This Travel Journal submitted by Katrina McNerney details her Galapagos Small Ship Cruise with AdventureSmith Explorations as well as the Galapagos Travel Package. Read more to learn about her time aboard the Cormorant and her pre-cruise day tour of Quito.
Day 1: Thursday, May 19th
Our adventure begins! As our flight descended into Quito early afternoon, green mountaintops peeked through the clouds and we caught our first glimpse of the city: colorful houses clambering up hillsides, filling the valley between lush green mountains and a snow-capped volcano in the distance. Once we cleared customs we were greeted by Fatima, a very friendly guide from Metropolitan Touring, and taken to our hotel, the Patio Andaluz, in Old Town Quito. During the car ride Fatima welcomed us with many interesting stories about Quito and Ecuador. Most puzzling to us was the story she told about how the current building of a subway in Quito has been difficult due to Quito’s “many rabbits.” We pondered that one for quite a while until finally deciphering that she meant Quito’s “many ravines.” Her English pronunciation was very charming, although sometimes a little unusual.
As each song ended and a new one began, some gentleman from the audience sitting around them would stand up and join in the song.
After checking in at the Patio Andaluz and admiring the stunning views of the city around us from the panoramic windows of the single 4th floor room we were assigned, we headed out for a little walk around the area, ending up in Independence Square, where we came upon 2 elderly Ecuadorians, singing and playing traditional music on old guitars. As each song ended and a new one began, some gentleman from the audience sitting around them would stand up and join in the song. Everywhere around us, Ecuadorians and indigenous people walked by selling various items: panama hats, bags of fruit, lottery tickets, baked goods, trays of ice cream, coca tea, alpaca scarves, and more. It was quite musical, as the sing-song voices intermingled, advertising their wares. We felt like we stood out in the crowds as even at 5’8”, I’m a head taller than most of the men, especially the indigenous people.
We decided to enjoy dinner at the very good restaurant in the courtyard of our hotel, diving in to some traditional Ecuadorian cuisine, then early to bed due to a bit of a high altitude headache.
Day 2: Friday, May 20th
After a delicious breakfast buffet, we were met by our guide Aldo, who took us on a 3-hour walking tour of Old Town. He had many interesting stories to tell about the history and architecture of Quito. We watched the changing of the guard at the Presidential Palace, visited the elaborately gilded baroque Church of La Compañía de Jesús and strolled through the little tourist shops in the catacombs below the Church of San Francisco. Later we met up with our driver to take us to the top of the hill to see the large statue of the Virgin of El Panecillo and to admire the stunning views of Quito below.
Our tour over and a brief break at our hotel, we then walked north to visit La Mariscal Craft Market which is filled with souvenirs and Ecuadorian blankets and scarves, hats and crafted items. On the way back, we detoured to the west to see the still unfinished Basilica del Voto Nacional, a towering neo-gothic cathedral with various amazing animal gargoyles. Late lunch at Hasta la Vuelta, in the courtyard in the Bishop’s Palace. We ordered a sampling plate of several Ecuadorian tapas to share. Delicious!
Siesta and a late dinner.
Day 3: Saturday, May 21st
We were picked up after an early breakfast for our flight to the Galápagos. Aldo took care of all the arrangements at the airport, all we had to do was accept our boarding passes and trip vouchers and head to our gate. On the flight we were surrounded by many other tourists excited for their Galápagos adventures to begin. The couple in front of us recognized us from breakfast at the hotel and coincidentally turned out to be fellow passengers on our ship. It was nice getting to know them as we flew to Baltra Island, with a brief stopover in Guayaquil. Once in the Baltra airport, Jimmy Iglésias, our Galápagos Park guide for the week, rounded us up– we were a group of 11 travelers, 9 from the United Kingdom and the 2 of us, the token Americans.
A short bus-ride took us to a small dock where rubber zodiacs which they call “pangas” awaited us to take us on board the Cormorant. After a short introduction, we were assigned our staterooms and everyone went to settle in and unpack. Our cabin was on the upper deck and had a small balcony like all the others. Although there was an air conditioner in the room, we turned it off, opened the large cabin window, bathroom window and balcony door to enjoy the sea breeze. We then met our fellow travelers in the dining room for a fabulous lunch. 3 different veggie salads, avocado, several hot entrees and sides, followed by dessert.
After we ate, the Cormorant sailed towards Las Bachas Beach on the island of Santa Cruz for our first excursion. Everyone was fitted with a shorty wetsuit and snorkeling gear to use for the rest of the trip. Jack & I had brought our own masks and snorkels but not the fins. Once we anchored off shore, 2 pangas took our group to the beach, where we made a “wet landing,” getting out of the panga into the shallow water on the beach, then took a nice leisurely stroll with Jimmy for our first preview of the Galápagos. And what a preview! We saw Sally Lightfoot crabs, a sea turtle, marine iguanas and frigate birds. We walked along the beach a bit, then snorkeled a little.
Once back on board the Cormorant, we showered and relaxed. Our evening briefing of the next day’s activities was followed by a champagne toast and introduction to all of the crew members. Afterwards we sat down to a delicious dinner and dessert. We lingered at the table getting to know each other better before retiring to our cabins. Two couples from London are members of a classic car club who do world-wide car rallies every year, shipping their cars to the starting point, then following a specified route. This trip: Cartageña to Lima. The four of them have taken a brief hiatus from the rally for this Galápagos cruise. There is couple from Norfolk who loves traveling and told of several safaris in Africa. A fourth couple, also avid travelers from London, is celebrating their 30th anniversary like we are. Then there is a young professional working for IBM who is from Brighton and is here to celebrate a belated honeymoon; her spouse, however, was unfortunately delayed in Quito with a severe case of food poisoning. It’s a great group of travelers, all very nice and we would soon bond over shared jokes and great conversation.
Overnight the Cormorant sailed on to our next stop: Bartolome Island.
Day 4: Sunday, May 22nd
Jack & I woke up as a beautiful sunrise filled the sky with pink and orange. We sat on our balcony a bit enjoying the daybreak. The cheery voice of Gustavo, our cruise manager, soon sounded over the ship intercom, “Good morning to a beautiful day in Galápagos! It is time to wake up, ladies and gentlemen. We have breakfast waiting for you in the restaurant at 7:30. This is your D-D-D-D-Jay Gustavo!” And so it was. A delicious breakfast with fresh fruit juice and tropical fruits, yogurt, cheese and cold cuts and made-to-order omelets in addition to another hot breakfast entree filled us with energy to begin the day.
A quick panga ride took us from the ship to a dry landing on a small dock of this relatively barren volcanic island, where we began our hike up the 375 wooden steps of Bartolome Island to the summit of the volcano for wonderful views of the island and bays below. Of course we stopped many times for photos… lizards, pelicans, boobies, crabs…
Once we returned to the boat, our captain was there to greet us and help us out of the panga onto the Cormorant where we were served a fresh cold fruit juice and snack. Then we had a little time to get ready for our next activity: snorkeling around Pinnacle Rock. Once again, this was amazing and filled with new sights of awesome wildlife. We swam over a large marbled ray, past balloon fish and surgeon fish and king angelfish, then came around a corner to see a Galápagos penguin hopping out of the water onto a ledge next to a sea lion. Cute little guy! We were only about 6 ft away.
After snorkeling, we returned to the boat, once again greeted by our captain and a snack. This was to become the routine. Lunch was served at noon giving us plenty of time to rinse the saltwater off and relax. Lunch, we soon learned, was just as elaborate as dinner: always plenty of choices of various salads, fresh veggies, cooked entrees including seafood and other meats and several hot sides. And yummy desserts. Over the course of the trip these included chocolate lava cake to rice pudding to tropical fruit salad served in a papaya. The meals sometimes were themed – Mexican, British, Ecuadorian, barbecue, Italian, seafood and always so many choices and very delicious.
After lunch, we settled in for the traditional siesta. We either spent time up on the sun deck watching frigate birds as they floated effortlessly in the air currents above our boat as it sailed on to our next stop, or relaxed on our balcony.
Our next activity mid-afternoon was a hike on the lava fields of Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island. The heat appeared to rise up off the lava in waves as we picked out way across interesting patterns. Unfortunately for me, this is when “turista” suddenly hit me full force. I’m not sure what it was that I ate that caused it, as Jack and I had eaten mostly the same foods and shared each other’s meals, but as no one else from the Cormorant was affected, I assumed it was something in Quito or possibly the warm sandwich on the flight to the Galápagos. Jack alerted Jimmy, who immediately called for a panga. It raced to the shore nearest to where we were and flew across the bay back to the Cormorant. Gustavo was quite concerned and offered to make an oregano infusion, which I guess must be a home remedy. Once the rest of the group was back on board I was feeling a tiny bit better, allowing Jack to join the rest of the group for the final day’s activity: a panga ride along the shoreline. Jack reported back they had seen more Galápagos penguins, American oyster catchers and several rays.
That night was quite miserable for me, but gradually eased.
Day 5: Monday, May 23rd
When Jack returned to our room after breakfast he was quite surprised to see me dressed and ready to attempt to tackle the day. I was determined not to miss any other activities on this trip that I had dreamed about taking for so many years! Fortified with a last dose of Pepto-Bismol tablets, a bit of tea and pretzels, I was good to go. The Cormorant had sailed to South Plazas Island during the night and up next was a dry landing and short hike. South Plazas was fascinating. The landscape was covered with prickly pear cactus trees and a succulent-like ground-cover (Sesuvium) that changes from greenish-yellow to a bright red color this time of year. Everywhere we looked, large yellowish prehistoric-looking land iguanas claimed their favorite prickly pear tree. There were also many blue-footed boobies around as well as sea lions up on the cliffs and in areas where you wondered how they got there, so far from shore. We came across a lava gull, oblivious to our presence, resting on the edge of the cliff. Back on the shoreline there were pelicans and brown nutty terns.
After returning to the Cormorant for the usual greeting and snack, we had time to relax before everyone but me had lunch. I opted to play it safe while recuperating and stuck with Sprite and pretzels. The Cormorant then sailed to Santa Fe Island. First up was snorkeling. This time I chose to join the non-snorkelers on a panga ride on the other end of the bay. It was amazing! We saw so many green sea turtles, several large marbled rays, sea lions everywhere and 2 fairly impressive 6-foot Galápagos sharks. The snorkelers missed out. Perhaps fortunately. We joked that now we knew why all snorkelers had to sign a release waiver!
After a quick shower our final activity of the day was a hike on Santa Fe Island. We landed on a beach guarded by 2 large sea lion bulls and a pile of young sea lion pups. It was the mothers’ time to go fishing. We hiked up a rocky path through very large prickly pear trees. Some had trunks so large, you couldn’t put your arms around them fully. The land iguanas here were much paler than the ones we had seen on South Plazas Island, more of a sandy beige color and they seemed fatter, with wide flattened bellies. Once again we discovered sea lions had crawled far from shore, probably climbing over the same boulder-strewn path we had taken.
Back on the boat, dinner was Chinese food. I stuck with rice but splurged on the dessert. It was rice pudding and quite mild. Just what I needed. After dinner the Cormorant left for San Cristobal as we had farther to go than before.
Day 6: Tuesday, May 24th
Good morning to a beautiful day in Galápagos! 8 of us were up for a sunrise excursion, having convinced Jimmy this was a good idea. We set out together in one panga and headed out to circle around a large rock formation offshore, jutting out of the ocean. So much wildlife! The walls of the rock near the water level were covered with crabs and as we moved towards them, it seemed like the whole wall moved. It was like a scene out of an Indiana Jones movie, a little creepy. We entered a small sea cave and came across two sea lions in the water. One was playing with a stick– tossing it and retrieving it, playing fetch; the other was practicing being a torpedo, zipping around the cave at beak-neck speeds. Suddenly he surfaced with a huge fish in his mouth which he swam around with for quite a while, working up his appetite. We moved on to a tunnel through the rock and watched 3 pelicans diving for their breakfast, then rounded to the other side to see American oyster catchers with their brightly-colored long red beaks looking for something tasty.
By the time we returned to the Cormorant, the usual wake-up call from Gustavo came over the intercom and the day started for everyone else. I was back to health, ready for the usual delicious breakfast. We then took the pangas to a wet landing on shore at Cerro Brujo and walked along the beach. What a contrast in colors! Soft white sand, turquoise waters, black lava rocks jutting into the ocean intermittently. It was low tide so we were able to cautiously walk across the lava tide pools, observing marine iguanas, Sally Lightfoot crabs, yellow warblers, and American oyster catchers. Further along the beach we stopped to watch several pelicans and blue-footed boobies dive bombing into the water to fish. They put on an amazing show!
We returned to our usual juice and snack and noon lunch. The Cormorant sailed to the northeast side of San Cristobal for our afternoon excursion of hiking up to the cliffs of Punta Pitt. This hike up a steep rocky ravine brought us past many nesting blue-footed boobies, some with 2 large blueish eggs, some with fluffy chicks. The blue-footed boobies nest in indentations right on the ground, often next to the trail, quite unperturbed with us walking past them or even stopping and photographing them. As they sit on the nest and gradually turn around in a circle to face away from the sun, they poop in a circle around the nest indentation, so the nesting sites are all encircled in a white starburst pattern.
We also saw red-footed boobies nesting. These boobies nest in real nests built with twigs in trees, as their webbed feet are prehensile and they are able to grip the branches in the trees to sit on them, unlike the blue-footed booby, whose webbed foot is more like a duck’s. We saw several red-footed booby nests with very fluffy chicks as well.
Back to the Cormorant, cold juice & snacks etc. The Cormorant now moved on to southern San Cristobal where there is access to the road to the airport to pick up the missing passenger, who had missed the first half of the cruise due to severe food poisoning she had acquired in Quito the day before the flight. She was warmly welcomed on board after dinner, as we had all heard so much about her already and she had been greatly missed.
Day 7: Wednesday, May 25th
We stayed at anchor in San Cristobal harbor all night, then took the pangas to shore after breakfast for our bus up to the San Cristobal Galápaguera, the giant tortoise breeding center. It was an interesting walk around the breeding center. Much of the land is natural vegetation and the giant tortoises can be found gathering at the watering holes and feeding sites. Hatchlings are kept in small enclosures, covered with chicken wire to protect them from rats and other pests. The 2-3 year-olds are together in a bigger enclosure and the 4-5 year-olds have their own space. Once they turn 6 years old they are released back into the area where their eggs were collected, together with the other adult giant tortoises.
Before getting back on the bus we took a group picture with all 12 of us and Jimmy, as one couple was leaving us this morning and flying out of the San Cristobal airport, since they had only booked the 5 day cruise. Before heading back for lunch on the Cormorant, we said our goodbyes in the port and then took the pangas through the harbor filled with many moored boats with sea lions and herons on them.
After lunch a new family from Georgia joined us for the remainder of the cruise: a mother and her 2 sons who were both celebrating their graduations, one from college and one from medical school. We also got a new cruise manager, Pablo. Gustavo had finished working a 6 week shift and was due for a 3 week vacation to see his family in Quito. We sailed on back to Léon Dormido, or Kicker Rock, for some deep water snorkeling against the rock walls. As we swam through a narrow passage we saw 3 Galápagos and whitetip sharks in the depths below us. We also came across a huge sea turtle deep below us and a large ray. The walls were covered with colonies of large sea urchins and a few very large yellow starfish. Later one of our fellow travelers informed us that based on the size of fish she recognized swimming at the same depths as the sharks, she guesstimated they were at least 6 feet long. Oh! After getting out of the water and back on board the Cormorant, we sailed around the rock formation slowly, observing the wildlife above… Nazca boobies, frigate birds, and large tuna jumping out of the water in a feeding frenzy. As we sailed away several frigate birds once again glided along with us, several even landing on the boat to catch a ride. Wonderful photo ops!
Day 8: Thursday, May 26th
We woke up quite early to the Cormorant cruising south through choppy seas to Española. After jumping out of bed to secure various items, we lay back down, enjoying the rocking motion. The boat arrived around sunrise and anchored. Our morning hike at Suarez Point took us across the beach and then through an obstacle course of red-patterned marine iguanas up a somewhat rocky trail toward the western cliff coastline. A pair of Galápagos mockingbirds seemed very interested in a spot on the beach and were digging a hole. A juvenile mockingbird kept interfering, demanding to be fed. We passed many sea lions and came to a cliff full of Nazca boobies and their juveniles, some of them testing their wings by standing in the wind and flapping in place. Further along the trail we came across nesting waved albatrosses. These majestic birds also do not build a nest, but just sit on a single egg somewhere on the ground. Blending into the lava rock landscape were three Galápagos hawks. We soon reached the height of the trail at the edge of the cliffs. Below us: the famous blow-hole, hissing and steaming with huge fountains of spray that were all the better for the strong waves bashing against the cliffs. A waved albatross sat on one edge, then let itself fall off the cliff into an immediate elegant glide. As our hike circled back toward the beach we came across very colorful little lizards. Our guide had mentioned earlier that if you don’t know the name of an animal, chances are it is called either Galápagos something or Lava something. So we joked that these were Cheetah spotted Galápagos Lava lizards. As we stood on the beach waiting for our pangas to pick us up, we watched 2 marine iguanas march into the water and swim away. It’s an odd sight to see them swimming using only their tails and so at ease in the water. Our attention was then drawn to a sea lion and its very noisy pup, who appeared to be demanding to nurse but the mother kept pushing it to swim some more and kept it from pushing her toward the beach.
After lunch and siesta, the Cormorant moved to Gardner Bay. We took the pangas over to Gardner Islet for some snorkeling. As we hopped out of the pangas into the water we noticed many sea lions swimming around us. They were just as curious about us as we were about them, swimming towards us, then somersaulting down under and around us. It was absolutely amazing. Again and again sea lions floated towards us as if trying to see their own reflections in our masks and then dove down. We floated around them for quite a while, respecting their space and yet enjoying the interaction.
Later in the afternoon we disembarked the pangas on the white sand beaches of Gardner Bay for a leisurely stroll. Once again the turquoise waters and black lava rocks were stunning. We watched pelicans and boobies diving into the bay for a while, watched a sea turtle swimming along an outcropping of rocks and then came across a sleepy pile of sea lions sunning themselves. Further on a single sea lion was playing “sand monster,” rolling and rolling in the sand until its wet fur was completely coated with the white sand and he looked like a snowy white pup. He kept stretching back and squinting at us as if to gauge our reaction to his antics. At the end of the beach lay a reassembled whale skeleton, the vertebrae impressively large.
Dinner tonight was an outdoor barbecue on the upper deck. We had been alerted by Pablo, our cruise manager, of 2 large sharks swimming beside the boat earlier, as he pointed them out with his strong torchlight, but later, after dinner, as we relaxed with a few fellow passengers, we suddenly heard loud splashing behind the boat. The Cormorant was underway again and as we trained flashlights into the water behind us we saw a feeding frenzy of 12-14 very large 7-8 foot silvertip sharks jumping after flying fish, which appeared to be trying to take refuge between the 2 pontoons. It was quite impressive! Their eyes glowed in the flashlights and it was a little creepy, knowing that we had been snorkeling in these same waters with these aggressive sharks. It kind of made us rethink whether we would get into the water again…
Day 9: Friday, May 27th
Another rocky night while traveling from Española to Floreana… It’s good to know that even this has not caused us to become seasick. We anchored near morning then went on a hike after breakfast at Punta Cormorant. We had hoped to see flamingos on an inland lagoon, but no such luck. Apparently their food supply must have run dry and they have departed for “greener pastures.” We only saw a great blue heron and then many Sally Lightfoot crabs along the beach.
We returned to the boat to change into our snorkel gear (the fear of sharks had surprisingly worn off in the daylight!) for one last time. We took the pangas over to Champion Islet and jumped off into somewhat choppy waters but had an amazing visibility as we swam around the shores – large schools of surgeon fish, many king angelfish and several sea lions.
Our final lunch was Ecuadorian which included delicious shrimp and fish ceviche and fried plantains. Yummy! After lunch we departed for Post Office Bay, which was a very short walk to the mail exchange “station” (basically a wooden barrel with a roof) used by 18th century whalers. We added the postcards we had written into the collection, then sorted through all the others and pulled out those which were addressed to towns near our homes. There were a handful from various places in England that our fellow travelers took with them to hand-deliver. Back at the beach we were given some free time to stroll across the beach and came across a flurry of activity in the water: schools of tiny fish being chased by 6-7 juvenile blacktip sharks.
The day ended with our boat sailing back to Santa Cruz and anchoring at Puerto Ayora. Our final evening started with a cocktail farewell to the crew and dinner with lobster and fish. We then also finished our little individual bottles of complimentary champagne that had been our welcome gifts onboard and helped share the large bottle that the honeymoon couple had received. It was a merry night!
Day 10: Saturday, May 28th
There we saw tortoises walking freely amongst the trees and grass and enjoying a mud wallow and a pond.
Our final morning. The wake-up call came at 5:30 and we needed to be packed and ready for breakfast. The crew then took our checked bags to the airport while we took the pangas to port and then a bus into the Highlands to visit “El Chato Ranch,” a giant tortoise preserve. There we saw tortoises walking freely amongst the trees and grass and enjoying a mud wallow and a pond. We took a detour through an underground lava tube and then returned to the visitor area. One last bathroom break before the ride to the airport and then someone reported “Don’t use the second stall in the ladies room– there’s a frog in the toilet.” Of course all of us women had to pour into the bathroom to see and photograph the tree frog! We finally returned to the bus for the ride to the northern dock, then a short ferry ride over to Baltra Island where the airport is. We were checked in already by the crew, given our checked luggage tags and boarding passes and then said our farewells to Jimmy, our patient guide who had put up with a week of teasing, cajoling, and trying to keep our group together on the trails despite some resistance. We were all seated together on the flight back to Guayaquil, where half of our group deplaned and then the remaining few flew on to Quito. One final farewell and then it was just the 2 of us, being welcomed back by Esteban of Metropolitan Touring.
Back at the Patio Andaluz, we dropped off our bags, then took an evening stroll around Old Town. It was a little hard getting our “land legs” again, the world swayed a bit and the high altitude probably contributed to the feeling.
Day 11: Sunday, May 29th
Good-bye Quito. We had one last morning to enjoy– once again strolling through Old Town after breakfast. The streets were closed to traffic today and as mass ended in the various churches, the streets filled with people setting up little tables and booths on the sidewalks to sell crafted items, fruits, flowers, etc. We came across one booth selling traditional paintings, and decided to get one as a souvenir and then asked to take a photo of the artist. He was quite happy with the sale, telling us the painting was of his grandparents and his son, riding their llamas with the Cotopaxi volcano in the background (as is traditional for these scenes). He posed for the photo but only if I joined him in a second photo. We passed a side street where people were using rose petals to create sidewalk art and as we stood watching, a group of school girls giggled profusely. The object of their mirth? Our height. They found it quite funny that we were so tall in comparison to the people around us. It was funny to discover this, as we had also been a bit amused about how short most Ecuadorians were, and now the tables were turned on us.
Diego picked us up promptly at 10:45 to take us to the airport for our flight home. One last hair-raising drive amongst impatient Ecuadorian drivers who seem to ignore the lanes on the road, driving between lanes and squeezing into invisible gaps between cars; one last glimpse at the colorful houses clambering up the hillsides; one last view of the lush green mountains. Then our flight ascended through the cloud layer and our final view of Ecuador was hidden.
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This Travel Journal submitted by Katrina McNerney details her Cormorant Galapagos Cruise and Galapagos Travel Package with AdventureSmith Explorations. Contact one of our Adventure Specialists to learn more about these small ship cruises and wilderness adventures: 1-877-620-2875