Here’s a bit of information on our recent Galapagos (plus Quito) trip through smartours.
Since we’ve previously been to Peru we chose to do only the Galapagos/Quito portion of the smartours itinerary - the rest of the group also spent a week in Peru including 2 days at Machu Picchu prior to Ecuador. When we (along with 2 other couples) joined them in Quito they were all very welcoming. Although it was clear that they had bonded (a good group on a tour does that shockingly quickly!) there was no feeling of cliquishness or being the odd men out.
In Quito we stayed at the Hilton Colon hotel which was very nice. Helpful staff, newly renovated/decorated rooms with very comfortable beds, large bathroom, big flat screen TV, etc. The restaurant in the lobby where we ate breakfast was fine - not wonderful but okay. Our guide recommended some places to eat in the neighborhood which were good. Also near the hotel there are shops, & a pharmacy right across the street -- good for stocking up on bottled water -- and a park. One store in particular, Ethnic Collection on Amazonas, had some lovely things.
We got to the hotel late on the first night and then spent the next day touring the Old City with the group. Since it was a Monday we were able to see the changing of the guard at the Presidential Palace complete with soldiers in circa 1800s uniforms, parading horses, and an appearance on the balcony by the President. Hard to believe they go through all of that pomp & circumstance every Monday!
We flew the next morning to the Galapagos via Guayaquil (where you have a layover on the plane of one hour and are not allowed to leave the plane or use the bathrooms...you have been warned). After getting through the formalities in the San Cristobal airport we were taken by bus to the pier where we transferred to zodiacs along with our hand luggage -- the rest of the suitcases were ferried over separately. Our first sight of sea lions on the pier was a wow moment. Haha...no big deal to the locals or the tourists who had been there a bit - but to us, seeing them lounging in the middle of the sidewalk, napping on benches, or commandeering the decks of tied-up boats was quite something.
We boarded the Galapagos Explorer II after a short zodiac ride and were taken to our cabin. The ship is nicely decorated with wood paneling, new carpeting and upholstery in cabins & public areas and was very clean. Our cabin was large compared to ocean cruises we’ve taken.
The ship holds 100 passengers and the smartours group made up a third of that. The rest were 2 other groups of mainly British & Australians travelers. They break the passengers up into groups of 15 or so and each landing that you do is with that same group. I’m not sure what the max number of people ashore is at each landing site per National Park regulations - but they are allowed 100 at least. That meant you have to wait for your turn in the zodiac (and they rotated the groups so each landing a different group went first) BUT you do not have to wait for other people to return from the island before you can go out. Once ashore you are again with your group of 15 and your assigned guide (we had the same guide the entire time) takes you for your hike or brings you to a section of the beach to have a discussion. So it’s never crowded - there are never 100 people all standing around together is what I’m trying to say, only 15 max.
So that first day -- we boarded the GE2 in the early afternoon, dropped our carry-ons in the cabin, ate lunch, went to a briefing on how things would work on the ship, found out which small group we were in (Iguanas!), went to find snorkel gear at the back of the ship (rented for a small fee for the week), had our emergency drill, and then got ready for our first landing. Whew. Have I mentioned yet this was a very fast-paced trip? Not a lot of downtime at all - certainly on the ship there was very little if you chose to do every landing.
I won’t go into too many details of the islands we visited since the itinerary on any trip will vary. But most landings included hikes and then at the end of the hike those who wanted to could snorkel. Others could walk on the beach or go back to the ship. Generally the snorkeling was from the beach on our trip - only once were snorkelers taken by zodiac out to a location & dropped off.
We saw a lot of sea lions, marine iguanas, land iguanas, a land tortoise (just one), various birds -- hawks, gulls, a flamingo (again, just one!) & yes many blue-footed boobies and the albatrosses.
The sea lion pups were nursing -- so funny to see them lumbering up to a snoozing female and nuzzling in only to be told in no uncertain terms “you’re not my kid - move on!” The noise I’ve always associated with them is a barking - I guess the classic seal in the circus barks - but these guys made some very rude and - to me - funny sounds.
One sea lion pup swam with my husband and investigated his flippers before zooming away. I thought that sounded like a trip highlight but he was more impressed with the white tipped reef shark he saw swim beneath him.
Wake-up calls came over the PA at 6ish and then landings were right after breakfast. A few hours later back to the ship for lunch, maybe a lecture, film, or towel-folding demonstration (I didn’t realize what an art form that can be!), or possibly a nap out on a deck chair. Then around 2 pm out for a second landing. Back to the ship around 5 pm or 6 to clean up, have happy hour up on deck, a briefing on the next day’s activities, and then dinner around 8. After dinner there was always something scheduled - dancing, star-gazing (wow, unbelievable the number of stars you could see from the pitch-dark deck - I was especially happy to see the Southern Cross constellation), karaoke - but I think the majority of us were so wiped out from the long, busy days that there weren’t a lot of people partying the night away. Other than checking out the stars from the top deck a couple times we went straight from dinner to sleep every night.
One day we spent the morning at the Darwin Research Station -- of course no trip to the Galapagos is complete without laying eyes on Lonesome George. I typed/deleted Curious George first. Oops. We did not see any monkeys After learning about the trials and tribulations of George’s love life and seeing the cute baby tortoises in the breeding program we moved on to a visit of the town, Puerto Ayora. It’s a cute one-main-street town with some nice shops and a fish market where the sea lions and pelicans compete for scraps. Good photo op!
A few more thoughts on the experience on the ship:
The food was very good. Breakfast and lunch were served as buffets with open seating and dinner was served from a menu - 2 or 3 choices for each course. At dinner passengers generally sat at tables reserved for their particular group but not at any specific assigned table. It seemed very flexible. The dress code was casual. There were people in Bermuda shorts at dinner and sandals were okay. The website for the ship (mvgalapagosexplorer dot net) shows people dining in sports coats, etc. but I assure you that was not the case when we were there. I think I wore capris and sandals every night. They don’t spare the air conditioning so I would recommend a cardigan or long-sleeved shirt for anyone who gets chilly in heavy A/C.
Laundry was available on the ship and prices were reasonable. Prices were also reasonable for drinks.
Taking 2 bathing suits was some good advice I had gotten pre-trip. If you swim in the morning you might like a dry suit to put on after lunch. Things in our cabin seemed to take a long time to dry - bathing suits did not dry even overnight, for example.
The kind of shoes needed for wet landings was something I struggled with before going. As it turned out all wet landings were either onto white sand or some other smooth surface. There was never a time when we couldn’t land barefooted and then just dry our feet and put shoes or sandals on for hiking. Is that always the case? I don’t know - some people have written about landing on sharp lava rocks but we were told on the GE2 they always land on soft sand so that’s not a problem. Next time I wouldn’t feel I had to bring “water sandals.”
The staff of the ship was super friendly and the naturalists (not naturists, right? they’re the nudists?) on board were excellent. Ours provided a huge amount of information about the different flora and fauna we saw and also a good history of the Galapagos islands themselves. I was unaware that there was such a large human population on the islands. My pre-trip studying was more focused on Darwin and his writings and not so much on present day conditions. My understanding is that the naturalists are all employees of the Galapagos National Park, not of individual ships, and they all go through rigorous training.
Our 4 nights translated to 7 landings. Was that enough? I’m on the fence. In general, yes I was satisfied and didn’t feel a burning regret that we were leaving so soon. The landings, while all unique did share elements and started to feel similar to an extent. That’s purely my opinion - anyone who is very into nature or photography could happily spend weeks or a lifetime there I’m sure. Perhaps one more night - a 5th - would have made it feel really complete. Would I go back? -- yes, I would like to someday. But there’s a lot of world to see first!
The conclusion: we flew back from the Galapagos (again via Guayaquil) to Quito and had that evening to ourselves. The next day was a full-day tour of the surrounding area including Otavalo for the market and a stop at an equator monument. We had lunch in a town known for leather -- and then had time to stroll the main drag and its 50 very similar leather stores. I wasn’t seriously looking but there were definitely deals to be had.
The following day, our last in Quito, we were on our own until 5:30 to head to a farewell dinner and then the airport. Happily our guide arranged a late check-out at that time so we didn’t end up at loose ends in Quito all day. Because it was a Monday the museums were closed so we ended up just walking around the hotel’s neighborhood and then catching up on email in the Hilton’s business center (free internet).
The dinner was good at La Ronda (the restaurant felt a bit dated and like it deals mostly with a lot of tourists but there were no complaints about the food from our group). Other than a fog delay in the Quito airport the flight home was uneventful. Be prepared for extra security checks at the gate after you’ve already gone through security once. They made people open their carry-ons and took a few folks at random out to the the checked luggage to go through their suitcases. Not a big deal but you have to allow time.
This was my second smartours trip and I’ve been happy with both of them. I think for their very low prices they provide a heck of a lot of product. I just looked at the price for the itinerary if booking directly with the GE2. From smartours we got the 4 nights in Quito, the tours there, the domestic flights to & from the islands, transfers at all airports/hotels, the $100 Galapagos park fee, PLUS international air for not a lot more than the ship’s quoted rate for a 4-night stay. So, would I recommend them? Yes, definitely.
There’s a lot of subjectivity in deciding what kind of ship is best - or right for each individual. I know some would be aghast at going on such a large ship but that didn’t bother me at all. I don’t think stability was an issue - we had calm water the whole time - but if there were storms I like the idea of a bigger ship and less motion. Also, being with 99 new best friends was not a problem. There was room enough at all times to spread out and not be around other people at all if that was one’s preference. But everyone’s different, luckily there are a lot of ships (95?) in those islands to choose between!
If anyone has any questions I’ll be happy to try to answer them. We had a wonderful time and I know that all of you in the planning stages will too!
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Here’s a bit of information on our recent Galapagos (plus Quito) trip through smartours.