by Janet Bein, Young at Heart Diva
I didn’t think twice about inviting my daughter Orli to join me for a cruise of the Galapagos Islands. This opportunity to explore the equatorial waters off the coast of Ecuador was sufficiently tempting that she was willing to plead with her boss for some extra vacation days.
After a series of flights from San Francisco to Miami to Guayaquil and finally to the island of San Cristobal, we were met by a bearded, heavy-set young man with a soft voice and a gentle smile. He introduced himself to us as Ivan, our Ecoventura guide.
Taking charge of our suitcases, he directed us and some other passengers into a bus, which shuttled us a short distance from the airport to the shoreline.
Despite the warm air, the waters looked a bit choppy. I tentatively fingered my neck, right behind my ear. “Yes,” I assured myself. My anti-seasickness patch was firmly in place. Good thing I brought it!
Ivan distributed life vests and introduced us to his petite sister and our senior naturalist, Karina. Because of their dissimilar appearance, we first thought they were kidding about being brother and sister, but it was true. This was also their first joint expedition. Karina is a senior naturalist and has been leading Galapagos tours for several years, while Ivan just made a transition from being a dive-master to a naturalist.
Karina explained that small wooden pangas with outboard motors would ferry us from land to yacht. There is an art to getting in and out of a panga. Fortunately, we didn’t have to deal with carrying our suitcases. The crew had already transported them onto the boat, but we were still carrying our backpacks and cameras. As long as we followed Karina’s instructions to move one by one, which we did, our guides and crew were able to support our ungainly efforts getting into and out of the panga.
The yacht itself was surprisingly comfortable. We had our “orientation” in the cozy lounge area, which was furnished with cushiony, built-in sofas arranged in a U-shape. Karina invited us to consider the 83-foot yacht as our home for the next five days. The lounge area had a TV, VCR with cassettes, books, and magazines for our use. We were also welcome to serve ourselves wine or liquor on an honor basis from the bar. Water and soft drinks were free and unlimited.
Except for the water, which I drank copiously, I didn’t make use of the offerings in the lounge area. During daylight hours, we were too busy hiking, swimming, and snorkeling. In the remaining hours on the yacht—other than mealtimes—I chose to relax on the top deck, where I could breathe the fresh salty air and admire the sunset.
Babes and Boobies
In most places in the world, you can’t see birds or animals unless you look through binoculars. But Galapagos is different. The birds, iguanas, and sea lions seem to have no fear of humans.
As we clambered out of pangas onto shore, we had to watch out in order not to step on the iguanas. Sometimes, we also had to step over a sea lion, who chose to nap precisely in the spot we were deboarding.
The Red-Footed, Blue-Footed, and Nazcar (formerly called “Masked”) Boobies ignored our presence as we walked by their nests. Boobies bear obvious markings of being closely related with their prominent beaks and large webbed feet. But they mate exclusively with their own distinct species. They have somewhat different fishing areas and lifestyles. Nazcar Boobies make their nests completely in the open, as if there is nothing to worry about. Red-Footed Boobies, whose blue beaks have the same unlikely turquoise as their Blue-Footed cousins’ feet, make some effort toward discretion. They create nests within bushes or mangrove trees. Fortunately, the mangrove trees are so short that my 5’ 1” height was sufficient for me to peek inside a sheltered area, where our guide had discovered a nest with a tiny but already fluffy chick.
Karina had warned us at the beginning of our cruise that we should not let any baby sea lions get close enough to touch us. Apparently, they are as curious about us as we are about them. But Karina was firm, “Do not pet them no matter how cute they are.”
If the mother sea lion detects any human scent on her cub, she won’t feed it any more. A human caress can be a death sentence. So we were careful not to overstep our invisible boundaries.
One day we were walking across a shoreline covered with black lava flows and tidal pools. It was striking to see the intensely colored and intricately designed shells of the Sally Lightfoot crabs against the backdrop of the black lava rocks. Marine iguanas were also plentiful, warming themselves in the bright sunshine.
Suddenly, I noticed a flash of chocolate brown near the water’s edge. I went closer and found a baby sea lion frolicking in one of the deeper tide pools. It was chasing its tail round and round in the water, and every now and then it would stop and look at me. A larger juvenile sea lion was sitting near the edge of the pool, almost as if it were baby-sitting. Soon the rest of our group came over to join me. Orli took pictures. Karina had to gently prod us several times before we managed to tear ourselves away.
Snorkeling with the Sea Lions
On the final afternoon of our five-day Galapagos cruise, I mentioned to Karina that I still hadn’t partaken in the quintessential Galapagos snorkeling experience of swimming with the sea lions. As our tour guide and mentor, Karina assured me this was not something I should pass up.
Pulling on my wet suit, I explained that I was an intermediate snorkeler; competent, but lacking sufficient confidence to go far out or get too close to rocks where I might struggle with a stronger current.
The more advanced snorkelers—including Orli—quickly headed to the outlying cliff walls whenever we went on our daily snorkeling expeditions. Close to the cliffs was the best area for seeing not only sea lions, but also penguins. Yes, even penguins can find a comfortable existence near the equator. They thrive here thanks to the chilly waters of the Humboldt Current.
“Come with me,” said Karina. She popped on a snorkeling mask, pulled on some fins, and jumped into the water, still wearing her tan Ecoventura guide shirt and slacks. Her unusual swimming gear made it easy for me to follow her.
When I caught up to her, Karina dove underwater. She had spotted some sea lions and looked like she was inviting them to play with her. They eagerly accepted her invitation and soon three sea lions were somersaulting through the water and swimming all around me in a graceful underwater ballet. These are not the humongous sea lions that you see at Pier 39 in San Francisco, and I’d be terrified if something that big were swimming next to me. But the Galapagos sea lions are closer to the size of seals. Except for an occasional bull, they are friendly and harmless. No doubt it also added to my comfort level that I had Karina right next to me for moral support.
To enhance my experience that day, I was also treated to seeing a penguin. The little guy must have decided to leave the group by the cliffs for some solo fishing. Or maybe he sensed Karina’s charisma and wanted to see what was going on.
Her mission accomplished, Karina flashed me a big smile and went back to the beach to dry off in the sun.
Although I had taken a lot of family trips with Orli when she was younger, we had never gone on a Mother-Daughter trip before. So before heading off on our adventure, I sought advice in the chapter on Mother Daughter Travel in Gutsy Women by Marybeth Bond. One of her key tips: Give one another space. Just because you’re on a trip together doesn’t mean that you have to spend every moment in shared company.
It turned out that the framework of the Galapagos cruise made it easy for me to apply that advice. We never felt obligated to walk, swim, snorkel, or kayak as a twosome. And we seemed to have a really compatible group of fellow passengers. Apparently, the tour operator uses some sort of matching procedures when they decide who is going on which yacht.
Orli gravitated toward two young female travel buddies from Boston, Amy and Akiko, who had met each other through their rock climbing activities back home.
I particularly enjoyed talking to the one solo woman traveler on the cruise, Pat, who had just retired from a career as a college fundraiser. This trip was an initiation for her into her next career, which will be working for her daughter’s adventure travel agency.
Pat and I added a pinch of seasoning to what was otherwise a young adult group of nature-lovers from Japan, Switzerland, England, Brazil, and the USA.
Orli and I found ourselves talking at one time or another to everyone on the boat—including our two wonderful guides Karina and Ivan Lopez.
Our expedition included a harmonious blend of mother-daughter, sister-brother, four pairs of buddies, one single, and one romantic but still open and friendly couple. The camaraderie of being able to mix so easily with the other travelers helped to keep Orli and me from feeling too “glued at the hip”.
I would recommend this cruise for solo Divas as a soft adventure with enough excitement to be enticing and sufficient safety to let you feel secure.
It’s important to pack as lightly as possible, because you are going to be sailing on a yacht, not a cruiseship. Essential items are:
- Current passport
- Strong sunscreen
Chapstick with SPF protection
Anti-seasickness pills or “the patch”
- Medicine/first aid kit
- Bathing suit
Lightweight slacks and shorts (Sahara convertible pants)
Lightweight, rain repellent jacket
Fleece jacket for layering
All-terrain sandals (Teva, Keen, Chaco)
Sneakers or hiking shoes
Socks and underwear
The currency in Ecuador is American dollars. This is great for someone like me who is dyslexic when it comes to arithmetic. No need to convert currencies in my head. (Small change is Ecuadorian; use it or lose it.)
Tip: It’s very helpful to have lots of $1 bills to pay for taxis, tips, and souvenirs.
When you are traveling on the boat, you don’t need to worry about your valuables. That’s one of the reasons that taking a Galapagos cruise is such a great idea for women travelers. But use a money belt for carrying passport, credit card, and “big money” when you are in transit or on land.
Combining Turf with Ecuadorian Surf:
Since it’s a long way to Ecuador, it’s worthwhile including some more turf in your travel plans. We decided to visit spend a few days after the cruise in Quito and Banos (It’s a 4-hour bus or taxi ride from Quito to Banos).
Worldwide Sales & Reservation office
5805 Blue Lagoon Drive, Suite 160
Miami FL 33126 USA
Family owned and completely carbon-neutral, Ecoventura has earned the Rainforest Alliance verification in recognition for its ongoing commitment to conserving the environment and preserving local communities.
Hotel Oro Verde, Guayaquil
Patio Andaluz in Old Town, Quito-this renovated, four hundred plus year old house used to be owned by Juan Jose Flores, the first president of Ecuador. It’s supposed to give you the feeling of having traveled back in time, but has the comforts and amenities of modern life including free internet. The location is perfect for a quick walk to see the monuments and churches in Old Town.
Hotel Sebastian, Quito (New Town)– very comfortable and reasonably priced hotel, close to Juan León Mera Street, which is hopping with nightlife even on weekdays.
Luna Runtun, Banos– a luxurious resort high up on the hillside of the volcano. You’ll need to take a taxi to get there, even if you’ve taken a bus to get to Banos. The road up the mountain is winding, as mountain roads tend to be, and could do with some paving. One of the resort guides told me that they are hoping to get it paved in the not too distant future.
The resort, itself, is lush. Our room had an enormous picture window with a breathtaking view, a vase full of roses, rosebuds on our pillows, and a basket full of fresh fruit. Our beds were covered with the finest linens and were sumptuously comfortable. They offer a selection of adventure tour-spa packages. You can go white-water rafting in the morning, and spend the afternoon getting a massage, facial, and relaxing in the sauna at the resort’s own spa.
Hotel La Floresta, Banos—A very attractive, clean, and incredibly cheap hotel ($30 for a double room including a full breakfast) in downtown Banos. The hotel staff is friendly and helpful, and it is located right in the middle of funky, lively downtown Banos.
Café Hood, 16 de Diciembre y Martinez, Banos
Since Orli is a vegetarian she was particularly happy to find a place with a variety of vegetarian entrees on the menu. I also enjoyed my non-vegetarian, chicken dinner. The Café is a hangout for travelers and ex-pats, and shows free movies.
Located between Quito and Banos, this is one of Ecuador’s oldest colonial haciendas. It’s located on the slopes of Cotopaxi volcano. We stopped here for lunch on our way to Banos and were entranced as soon as we started heading down the long, tree-lined drive with llamas grazing in the fields on either side. Next time, I’ll also be sure to book a room and stay overnight.