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Trip Report Trip Report (long) Galapagos Cruise aboard the Samba, Quito, Oct, 2010

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Review – Quito / Galapagos Cruise – Samba, October 12-21, 2010

(Please excuse my spelling of towns, animals, names, etc).

In a word, ‘Juan-derful’. When I researched different boats/itineraries, I zeroed in on the Samba because of its great reviews and true 7 day itinerary (no wasting a day going back and forth to the airport mid-way thru). In almost every Samba posting, there was a rave review for some guide named ‘Juan’. After reading every review that mentioned his name, you would have thought that he could bend steel bars with his bare hands and leap over buildings in a single bound. After spending one week on-board the Samba with Juan, I’d have to agree with everything written about him. I have never met a more patient, knowledgeable guide. It is evident that he loves his country, his islands (he is a native Galapagoan) and his job. From the moment that he picked us up at the airport, everything was taken care of. We joked, saying that he choreographed the entire week. His timing was incredible. We made it to one stop just in time to see the marine iguanas coming in for the nite. On another stop, we just happened to be there when 5 white tipped sharks were swimming. Our stop into the Blue Footed Booby colony just happened to include a courtship dance and mating of two of these funny looking birds. It is obvious that Juan knows when to get to each site to avoid the crowds and maximize the interaction with the wonderful birds, mammals and reptiles at the site. Juan personally held my friend’s hand for one full hour of snorkeling, to alleviate her fears and concerns. It was a pleasure just sitting on the rocks or sand with Juan, watching the wildlife go by. No question was a silly one, no question was unanswered. He truly is the superman of guides.

And, as good as Juan is, the rest of the Samba crew is just as good. Polite, helpful, friendly, willing to do anything to make the experience special. Examples – The cook baked a birthday cake for my sister. After I blew out my Teva sandal, Enrique fixed it for me, without my having to ask. Nixon would bring us anything, at anytime, from the kitchen. The captain was friendly and warm, inviting us into the bridge, showing us how the vessel navigated. He even took part in our impromptu limbo contest and conga line one nite.

The snorkeling gear was plentiful, there were no problems with sizes of the suits, masks, fins – and, unlike other boats, there was no charge for their use.

There was a wonderful celebration in the bridge when we crossed the equator for the first time..

The food was incredible, from red snapper (purchased from a local fishing boat), to pork, to pasta, to chicken, to beef and even a turkey dinner, all with plenty of sides to go around. . Each meal was made complete by dessert, either fresh fruit, cake, or other sweet treats. Our group included two vegetarians and one wheat-intolerant individual The Samba cook made sure that these three individuals had plenty to eat with an incredible variety of special meals. The room sizes were adequate and very, very clean. Beds were made for us every morning.

Every day was different. Wet landings, dry landings, times when we would just stay in the Pangas (around the mangroves, for example). Snorkeling began after the 2nd day, with one or two sessions per day. (note – the water was cold, 57 degrees on one day. The 3 mil full wet suits helped, but it was still pretty cold). Depending on the site, Juan would tell us about the sea lions, land iguanas, marine iguanas, penguins, sharks, turtles, tortoises, albatrosses, tropic birds, frigates, blue footed boobies (my favorite), nazca boobies, pelicans and more. We spend a very pleasant ½ hour rest on Floreana, listening to Juan tell us ‘both’ sides of the Floreana tale. We walked into a lava tube (some in our group swam in a pool in the back of the tube.) We walked around craters formed by the lava activity that formed the islands. We climbed to the top of a lookout site for a great view of several of the islands. Some walks were done on the beach, some in forests, a few over very rough lava, with little of anything resembling a ‘trail’.

We were awoken one morning (very early) by the cry of ‘Dolphins !!!’. We scurried to the Pangas to follow a pod of (per Juan) over 400 dolphins, jumping, swimming all around us.

We never ended a day other then tired, and satisfied. We usually returned to the Samba around 5:30, just in time to watch the sunset. Juan planned each day to maximize our time at the sites.

In all, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. If you’re looking for a local boat, with a local guide, you can’t go wrong with the Samba. Note – this isn’t one of those luxury catamarans with happy hours each afternoon – If you want one of those, you should look elsewhere. 2nd Note – If you think you’ll be sleeping in ‘till 9:00, lounging over breakfast and coffee and hitting the Panga boats by 10:00 – you’re looking at the wrong boat. We were up early,(5:30 – 6:30, depending on the site) on the Pangas quickly after breakfast, and enjoying the wildlife, all well before some of the other boats were waking up !!!

I’ve got Juan’s 2011 schedule, but I can’t open it up on my netbook. If anyone is interested in his schedule, please look to this post for an update when I return back to the states.

We booked this tour thru ColumbusTravel, based in Quito. Our travel agent was ‘Diego’. He was wonderful, arranging everything for us, from airport pickups, additional nites at the Dann Carlton Hotel in Quito, and day tours from Quito (more, below). There were absolutely no hiccups in our travels, from the time we were picked up at the airport to the time that we were dropped off to return to the States. I would highly recommend using ColumbusTravel for your Galapagos/Quito plans.

The Dann Carlton was very nice, clean, with wireless internet in the rooms and a small casino on the 1st floor. It appeared to be the choice of many business men and women. Breakfast was delicious with a wide variety of fruits, juices, meats and more. If I had any criticism of the Dann Carlton, it would be of its neighborhood. There wasn’t anything really ‘near’ the hotel to walk to. It is situated in the ‘new’ part of town, close to the airport. Old Town Quito was a 20-40 minute cab drive, depending on traffic. We walked to a very small restaurant on our last nite, for sandwiches. I got a bit nervous as the restaurant staff would lock the doors after letting customers in/out, and there were straps on every chair, to lock your purses to (my guess). Better safe then sorry, but it didn’t give me a warm and fuzzy. I’m not sure if other parts of the city (Old Town?) would have appeared safer. I’d suggest reading other posts on Quito for other opinions.

We spent several hours of one day in Quito on a walking tour. The tour was provided by the Office of Tourism, located in the corner of the town hall, in the Grande Plaza. We were surprised to see that the tour was led by a uniformed policeman ! The tour cost $7 per person. As an added bonus, we were fortunate enough to see the President of Ecuador giving a speech in the Grande Plaza that morning.

While in Quito, we also took two ‘day trips’ arranged by ColumbusTravel – The first was a three-market-town shopping trip. We were picked up at the Dann Carlton in a very nicely sized mini-bus, plenty big for the seven of us going shopping. We stopped briefly at the Equator, near Cayambe, for some shots from both hemispheres. From there, we drove to Otavalo and bought as much alpaca clothing as we could carry. The bargaining was very easy, quick and fun. The vendor would start at 15, we’d counter with 10 and agree at 12 or 13. (Please remember that a dollar or two means far more to the vendors then it does to we travelers. I suggest that you do bargain, but it is not necessary to hardball every deal.) We purchased several alpaca sweaters for around $18, two alpaca blankets for $18/$20, and many scarves from $5 to $10. I bought an alpaca woolly cap for $5. From Otavalo, we drove north to San Antonio di Barra, to look at woodwork. This town was a little disappointing to most of us on the trip – I don’t believe anyone found anything that they couldn’t “live without’. The woodwork was very nicely done, but none of us needed a religious icon or a miniature Don Quihote sculpture. In retrospect, we all agreed that we would have forgone this town, to spend more time in the other two. But, to each his own. We had lunch at an incredible Hacienda. The building was built several hundred years ago. The food was delicious, and the land was beautiful. From di Barra, we continued north to Cotachacci – home of the leather workers. The products were amazing, as were the prices. I bought a wonderful light-weight motorcycle jacket for $110. Prices here were ‘fixed’, but you could receive a small discount for purchasing in cash.

The next day, four of us took the ‘Mindo’ tour, advertised on the ColumbusTravel website. Based on the description of the tour on the website, I wasn’t looking very forward to the tour – it didn’t seem to offer very much. I was extremely surprised and pleased with the actual tour. We had an incredible time. Our guide, Juan, (not the same Juan as in the Galapagos) picked us up at the Dann Carlton at 8:00. We stopped at a spot overlooking an old (5 million years) crater for photos. We continued northwest to an orchid research reserve. The walk thru the reserve was wonderful. We then stopped at a butterfly reserve for about ½ hour, watching the wonderful creatures fly around. We had lunch at fantastic resort restaurant in Mindo, overlooking an old world forest. After lunch, we walked thru that forest, with Juan explaining the interconnection of the plants that we were seeing. Finishing off the tour, we watched some amazing and very different hummingbirds at feeders put up by the restaurant.

If anyone has any questions regarding our experiences, please respond to this post and I will answer when I can.

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