Galapagos, Ecuador – Jan 2011
Enduring the typical flight procedures (security checks etc.), which somehow seemed much more cumbersome than usual, we made our way to Guayaquil, Ecuador. The city is situated where the Guayas river flows into the Pacific and has great potential for development.
Our hotel, the Oro Verde, which aims for traditional British elegance, presented quite a contrast to its surroundings. Around us, the lack of means was evident in half-finished building structures and derelict housing conditions.
The hotel itself is quite nice – particularly for Ecuadorian standards.
Due to unfavorable flight connections we spent a night there before flying on to Galapagos and again on our return from the islands.
The hotel offers excellent food and their staff will do their best to comply with your wishes. For instance, they let us have our room early (we arrived 7 hours before customary check in time) and provided a decadent lunch complete with champagne and 15 year old Cuban rum at 9’o clock in the morning. By the way, that U.S. trade embargo against Cuban goods should be considered a serious offense.
On the other hand, there is a huge drawback to the hotel – the language barrier. Most of the staff barely speak a word in English. So if you don’t happen to be fluent in Spanish it’s hard to make yourself understood – at times even impossible. Every simple request or question was fraught with difficulty.
Here are a few examples:
Call to the reception:
Me: When do we have to check out today?
A (highly accented): Today.
Me: Yes, but at what time?
Line went dead…
Me: At what time do we have to leave the room?
Connection to somebody else without comment.
Me: At what time do we have to leave the room?
Room service conversation:
A: something in Spanish
Mat: I would like to order room service – ingles ???
Mat: ok. I’d like a carrot juice, the Cesar salad, …
Mat: yes, carrot juice.
A: sorry, wait a second.
B: Room service?
Mat: Yes. I’d like to order a carrot juice, the Cesar salad …
Mat: yes the carrot juice.
B: cesar salad?
Mat: yes. did you get the carrot juice?
B: Cesar salad?
Mat: C..A..R..R..O..T juice.
B: is this something to drink?
Surely you see the difficulty. Now, admittedly, “carrot juice” wouldn’t be a priority for me either when learning a new language but this does get a little tiresome after a while. In a member of the “leading hotels of the world” I’d expect the staff to be at least moderately fluent in English. Surprisingly, we didn’t have any trouble in this regard outside of the hotel (not counting certain customs officials). Things do work out in the end though. Still, it might be a good idea to brush up my Spanish before our next trip to South America.
Our liveaboard and the enchanted islands
After our arrival on San Cristobal we were picked up by the Aggressor crew to begin our liveaboard. The Galapagos Aggressor I is a beautiful ship, 30m in length and has a crew of 10. Matthias and I had a state room on the upper deck with a queen size bed and a private bathroom.
We were spoiled by excellent service, delicious food and above all great diving. Also, I’ve come to expect a cup of hot chocolate and a warm towel after every dive. Having a hot tub on board was nothing short of luxury.
We were on board with only 9 other guests, who happened to be great company. More than once we couldn’t help but notice that life was good.
All diving in Galapagos is set against a background of thousands of smaller fish (snappers, …) – sometimes moving in schools, sometimes all over the place. The sheer number of fish is incredible.
We saw hundreds of hammerhead sharks, white tip sharks and (smaller groups) of spotted eagle rays “flying” in formation. Each of them came close enough to touch, which of course we didn’t (basic diver etiquette and marine/national park rules).
Once we had a large group of dolphins – between 50 and 60 animals including young ones – pass right over us. During our dives we could also observe sea lions – playing or hunting they are quite a sight. Apart from that, we had the opportunity to snorkel with penguins (omg, they are so funny!) close to Bartolome Island.
The absolute highlight of an already outstanding trip was encountering Orcas under water. It was completely unexpected, thrilling and simply awesome. I’m at a loss to describe it but I’ll try anyway .
The first one we saw had beautiful coloring – pristine black and white – and was approximately 7-8 meters in size. It swam close by us, disappeared into the blue with one powerful slap of his fin and then reappeared directly above us (nose down), coming within less than one meter from us. We were lying on rocks at a depth of about 20m but suddenly the sea above us seemed like a shallow aquarium.
For a moment, we were worried he might be checking out potential prey. They are predators after all and humans don’t differ much in size from a sea lion. The Orca was looking at us for a while (a minute, maybe two? I couldn’t say), made some clicking noises (they use echo) and then disappeared once more. We were awed (there’s really no other way to put it) by its power, the speed and grace of movement it displayed despite its considerable size.
Shortly afterwards, we spotted two other Orcas, a mother with calf, swimming near the surface.
A truly extraordinary experience. Our dive guide has been diving the Galapagos for 20 years and he has only seen Orcas twice while diving.
Here’s a size comparison to give you an idea how small we felt (image by Chris Huh Wikipedia):
To top it all off, Matthias and I saw a Manta ray on our last dive (around 4m in size). We were already doing our safety stop when it glided by!
I’d like to add a few words about the diving in general. Visibility ranged from all right to murky, we were frequently braving the surge and repeatedly had to work against the current. Now, I’m well aware that you’re supposed to go with the drift but changing currents and dive site topography often made this impossible. The best dive sites without a doubt being at Wolf and Darwin Island, they were also the ones with the strongest current. A beginner probably wouldn’t be comfortable in these conditions.
Of course, we also saw lots of turtles and morays etc. but they hardly seem worth mentioning compared to all the other experiences.
During our liveaboard we had several land excursions, exploring the islands North Seymour, Bartolome, South Plaza and finally Santa Cruz. Every island has a unique character (their volcanic origin being apparent in most) and a different mixture of animal species, which are often endemic. Additionally, the vegetation varies depending on height (the higher, the moister).
Notable is the presence of penguins because this is the only place close to the equator where they can be found. They nest in lava tunnels close to the ocean because the lava is a good insulator from the heat.
The Galapagos Islands are also known as the “enchanted islands”. Up to this trip I thought it was just an advertising slogan. However, having been there, I’m inclined to agree. The animals on these islands, be it birds, iguanas, sea lions etc. know no fear of humans. It is like wandering through a fairy tale in which man and animals live in peace and harmony.
The animals are curious and as much interested in you as you are in them. They come close to play (e.g. sea lions or penguins), show off (dolphins) or study you (birds, Orca, turtles etc.).
Here are a few impressions of our liveaboard…
First of all, a few maps detailing location and ocean currents…
The Galapagos Aggressor I, her crew …
…and life onboard
A few dive site topographies for interested divers…
The second part (landbased)
In between sea sickness, the fatigue induced by sea-sickness-medication and the nitrogen accumulation caused by a maximum of 4 dives a day, I did get quite tired. As a result I was really looking forward to the second part of our vacation – our stay at the Royal Palm Hotel on Santa Cruz.
We had a lovely 3-room villa, complete with jacuzzi and open fire place. The food was truly haute cuisine and the service impeccable. We spent our days recuperating and enjoying ourselves.
The so-called highland tour was the only time we ventured out of the hotel grounds (except for shopping in Puerto Ayora).
We saw free giant tortoises, the impressive Twin Craters (former magma chambers) and the cloud forest of the highlands.
On our journey home I repeatedly cursed the pitiful rest of my Spanish skills as Ecuadorian customs officals were ripping apart our luggage in search of narcotics. I really need to brush up my Spanish before our next trip!
Here are a few impressions of excursions during the liveaboard and the land based part of our vacation …
Our land excursions:
South Plaza Island (many iguanas waiting to become famous…)
North Seymour Island
Darwin and Wolf Island (just diving here as it is forbidden to go on land)
the picturesque Bartolome Island with its colony of Galapagos penguins
The second part of our vacation (all on Santa Cruz Island):
Darwin Station – they breed tortoises to ensure their survival. they are set free when they are old enough to survive on their own. (a worthy cause but I prefer seeing tortoises in the wild)
The Royal Palm Hotel and our villa
The highland tour