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
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.