A couple of years ago, my family decided to take a family trip to the Galapagos Islands. As a general warning, this trip is far out of my own budget range, and wasn’t budget-friendly at all. There are cheaper ways of seeing the Galapagos, including smaller boat companies or individual day trips out of the bigger islands. It wasn’t the fancy boat that caught my attention though – it was the friendliness of the staff and locals, and the amazing and unique creatures and nature around us, from blue-footed boobies to penguins, tortoises, and the differences in all of the islands. And of course, a highlight was seeing the famous finches that have grown up separately in different environments and adapted, causing Darwin to prove evolution (don’t even talk to me about the cruelties he conducted while doing this, though. UGH).
Prior to booking this National Geographic (Nat Geo) cruise, we emailed their booking company to confirm that they would be able to provide vegan meals throughout this 9-day trip. We also called them a couple of times before we departed, just to make sure they wouldn’t forget.
If this blog reads like a diary entry, it’s because it basically is one. Most of it is taken straight from my travel journal, in which I wrote daily during the trip.
Day 1 and 2
We arrived in Guayaquil, Ecuador late at night, after two long flights. Tired, we checked into the room and filled out our breakfast cards, asking for everything to be made vegan. I usually find it helpful to call ahead with a vegan request if I’m not sure the hotel I’m going to will have options, but although I believe our requests for vegan meals were forwarded to the hotel by the booking agents, the hotel could have easily accommodated anyone without prior notice. We had mushrooms, fried potatoes, and potato balls. It was filling, but nothing special, but we were too excited about going to the Galapagos to really care.
National Geographic Endeavour
Our first view of the National Geographic Endeavour was from the docks by the airport, where we got to hang out with sea lions while waiting for the Zodiac boats to come get us and our luggage. The National Geographic Endeavour is impressive. It’s got a library, a gym, a few hammocks, a top deck to hang out on, a dining hall, and a common room/bar. I was dreaming about spending loads of time at the library but ended up being too busy with seeing the islands and napping. Swimming and hiking all day can really take it out of you!
North Seymour Islet
Our first stop was on the first day, where we went to the North Seymour Islet and saw iguanas, sea lions, blue-footed boobies, lizards, and frigates. The birds were nesting and mating, and we saw the mating dance of the boobies, and the giant red pouches that frigate males puff up when attracting a partner. It was truly amazing how unafraid all of the animals were of humans. Limited human contact means no natural fear of humans killing the animals off.
Back on the boat, we enjoyed a dinner of stuffed pepper with lime, cumin, and tomatoes, served with rice and lentils and pie for dessert. The chef was absolutely amazing at accommodating our request for vegan food, although here it is absolutely necessary to notify them in advance, as they get all of the food for the week in town before taking off on the cruise. We were treated to something different, delicious, and local every day, and we never ever got bored – especially of the delicious fresh fruits! The rest of the evening was spent socializing, and we got to meet everyone on the boat, including most of the staff.
The next morning we went to Bartolomé Island before breakfast, and walked 399 steps to the top. Bartolomé is an island of volcanic ash, so barely anything grows there, but we got to see some juvenile hawks from really up close. They landed less than a meter away from some of us. All of the hikes were very easy for me, but some of the less fit (not that I’m fit by any standard) and older people were having some trouble with some of them, so keep that in mind if you plan on going. All of the hikes were taken at a very slow pace, so they should be doable for anyone who doesn’t have physical disabilities that hinder walking, and alternatives were provided for those who do, or who didn’t feel like partaking any given day. Back on the boat, we were served fruits (seriously though, the pineapple is heavenly), fried potatoes, onions, and tomatoes, and guava juice and a soy banana shake for breakfast.
Later on we went snorkeling by Rábida Island, which was absolutely amazing. A sea lion played with me, going around me in circles and swimming around me. It made me feel incredibly slow and clumsy in the water comparatively, but sea lions are now one of my favorite animals. They are so playful. They’re like dogs, only in the water. A penguin jumped in the water and swam with us, and I tried and failed to follow them. They are like torpedoes in the water. I even saw a shark a few times. Don’t worry, the naturalists are professionals and would not take you to areas where it is dangerous, so we knew that the sharks were harmless. We also saw lots of different kinds of starfish.
Lunch consisted of vegan ceviche with beans and toasted corn and popcorn, veggie rice, asparagus, and different salads – avocado, carrot, and what I believe was potato. Exhausted from the morning’s activities, it was time for a nap again, before going snorkeling again. While snorkeling, I saw a turtle, a swimming iguana (and plenty of them sunbathing), and 4-5 sharks.
We had daily recap sessions and educational sessions on the history, nature, and geography, as well as briefings on the next day’s activities. I started to get to know the crew a little bit by this time, too. All of the crew were comfortable joking around and were so nice. I spent a lot of time in the common room, where Octavio, the bartender worked, so he would bring me free alcohol-free drinks and started to teach me a little bit of Spanish.
Dinner was Pasta Puttanesca, steamed veggies, and fruits for desert. Exhausted from the full day, we headed to bed to prepare for the next day.
The day started with a breakfast of fruits and a soy meat-tomato stew, which I thought was an interesting choice for breakfast, but still good. We then headed to the deck, as we were crossing the Equator. Because it’s not a visible line (especially as we were in the middle of the ocean), the staff set up a line to limbo under to celebrate crossing the Equator, which was very cute. I did not partake, but I did enjoy watching everyone have such a fun time from such a simple thing.
Punta Vicente Roca
Next we went on a Zodiac cruise around Punta Vicente Roca to see some animals. We weren’t disappointed, as we spotted frigates, penguins, iguanas, pelicans, sea lions, crabs, and turtles. We came back to get fitted for our snorkelling gear, and went back out. There were so many turtles! I quickly counted around 20 of them, but there were probably more. You’re not supposed to touch any of the animals because humans have harmful oils and diseases that could be transferred to the animals, but the waters were so full that a turtle actually crashed into me. I’m guessing that most of the other animals the turtles encounter are more graceful than humans, and more used to avoiding collision. We also saw 2 sea lions, a ray, and so many jellyfish. Like the majority of the group, I got stung. A lot. The one on my face was really painful, and after getting stung quite a few times, I decided to call it quits. Thankfully, the crew had some solution on board for the stings, so no, we were not forced to pee on ourselves (phew). Lunch was veggies prepared in various ways: beans, potatoes, peppers, carrots, onions, salads, and fruits.
We then sailed to Punta Espinoza, which was actually my favorite landing point on the trip. It was a land of contrasts, as most of the ground was black from rippled lava rock, with some white sand and green plants giving it color. There’s a whale skeleton on the hike, and there were a lot of crabs and sea lions. There were so many iguanas, and they all blended to the volcanic rock so well, that you had to actually be careful as to where to walk, so you didn’t accidentally step on one. We also witnessed one of the sadder parts of nature: one of the sea lion cubs had lost their mother, and was trying to feed from another mother with her cub, but the mother rejected the orphan cub, choosing to prioritize her own cub. The orphan cub likely died not long after. Not one of the happier things we witnessed during our travels, but a part of life, unfortunately.
I was feeling quite sick by this point, from some bacteria that I contracted, so I skipped dinner and went to take a nap. The chef was very worried, and had my brother bring me some soup, which was very considerate of him. I’m inclined to blame the jellyfish for the bacteria, mostly because I’m still bitter from being stung so much!
Day 5 – Isabela Island
I was still feeling ill the next morning. We had a breakfast of fruits and soy meat, and then went hiking. I decided to take the short hike option on the Western coast of Isabela (0,8km) instead of the long hike (3km). During most of our trip, there was a short hike and long hike option, as well as a boat ride option for those who didn’t want to go snorkelling. Hating that I had to take the short hike, but still relieved as I was feeling lightheaded, we set off and ended up seeing 8 giant tortoises. The day included swimming at the beach, which was plenty of fun, and was followed by a lunch of salad, quinoa with veggies, gazpacho, and soy meat. The rest of the group went snorkelling, but I had fallen asleep and slept right through it. The rest did me good, though, as I started to feel better again. I made it for the climbing hike up Tagus Cove, which was pretty but very windy, and unfortunately I was paying too much attention to holding on to my hat to take any pictures.
We headed back on the boat for one of my favorite meals, which was Asian noodles with veggies, so delicious. After dinner, I grabbed some playing cards and joined another guest, Anna, my brother, and two of the naturalists, Enrique and Paul, as well as the bartender Octavio, in the common room. Enrique taught us an Ecuadorian game, 40, whose rules I cannot remember for the life of me anymore, but really enjoyed at the time. I was quickly falling in love with the crew and everyone on the boat.
Day 6 – Santiago Island
This morning we woke up early in Santiago to go take a walk on Playa Espumilla. It was gorgeous! So lush and green. It was raining, but I didn’t mind at all. There were scientists there to observe the birds and mosquitoes, and they had left a goat for the hawks for bait. It is really interesting to see how unafraid the hawks are when food is close by. (I’m so uncomfortable with the feeding of one animal to study another that we’re just going to skip over that.) We mostly saw birds on this walk, but it was still pretty amazing. After breakfast we went snorkelling at Buccaneer’s cave, which you may have guessed from the name, was a one-time pirate haunt. No significant wildlife sightings aside from a sea lion and lots of jellyfish, but it was still fun (and a lot of exercise!). Darwin also landed here for the longest time while he was in the Galapagos, 9 days out of 19 on land (he was in the Galapagos for 5 weeks total, most of it on his ship).
Later we went to Puerto Egas, Santiago, which was amazing, made of more volcanic rock, and tide pools. Back on the boat, we had a BBQ on the deck with plenty of vegan food for us, and dancing after. I have to say, I’ve never been great at dancing, and seeing the crew dance made me feel pretty incompetent. But it is still important to try new things, especially while traveling, so try I did! Badly, but I did have lots of fun.
Day 7 – Santa Cruz
The day started well, with fruits and lentil soup for breakfast. I eat breakfast so rarely at home that by this time I was used to soup for breakfast. Afterwards, we went to the Darwin center in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz. I would not recommend this place, and definitely don’t give them your money. It was basically a zoo. The baby turtles were very cute though. The town of Santa Cruz felt like a tourist trap, so we didn’t spend any time there. We took a bus to a coffee and sugar cane plantation, learned some things about the processing, and got to taste the alcohol they made from it.
Then we went and ate at a restaurant, and went to El Chato Natural Reserve where they had some of the giant turtles. We also went into a lava tunnel, which was pretty cool.
The town of Puerto Ayora is the home to the largest human population in the Galápagos Islands, and it was weird seeing so many people after having been on a boat with some 70-odd people for the last week.
This was our last full day in the Galapagos. We started off with a hike to Punta Pitt to see some red-footed boobies, which (secretly) I have to admit I like less than the blue-footed ones.
We went to the beach after, to which I hadn’t brought a swimsuit, so I ended up jumping in the water in my clothes because the beach was filled with sea lions and I really wanted to swim with them. I was not disappointed, a sea lion came and played with me, jumping from the water and swimming around me. It was amazing. My brother took a nap next to the sea lions, which was cute. Not all sea lions are friendly though; there was a male that was very protective and had been known to attack, but we made sure to stay far away from that one.
We went snorkelling by a giant rock/island called Leon Dormido after, which is known for being shark-infested. We saw 7-10-ish sharks, a few sea lions, some turtles, and way too many jellyfish. I got stung quite a lot. It’s funny though, I am so much more afraid of swimming near so many people than I ever would be of the sharks. When I was in the middle of our group, I was almost hyperventilating. I was completely calm near the sharks though; they just seem like interesting creatures. My sense of fear is messed up. Because everyone kept crowding at the same place and accidentally kicking someone in the face, I kept swimming away from the group to get some space. Though I’m a good swimmer, the naturalists do have to keep an eye out on the guests, so they had to keep calling me back from getting too far away from everyone else.
We got back on board to view the sunset while circumnavigating the rock, which was beautiful. This was the last moment with everyone together, so all of the crew and guests enjoyed some champagne together. My last moments on the boat, I was thinking of how much I was going to miss everyone and how amazing my experiences had been.
My feelings from the last morning on board are actually best summarized by what I wrote that day:
“This morning we finished packing and hung around for a while before going to the airport. I’ve been melancholy all morning. I went out on the deck and just sat a couple of times. This has truly been the trip of a lifetime, and I was not able to predict that. And now I definitely want to spend more time in South America. So much to the point that I’m considering doing that year abroad during my masters somewhere in S. America. Broadening my horizons and all that. So I am off to Florida tomorrow to adventure, but I am finding it hard to shake this trip off. It has left a permanent mark on me for sure. I am coming back”.
And it did. It left a permanent mark and a hunger to experience more. This is where I actually got the spark to study Spanish – I started teaching myself as soon as I got home, and eventually I will graduate to be a Spanish teacher (among other subjects). This is also where I got the travel bug to travel around South America, never having been there before. Since then I have been to Peru, and Costa Rica, am planning a trip to Bolivia and Chile, and I still want to spend a longer period in Ecuador to experience more of what this beautiful and friendly country has to offer.