“So what do you want to do for your birthday then?” Josh said, as we journeyed across the Ecuadorian countryside on yet another long bus ride. With only a week to go before I turned 26, the options were becoming somewhat limited. And after volunteering in Cuenca for five months last year, I'd been to most places in Ecuador that I'd wanted to visit.
Later that afternoon, finally off the bus and ensconced in our chosen hostel for the night, I came across Josh googling the prices of flights to the Galapagos. I looked closer at the screen.
“Hang on – these are for a departure on March 3rd. A day before my birthday…”
He glanced up at me with just a hint of a grin. “I thought it might be a good idea. Who wouldn't want to spend their birthday in the Galapagos?”
And somehow, only fifteen minutes later, we'd booked two return flights to the islands.
The Galapagos, take two
I know what you're thinking. Didn't she go to the Galapagos already? And you'd be right.
Last June, I flew to Ecuador's most famous islands and spent six days trying to experience the best of the Galapagos as cheaply as I could. And I managed to do so with only $900, something I was very proud of.
So clearly heading there a second time is a little bit extravagant. But first off, it was a birthday present to myself, and secondly, a lot of people don't realise that a trip to the Galapagos isn't actually such an overwhelming expense.
When we arrived on Santa Cruz island, there were hundreds of Ecuadorians enjoying a week long holiday, presumably because they get time off work around carnaval – and it certainly explains why Josh and I scored such cheap flights from Guayaquil. In actual fact, the flight is the most expensive element of a Galapagos holiday. Once you arrive on Santa Cruz there are enough beautiful beaches, restaurants and hours of beautiful weather to warrant a great holiday, without even stepping foot on a cruise ship or even another island.
With a return flight of $330 (or £198) and a week of accommodation in one of the cheaper hostels, it equates to the same value as many other summer holiday destinations.
But I digress. The real reason I so readily decided to fly back for a second Galapagos visit was because there was a huge element I'd missed out on the first time around: the Galapagos cruise.
Before he'd even arrived in South America, Josh had earmarked enough money to warrant going on a cruise in the Galapagos, which gave me all the more incentive to accompany him.
So once we arrived in the tiny town of Puerto Ayora, we spent three days in the offices of various travel agents, alternately sweating in warm fan-turned heat and luxuriating in air conditioning, but always with the same question on our lips: how good a cruise deal could we get?
Getting a good Galapagos cruise: the process
If you want to get a good deal on a last minute Galapagos cruise, it's not as simple as just taking the first price that's offered to you. There's a large amount of time, research, bargaining and compromise involved too – not to mention the inescapable hurdles that the Galapagos National Park confronts you with. Such as the discovery that they've recently changed the cruising routes, allowing boats a three week window to sail the west side of the archipelago only and then three weeks in the east. It gives each side a three week break from the gaggles of tourists and cruise boats that routinely interrupt the wildlife.
Luckily Josh and I already knew we wanted to spend our time in the east side, which was the only side open when we arrived. Our interest lay in quite a few islands – San Cristobal, Española, Floreana and Santa Fe to the east, Isabela and Fernandina to the west – but obviously some choices had to be made, as we couldn't fit it all in.
Then there were the questions: how many days/nights for how much money? How long on each island and how much time spent snorkelling in the water? How big is the boat and what class is it? Does the guide speak English?
As we drifted from office to office, we built up an idea of what kind of prices we were looking at – anything from seven days for close to $1000 on an averagely alright boat, to $500 for just a few days on a much nicer boat.
At some point we even found ourselves bargaining for the exact same cruise at two different agencies with wildly differing prices that were “absolutely the last price I can do – because the captain is a friend of mine”…
Eventually we settled on a trip we were both happy with: three nights aboard the Aida Maria, heading for Floreana, Española and San Cristobal islands for $550 each. This particular cruise was an eight day tour but had already been journeying around the islands for five days when we boarded, meaning we spent three nights, two full days and one morning living the cruise lifestyle.
Which entails… what, exactly?
What to expect from a Galapagos cruise
Within seconds of stepping off the small zodaic that brought us from shore, I realised just how different boat life was going to be. All shoes were confined to a box on the outside deck – “bare feet at all times on board,” said Jennifer, our guide for the next few days.
She showed us around the interior of the boat, which didn't take long; a walk through the main indoor cabin, replete with two long tables laid with cutlery and linen napkins; a white board on one wall with a breakdown of the day's activities in black marker; and a small bar in one corner, where a teenager stood in a white shirt, cleaning glasses.
“Fernando is the barman on board – he'll help you with anything you need,” Jennifer explained, as Fernando smiled shyly at us.
Another white shirted man cleared his throat behind us, my backpack in one hand and Josh's in another – “disculpe” – and Arnando disappeared down a steep flight of steps to what eventually transpired as our cabin.
One of four downstairs cabins, our little three night home was comprised of two bunk beds and five steps-worth of floor space until we stood in the snug bathroom. But it was clean and cool, with fresh yellow sheets and two towels each daily – more than sufficient for a couple of backpackers.
We headed back upstairs at the sound of a bell ringing. Dinner time, apparently – although the bell quickly came to control our boat lifestyle, particularly when we found it nigh on impossible to distinguish whether the sound was for a fifteen minute warning or for a “we're on the zodiacs now and we're missing everything so HURRY UP!”.
Back in the main cabin, we shook a number of hands and heard a number of names that I immediately forgot. Josh and I brought the passenger count to fifteen: two women from Germany, a couple from Austria in their late twenties, a middle aged Australian couple, an elderly Belgian couple and five retired Canadians headed by the indomitable Mary Lee, a naturalist and avid bird watcher, who's been bringing Canadians on Galapagos cruises for the last decade.
Dinner was huge; a buffet of rice, potatoes, meat, broccoli and cauliflower, followed by ice cream for dessert. Because most of our fellow passengers were in the older age range, not many people went back for second helpings – which also meant that, after days of eating cheap and insubstantial menu del dias, Josh and I actually felt full. It was a joyous moment.
Setting sail on the Galapagos
At some point in the night, I awoke with my head very close to a wooden ceiling and the distinct sound of metal being dragged exhaustingly against the side of… something? Was it a boat?
There was light coming from my right, and as I turned my head I realised I was looking through a porthole. The first rays of sun were just beginning to glimmer on the thin strip of visible sea. Yep – I was most definitely on a boat.
No sooner than I'd turned back over and been swallowed up by sleep again, a bell began to ring. With still barely any light on the water outside, we stumbled up the stairs to a chorus of good mornings from the other passengers. Early starts are the norm on a cruise, apparently.
A full breakfast of eggs, ham, toast, fruit and coffee is not the easiest thing to digest at 6am, but the temptation was just too great. That, and knowing that the sea air always makes you hungry, was enough to make me devour a plateful.
So, after donning my bikini and spreading suncream on every available portion of skin, I grabbed my requisite numbered bag filled with snorkelling gear and boarded the zodiac that waited patiently at the back of the boat.
The two full days we spent on the cruise rushed by at an incredible speed. We walked through the rocky landscape of Isla Española, passing nesting birds, skittering crabs, lounging sealions and an innumerable amount of iguanas, all basking in the sun with their eyes closed in pleasure.
We spent an entire morning wandering Isla Floreana, visiting Post Office Bay, where sailors used to leave their letters in the hope that a passing ship would be heading in the address's direction. It's now used exclusively by tourists, but the sentiment is still just as strong.
From the sides of the indomitable zodiacs, we watched blue footed boobies posing on rocky outcrops, adult sealions sunning themselves, and their babies playing in the protected shallows.
We jumped into stunningly blue waters and snorkelled with bulging headed parrot fish, languid rays and even a few sharks.
On more than one occasion, we found ourselves dangerously close to dozens of jellyfish; thin transparent strips that seemed completely insubstantial but left pricks of pain on the surface of my arms, my legs, my stomach.
And after every reboarding of the boat, we would rush down to our cabin and immediately jump into the shower, before heading back up to the main interior for another huge buffet lunch. In fact, with all the snorkelling sessions and multiple hot showers a day, I spent more time in the water than out of it.
By the time the sunset began each evening, we were safely back on board, suitably exhausted and ready for an early night, the boat making its slow way through the water as we slept.
So was the cruise worth it?
I have the privileged position of being able to compare the two methods of exploring the Galapagos: by cruise boat, and on day trips. While both have their merits and their downsides, there's no doubt that researching them both is a huge factor when deciding which is the better choice for you.
Last year I spent a week on Santa Cruz island and took day trips to two more; San Cristobal and Isabela. While the first island more than exceeded my expectations, swimming with sharks, baby sealions and giant turtles all in one day, my time in Isabela wasn't as great. A large part of the trip was on land, with the major sights being iguanas, mangroves and an inland turtle sanctuary. I left the islands knowing I was ultimately keener on the water-based elements of the Galagagos.
This year, spending two days on a cruise boat meant more proximity to the water and my snorkelling gear, and offered an influx of activities that I would otherwise not have been able to do. But I also felt like my time was very limited, with every minute of the day accounted for. It meant that when Josh and I suggested swimming in a gorgeous bay instead of walking along it, as the itinerary stipulated, the other passengers seemed a bit concerned.
Were we really rocking the boat that much?
It seems very easy to get dragged into a mindset where you're unable to think for yourself on a Galapagos cruise. In fact, many of the passengers on board our boat seemed more than happy to have every move decided for them; such is the nature of this kind of trip, I guess.
The most important thing to bear in mind is that, regardless of taking a cruise or opting for day tours, a trip to the Galapagos is ultimately based on a certain level of risk. There's no way anyone can guarantee you'll see multiple schools of sharks at Kicker Rock in San Cristobal, or if you'll ever be swimming with giant turtles or baby sealions. In fact, with climate change becoming an ever more present factor, there are less and less animals around for tourists to see.
A final cruising opinion
When I try to compare and contrast the different factors of cruising or daytripping and come to a conclusion, I fall short. It's impossible to quantify why a cruise is worth it.
For two backpackers, it was feeling like our possessions were totally safe, being presented with linen napkins at dinner, and having a seemingly unlimited supply of food. For others, it was the chance to see more exotic animals in the wild over the course of a week than they'd probably ever seen.
But regardless of the personal reasons for exactly why, talking to the other passengers on board resulted in the same unanimous opinion; the Galapagos cruise was entirely worth it.