­ter from their rain­fall- shower stalls. Says Corvetto: “This boat and its rooms let you di­rectly ex­pe­ri­ence the out­side rather than feel­ing like you’re in a ho­tel room sep­a­rated from na­ture.”

Each room has in­di­vid­ual air con­di­tion­ing, an espresso maker, ket­tle and TV with a se­lec­tion of movies and other pro­gram­ming. The bath­room is out­fit­ted with ecofriendly toi­letries, waf­fle bathrobes and slip­pers.

Free­lance cap­tain Pablo Salas, who has led some 15 different boats through the Gala­pa­gos, says the Ori­gin is his favourite. He notes that its en­ergy- ef­fi­cient en­gines con­sume 30 per cent less fuel than Ecoven­tura’s two sis­ter ves­sels. With a top speed of 12 knots, Ori­gin can serve din­ner while still an­chored calmly with­out los­ing time to reach the next is­land in the morn­ing. “Be­cause it’s so fast, we are the first to ar­rive at a des­ti­na­tion and the last to leave,” says Salas.

Ev­ery day aboard the Ori­gin is different, but much is also the same. “This is your wake- up call,” our cruise direc­tor Rosanna says softly over the speaker sys­tem piped into the state­rooms, usu­ally at 6:30 a.m. “Open your eyes to an­other beau­ti­ful day in this is­land par­adise.”

A hearty buf­fet break­fast, with more choices than any­one can man­age, is served at 7 a. m. with the first shore ex­cur­sion typ­i­cally an hour later. Dur­ing our week, we visit seven of the is­lands, and while some crea­tures like sea lions are seem­ingly om­nipresent, oth­ers are unique to their own is­land. For ex­am­ple, each has its own species of finch, the dis­cov­ery that led Dar­win to his evo­lu­tion­ary the­o­ries.

We are di­vided into two groups, each led by a nat­u­ral­ist guide, who are an­i­mated sto­ry­tellers and ex­perts in ge­ol­ogy, bi­ol­ogy, botany and lo­cal lore. Ecoven­tura pro­vides only Level 3 guides, the top rank. Our pair is as pro­tec­tive of the wildlife as the an­i­mals and birds them­selves are ter­ri­to­rial. They make sure we stay on the trails and keep our dis­tance from the fauna. But it can be chal­leng­ing. One must take care not to step on a rest­ing iguana whose colour­ing is a nat­u­ral cam­ou­flage, or bump into a sleep­ing sea lion on the trail while ad­mir­ing a bird in flight. Once, on a beach walk, we had to scram­ble to keep the al­lot­ted dis­tance from a group of play­ful sea lion pups that chased us down the shore.

In the Gala­pa­gos, hu­mans play sec­ond fid­dle to the birds and an­i­mals. This is their house, and we are ex­pected to get out of the way. As a re­sult, the wildlife has no fear of peo­ple and that, in turn, al­lows us to wit­ness at close hand, some­times just a few feet away, some truly amaz­ing sights. Dur­ing our Novem­ber visit, we saw igua­nas fight­ing, al­ba­trosses court­ing, sea lions nurs­ing, and blue- footed boo­bies and frigate birds nest­ing and feed­ing their young. Even gi­ant tor­toises mat­ing.

And that’s not all. Ev­ery day was filled with vivid ex­am­ples of evo­lu­tion at work: the world’s only ma­rine lizard, the bright­est flamin­gos in the wild, and plants that sur­vive in the dry sea­son by de­sali­nat­ing sea­wa­ter.

The is­lands’ clear wa­ters and wide beaches, spec­tac­u­lar as they are, are not unique. What is unique is that ev­ery­thing here is nat­u­ral and pris­tine, with the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion re­stricted to just three per cent of this UNESCO World Her­itage Site. The re­main­der forms a strictly pro­tected na­tional park, with only a tiny por­tion open to visitors who must be ac­com­pa­nied by au­tho­rized guides at all times.

Over­all, tourism is tightly con­trolled and re­stricted to 200,000 visitors per year. Each is­land and shore­line has daily and weekly lim­its. No beach re­sorts here.

Af­ter our morn­ing ex­cur­sions, we re­turn to the boat, al­ways greeted by a different snack, rang­ing from ce­viche ( seafood dish) to cheese puffs, ac­com­pa­nied by fresh fruit juices. Lunch is a buf­fet, some­times served out­doors on the top deck, with three sal­ads and sev­eral hot dishes to choose from. At lunch, we choose our din­ner from a menu with op­tions for ap­pe­tiz­ers and mains. The meals are wor­thy of great restau­rants any­where and the wine, along with other al­co­hol, is com­pli­men­tary. Cap­tain Salas hosts wel­come and farewell cock­tail par­ties and makes sure all guests dine with him once dur­ing the voy­age.

Most days in­clude at least one ad­di­tional shore ex­cur­sion along with deep- sea snorkelling ex­pe­di­tions, an op­por­tu­nity to ca­vort with sea lions and sea tur­tles, and marvel at the colour­ful trop­i­cal sea life. Ori­gin pas­sen­gers can also use its kayaks and pad­dle boards, Jacuzzi and ex­er­cise room, com­plete with stair climber and el­lip­ti­cal machines. It also boasts the ar­chi­pel­ago’s best crew-to-pas­sen­ger ra­tio, more than 1:2. On our voy­age there were 13 crew for the 20 of us.

Ceci Guer­rero, one of our nat­u­ral­ist guides, was raised in Toronto and grad­u­ated from Ge­orge Brown Col­lege. Af­ter­wards, Guer­rero re­turned to her na­tive Ecuador and got a job on a large Gala­pa­gos cruise boat in pub­lic re­la­tions. Re­al­iz­ing she wanted to lead ex­ped- itions, Guer­rero started the rig­or­ous train­ing re­quired to be­come a na­tional park guide.

Now, more than 1,000 voy­ages later, Guer­rero loves work­ing on the Ori­gin. “Be­cause it’s so fast, we have lots of flex­i­bil­ity when we are on land,” she says. “If we see some­thing spe­cial or peo­ple want to linger to take more pho­tos, we don’t have to rush. The boat can al­ways make up time.”

For Guer­rero, guid­ing is a mis­sion with con­stant stim­u­la­tion. “Ev­ery tour, I see some­thing different,” she says. “Our goal is to have peo­ple view na­ture in a new light, to be­come more con­scious of how an­i­mals live in har­mony com­pared to us hu­mans, who are sup­posed to be su­pe­rior be­ings.”

Ex­pect to pay up to US$ 7,500 (CAD$10,000) for a week on the Ori­gin – and ex­pect to feel that you re­ceived full value for ev­ery dol­lar. “We got our money’s worth and more,” says Len­nie Pisano, a New Jer­sey psy­chol­o­gist. “It was more than I ex­pected on ev­ery level. It was be­yond an ad­ven­ture; it was mag­i­cal.”

Adds Mary King, a New York­based fi­nan­cial ser­vices ex­ec­u­tive: “I would do this again. No prob­lem. It was a life-al­ter­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.”


Clock­wise from top: Hu­mans play sec­ond fid­dle to sea tur­tles, gi­ant tor­toises and blue­footed boo­bies. Above, the sleek Ori­gin’s speed means its pas­sen­gers can visit more is­lands and spend more time on them.

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