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The Galapagos - "It's not a cruise - it's an expedition"

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About a year ago my wife and I decided we'd really like to visit the Galapagos - after all it had a fundamental influence on Darwin's "Origin of the Species" and is home to a wide variety of unique wildlife. As we investigated the idea we decided that since Ecuador and Peru are (relatively) close, it made sense to combine a the Galapagos trip with a tour of Peru.

A Galapagos tour is best done by boat, and we considered a number of options - small catamaran, sailboat or larger tour ship. Which would be best?

In organizing the Peru portion of our trip we had been in contact with Nina Fogelman at Ancient Summit Enterprises (www.ancientsummit.com) who specializes in custom trips to Peru, but also will help organize Galapagos visits as well. Her recommendation was the MV Santa Cruz operated by Metropolitan Touring Company (based in Quito Ecuador). The MV Santa Cruz is one of the larger touring vessels in the Galapagos and turned out to be an excellent recommendation for a number of reasons. First a larger vessel is much more stable in heavy seas, meaning less chance of seasickness. Second with a larger number of passingers - the Santa Cruz can have 96 - there's a good chance you'll find a group of people with whom you have common interests. And lastly, since the passengers are divided up into groups of 10 or 12 with a guide, should you have a guide that doesn't "work" for you, you can aways change. (we definitely didn't have that problem).

Our trip originated in Toronto, Canada, connecting through New York to Guayaquil, Ecuador on LAN Airlines. For reference, LAN is a network of regional South American Airlines including LAN Chile, LAN Ecuador, LAN Peru and others. It was brought to our attention by Ancient Summit largely because the price for all of our connections to, and within Peru, was far less expensive than any other option. It turns out LAN has a very modern fleet of aircraft and excellent service. The flight from Toronto to Guayaquil was on a Boeing 767 with the best entertainment system I've encountered, and all other flights were on Airbus 319 aircraft.

The timing of our flights to Guayaquil and then Galapagos meant we had a day in Guayaquil. We stayed at the Oro Verde Hotel, an excellent hotel located near the riverfront, the Malecon, which is the highlight of the city - particularly the Botanical garden that is part of the Malecon. When travelling to the Galapagos flights leave from Quito or Guayaquil so your arrival in Ecuador will be to one of these two cities. Quito, I believe is the more interesting city, however it's also at 10000 feet so its somewhat cooler and there is some adjustment to the altitude. Guayaquil, on the other hand is at sea level, much warmer and no altitude adjustment.

Our flight from Guayaquil to the Galapagos (Baltra Airport) was on TAME airlines and was organized by Metropolitan Touring, who I should add arranged for our pickup and transport to the hotel from the airport, and the transport and checking for the Galapagos flight. Extremely well handled. I was somewhat surprised that the aircraft was again an Airbus 319 - Baltra has a sufficiently long runway since it was used by the American military during the second world war.

Our trip on the Santa Cruz was 4 nights, 5 days and visited 7 islands, usually visiting 2 islands per day - one in the morning, one in the afternoon. Landings on the islands are handled by "pangas" (probably better known as zodiac) boats - some being "dry" landings - others "wet", where you'll definitely get your feet wet. The expeditions were typically about 8am - 11am and then from 2:30pm to 5:30pm.... avoiding the hottest part of the day and allowing us to have a great lunch. Although we weren't on the islands during the hottest part of the day, you certainly wouldn't want to forget your sunscreen - after all it is right on the equator!. In case you're wondering the Santa Cruz does have airconditioning (driven by sea water) so its alway possible to keep cool.

Keeping cool was also possible by participating in the numerous snorkeling opportunities (if that doesn't work for you they also have a glass bottom boat for checking out the marine life). The water at the end of March when we were there was fine for snorkeling without any wetsuit, though later into the summer the water is significantly cooler due to the Humboldt current which comes up from the Antarctic. In that case the crew has wetsuits you can rent for a small fee. Oh.. and the Santa Cruz has internet access - if you have your own computer you can get wireless access for $30 for 5 days.... or they have a couple of computers you can use for $5/hr.

Each night the Expedition Leader and guides did a presentation on the adventure for the next day and the wildlife we may encounter. The Expedition Leader (who manages the other guides), Ramiro Tomala, was outstanding - he has a engaging personality, articulate, and can communicate in a very entertaining manner... always worth listening to.

While I've only been there once, I believe that whenever you go you'll be treated to an abundance of wildlife - each island provides something different both in landscape, birds, and animals. Coastal Santa Cruz with white sand beaches had flamingos, land iquanas, and marine iguanas. Santiago island (with black beaches) had lots of marine iguanas, fur sea lions, common sea lions and (for us) a Galapagos hawk... North Seymour island had mating Frigatebirds and Blue footed boobies ... and the Santa Cruz highlands has plenty of Giant Tortoises (maybe even mating if you're lucky like we were), and of course there's the old giant "Lonesome George" at the Darwin Research Station.

The Galapagos are definitely an experience that shouldn't be missed. And as our leader Ramiro said.. "it's not a cruise - it's an expedition"

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