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The Grand Galápagos Islands

Image Title: A handsome Blue Footed Booby. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
A handsome Blue Footed Booby. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: MV Camila anchored off Isla Rabida. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
MV Camila anchored off Isla Rabida. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: A Galapagos Red Rock Crab. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
A Galapagos Red Rock Crab. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Awwwww, a cute baby Booby. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Awwwww, a cute baby Booby. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: A Giant Galapagos Tortoise on Isla Isabela. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
A Giant Galapagos Tortoise on Isla Isabela. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: A marine Iguana contemplating a dip in the sea. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
A marine Iguana contemplating a dip in the sea. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]


Our flight from Quito, Ecuador only takes us two hours to arrive at Isla Baltra in the Galápagos Islands archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. The Galápagos Islands are part of Ecuador and the only way to reach them is by daily flights from Guyagil or by boat. The whole archipelago is a UNESCO world heritage site and the second largest marine reserve in the world. We are greeted at the airport by our naturalist guide, Harry from Galápagos Eco Friendly. Harry directs us along with the other thirteen  passengers who will be joining us for the week to small busses that will take us to the wharf where we will board the boat.

Our home for the next week will be a 125 ft luxury cruise catamaran named Camila, which sells charters through several Galápagos tour operators. The boat was built in 2017 and carries 16 passengers in 8 staterooms along with a crew of 12 which includes sailors, stewards, housekeeping, one guest manager and one contracted naturalist. On our cruise, only the guest manager and the naturalist spoke English. Our fellow travelers are from the US, Australia, and the UK with a mix of couples and families with adult children. Over the course of the the week, we saw some families with adolescent children, but the experience seemed to be a little lost on them.

It is important to note when booking a cruise, in July 2019 there were 86 cruise boats operating in the Galápagos Islands. These cruise boats range from smaller, more intimate cruises like our 16 passenger catamaran to larger 100 passenger ships operated by global cruise lines. All of these ships are strictly regulated to a 15 day rotation through the islands. You only get to see the islands that are on your boat's rotation during your dates. It is also important to note that cruise tour boats that offer land excursions are not permitted to offer scuba dive excursions and scuba dive boats are not permitted to offer land excursions. While land packages tend to be limited to just the larger islands of Isabela or Santa Maria, they also offer the ability to both Dive and Hike through daily excursions. We elected to do a week-long cruise boat exploration of several islands and then extend our trip by three days with a hotel stay on Ilsa Isabela to scuba dive and to spend a day at the Darwin Research Facility.

Once on the boat, we will typically rise at 7:00am for breakfast; take a motorized Zodiac for an hour-long nature walk on one of the islands; followed by an hour-long snorkel exploration of the island; before moving the boat to another location for a longer nature walk before dinner. The nature walks are generally flat and less than three miles over well defined trails. Our naturalist was a native of the Galápagos Islands and had personal stories of all of the islands that we visited.   The Galápagos National Park requires all tourists to be accompanied by one of the 1,200 certified naturalist guides when venturing into the park and landing on the islands. Each naturalist is certified in knowledge of the geologic history of the islands and the biological diversity of each island. The Galápagos Islands see around 100,000 visitors annually in carefully orchestrated circuits to minimize over crowding. On our nature walks, we saw Blue Footed Boobies, Red Footed Boobies, Nasac Boobies, Frigate Birds, and Galápagos Short-Eared Owls as well as Sea Lions, Black Marine Iguanas and Green Land Iguanas. Alas, the elusive Galápagos Penguins won the hide-and-seek challenge on our trip and we never saw one. Notably, there are no indigenous land mammals on any of the Galápagos Islands.

As noted above, our cruise visited remote islands without Giant Tortoises. To see Giant Tortoises, we had to take a van to a private farm on Isla Isabela where the Giant Tortoises were migrating at that time. While it was wonderful to get so close and to see them in a more-or-less natural habitat, it felt a lot like a petting zoo experience, complete with an exit through the gift shop.

The diving and snorkeling in the Galápagos Islands is fabulous but cold. With the Humbolt Current comming up from Antarctica keeping the July water temperatures in the low 60’s Fahrenheit, divers use 6 mm wetsuits and hoods. Once geared up for the cold water diving and in the water, divers are greeted with a rich biodiversity of marine species like Sting Rays, Eagle Rays, Sea Turtles, Sea Lions, Eels, Reef Sharks, and yes - Hammer Head Sharks. Seasonally, Whale Sharks and Hump Back Whales also pass through the Galápagos Islands. Diehard scuba divers should check for the best seasons to catch these amazing creatures and then head to one of the live-aboard dive boat operations at Darwin and Wolf Islands in the North-East corner of the archipelago for the largest resident population of Hammer Head Sharks in the world and a seasonal breeding ground for Whale Sharks.



1)            If you want to see the Giant Tortoises in a natural habitat, you need to make sure your dates and your cruise go to one of the islands that still have giant tortoises. But don’t worry, if your boat isn’t stopping at a Giant Tortoise island, you can plan a side trip to Isla Isabela where the Giant Tortoises are thriving and migrate through a private farm that will let you see them up close and personal.

2)            Many people elect to combine a trip to the Galápagos Islands with a trip to Machu Picchu since they are relatively close to each other. Still even more people elect to extend their holiday with a few days in the Ecuador capital of Quito. Of the 13 other guests on our cruise, all of them had combined the Galápagos Islands with Machu Picchu.

3)            DO Bring binoculars and a proper camera with a modest telephoto or zoom capability. Most of the actual activity is nature walks and bird watching from a respectful distance with a naturalist to make sure that you don't harass the wildlife for the perfect instagram pic. An iPhone is an amazing camera, but can't get the longer shots that you will wish that you had. DON'T sweat bringing the GoPro unless you are Scuba diving. Even the snorkeling pics are limited by mediocre visibility and the GoPro suffers from the same telephoto issues that an iPhone has.

4)            DO Bring water shoes for walking in and out of tide pools and on the beach. Also, DO bring sturdy shoes for nature hikes, but DON'T feel like you need to bring hiking boots and trekking poles.

5)            DON'T worry too much about mosquitoes and biting insects. They are not nearly as much of a problem as you might expect for an equatorial archipeligo. It's a good idea to have some insect wipes and to wear loose, long-sleve tops if you are particularly suceptible. Any spray bottles of insecticide will be confiscated at the airport.     

6)           DON'T bring any single use plastic containers like water bottles, shampoo bottles, zip-lock bags, or insect spray. You will be shamed at the airport. Well, OK, this is what a lot of the literature will tell you. Our experience was that the plastic nazi's were off duty that day and no-one really cared what we had in our bags. DO be sensative and respectful that the Galápagos Islands is a fragile ecosystem fighting a losing war with plastic. We shamelessly snuck in our toiletries in zip-lock bags and kept them cladestine, packing out every one of them ourselves without incident.

7)           DON’T DRINK THE WATER! One of us got on the "Galápagos Rapid Weight Loss Program" and spent a precious day metaphorically chained to a toilet. Let's be careful out there.

6)            Larger cruises are more economical, but smaller cruises are more intimate. This ends up being a personal choice but you should remember that less expensive correlates directly to a less personal experience.


Phil and Diane

[Note: We received no goods or services for publication of this article. We have withheld the names of the cruise operator and the dive operator due to an unresolved dispute.]