The Captain’s Seat

The view from the bridge of the Santa Cruz II
At the beginning of our cruise, the guide who introduced everything mentioned that they had an “open bridge policy”. Having never been on a cruise, I had no idea what he was talking about and was grateful for the sentence that followed. “That means that you’re welcome to visit the bridge whenever you like, as long as we are not executing a maneuver at that time,” he explained. My following thought was, “This. Is. AWESOME. I’m gonna get to see how they DRIVE a ship!” *(I suppose the correct word is steer, or operate, but I’m pretty sure my brain went with “drive” in that thought.)
But in the following days I was so occupied (and exhausted) by the amazing cruise itinerary that I just couldn’t find the time to go. When I woke up early in the mornings I would pad up to the ship’s library, which had hundreds of books and stunning views of the misty ocean mornings. In the evenings after dinner, I would be so tired that all I could manage was brushing my teeth and making it to the bed. And in between excursions, it was wonderful to talk with other guests, people from all over, from New Zealand to New York. But this might be the only cruise I ever take, so on the final night I resolved to wake up reaaaally early to visit the bridge.
Waking up early has its benefits, like sunrise
The next morning my phone alarm went off at 5:30 am, and I rolled/tumbled/dragged myself out of bed. After grabbing a cup of tea from the library (yes, this is also where the complementary tea and coffee/latte/hot chocolate machine was stashed, also explaining its popularity), Stoytcho and I climbed the stairs to the bridge door. At first we weren’t sure whether or not to knock, but Stoytcho leaned on the door and it swung inward, so we let ourselves in; the first mate welcomes us on the other side.
A mouse-shaped compass on the bridge
The bridge was totally different from the rest of the ship, in every way. While all of the guest areas were immaculately clean and white, the bridge floor and walls were almost entirely black. The control panel spanned the whole front of the room, sitting before wide glass panels that overlooked the ship’s bow. And unlike the guest part of the ship, the bridge looked actually lived in. Coffee cups were scattered across the flat surfaces and hand-written notes and reminders for were taped on the vertical ones. There was a desk with a giant printer, decorated with a few baubles and chains of tinsel, a reminder that Christmas happened only a week ago. Some of the crew spent it here, instead of with their families.
Dials on the bridge that control the speed of the ship backward or forward
Switches on the ship’s bridge
We spent a few minutes looking around on our own but we were constantly drawn to the vast control panel, with all of its screens and switches. There seemed to be so many for just one ship. Using our broken Spanish, we asked what the more interesting looking ones did. The first mate humored us, explaining that this screen showed our location based on GPS, these switches controlled the power to different parts of the ship, and there were three ways you could steer the ship. Yes, three, including a wooden maritime wheel, a more modern-looking black wheel, and a joystick-type thing on the dashboard. We asked which one served as the main steering method and got an amused look. “It’s based on personal preference and the situation,” the first mate said. “Oh, so they’re basically the same?” Stoytcho replied. “Yes,” replied the first mate, “like a lot of these switches. There are two of every button on the bridge, in case one of them breaks. There are also two different GPS navigation systems.” That explained the overabundance of switches, buttons, and screens on the bridge; they were redundancies needed for us to get home in the event something failed.
The three steering mechanisms for the ship: the two wheels and the joystick between them
The sun was beginning to peek over the horizon when we finished our tour. By this time the captain had come in, coffee in hand, and joined the first mate in answering our questions. We learned that it takes a LONG time to become a captain, and captains-in-training can serve on ships for decades before they’re promoted to captain and get their own ship; it took our captain a decade. The captain told us he’s also served on shipping freighters, where the cargo complains less but schedules are tighter–goods often have deliver-by dates. We were starting to get hungry, so we thanked the first mate and captain for their time and started for the door when the captain stopped us. “Don’t you want a picture in the captain’s seat?” he asked. I thought “What? I can DO THAT?” and I replied “Uh, sure!” I walked up to the captain’s seat, a shiny black leather chair suspended by a pole, and hopped on. It was insanely comfortable, and I leaned back and tried to look comfortable too.
So if you’re ever on a cruise, ask the crew about the bridge policy. It’s an amazing chance to see how the ship you’re on actually works and it’s a chance to get to know the crew who help make your cruise experience possible. They’re people too, and they’ll appreciate it.
Dawn over the Seymour Islands

Boarding our Galapagos Cruise

Boarding the Santa Cruz II for the first time

This is a fun experiment to run: spend two months living on as little as possible. Share meals with another person to cut costs, stay only in cheap hostels, and agonize over every purchase you make. Then, book a week at the nicest hotel you can find. Make sure it’s an all-inclusive – meals from a world class chef, guided tours and activities every day, and nightly entertainment. Oh, and if at all possible, the views should be spectacular from the comfy chairs in the cozy library.

This is our room, complete with a closet, desk, life jackets, and a panoramic window

We ran this experiment, and here’s what we found. First, there are things that you’ve gotten so used to not having that you assume they aren’t even an option. In our case this was things like hot running water on demand and a private shower and bathroom. When we first saw a map of the ship, we saw bathrooms on each floor and assumed these were the ones we would share with our shipmates. That’s done on a luxury-class ship, right? How else would they fit everything on except by consolidating things like bathrooms? When we got to our room on the ship, we found this:

Oh, ok. Also, unlimited hot water and real water pressure

Then come the little details that pamper you, the unnecessary niceties that you’ve long since forgotten. Five types of hot teas, cookies, and an automatic latte machine, available all the time. Snacks and plush seats in the library, with windows that allow you to gaze over the edge of your book onto the horizon. So much variety for breakfast that when you returned for thirds or fourth helpings, you were still trying new dishes. Even going back for thirds or fourths. Getting to pick what you want for dinner. And last and most, twice-daily tours and events that required no preplanning and effort on your part, designed to be both educational and engaging. 

We realize we paid a lot of money to be here, but had forgotten how much money buys

Last come the things that make you laugh and wonder what the hell is going on and how is this a thing that even happens. For us this was embodied in the fresh juice that was perfectly-chilled and waiting in tiny glasses every time we returned from a tour. This was the chocolate truffles left on our pillows every night, stamped in the shapes of Galapagos animals. This was coming back from both our morning and afternoon tour (with a nap in between) to find that someone has made your bed and turned down the sheets in your room thrice that day. While things like this sink in over time, the surrealness of it never entirely dissipates. In what world does someone get used to this?

Stay tuned to see if we manage it.

A dessert after dinner from the onboard Cordon Bleu-trained chef. We have entered a world strange to us.

Booking a Last-Minute Galápagos Cruise

A blue-footed booby along the water in the Galápagos

The Galápagos: a mythical faraway place that conjures up images of pristine beaches and exotic animals, from flitting Darwin’s finches to sunning sea lions. It’s the kind of place you dream of going to someday, maybe once you’ve gotten a more stable job or that raise at work or the time and money and stars align for that perfect anniversary getaway. After all, it’s expensive! This isn’t a place you just decide to visit next week.

That’s how I thought of the Galápagos, even once I learned it was a short flight from Quito. I kept thinking that way when Stoytcho and I entertained the idea of going. We talked about it jokingly, and I told Stoytcho I was pretty sure it wasn’t possible on our budget. But when it became clear we wouldn’t have time to get to Torres del Paine in Chile (partly thanks to our oh so lovely, just-one-more-week stay in Colombia), we began to entertain the idea of visiting the Galápagos more seriously. Just how expensive would a trip out there be, though?

A sally lightfoot crab in the tidepools

Google searches quickly turned up a host of websites touting last minute Galápagos cruises at “discounted prices”, but with even the cheapest at over $1,000 per person they still seemed pretty pricey. More worryingly, these cheap options were all on small boats with mixed reviews, attributable to two things: cramped living quarters and rough seas. At 6’4″, we were already struggling to cram Stoytcho into tons of places in South America that weren’t built for people his height, from buses to hostel beds. Spending several days hunched over in low ship corridors combined with potential seasickness would not a fun Galápagos journey make. The more comfortable options, the shiny, sleek, azure-sky-and-water luxury cruises still boasted price tags of around $3,000, far out of our price range.

There were some TripAdvisor threads and blog posts that suggested we shop around in Quito or Guayaquil to get cheaper prices, but the thought of running around Quito to visit travel agencies between Christmas and New Year’s sounded awful. So we gave up on the thought of visiting the Galápagos for a while. When we arrived in Quito, our first visit was to the Basílica de Voto Nacional. After visiting, we wandered down one of the streets heading south, meandering our way to El Panecillo, when we noticed a sign in a window proclaiming “Last Minute Galápagos Cruises”. Figuring we could just get a ballpark on what the cost for a last minute cruise was here, I grabbed the handle to the travel agency door and pulled it open.

Baby Galápagos sea lions on the beach

There are some times in life where you get things because you deserve them, and some times where you get things because maybe you deserved them but also you chanced to meet the right person at the exactly right time. This was a case of the latter. The travel agent behind the door was Gabby Segova (of Ecuador Family Tours), and she spent the time between December 26 and New Years’ Day working with us to book our dream cruise. She was a one-woman powerhouse, walking us through the prices and itineraries of all the available trips, negotiating prices with cruise companies, and finally booking the cruise. And the whole time, she was the most cheerfully delightful person to work with.

In the end, we opted for the ultimate dream cruise–the Santa Cruz II, one of the highest-rated luxury cruises in the Galápagos. Complete with small-group guided tours, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, two onboard hot tubs, roll stabilizers to protect against rough seas, and a library (no, REALLY), the Santa Cruz II was a dream come true. The original price was $4,500 per person. The last-minute cruise price online was $3,000 per person. And our price? $1,550 per person.

A Galápagos penguin swims in front of our cruise boat, the Santa Cruz II

That’s not to say this process was easy. It involved all of my negotiation skills, from persistence and playfulness to doing my detective work. We visited one other agency, to check their prices. We visited the cruise company and asked for their lowest price, just to make sure they couldn’t give us a better deal. We spent three days sweetly asking Gabby to hold out for a better deal from the original last-minute price of $1,750. That was three days of hoping they wouldn’t sell their last few spots, wondering if we were pushing our luck, wondering if it might fall through. And even with the discounted price, this was still 3 weeks of our estimated travel budget, devoured by a tour lasting less than a week. But now that we’ve done it, I can say it was definitely, DEFINITELY worth all of it. During this experience, I created a framework to help us identify our dream cruise. I’m sharing it below, along with some negotiation tips so if you’re dreaming of the Galápagos, you can make that dream a reality.

One of the giant tortoise species found on the Galápagos

Why a cruise:

Why didn’t we just visit the Galápagos on our own? Excellent question. The Galápagos is a heavily protected national park and visiting without a tour severely limits what you can see. Overnight stays are permitted on only a couple of islands. Similarly, day trips from the main town of Puerto Ayora visit only a subset of locations in the Galápagos. And in most locations, you’re not even allowed on land without a guide as a precaution to minimize tourist damage to the islands. If you visit the Galápagos on a cruise, especially one with a good itinerary, you’re able to see far more of the Galápagos than you would visiting on your own.

Where to look for cruises:

  • Websites – The easiest place to look, but also the place with the least discount. Googling “last minute Galápagos cruise” should return plenty of websites offering spots aboard cruises leaving in the next week or month.
  • Quito/Guayaquil – Local tour agencies in both cities have information on last-minute cruises and their prices. I’m obviously biased toward Gabby, but work with whomever makes you feel the most comfident. Do make sure they know not only boat types and prices, but also the itineraries of the boats-this heavily influences your cruise experience.
  • Puerto Ayora in the Galápagos – The last, last minute place to book a cruise. You can book from an agency (prices were discounted by ~$50-$100 compared to Quito) or by negotiating directly with a boat captain (does not work for luxury cruises). The tradeoff is that staying in Puerto Ayora is expensive compared to the mainland ($30 vs $17 per night for a room, $7 vs $4 per meal), so you risk spending quite a bit of money if you hang around negotiating too long.

What to consider:

  • Itinerary – Decide what you want most out of your cruise. Do you want to do more snorkeling, or walking around on land? Do you really want to visit a certain island? Do you HAVE TO see the tiny, adorable Galápagos penguins? This is where a good tour agent really shines, as s/he will know cruise itineraries, which locations are worthwhile, and which locations you can visit on your own.
  • Price – This is always a huge factor in deciding which cruise to take, but don’t be priced out by what’s listed on websites or first quoted by an agent. Take note of it and hold onto it for later.
  • What it includes – Our cruise included everything except wetsuit rental and soft drinks/alcohol. Others might charge for the snorkel, or for all drinks beyond water, or for bringing your own alcohol. Be sure to ask your tour company what is and isn’t included in the price of your tour.
  • Timing – Like any tourist destination, there are high seasons. These occur in the summer and during Christmas/New Year’s. Part of the reason we got a great deal was because we booked for just after New Year’s, when the number of customers steeply declines. Keep this in mind if you have flexibility in your travel time.
  • Cruise type/ship type – Are you willing to rough it or do you want to be pampered? How much do you want to be pampered? There may be some variation in cruise type and ship size, but we found the following from our last-minute cruise information: budget (often small yachts and sailboats), mid-tier (larger yachts and small ships), and luxury cruises (the largest ships).
A marine iguana sunning on volcanic rocks

How to get the best price:

  • Do your research – Nothing is a substitute for knowing your stuff. Go to websites, visit travel agents, and figure out what cruises are happening in the next few weeks. Write down the names of the cruises you’re interested in, when they depart, their itineraries, how many spots are left, and the price. Focus on itineraries that you would enjoy the most.
  • Set your “dream price” and “satisfied price” – the dream price is what you would love to have, and satisfied price is what you’d settle for. For example, our dream price for in the above scenario was $1,500 per person, but we decided we’d settle if we could get below $1,600 per person. During this step, don’t be drawn in by anchoring of their previous prices. Set the price to what you would LOVE to pay, the price that would make you jump up and down and shout if you somehow got it.
  • Shop around – It’s time to get down to business and get quotes from multiple places. Visit travel agents, contact the company running the cruise, and even talk to the captain of the boat if you can. Ask for your dream price. See what price they can give you. Use the difference between their quoted prices and your “settle” price to narrow down your list to one or two cruises to pursue.
  • Be persistent and playful – Now that they’ve made your opening bid, it’s time to check in every day and see if they’re willing to lower it. This could get old really fast for the people you’re contacting, and it will if you’re adversarial or unfriendly. Instead, make it a game and be cheerful. Brighten their day and get to know them. And handle their refusal to lower the price with grace, something like “Darn! It was great talking to you anyway. I’ll try again tomorrow.” At best, these people will grow to like you, they’ll work to meet your requested price, and you’re more likely to get your dream cruise. At worst, you’ll have made several people happier. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being playful.

P.S. We weren’t asked or paid to advertise any of the businesses in this article. We just loved our experience.

Sunset over an island in the Galápagos