Christmas Sailing the Galapagos Islands

Remember OARS, the rafting company I love so much?  I pore over their annual glossy catalog every year!  After a few U.S. river trips with them, I decided to check out their international offerings.  I chose the Galapagos Adventure Sailing Multi-Sport trip in the Galapagos Islands, and I somehow talked my mom into going with me, despite the fact that she doesn’t kayak, swim or snorkel.

Thus began a year of anticipation and preparation.  We started with our flights, which we booked using American miles for the departure and United miles for the return.  This trip required evacuation insurance, so we purchased the policy offered with our flight, from Allianz.  Fortunately, we didn’t need it, but it wasn’t expensive for the small policy we purchased.  Better safe than sorry, since we don’t have Jeff Bezos’ money! (he was airlifted out of the Galapagos with kidney stones recently)

We had one free day in Ecuador and then it was off to the Islands!  It’s a 45 minute flight from Quito to Guayaquil, where we stayed on the plane for about an hour layover, then another 2 hours to Baltra in the Galapagos Islands.  As soon as we landed, we were met by our nature guide, Carlos, and transferred to the dinghy which took us to our boat, the Nemo III.

Nemo III waiting for us near the airport (another Nemo inthe background)

Thus began 8 days of luxurious sailing the Southern route of the Galapagos Islands.

Flock of birds feeding

Most days were structured the same, so we had a nice routine.  At dinner each night, Carlos gave us the run-down of the following day’s activities. We pestered him with questions like what kind of shoes to wear and how much water to bring, but he was very patient with all of us!

Galapagos Islands Nature Guide

Each day began at 7am with fresh juice and a breakfast buffet, usually including eggs, meat and cheese, granola and yogurt.  At 8:00 we’d jump in the dinghy for our first hike of the day.  We would then return to the boat, usually to some waiting snacks and juice, then change into our wetsuits for a snorkel outing.  Lunch is served at noon, starting with soup.  Lunch was more like dinner portions – pasta or meat, always with fresh fruit for dessert.  Afternoons included another snorkel and another hike, another snack, followed by some downtime before a 7:00 dinner.  Needless to say, we were well-fed on Nemo III!

Galapagos Islands Cruise

The Galapagos Islands are best known for wildlife. It’s funny that the passport stamp and the guide logo are a Giant Tortoise and a Hammerhead Shark – both of which were less common than you would think.  I guess those look better than a lizard and a sea lion as the official mascot!  However, the overall diversity of wildlife was really impressive. I think the only thing we didn’t see was a hammerhead shark!  It wasn’t enough just seeing a bunch of species, but the interaction between them, the diversity you might see all in one photo opp, as well as some pretty special experiences.

Early in the trip, we saw a sea lion with a bloody tail and thought it had been in a fight.  As it turns out, she had just given birth!  Nearby was a squawking little pup, crying for mama.

Galapagos Sea Lion Pup

This sea turtle looked dead on the beach, totally motionless – we could see she had laid her eggs overnight, but just couldn’t go any farther.  We all gathered around to see if she was alive.  I don’t know if it was our annoying presence, but slowly and surely, she got herself turned around and began a very slow crawl back to the ocean, to the cheers of ours and another group.

Galapagos Sea Turtle

Of course, there are the famous Galapagos Tortoises, which we saw only on Santa Cruz – first at a farm/sanctuary and then at the Darwin Research Center.

The most colorful inhabitants were the Sally Lightfoot Crabs.  The bright color on these guys is a defense from birds – bright colors usually means POISON!

Sally Lightfoot Crab

And then there’s the birds….so many birds.  Oddly enough, the famous Darwin finches are mostly all black and the diversity there is more in diet and habitat, not appearance.

Magnificent Frigatebirds (their name, not my adjective)

Magnificent Frigatebird

Blue Footed Booby – their feet are so blue, it’s actually reflected on their feathers!

Galapagos Booby

Nazca Boobies (with babies on the way!)

Galapagos Island Booby

Albatross

Galapagos Island Albatros

The last full day we finally got to see penguins, which I was most looking forward to.  Aren’t they cute?!

Penguins

And last but not least, our cold-blooded reptile friends.  So many iguanas (land iguanas and marine iguanas), lava lizards, chameleons, etc.  There were places where you really had to watch your step because they were just everywhere! Way worse than Chicago rats, which will scurry when you get close!

Iguana

Other than the first and last day at the airport, we only visited 1 town, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz.  That meant no wireless or cell for pretty much the whole week!  This was A-OK with me!

All in all, this was absolutely the trip of a lifetime!  At about $6,000 all in, it was the most expensive vacation I’ve taken so far, but definitely worth every penny.  Aside from the trip cost, flights and tips, there really wasn’t much to spend money on – I bought 1 T-shirt and a tote bag at the airport.  Definitely not a shopping kind of trip.  Also OK with me 🙂

Given the isolated location, I can’t say I’ll ever go back to the Galapagos Islands, but I can’t recommend this trip highly enough!

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For more pictures, click here!

 

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Ecuador – beyond the Galapagos Islands!

I never gave much thought to Ecuador – even as I booked a flight there, it was just the gateway to the Galapagos as far as I was concerned.  Upon arrival, though, I was really blown away by the people and the landscape. As one of our guides mentioned, Ecuador just doesn’t market itself* like Belize or Costa Rica but has just as much to offer, especially in terms of wildlife!  Ecuador has 85 volcanoes, 50 of them still active, which makes for great scenery! (*After a SuperBowl 2015 ad, I’d say they are starting to advertise, though!)

Our trip began with a 3 hour flight to Miami, followed by a 4 hour flight to Quito, Ecuador.  Our OARS representative met us at the airport and transferred us to, Casa de Hacienda/”La Jimenita” where we went straight to bed after checking in.  I was expecting a generic airport hotel, but this is a quaint family Bed and Breakfast, which was a nice surprise!  Everything here (lodging and meals) was included in our Galapagos trip price, so I can’t speak to the prices, but I’m sure they are reasonable.  Our room (#3) was the perfect combination of authentic and comfortable.

Hacienda Quito Ecuador

This is the road to the hacienda.  If you are taken at night, you might think you are being kidnapped.  Not to worry, with the new airport nearby, they are updating the infrastructure every day.  Eventually, this road will be paved, much to the chagrin of the hacienda owner, who likes things the old way.  They were working on it during the day, which meant the shuttle bus could not get through and we had to walk a mile or so!  Fortunately, all flights were at ungodly hours, meaning the road was open and we didn’t have to walk 🙂

Road in Quito Ecuador

(Image Credit:  Beryl Wilson)

After breakfast at the hacienda, we were transported to 10,800′ in the Andes mountains to the hot springs pools at Papallacta.  Two guides joined us for this excursion and first took us on a hike up into the hills behind the thermal pools.  After the hike, we hopped into the pools for some thermal relaxation. (There is also a spa on-site, but we opted to lounge in the sun instead.)

Papallacta Hot Springs Ecuador

After lunch at the hot springs, we took the bus back to our hacienda for more relaxation before dinner. We had an early morning wake up call the next day for our flight to the Galapagos.

I believe most Galapagos trips leave and return on Sundays, so we returned to the Quito airport on the following Sunday.  Our guide, Kathy, had arranged an (optional) city tour so we could spend some time in the actual town of Quito Ecuador. (The airport and hacienda are about an hour outside of town.)  We were taken by bus and dropped off in the Old Town area.  It was bustling with vendors, protesters and lots of families just milling around.  My favorite spot was the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, which was covered in gold inside!  It was breathtaking!  Unfortunately, no photos were allowed, but we visited other beautiful churches as well, like the San Francisco Church.

Church in Quito Ecuador

As with many cities, Quito sparkles after dark – I love photographing cities at night – all the dirt and grime fades away and you are just left with beauty!

Quito Ecuador

Basilica del Voto Nacional (Church of the National Vow)

I’m not sure if I’ll ever get back to Ecuador again, but I’d like to think that I will, someday!  Our guide mentioned a 5 day backpacking trip called the Route of the Condor, which definitely piqued my interest, so maybe I’ll make it back after all….

Click here to read about the Galapagos portion of our trip!

For more pictures, click here!


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