Boarding our Galapagos Cruise

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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.

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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:

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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. 

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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.

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

The Galápagos Opuntia

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The Galápagos Opuntia, prickles and all

Plants are underappreciated. I learned this in undergrad, when one of my professors (a botanist) showed a photograph in class and asked students to name all of the living things in it. The students named the animals easily – bear, rabbit, wolf, bird – but failed to point out a single plant in the photograph (for the record, I think there were four). If you want to see this same disregard in action for yourself, type “endangered species” into Google Search or Google Images and scroll through the results. Despite plants comprising nearly half the endangered species in the world (46% as of 2012), there are no plant results on the first page of either search. None. Zero.

In light of this and the fact that plants support nearly all life on Earth, here’s a plant appreciation post. Below is the Galápagos Opuntia (Opuntia echios), a type of prickly pair native only to the Galápagos and listed as vulnerable to extinction:

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A Galápagos Opuntia that’s over 3 meters high. The “trunk” is made of old, dead cactus pads that harden and fuse as the cactus grows.

The Opuntia is amazing for two reasons: it thrives in the harsh Galápagos environment and serves as a source of food for the charismatic fauna people know and love. The Opuntia start out as normal looking cacti, but as they grow their old pads harden and fuse to become a “trunk” for the cactus. They essentially takes the form of a tree, and at over 3 meters tall they are some of the largest plants on the Galápagos. These cacti don’t just survive here, they dominate.

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Spines on the Opuntia’s pads. These don’t always deter local animals.

Their flowers attract birds and flies that pollinate, and the fruit and cactus pads feed land iguanas and giant tortoises in all seasons. Without these sources of food, I’d wager there’d be fewer animals and fewer species here.

And these cacti have a beauty all their own, embeded in the fractal patterns of their skeletons:

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A close-up shot of the dried skeleton from a single cactus pad (like the one above)

Is that not a plant species worth saving?

To the Galápagos

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The landscape of Baltra, with Daphne Major and Minor in the distance

It’s 7 am on New Year’s Day, and we’re just waking up to head to the airport. Outside the streets are empty save for the refuse of last night’s celebrations: scattered confetti, spent fireworks, and the occasional abandoned wig or costume prop. We stand in front of the hotel, waiting for our ride to the airport. Our travel agent, Gabby, arranged to have one of her relatives drive us since there wouldn’t be many taxis today.

“What do we do if he doesn’t show up?” Stoytcho asks me nervously. “We’ll figure something out then. We can always have the hotel call us a cab,” I reply. But Stoytcho’s concerns aren’t unfounded. We’re placing faith in someone we haven’t met, recommended by someone we have known for less than a week. And the biggest celebration of the year happened last night. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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A quiet day at Quito’s airport

Thankfully, we don’t have to wait long. Five minutes later our ride pulls up and helps us load everything into the car. Then it’s off to the airport, along empty city streets that widen into equally empty highways. That means no delays in getting to the airport, the blessing of travelling when everyone else is at home with family and/or nursing a hangover.

The airport is also subdued, but plenty of people are queued up and running around, trying to catch flights. Our procedure is slightly different than usual: we have to pay a transit fee and go through a miniature customs for the Galápagos National Park before we can enter the standard security checkpoint. We hand over our $40 in cash at the transit control and receive printed pages that will serve as our transit control cards. Once we have that, we proceed to the miniature customs, where a man hands us a list of food products banned from the Galápagos and asks us whether we have any plant or animal material in our luggage. We don’t, since we had heard about this and threw out most of our food at the hostel, although looking at the list I slightly regret doing that. We could’ve brought our peanut butter.

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A long list of permitted, restricted, and forbidden food products for the Galápagos

Our flight ascends and descends with barely enough time for us to register that we’re on a plane, and we’re at Seymour Airport in the Galápagos. We step off the plane and walk the tarmac toward the terminal, a line of tourists of all shapes and sizes. We enter immigration, plastered with signs reminding you of the park rules: don’t damage plants, don’t take anything, stay at least 2 meters away from all animals, and so on. We’re prompted to pay the $100 per person park entry fee (cash only), then the immigration officer stamps our passports and waves us on. So far, we’ve spent $240 to enter the park alone.

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The last airport bus of the day

Arriving at Seymour Airport isn’t the end of the journey, though. The airport sits on the island of Baltra, and after the last flight each day the island closes. Everyone leaves for their hotels and homes on other islands, primarily on Santa Cruz Island, while the Ecuadorian military enforces the closure, banning anyone from entering Baltra when it’s closed. So camping out to wait for an early morning flight isn’t an option here. Good to know.

We get on the last bus of the day, full of tourists and airport employees going home. Since we’re the last bus, we wait for everyone to get on board. Then we’re puttering across the island toward the coast, past an arid landscape studded with small, leafless tree skeletons. Then it’s past massive wind turbines, their propellers drifting slowly, generating electricity for the island. After that, we pass a few abandoned shacks, alone inhabiting this dusty landscape. Though surreal and beautiful, this unforgiving land hardly looks like one of the richest and most unique environments on the planet. Is there anything living out there?

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Wind turbines in Baltra’s dusty landscape

As if to answer the question, our bus suddenly stops. We’re not sure why at first, but then someone shouts “Iguana!” and we look out the window to spot a meter-long, mango-hued lizard meandering across the road. Immediately we tourists spring into action, pressing against the windows and clicking our camera shutters to capture our first animal sighting in the Galápagos, trying to immortalize the moment, poor angle and terrible lighting be damned. I don’t know if the bus driver needed to stop for as long as he did, but he was kind enough to wait a few extra seconds so we could get our pictures. The locals probably get a kick out of us doing this, since they see these animals daily. The animals are a show for us, and we’re a show for the locals.

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A land iguana crosses the road in front of our bus

It’s near sunset when we reach the ferry that will take us across the narrow channel to Santa Cruz. We climb into the boat while the ferrymen load everyone’s luggage on top. Stoytcho and I have a vested interest in keeping our packs with us: for one, they’re not that heavy, and I imagine them breaking free of friction and sliding off into the depths of the sea. If we get to keep them, it also means we don’t have to wait for the unloading on the other side. We’ll be on the next bus earlier, meaning maybe we can find a bus seat that Stoytcho fits into, though that’s a long shot.

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The ferry from Baltra to Santa Cruz

We pay the $1 a person fare for the 10 minute ride and we’re off across the water, where the current is strong but waveless. The ferrymen don’t bother to pass out life jackets though a few people take them of their own accord, and we count 38 passengers with us (a plaque on the boat puts its capacity at 35). So it’s business as usual here, despite increased governmental regulations. The other shore grows closer, and we can see beached boats hiding among the mangrove trees in the dying light. It’s eerie, but beautiful.

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Boats beached among the mangroves on Santa Cruz

On the other side, we leave the ferry and get on another bus, this one taking us from the north end of Santa Cruz to Puerto Ayora in the south. Unlike the airport bus, this one isn’t free, and the $2 per person fare for the hour-long ride is the first inkling of how much more expensive thing are on the Galápagos; a ride of similar distance would be about $1 on the mainland. The only other option is a more expensive taxi, so we ride the bus over the darkening landscape. Santa Cruz is a totally different environment, mountainous and thick with greenery. There are occasional houses along the road, ranging from modest shacks to opulent ranch houses. This is an island of life, for both animals and people.

It’s night when we finally arrive in Puerto Ayora, four hours after we disembarked from our flight. The bus drops us off at the pier on the waterfront, where you can catch boats to other islands. We find some cell signal and plot a route to our hostel, in the north-eastern corner of the town known as Barrio El Edén. We’re soon wandering along empty concrete streets, devoid of life except for the occasional dog. At the end of our journey, a hundred meters from our hostel, Google Maps tells us there’s a street where there’s nothing but a steep rocky path with someone’s laundry strung across it. We’re about to turn around when the laundry’s owner comes out from the house next to us. “Best Homestay Hostel?” we ask him, pointing up the rocky path. “Sí, sí!” he gestures up. We duck beneath his laundry and scrabble upward, negotiating the rocks on the dimly-lit path. In seconds, we’re up the hill and in another street, with our hostel in front of us.

“WELCOME NATALIE AND STOYTCHO” is scrawled on a whiteboard out front. Thank goodness, we’re home.

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Our first sunset in the Galápagos

Booking a Last-Minute Galápagos Cruise

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).
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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.

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Sunset over an island in the Galápagos

Oh snap, brief blog post hiatus!

Happy new year! We’ve flown on to the Galapagos islands, and will be here for a first-class cruise around the islands on the Santa Cruz II until January 10. Neither of us have ever been on a cruise, but with two hot tubs, a gym, a complete library, and a Le Cordon Bleu chef, we figured this would be a pretty good first time.
What there won’t be is high-speed internet. We’re at Puerto Ayora (the largest town on the islands) right now and there isn’t even regular speed internet. It took 20 minutes to load http://www.kayak.com last night and WordPress just failed to load 4 times over an hour. This post has been made possible only by the magic of Stoytcho’s phone.

So because using the internet here is like trying to call a landline with a banana, I’m throwing in the towel and calling a hiatus in big posts. We may post a few small snippets from the cruise, but the rest will come when we get back to the mainland. Miss you all!
– Natalie