We arrived in Quito (the capital of Ecuador) via airplane from Arequipa, Peru. Since we had our accommodation pre-booked in Colombia over Christmas, we were feeling a little pressed for time and, thus, decided to skip the northern part of Peru. Apart from our 30 minute flight from La Paz to the Amazon and then back to La Paz again, this was our first plane ride since arriving in South America; we had travelled from Montevideo, Uruguay to Arequipa, Peru entirely by bus and boat.
The main reason we went to Quito was to try and book a last minute cruise in the Galápagos Islands. We had heard that it was possible to save as much as 50 percent by arranging a last minute cruise from Quito. If we weren’t able to find a good deal on a cruise, we would simply tour other areas of mainland Ecuador. Needless to say (given the title of this post), we were successful in booking an 8 day / 7 night cruise of the Galápagos Islands on a first class 16 person catamaran. We paid $1800 USD per person – way over our weekly budget for this trip, but the Galápagos Islands are not cheap. We found our same cruise by the way advertised online for as much as $4200 USD per person.
We should note that in the two days we spent in Quito, a lot of our time was spent working with a travel agent sorting out the Galápagos Islands trip. From what we did see of Quito, however, we weren’t disappointed to be leaving so quickly. It certainly had some nice areas, but it also had a bit of a sketchy vibe at night. This was our first place in all of South America where we took real precautions in not leaving our hostel with our wallet or phone, only some cash and one credit card dispersed amongst various pockets.
We were able to jump on a flight from Quito to the Galápagos Islands a few days before the start of the cruise. This gave us two full days in Puerto Ayora, the largest city on the Islands, before setting out on the boat (the term “largest city” is relative, Puerto Ayora’s population is a meager 30 thousand). Puerto Ayora was a neat little town. It’s main street, Darwin Avenue, hugged the ocean and was lined with some great restaurants and cafés. It also had a small open air fish market beside the docks where fishermen would lay out their catch for purchase. And right beside this market was a small outdoor kitchen with plastic tables where the workers were cooking up the fresh fish brought in that day. We ate lobster and white fish and drank cold beers – it was a great night. It really didn’t take us long to fall in love with the Galápagos Islands – after walking past a sea lion napping on a bench, we knew this place was special.
One of the days prior to the cruise, Patrick went on a two-tank scuba dive near the northern side of the Santa Cruz Island. As Puerto Ayora is located on the south side of Santa Cruz Island, the boat ride to the two dive sites took about two hours. Both dives were incredible – there were loads of fish, several different types of rays and sharks. Yup, sharks – white tipped, black tipped and hammerhead sharks to be precise. Even though the dive master assured us that the sharks were harmless, Patrick was happy that they kept their distance.
On our last day before the cruise, we walked 45 minutes out of town to a beautiful beach named Tortuga Bay. It had unbelievable white sandy shores on which a marine iguana would saunter past every now and then – this was a unique paradise.
To catch our boat for the cruise, we had to make our way back to the airport to meet up with the rest of our would-be cruise mates. From the airport we were shuttled to a small bay where we jumped onto a dinghy that ferried us to the catamaran. The boat (the Archipell I) was perfect – it had a sun deck with lounge chairs and a bar (that was all we needed!). In all seriousness, the entire boat was beautiful, certainly worthy of its first class rating. Our cabin was also excellent – it had big windows and a private bathroom.
We quickly learned that this wasn’t going to be a leisurely cruise around the islands – each day had an itinerary (written on a whiteboard!), usually consisting of one nature walk and snorkel in the morning and then another walk and snorkel in the afternoon. During our 8 day cruise we visited 10 different islands in the archipelago (Baltra, North Seymour, Genovesa, Bartolome, Santiago, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Espanola, San Christobal and Isla Lobos). No island seemed to be the same, the landscapes and animals were always different. We saw so many unique animals and, amazingly, they’ll let you get so close (note that my camera is not equipped with a super zoom lens). They simply do not recognize humans as predators.
Why are the Galápagos Islands so unique? To add context to this post, here is the coles notes version: formed by volcanic eruptions right on the equator, they are impacted by various wind and ocean currents. When the animals that now inhabit the islands drifted or floated to the Galápagos from the mainland millions of years ago, their new home was so hostile that they had to adapt and, eventually, evolve. Iguanas learned how to swim and birds forgot how to fly. It’s no wonder that the Galápagos helped solidify Darwin’s theory of evolution. This place is truly like no other on the planet.
We have so many wonderful stories from our cruise, but to keep this blog post from turning into a novel, we’ll only share a couple here.
#1: Our last snorkel in the Galápagos was turning out to be the least scenic until the very end when we both spotted a black tip shark in the distance. We could see that the shark also noticed us. It appeared to swim out of view for a moment but then suddenly circled back towards us. We were eye to eye, only a few metres away from each other. Ashley decided she’d had enough and made a bee-line back to the dinghy. Patrick remained frozen in the water, turning around only in time to find Ashley scrambling into the boat. Of course nothing came of it (the shark simply swam away), but our hearts definitely missed a beat in those moments.
#2: During our last navigation, the captain suggested that we make our way to the front of the boat as some dolphins were spotted ahead. Hanging over the bow we were soon navigating with a huge pod of dolphins (the crew estimated there may have been one thousand of them). The dolphins seemed to love swimming right beside the boat, they were so close that we could hear them squeaking over the sound of the boat’s engine. It was a magical experience that lasted almost 30 minutes. And to share a portion of it with you, we’ve posted short video. Keep an eye on the top right of the screen near the end of the video.
In sum, we had an incredible week abroad the Archipell (maybe the best week of our lives?). The food, the crew, and our guide were all spectacular. Our memories will certainly last a lifetime. And, lastly, there was only one rough navigation where Patrick had to skip dinner and lay down to avoid seasickness!
On the last day of the cruise, we were back on a plane to Quito where we would turn around the next day and head to Colombia.
Here’s a bonus video of two albatrosses courting each other.