When my family and I go on vacation, we really don't like to sit through PowerPoint Presentations. A friend who cruised in the Galápagos recently sent me a photo that shows 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 boobie to hear it, I’d rather not be looking at pictures of it on a TV screen instead! And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how kids and teenagers feel about vacations that feel like thinly disguised school courses.
I love to compare that pic to the photo below that we’ve taken on our Galápagos tours. They show our head guide, Alfredo, who is a very knowledgeable naturalist. He’s with Classic Journeys’ guests 24/7 from seashore to the edge of a volcano. His up-close on-the-ground commentary about the flora and fauna is exactly what you hope for when you visit a place this different and exotic. We have him to ourselves for the whole week. (And there are only 10 or so of us vs. the 40-50 people in that cruise ship lounge.)
It’s just one of the top reasons why an island-based exploration Galápagos tour is a completely different animal (pardon the pun) to a Galápagos cruise. Here are the other five top reasons:
A flock of great new hotels – small, eco-sensitive and very, very comfortable – have opened recently in the Galápagos, and we stay in them. You’ll see some photos below. They have pools. They are in terrific waterfront locations. And most of all, they have elbowroom. At the end of the day, you go for a walk on a beach or on the sand streets of a nearby town. On a ship, you can only make circuits on the deck. We just feel like staying in hotels allows us to be ourselves and spend our down time the way we want to without being hemmed in. Don’t get us wrong: the companies that send cruises to the Galápagos are fine. But by definition, they force you to be a day-tripper. You see the islands, but you’re not a part of them the way you can be when you’re based on shore.
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 under way toward the next port of call. This means that your ability to customize a trip to your own preferences is nil. In contrast, on a Classic Journeys Galápagos tour, based on the islands in boutique hotels. During the day, the trips are loaded with a range of activities from snorkeling to mountain biking, lounging by the beach to hanging out with giant land tortoises. On many days, we offer simultaneous alternatives.
One night, our group of nine went in nearly as many directions. 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 who 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.
On a cruise ship trip to the islands, you’d be forgiven for thinking this place is about nothing but wildlife. But heck, people live here too. 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. 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.
We, on the other hand, have time to visit a local family on their plantation called Hacienda ‘El Café Trapiche.” We spend time with them and the workers to learn about growing coffee, sugar cane and fruits. The volcanic soil is fantastic for agriculture of all kinds, and it’s very interesting to get a feel for what it’s like to live and work in a place where you’re so extremely out-numbered by the wildlife! Meanwhile, back at the hotels, we’re easy walks to shops and cafes and the like. Back on the ship, you’d be eating meals based on recipes from the U.S. or Europe. On the island, you can try the local specialties like ceviche, made by local hands to order for us.
4:30 pm on the island brought two startling contrasts. On the one hand, Zodiacs full of passengers buzzed out of the harbor to return to their ships. Their day of exploring was over. But 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, laid down on the sand, and spent the next 90 minutes at the same eye-level perspective as the mothers and babies. Since they have no natural predators, they weren’t spooked by our presence and we could crawl right up to them. It was unplanned, it was wonderful, and it took the kind of time and patience that no cruise ship guide can afford to give you.
Our final day found us 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, and 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 what 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.