Story and photos by Jeff and Stephanie Sylva
It was the fifth day of our Ecoventura cruise of the Galapagos; and while we had encountered a wonderful array of wildlife, sea life, and amazing landscapes, it was on this day that we experienced our ultimate goal for our trip. During a morning panga (small inflatable raft) ride, we came upon a pair of Galapagos penguins perched on a rock. Of all the wildlife we had wanted to see, the Galapagos penguin was the most anticipated. But it was during our afternoon snorkel trip that we were able to check off one of our “bucket list” experiences – swimming with penguins!
An intimate travel experience
A visit to the Galapagos with Ecoventura is for those who are seeking a small-group, intimate nature travel experience. All visits to the islands are strictly controlled by the Ecuadorian National Park Service, which limits the number of yearly visitors, the sizes of expedition vessels, and the specific itineraries for all expeditions. Great care is taken by the park service to control the number of visitors to any specific island on any given day, so as to help preserve and protect the flora and fauna.
While the park service requires all visitors to be accompanied by a certified naturalist with a guide-to-guest ratio of no more than 1 to 16, Ecoventura Expeditions stick to a strict 1 to 10 ratio of guests to naturalists. Our group of 18 passengers had two excellent naturalist guides, who provided a wealth of information and assistance throughout our cruise.
Orlando was a “seasoned” naturalist and a font of details and facts about the islands and its natural inhabitants. The younger Ivan was a certified dive instructor as well as a naturalist, and was a valuable asset for all of our snorkeling excursions. In addition, Ivan was a source of amusement and entertainment, as he constantly encouraged us to get the most out of our stay in “par-a-dize” or expertly serenaded us with some of his original music highlighting the beauty and enchantment of the Galapagos.
Excellent dining and all the gear
Ecoventura has a fleet of three identical expedition yachts, the M/Y Eric, Flamingo I, and Letty. These 83-foot yachts have 10 cabins on three decks with polished teak and brass accents. Each cabin, albeit small in comparison to the giant ocean liners, is quite comfortable with private bathrooms, either a double bed or two single beds, and individual climate control with air conditioning. The Ecoventura ships are one of the few expedition vessels that can accommodate triples.
The ship’s main deck includes a cozy lounge/library area with flat screen TV’s, fully stocked bar, and comfortable dining room. Large picture windows on this deck and the in the four cabins on the deck above provide panoramic views. The top deck of the ship is a spacious sundeck (gratefully with enough shade to escape the midday sun), which provided a perfect spot to enjoy the daily siesta following lunch (a national requirement) or a relaxing refuge to enjoy a cocktail following a full day of snorkeling and exploring – or a perfect perch for a daring jump into the Pacific.
Dining aboard our ship, the Letty, was a delight. Our two young chefs concocted a wonderful array of meals with two options for the evening dinner. Fish was almost always an option and was always exquisitely prepared. Other options reflecting Ecuadorian and international cuisine included beef, pork, and chicken. Our vegan and vegetarian diners were all extremely pleased with the chef’s specially prepared items.
All Ecoventura cruises include three meals a day, snacks and non-alcoholic beverages (every return to the ship found an interesting snack and beverage waiting for us), house wine and local beer served during dinner, and all snorkeling equipment, wet suits, kayaks, and beach towels. It seemed that all we had to bring was a taste for adventure.
Snorkeling in the Galapagos was a great experience. In addition to an extensive variety of colorful fish, we saw graceful stingrays swimming beneath us, curious sea lions cruising past us, giant sea turtles, and even a shiver of white-tipped reef sharks that were more curious about our presence than aggressive. But it was the joyful experience of swimming with the only type of penguins found on the equator that proved to be the culmination of our trip to the Galapagos.
Because the Galapagos became part of Ecuador’s national park system in 1959, this fragile ecosystem with its rare and endemic species has been protected and preserved resulting in a magnificent collection of wildlife that is unconcerned about the presence of people. We constantly had to be careful where we stepped on many of our hikes and beach walks, as sea lions, blue-footed boobies, land and marine iguanas, and even the famous giant Galapagos Tortoises, often shared the paths and beaches with us.
The Enchanted Isles
The Galapagos Islands are a volcanic archipelago that straddles the equator 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. In 1535, after sailing off course while en route to Peru, the Bishop of Panama discovered the islands and named them after the Spanish galapago, meaning tortoise. In 1841 Herman Melville visited the islands and was inspired to call them “Las Islas Encantadas,” the Enchanted Isles.
The islands’ most famous visitor, Charles Darwin, was fascinated by the many rare and endemic species of wildlife that he encountered during his stay on the islands; and it was his study of the islands’ different species of birds, particularly the finches, that help him formulate his theory of evolution as published in his The Origin of Species.
Beautiful beaches – and no tiki huts
Visitors to the Galapagos shouldn’t expect to spend their days lounging by the pool sipping pina coladas or sitting under a palapa on the beach. Although you will find some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, such as the brilliantly white sand beaches of Cerro Brujo on San Cristobal and Gardner Bay on Espanola, and the golden sand beach at Bartolome, you won’t find any luxury beach resorts – just the resident sea lions, giant sea turtles, or marine iguanas in their natural habitat.
Each day in the Galapagos was a day full of close encounters with indigenous animals found nowhere else on the planet and explorations of striking volcanic landscapes.
We were treated to close observations of the islands’ famous blue-footed boobies engaged in their humorous courtship dance and crowds of frigate birds whose male species’ means of attraction for females is to inflate their bright red pouches to incredible sizes.
On each island excursion we were greeted by a cast of wildlife seemingly fearless to human presence. Sea lions with their adorable pups basked in the sun next to us on the beach or cavorted in the surf as we swam off the beach. Nazca and red-footed boobies caring for their young, a variety of curious mockingbirds, Galapagos hawks that remained steadfast even with humans merely feet away, and a host of other birds make the Galapagos a bird watcher’s paradise.
Many of the land creatures seemed to be in competition with the colorful tropical fish we saw snorkeling. Bright orange and red Sally light-foot crabs, the unique species of red and green “Christmas” marine iguanas, and the gold and yellow hued land iguanas presented an unusual palette of creatures.
Family-owned with family cruises
Ecoventura is a family-owned company based in Guayaquil, Ecuador, with sales offices in Quito and Miami. Departures are every Sunday from San Cristobal Island offering two distinct 7-night itineraries. Ecoventura also offers designated departures exclusive for families featuring age-appropriate activities geared toward children and teenagers ages 7-17.
Travel to the Galapagos Islands requires a flight to Ecuador, either Guayaquil or Quito, and then a flight to San Cristobal. For many travelers this will require one night in Ecuador before and one night after the cruise dates. Many travelers opt for a pre- or post-trip in Ecuador or Peru, and Ecoventura can help you with your plans.
Ecoventura deals exclusively with the Hotel Oro Verde for arrangements in Guayaquil. The Oro Verde is an excellent, five-star hotel in the downtown area. The hotel, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, is certified a Smart Voyager property by the Rainforest Alliance and is only eight miles from the airport.
Complimentary amenities include welcome cocktail, airport shuttle, parking garage, and wireless internet service. The hotel also has a fitness center, spa, pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, and a complete lineup of dining choices from the haute cuisine of Le Gourmet to the more relaxed La Fondue and El Patio.
For many people an eco-tour of the “living laboratory” that is the Galapagos Islands is a once-in-a-lifetime, “bucket list” travel experience. Based upon our experiences aboard Ecoventura’s Letty, we can happily check this destination off our list.
If You Go:
– Most cruising is done at night and the ship can be a bit rocky. Bring sea-sickness medication if you tend to get motion sickness.
– Packing sturdy hiking shoes is a good idea, as some of the hikes, although never really that long or overly strenuous, took us over some rugged landscape. Other excursions included more leisurely beach walks where a good water shoe was perfect.
– The Galapagos are on the equator, so plenty of sun block and a good hat are essential. The climate from January to June is generally sunny and warm, temperatures (sea and air) average 77 degrees, and there are sporadic periods of rain. July to December is the garua or cold/dry season with average temperatures of 72 degrees with prevailing winds from the southeast producing generally choppy seas.
-We were pleased to see that Ecoventura has made serious commitments to practicing responsible tourism. The company was the first to earn and maintain the voluntary ecological certification SmartVoyager, in association with the Rainforest Alliance, since 2000. Ecoventura is also a recipient of Travel and Leisure’s Global Vision Award for Green Cruising as well as Conde Nast’s World Savers Award. Kudos to Ecoventura for its commitment to conservation and the protection of this natural wonder.
– Contact the Hotel Oro Verde at www.oroverdeguayaquil.com
– Galapagos National Park Service: www.galapagospark.org
– Galapagos Conservancy: www.galapagos.org