I landed in Quito, Ecuador, with no established itinerary, no hotel reservations, and only a vague idea of why I was going there. Spontaneous travel is one of my favorite exercises. Upon arrival there was a very long line up at immigration. At the rate we were moving, I wouldn’t escape the airport until after 11PM and I was a little concerned about finding accommodations at such a late hour.
Armed with my trusty Lonely Planet guide I jumped in a taxi and secured a room at a funky but functional backpacker hostel with super friendly staff. It was surprisingly chilly that night in Quito considering we were only about 20 miles from the Equator. I was also surprised by the apprehension my taxi driver displayed while he was waiting to be paid, explaining that he had been robbed on this street some weeks previously.
Last Minute Specials To The Galapagos Islands
The next morning I wandered about, soaking in the Ecuadorian capital city of Quito. I couldn’t help but notice the signs advertising “travel to the Galapagos Islands” displayed on nearly every street. I hadn’t thought about going to the Galapagos until now, but it certainly did sound exciting!
I knew very little about the Galapagos apart from their relative fame related to viewing exotic wildlife. I also recalled something about the Galapagos Islands and their role in Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution. I walked into one of the travel offices with a sign that said “Last Minute Specials To Galapagos”.
I sauntered into the sales office and a young Ecuadorian who spoke English sat me down. We started flipping through the sales brochure with its many boat offerings, some of which looked like cruise ships complete with fine dining and extravagant cabins. Most of the packages were way too expensive for my taste.
Finally we got to the end of the brochure and my sales agent pointed to the last page, “this is our most economical option”, he explained, “it lasts eight days and there is only one space left… and it leaves tomorrow… first thing in the morning”.
The pictures showed plenty of happy customers and what looked like a sturdy boat. This boat was about half the price of any of the other options. I briefly considered what I was about to sign up for… 8 days on a budget boat, in the middle of nowhere, reliant on a bunch of strangers for my safety and survival…. “I’ll take it”.
The sales agent then informed me that I needed to be on the plane tomorrow morning at 8AM and that they needed $1000 cash immediately to pay for my passage. Credit cards were not accepted.
Dusk was approaching so I set out looking for cash machines, careful to watch my back and not attract too much attention. Each card had a maximum $500 daily withdrawal limit and I was going to need spending cash for the islands. I had to find ATMs for three different cards and all the bank branches were closed.
Trying to find a functioning ATM in Quito can be hit and miss. I went from ATM to ATM and finally found one that worked for two of the cards. Looking for a machine to accept my third and final card, I started roaming further from the tourist area and the streets were getting darker and darker. I knew was walking around with way too much money in my pocket.
Finally, after searching desperately for a functioning ATM, and fully aware I was being watched by less than friendly locals, I found a machine that worked with the third card. Breathing a sigh of relief, I raced back to pay the travel agent and woke up early the next morning for my transport to the airport.
The first species I encountered in Galapagos was a house fly, which I scientifically described as “housus flyus”. It kept landing on my sweaty forehead as I waited for my luggage among a slew of tourists at the airport in Baltra, the main entry point to the Galapagos Islands.
The second species I was looking for was toilet paper, which has been declared extinct in Ecuadorian public toilets.
I had forgotten rule #1 for travel in these parts, BYOTP. Rather than asking someone to “spare a square” in Spanish, I bribed the cafeteria clerk with a smile in exchange for some papel higienico.
My greatest disappointment on the islands occurred in the first few minutes of arrival, when I noticed surfers unloading surf boards off the town buses. My eight-day boat itinerary did not include surfing. “Oh well”, I thought, “I’ll be riding horseback-style on whales and sea lions… I have the rest of my life for surf.”
Suspicions Were Aroused
Having booked the cheapest boat tour possible, I couldn’t help but wonder what the benefits were for taking the fancier, expensive boats. My suspicions were aroused further when I saw my tour guide using a pay phone while other tour guides chatted on Iphones and Blackberries.
The picture of the boat in the sales brochure looked like a fine vessel. It would be eight days on that boat… how bad could it be?
Then I was told the other passengers on my boat would arrive on a later plane, so I would have to wait about 40 minutes.
I watched the sky vigilantly, hoping to spot either an incoming plane, a pterodactyl, or some related pre-historic creature. Neither appeared for what seemed like a Stone Age.
‘De Plane, ‘De Plane!
My guide appeared with four new passengers and hurried us on to a bus. From the bus, we were transferred to a boat, from the boat to a pick up truck (I rode in the back with the luggage), and from the truck we finally arrived at a dock where we were transferred to our new home, The Flamingo.
The Flamingo had appeared so much larger in the sales brochure. Quite the opposite of what its name would suggest – The Flamingo was short and stocky – not slender and graceful. The cabins were on the lowest level, the kitchen and the dining room were each on separate levels, and the upper deck capped the third level.
My cabin was about half the size of a walk-in closet, with two 24 inch wide vertical bunks and a tiny room for a toilet and shower.
Either the toilet was inside the shower, or the shower was over the toilet, either way they were both crammed into a room the size of a car seat.
I was to share my bunk with a Dutch woman from Amsterdam, who immediately claimed the bottom bunk by throwing her gear on the mattress. I wondered if it would be difficult to avoid falling off the top bunk due to a rocking boat.
I was introduced to the crew and passengers.
There were ten passengers and four crew on board. The passengers included an elderly couple from Germany, two young lads from Dublin in their twenties, a pair of Swiss girls also in their twenties, another Dutch couple in their thirties, plus my female bunk mate from Amsterdam.
Many of the passengers came prepared with sea sickness tablets and they asked what kind I had brought. Having not thought about sea sickness, I coiled inside. In reference to sea sickness I recalled someone once telling me “once you get it, you can’t get rid of it until you hit land”. I shuddered at the thought of barfing my way through the Galapagos Islands for eight days straight.
After a short visit to town and a couple of beers with the Irish lads, we returned to the boat for a seven hour overnight passage to Robina Island, our first stop. As I lay there in my bunk, the smell of diesel began wafting in as though the exhaust from the engine was being directed into our cabin.
I resisted the urge to be sick while I began to understand the benefits of a more expensive tour boat. I jammed my snorkel fins through the open windows in an attempt to direct fresh moving air into the cabin instead of the diesel fumes. Moderately successful, I tossed and turned all night with the boat rocking continuously and breathed a sigh of relief when the engine and boat finally stopped.
Thankfully, in the morning, I felt no sign of sea sickness. I gobbled our first breakfast of toast and eggs with the other guests. There would be ten of us gathered in the cramped dining lounge every day, three times per day.
I realized I was going to get to know these nine people pretty well over the next eight days, so I avoided complaining about the diesel fumes and focused instead on enjoying a cup of instant coffee amid the polite breakfast conversation.
I was getting along well with Ronan and Nick from Ireland, as we joked and laughed, adding a humorous element to the boat.
The Galapagos Islands were so dry and barren, I was amazed anything could survive here. I was beginning to doubt the diversity of species boasted by the tour sales person in Quito.
At first glance, the landscape was mostly rocky and the only trees looked like dead shrubs with no leaves. The islands were formed by several volcanic eruptions occurring millions of years ago – and it looked as though nothing but weeds had been able to survive here since.
My perspective changed quickly during our first snorkeling excursion. I was instantly surrounded by a brilliant assortment of glimmering fish, colorful rock formations and vibrant vegetation. Then, suddenly, a round dark figure emerged and a sea turtle about four to five feet in length swam directly toward me. It showed no fear as I followed it along the rocky sea floor for several minutes.
Day after day, we snorkeled, hiked, and snorkeled again. Probably the most amazing experiences were my underwater encounters with sea lions. Incredibly curious and friendly, a sea lion would bring its dog-like face within inches of mine and swim and dance circles around me inviting me to play a game.
Despite weighing hundreds of pounds, sea lions can dodge and dart at a frightening speed. The fact that they have large fish eating teeth added a layer of intensity to the situation, however I never felt threatened, only welcomed by these fun-loving sea creatures.
While hiking on the islands, our guide would point out a wide range of birds, including penguins. We also saw various types of giant iguanas, many of which do not exist anywhere else in the world.
The weather was sunny and dry, but the water was crisp and cool.
Probably the most common sight on the islands were birds, but the beauty and variety was most impressive. Not only that but we were able to walk right up to birds with chicks that had recently hatched.
By the fifth day living in close confines with one another had taken its toll and some of the members of the group began complaining about our guide.
Our guide was Ecuadorian and his English was passable but broken with a thick accent. The main problem was that he would walk ahead of the group so those at the end of the line would miss everything he said.
Tensions finally snapped and one of the Swiss girls got into a heated argument with our guide. The spat ended with our guide offering to abandon our boat that afternoon and find us a replacement guide.
A meeting was called, and our group was divided. Half the group wanted to fire the guide and the other half thought it wiser to give him another chance. I was delegated to be the diplomat (being one of the only bilingual passengers) and I carefully explained to the guide that he could remain our guide but he would have to work at making improvements. I tried to propose our message in a way that did not offend him. He accepted our conditions and we celebrated with a round of beer.
By the seventh day, I was admittedly eager to return to land.
A hot shower, a pizza, real coffee, and an unmoving bed were just some of the luxuries I missed. Then we landed at one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen, littered with more sea lions than there are tourists at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico.
The climax occurred on the eighth day when five dolphins suddenly appeared leaping and dancing in front of our boat. We ran down to the bow to get a closer look, and watched them twist their bodies to peer up at us from under the water. They would bounce out of the water with incredible speed and grace, offering us one final goodbye before we tugged into the harbor.
We all partied in celebration in the town that night, enjoying the camaraderie and friendships we had developed during the voyage. The Flamingo bobbed in the harbor, satisfied with her latest accomplishment.