I know Galapagos is one of those places on many people's bucket list. It was definitely on mine so when I got the opportunity to take advantage of a special offer I couldn't pass it up. It was going to be Hurtigruten's First time offering a cruise in the Galapagos and they were inviting some agents to join them. I had just 2 weeks to get prepared for this trip of a lifetime. Sometimes it can be better that way but I usually prefer a little more time to enjoy the anticipation. Anyway what I quickly learned is that getting to Ecuador really isn't as bad as I thought. I guess in my head I always thought of the Galapagos as been this exotic far flung place to visit. In reality it was just a 3 and half hour flight from Miami! OK sure I had to drive about 3 hours to get to Miami but to me that was worth it to get a non-stop flight (especially in winter). Two other unexpected things I realized were Ecuador is in the same time zone as FL and they use US Dollars as their currency. To me that was a double bonus - no jet lag and no having to exchange money.
Day 1 Arrive in Ecuador and explore around Quito
Everyone going to Galapagos does have to stop in Ecuador first. Our cruise package started with a visit to Quito. It was nice to have a pre-cruise tour around Ecuador included in the package. The first morning we had to be up early to meet the group and take a bus up to Cotopaxi National Park which was a chance for us to get to see some of the Volcanos that make up this area of the world. Cotopaxi means "neck of the moon" which I think is a pretty cool name for it's half moon shaped peak. After our visit to the national park we went to San Agustin De Callo for lunch. It a little known colonial Hacienda that was built on the site of an Inca palace, which is one of the 2 most important archeological sites in Ecuador. They had set up with a tent and tables in the courtyard for our wonderful lunch. After lunch we were surprised by a group of lamas that came to visit for a snack. It was a lovely afternoon and we then headed back to the hotel.
Day 2 - Fly to the Galapagos - Baltra Island and Mosquera Islet
This morning we were up early to head back to the Quito airport to catch our flight over to the Galapagos. It was about a 3 hour flight over to the islands from Quito (mainly because we had to make a stop in Guayaquil). We stayed on the plane but many other guests got off. Even thought it was only about a 35 minute flight from Quito for people to drive between the 2 cities it would be many hours due to the mountains. As we were making our decent into Galapagos I was very surprised by how brown and dry the islands looked. I know they were formed by volcanos but I figured Hawaii was as well so I guess I was kind of expecting more lush and green. It was just the beginning of wet season and I guess they hadn't had any rain yet. I am quickly realizing what makes the Galapagos so unique other than the animals. The weather here is influenced by the ocean currents vs the air flow so that really makes it hard to predict what it will be like. Being on the equator does mean temperatures are generally close to the same all year. Another big surprise that I had learned in my research before leaving home is that the water temperature here is always around 74 degrees (which if you ask me is too cold for normal swimming). Having learned from our Sea of Cortes trip we bought wetsuits this time so we were ready for the cold water.
The Galapagos are very strict about what things can and cannot come onto the islands so luggage is inspected and locked with a zip before your flight over to the island. Once your bags are taken off the plane they first have to be inspected by a K9 team and if he sniffs out anything that might not be good your bag is pulled from the belt. It is good to pay attention so that when you are allowed to go collect your bags you will understand why yours might be missing. After the dog is done someone else goes along and cuts off all the zip ties and you can go get your bags. We were met representatives with Hurtigruten signs at the airport and they directed us to the bus that would take us over to the dock. They did tell us the day before that the boat will be anchored out and we would all be taken over via zodiacs. That was good to know so that you can make sure to not only pack but dress appropriately for the journey. Our checked bags were taken over for us but we would need to take our carry on bag onto the zodiac. There was another ship that was taken it's guests over to their boat ahead of us and I saw a lady wearing heels and I thought she must not have used a travel agent that would have told her that was not the type of shoes for this trip.
Once on the boat we were able to stop by our room and then head to lunch. After lunch we had a talk that went over what to expect during the cruise. When going on safari in Africa there are the Big 5 that are the must see animals when you are there - Galapagos has the Big 15! They let us know first up would be a beach walk in about an hour which was a great way to kick off the cruise. We were split into groups and along with a guide hopped into a zodiac and over to the beach. One very important rule of the Galapagos is that you are never allowed on land without a National Park Guide. Right away we were greeted by a bunch of sea lions so we could cross off the first in our search for the Big 15 already. It was great getting to pretty much share the beach with them and take some photos. Animals are not afraid of humans in the Galapagos so the seal lions could have cared less that we were walking around and taking photos. The rule is that people need to stay 6 feet from the wildlife but there is no rule for how close the wildlife can get to humans if they choose to. We also saw some of the marine iguanas sun bathing so we are up to 2 of the 15. They are the only iguanas that have adapted to be able to swim and dive for food. They can stay under water for up to 30 minutes. After exploring the beach a bit we headed back to the boat where our next thing was the safety drill. Just like any cruise you need to know where you muster station is and how to don your life vest. We did all that and then we were told what to expect the next day.
Day 3 - San Cristobal Island / Punta Pitt
Another early morning and we had the option to hike or ride the zodiacs both options were basically so you could see some of the birds on the Big 15. Our expedition guide said the hike would be what he calls difficult and since it started at 6:15 am I opted for the easier zodiac ride. We got to see lots of birds and were able to cross of 4 more things of the Big 15 - all 3 types of Boobies - Blue Foot, Red Foot, and Nazca. We were told today's island was the best for spotting the Red Foot Booby since they are a bit more particular about where they nest and this area provided what they like most. The Red Foot Booby are also the smallest of the 3. We also saw a Frigatebird to round out the 4 birds from the list. The Frgatebirds are big and look sort of prehistoric. We got to see an owl having it's breakfast which our guide said is very rate to see in this area. He did also explain that owls here have a lot of competition from the Galapagos Hawk so they have switched from being nocturnal to diurnal and that was why we were seeing an owl hunting during the day. We got to see some Galapagos fur seals so up to 8 out of 15 animals and it is only day 2!
After our early morning activity we grabbed breakfast (yes this morning had an activity before breakfast so it was a 6:00 am off the ship kind of day- can you see why I didn't choose a hike?). After breakfast it was out again for another activity. This time we opted for snorkeling over kayaking since the weather was so nice and you just never know what the other days will be like. I didn't want to waste an opportunity since snorkeling was at the top of my to do list on this adventure. We were so glad we had brought our own wetsuits since the boat only offered shorties (short sleeves and shorts) which would not keep me warm enough. We also bought a newer version of the snorkel mask which gives you much better vision and easier to breathe ( I will do a what to pack for the Galapagos blog next). I was so glad I had read about these masks when researching what to bring to Galapagos since they were amazing. We ended up snorkeling for over an hour and half and were the last 2 people in the water - I know that our wetsuits and masks are what made the difference. We got to see so many cool fish and of course the playful sea lions came out have fun with us too. After that believe it or not it wasn't even lunch time yet so we had a jam packed morning. While eating lunch the ship was moving to the other side of San Cristobal Island so we could go to the breeding center for the highly endangered giant tortoises. That meant we were up to 9 of the 15 after seeing the tortoises. This was not the only day we would see the giant tortoises but these were in captivity so you were pretty guaranteed to see them here. It also helped that it was feeding day so there were out close to the trails.
Day 4 - Santa Fe Island and South Plaza Island
After breakfast we all hopped into zodiacs to head over to a white sandy beach with lots of sea lions. The most interesting sighting of the day was a sea lion that had just finishing giving birth - it was really amazing! Watching the baby make it's way down to the water just after being born was just a WOW moment. Bonus was there was a Galapagos Hawk waiting to snack on the afterbirth so that means we are up to 10 of 15. We walked around the island and got to see many other things including the endemic Santa Fe Land Iguana which is another of the big 15 so we were up to 11 of 15. We saw one that was in the middle of eating his breakfast which was a piece of the prickly pear cactus. It was hard to believe they could eat it spines and all! They basically just hang out under the cactus waiting for food to fall. We went back to the boat to make a change into snorkel gear and went back to the same area where we just walked. The Galapagos National Park has a lot of rules and one is that the number of guests walking on certain islands is limited to a certain amount of people at the same time. We had our turn to be on that beach earlier so this snorkel was done from the zodiac and we floated around the lagoon and then climbed back onto the zodiac to get back to the boat for lunch. There are also rules about how many boats can be in an area too and we could see the next boat coming in to take our spot as we were headed back. After lunch and a siesta it was back in the zodiacs to explore another small island. This one was covered in a scarlet succulent which made for some colorful photos. We also saw more sea lions and this area was a sort of day care for the sea lion pups while the moms would go out to hunt. On the other side of the island there was a large cliffside where many different species of birds were nesting. We also spotted another version of Land Iguana which is also part of the big 15 so we are up to 12 of 15 now.
Day 5 - Puerto Ayora
Today was pretty much an all day off the boat day. We took zodiacs into port where we boarded buses to go to the Charles Darwin research center. There were different species of Giant Tortoises from all different islands in Galapagos together at the research center. We learned about all the efforts going into protecting these guys. After that we hopped back on the bus to head to our next tortoise destination. Along the way there was an option to take a brisk bike ride or stay on the bus to make a pit stop at a local farmer that showed us how they use some of the island's resources like coffee, chocolate, and sugar cane. Coffee is the #2 economic source for the islands - Tourism being #1. After that we made our way to our lunch stop which was at a ranch where the tortoises also like to flock to that area to mate during this time of year. After lunch we were able to roam around the land of the ranch and walk amongst the Giant Tortoises. This was very different from when we had seen them in captivity. They gave us boots to put on since we would be walking through a bit of mud and tortoise poop. All of these tortoises made their way to this ranch on their own because it just happens to be the perfect spot to find a mate. After they successfully mate the females will make their way back down to the beach to lay the eggs. We did see and hear a few couples taking care of business. It doesn't look like an easy task and the males might have had a little stage fright after seeing a few people come to watch. Of course these guys on land seem to have it a bit easier than the sea turtles we saw mating the other day.
Day 6 - Espanola Island
Today was going to be another jammed packed day. The morning started with what our guide called a long walk but one that was definitely worth it. We were in Punta Suarez on Espanola Island. The path had lots of boulders so it wasn't an easy walk so having the right footwear was important (I will include more on that in my what to pack for Galapagos blog). First we saw a whole lot of Marine Iguanas - like piles of them. These guys are nicknamed the Christmas Iguanas because they can be all kinds of shades of red and green due to the type of algae they are eating. As we walked on we passed another sea lion day care area which I never get tired of seeing those little guys. Then the trek took us over to the birding area. Our first encounter was with a pair of courting Nazca Boobies. We got to see the male present the female with some nesting materials to try and win her over. It was very cute. As we walked on we saw some Nazca Boobies that had already nested and were either sitting on eggs (one or two only) and some that already had chicks. We learned that if the female lays 2 eggs only one chick will survive even if that means the parent choosing which one they want to keep and which they do not. They will not keep 2 chicks because it is just too taxing on them. If they all kept 2 chicks the species would die out. Our next mission was to see if any of the Waved Albatross were still hanging around. They come to this island to nest generally between April - December but our guide said there might still be some stragglers. We were in luck and found a few adults and some juveniles. Our guide said if you visit in March the whole island is pretty much covered with Waved Albatross. He explained after the chicks are ready to fly they will leave Galapagos and head south where they will just float around for 5 years before they are ready to return to the Galapagos to nest.
After our walk it was back to the boat for lunch while we were eating lunch the boat had moved over to Gardner Bay on the other side of Espanola. You could see the amazing beach right in front of the boat! We opted for a quick kayak before heading over for the beach time. It was a bit windy but still fun to get to kayak a bit. It was interesting transferring from the zodiac over to a kayak out in the water but it was easier than I had expected. On the beach you could either hang out and do some walking and swimming from the beach or you could do deep water snorkeling. Since we brought all our snorkel stuff on this trip we were not going to pass up any chance to snorkel. We hopped back on a zodiac from the beach and they took us about a 1/4 mile off the beach to snorkel around a big rock formation. We saw lots of fish, rays, and a skate. After hiking, kayaking, and snorkeling I was wiped out I couldn't wait to eat dinner and get to bed! That is very typical for an expedition cruise.
Day 7 - Santa Cruz Island - Eden Islet and North Seymour Island
This was our last full day in Galapagos and it was another jammed packed day. We had seen so much already but there is always more to see here. After breakfast we hopped on zodiacs to explore Eden Islet. We got to see our #13 (and our zodiac was the only one that saw it) since it was a Flamingo that just happened to fly over us while we were looking for other things. No one really expected our cruise to see 13 of the 15 so we were very lucky. The 2 we knew we wouldn't see were the Galapagos Penguins (yes there are wild penguins living on the equator) and the Flightless Cormorant. We knew we wouldn't see those because they live on islands that our itinerary didn't include. There are 13 major islands and a handful of smaller islands that make up Galapagos so it would be hard to do them all in one cruise. I guess we will just have to go back again. There was actually a volcanic eruption on one of the Western islands while we were there. We were not close enough to see it but it was a good reminder that all of these islands were formed by volcanoes.
Today actually offered 2 snorkeling opportunities and our guide had told us the last one is the best. There is also a glass bottom boat that guests can opt to do if they want to see what snorkelers see without getting wet. We chose to snorkel both times today since it really has been so amazing each time. So we snorkeled in one spot went back to the ship had lunch and that it was back out to snorkel again. Our guide was right the last snorkel was the best! At first I was a little worried when the ship's photographer said this was the spot for sharks but I figured if he thought it was safe it must be. We got to see so much in this area and yes even a few small sharks. At first I had a freak out moment but then I just watched them go by and realized they really didn't care about us. That wasn't the end of our day though we got back on the boat and quickly changed into dry clothes for one last hike. It was another one that went over a lot of large rocks but we got to see so many nesting birds it was great! They nest right on the path and do not care at all that you are walking by just a few feet from them and taking photos. We got to see the Blue Footed Booby dance a few times and it really does seem like something out of a cartoon. It was fun to watch these blue footed males try to win over a lady. Apparently the bluer the foot the more attractive he is to the ladies. Sadly that was our last exploration for this expedition and it was back to the boat. We did top off the night with a slide show of photos from the ship's photographer. We will get an email link to those in a couple weeks so I will share some of those.
Our last morning it was back in the zodiacs to get back to the airport. There was some nice shopping at the airport which was good since we really didn't see much of civilization all week. The flight would make the same pit-stop along the way back to Quito but this time if any guest wanted to they could fly home from Guayaquil. We chose to go back to Quito to fly home. The cruise line does include admission to the VIP airport lounge which is a nice way to spend a little time if you have awhile before your flight home. This trip of course required a covid test to get back into the US and it was nice that company escorted us all over to the testing site at the airport and made sure we were all set. Thankfully we were good to head home. Hurtigruten did such an amazing job with this expedition and part of that is thanks to their partnership with Metropolitan Touring who is celebrating 65 years in Ecuador! Starting in 2023 Hurtigurten will offer even more options in Galapagos including 4 night sailings which would be great for combining with other South American locations.
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