When I go on vacation, I really don’t like to have to sit through PowerPoint presentations. A friend who cruised last year in the Galápagos sent me a photo of the naturalist briefing on their ship – and it looked like a cross between a school lecture and a business meeting. It’s not wrong or bad. But if I’m close enough to a blue-footed booby to hear it, I’d rather not be looking at pictures of it on a TV screen instead!
I love to compare that to the photo below that we took on our Galápagos tour a couple of weeks ago. It shows our head guide, Alfredo, who is a very knowledgeable naturalist. He’s with Classic Journeys’ guests 24/7. Here, he is with us in the bush near Playa Mann on San Cristobal Island and is providing an up-close on-the-ground immersion into the flora and fauna. We have him to ourselves for the whole week. (And there were only 10 of us vs. the 40-50 people in that cruise ship lounge.)
It’s just one of the top reasons why an island-based Galápagos tour is a completely different animal (pardon the pun) to a Galápagos cruise. In the spirit of New Year’s countdowns, here are the other five top reasons:
(By the way, if you’d like to read a companion blog entry on the 3 things my kids learned in the Galapagos, just click here.)
5. Buffet or ceviche-making lesson?
There are two very different ways to dine in the Galápagos. One way is a buffet line on a very nice ship. It’s the way that dinner is served on board and it offers passengers a nice selection of foods. You’ll sit in the dining room at a prescribed time, with all of the other passengers, and go through the buffet line at your turn. Your interaction with the chefs will be to exchange a pleasantry as you go through the buffet line (…if you speak Spanish).
The photo below is a private cooking instruction poolside at our hotel on Isabella Island. Classic Journeys’ guests are learning to prepare shrimp ceviche from our guide and Juan Daniel, the general manager of the hotel. It’s a remarkably personal opportunity to share recipes, stories and laughs in a memorable setting. The waves are crashing on the beach a few feet away. We have the terrace to ourselves, and the stars of the southern sky are out in full force. It’s typical of the dinners we have nightly on the trip: exceptional cuisine prepared just for us and served in jaw-dropping settings.
4. Divide and Conquer
What if you want to shop in town, your spouse wants to have a massage and your friends prefer a walk on the beach? On a ship, the answer is easy. Only the massage is possible, because with the fixed schedule of the boat, you’re not permitted to stay in town or linger on a beach for a walk; the zodiacs have all returned to the boat so that it can get underway toward the next port of call. This means you’re really limited in your ability to bespoke a trip to your own preferences.
Now take a look at the options you have on Classic Journeys’ Galápagos tour. Because we’re based on the islands in boutique hotels, you can bespoke as much as you’d like. One night, our group of nine went in nearly as many directions as there were guests on the trip! My wife and a friend walked the white sand beach that stretched for miles with no other people on it. A friend and his son threw a ball to one another. One guest had a massage at the hotel. Two others went out with a guide to try their hand at surfing. Another curled up with a glass of wine in an overstuffed chair and read a book on her iPad. And another followed a boardwalk path behind the hotel into national parkland shooting photos of the iguanas that cross from the wetlands to the beach. The result was greater than the sum of its parts, as everyone returned to the hotel for dinner invigorated and with stories to tell of their alone time.
3. Carlos the coffee roaster
A luxury when staying on the islands is time to get deeper into the landscape. The highlands are often the most interesting and least explored part of the islands. Why? Because it takes a little longer to get up into the highlands, and so a landing party from a ship will often miss these great opportunities to immerse their passengers into the local culture.
The coffee plantation owned by the Gonzales family on San Cristobal Island is a great example. It takes about 30-40 minutes to drive up into the highlands. So on a tight cruise schedule (breakfast, on the zodiac to land, two hours on land, back on the zodiac to the ship, lunch, back on the zodiac to land, two hours on land, back on the zodiac to the ship, dinner, bed) the two hours on land doesn’t permit the time to drive into the highlands. But oh is it worth it! Mists and moisture from the Galápagos’ only fresh water lake, plus rich volcanic soil, make this perfect terrain for growing coffee. We spend time with the family and local workers on their 250 acre plantation, learning about their organic, sustainable operation and taste the freshest cup you’ve ever had.
2. Sunset with the sea lions
4:30 pm on December 19 brought two startling contrasts. Zodiacs of life vest-clad passengers leaving the harbor to return to their ships. Their day of exploring was over. Nearby, on the beach near our hotel our group was returning on foot from a walk to see frigate birds and snorkel in the lagoon where Charles Darwin first landed in the Galápagos. Crossing the white sand, now turning purple and orange with the late afternoon light, we came across a colony of female sea lions, many with pups at their sides. A lone male called out to any other male in the area that this was his harem. Our group stopped, lay down on the sand, and spent the next 90 minutes reveling in the personal interaction we had with the mothers and babies. Since they have no natural predators, we could crawl right up to them and they showed the same interest in us that we did in them.
1. Nine is greater than 105
Our final day found us in the on our way to see the giant land tortoises on Santa Cruz Island. They’re amazing, weighing upwards of 500 pounds, living 150+ years and walking 5km or so each day in search of their favorite food. Our destination was the national park and the watering hole where the tortoises socialize and keep cool. Our guide Alfredo let us know that it would be about an hour walk each way; we’d see tortoises along the way and an incredible number of them once at the muddy gathering spot. (See my blog about "vadering" to read more about the sounds they make.)
As we were driving along a country road in our 20 seat minibus, we came across three 45 seat blue behemoths. I asked Alfredo who they were and where they were going. He answered that they were from one of the famed expedition cruise ships and they were going to see the tortoises too. Each was filled with 35 people, making a total of 105 passengers in the three buses. Panicked, I imagined our little group of nine guests plus two guides being overrun by a heard of cruise passengers piling off the buses and scaring the tortoises into their shells.
“Not to worry,” said Alfredo. “They’re not going where we are. They go into a private farm where they only need to walk 10 minutes to a watering hole and where they have facilities for large scale tourism.”
We finished our incredible visit to the watering hole in the national park, and saw dozens of tortoises enjoying themselves in the mud and flowery algae. About five other explorers shared the experience with us. The late afternoon sun made it perfect for photography, and we had all the time we wanted to commune with the tortoises.
On the way back to our hotel, I was still curious about the cruise bus option, so I asked Alfredo if we could stop at the farm to see for myself what is was like. Always accommodating, he agreed. We raced down the trail and came upon the pond. It was about the size of a large hot tub and contained about 6-8 tortoises. They were packed in, just trying to find some room. I could only imagine what it must have been like for those 105 cruise passengers to be on the trail at the same time, and to all be at the tortoise “hot tub” together. Nine was certainly a greater experience than 105!
Classic Journeys operates island-based cultural walking adventures and family multi-sport vacations year-round in the Galápagos. Guests enjoy 7 days and 6 nights in boutique hotels. Expert naturalist guides create opportunities to come face to face with an incredibly diverse population of birds, plants, animals and sea life that are endemic to the Galápagos and which have no natural predators. Download a day by day itinerary of the trips, call a Guest Services Coordinator at 800-200-3887, or email Classic Journeys at email@example.com.