As the sun came up on day 6, we sighted a few circling hammerheads (yay) and some rather ugly evidence of prior visitors to this bay. It has become a custom–perhaps started by the pirates who frequented these waters long ago–for visiting vessels to paint their ships name and the date. The result is (historically appealing) graffiti covered cliffs, towering over us as we head into shore for our first walk of the day.
Our walk took us past Darwin Lake–a saline pond of blue green algae–and to the top of the hill for an overview of the island and the lake, glistening jewel like far below. From the top of the hill the cameras started rolling, as we all captured images of the Mary Anne far below us. Then it was off to see the mating dance of the blue footed boobies…… their high stepping routine akin to a goose step on a hot sand beach.
Next up was exploring the bay by kayak. It was a surreal experience; paddling slowly and silently along the cliff we watched blue footed boobies, noddies, pelicans, penguins, sea lions and turtles go about their lives, oblivious to our presence.
After lunch we moved north to Puerta Vicente Roca for our dip of the day. The profusion of turtles here was astonishing with always 3 or 4 in sight at any one time. They didn’t care how close you were if they wanted to come up for air, up they came……. giving us astonishing close ups as they popped up beside us. It was here that I spotted yet another shark species. The highly mottled guy swimming beneath me was a seldom seen (thanks to all that camouflage) port jackson shark. With a full evening yet to come, we wrapped up with a panga ride for close ups of boobies, noddies and terns.
Tonight was the night we crossed the equator! It could have been choreographed. A pod of dolphins decided we were fun to follow for a while and as the sun set with an impressive ‘green flash’ we hit 00.00 on the GPS.
Day 7 dawned with sadness, it was our last full day and there was not a minute to waste. We had motored overnight to Santiago Island and anchored at James Bay in Buccaneer Cove and what a sight it was. Santiago is an older island and the effects of waves and weather on this volcanic shoreline was dramatic. Towering fingers of rock jutted from the sea, testament to how strong these lava cores are.
We eagerly took to our kayaks and went exploring amongst these rock pillars. Our guide pointed out a baby fur seal waiting for mamma to come home and a juvenile sea lion having a hard time hanging onto his breakfast fish. We then traded kayak for snorkels and examined the same area from a different perspective. These pillars rise from deep water, making them attractive to pelagic’s and they are! Along with sea lions, we saw white tip reef sharks cruising the drop off and a large manta ray filter feeding near the surface, right at the end of the snorkel. Cold, yet elated we headed back to the Mary Anne for lunch and a short motor to our next port of call.
Up until 1963 Santiago had a working salt mine and the remnants of the drying pools and channels are still evident. Our walk included not only the mine but a series of tidal pools, some of which housed nursing sea lions or pup crèches. These pools were home to an astounding variety of birds including: oyster catchers, great blue herons, mocking birds and a Galapagos hawk. As we climbed higher the pools became grottos–each one formed and fed by the crashing waves—and home to an adult fur seal, sea lions by the dozen and a yellow night heron.
As we looped around to return to the beach and the waiting pangas, we spotted marine iguanas feeding on the seaweed in the surf. As each wave came crashing in they disappeared from view, swept away we assumed but no, as the wave receded they reappeared firmly anchored with their strong claws and calmly carried on regardless.
Our last day starts bright and early with a brisk walk on North Seymour Island. Here we come across more ‘domesticated primates’ than we had anywhere else, accountable to the short distance from here to the hub of Baltra Island no doubt.
North Seymour is famous for its rookery of young frigate birds, each chicken sized youngster perches ungainly in a low bush or tree. Although already almost full grown they are still dependant on their parents for food as they cannot yet fly, so they sit and wait, calling out each time an adult wheels overhead. Dancing blue footed boobies were next and then a forest of magnificent frigate birds, with neck pouches inflated in crimson glory they show off to the ladies.
Replete with vistas, visions and stories, we head back to pack and to say our farewells. Our Galapagos adventure has come to an end, yet the Galapagos dream lives on, thanks to the dedicated guides, crews and locals these magical islands survive. Long may its uniqueness live on!
Havana, our first stop in Cuba, a city of 2 something odd million people felt very safe. Between us Yvonne & I have traveled in over 70 countries and have shared the experience of being mugging victims (see “How to Show a Girl a Good Time “) . Years of travel experience has allowed us to develop a good set of situational awareness skills (our Spidey senses as Yvonne and I call them).
I felt super at ease in Havana – I guess the ‘cruisy’ feel has something to do with Cuba being essentially, a Police State. One Cuban street hustler–trying to sell us a horse drawn carriage ride–joked that Havana is safe “because it has 2 million people and 3 million police”.
The reality is (my perceived reality anyways) is that even though violent crime is virtually non-existent, there are more than a few Cubans who will attempt to ‘talk you out of your money’.
Some Cubans are artisans when it comes to scamming tourists. The first scam from my perspective – is a state sanctioned scam in the form of the tourist currency – the CUC. Cuba has two official currencies, the Peso which is the currency Cuban Citizens are paid and used for everyday purchases. The second currency is the Cuban Convertible Peso aka the CUC. The CUC is used for foreign exchange, for Cubans to purchase luxury goods and for tourism. The fixed rate is 24 Pesos to the CUC.
The CUC is also a political instrument – while officially being pegged 1:1 to the US dollar it has been subject to surcharges when converting from US dollars, depending on which way the political wind is blowing. Currently there is a 10% penalty charged when exchanging US dollars cash, plus a 3% currency exchange fee so, you will only receive 87 centavos CUC for one US dollar. Therefore, take Canadian dollars, Euros or Pounds Sterling to Cuba. Also note that US Bank Debit Cards and Credit Cards will not work in are not in CUBA – so you can leave home without it – Sorry American Express!
The CUC has no value outside of Cuba. You cannot exchange them, so don’t take them home with you. There are exchange offices at the Havana airport, which will change them back – but the long line ups deter many. If you do have CUC’s left over, the airport stores will be happy to take them in exchange for airport priced coffee, cigars and souvenirs. Alternately if you every wanted to burn some paper money – here is your opportunity!
It is possible for visitors to use the Cuban Peso the CUP, once you get out of the touristy areas, although you may come across resistance. Doing this will drive the price down significantly – by 24 times to be exact!
The state scam does not stop at the currency. It seemed like everything was for rent – want to see the National Monument – scowling soldiers will first herd you into a kiosk collecting CUC’s. Want to see the National Cemetery? Hey buddy you got to pay to get in there as well (the equivalent of $5.75 US dollars in fact). Paying to get into a cemetery seemed kinda creepy to us, we decided to pass on the experience.
We were warned about conducting any business transactions on the street, such as changing money or buying cigars etc. The long and short of it is that you could well end up with the shit end of the stick if you do in most cases. If you think the fellow selling you cigars is giving you a screaming deal, think again. You will probably end up buying a fancy box of wooden sticks wrapped in tobacco, or buying cigars made of banana leaves.
The Cuban people are known for being friendly – however if someone is being too friendly you are probably going to end up getting hosed. We have heard stories about visitors being invited into someone’s home, where they are fed and filled with rum. The host then sells “discount” tickets to the Tropicana Show. When the tickets are presented at the show door the purchaser discovers….. first that the tickets are valid for Cuban Nationals only and secondly, the seller does not live at the home where they were purchased. So of course there is no recourse. Chalk that one up for experience!
A favorite scam of Coco taxi drivers, pedicabs, and regular taxi drivers is the ‘Per Person Scam’. This underhanded scam seems to be the default when catching a ride in Havana. You negotiate a price (you are probably paying way too much anyways!). When you get to your destination and pay the driver you get the No! No! No! that price was per person! We usually just gave the driver the price that was negotiated and ignored the ranting and raving. After this scam was pulled on us–for the third time in one day–we had had enough, we wanted to get the Fek out of this money grubbing town!
After a week of exploring the stunning architecture of Old Havana, breathing in exhaust fumes and dealing with the scammers, plus going into WIFI withdrawal, we decided to go to Varadero and find an all-inclusive on the beach. We were in need of some R&R, somewhere we wouldn’t feel that we had to fight for everything and constantly be on the watch for scams and rip offs.
The proprietor of the Casa Particular we were staying with in Havana, told us about Club Tropical which in his words was “the best hotel in Veradero right on the beach and wonderful”. He also told us that the price was about CUC 45 per person per night all in (mas o menos).
He also gave us a tip for getting a good price on the room. He advised us once we were at the hotel, to go to the travel agent in the lobby around the corner from the front desk and ask them to book the room. Our mistake was that we first went to the front desk to see if there was availability. There was and the price was 75 CUC per person per night (almost twice what we were originally told). So we proceeded to the tour agent around the corner who quoted us 42 CUC per night. We said we were interested and the agent went to the front desk to process us and surprise, surprise all of a sudden there were no rooms available.
Already somewhat jaded from our experience in Havana, this summed up what being a tourist is about in Cuba – you are just another walking ATM. Needless to say we did not stay at the Club Tropical.
Feeling like walking cash dispensers who had to be on guard all the time, did leave a bad taste in our mouths – just like a banana leaf cigar.
We are glad we went to Cuba. It is a cool place to visit and on the whole we found the Cuban people to be truly warm, friendly and helpful. However Cuba, like any other destination where there are boat loads of tourists , will also have those who scam, swindle, and con.
Day 4 and we were up with the larks, (well we would have been if there were any in the Galapagos) ready for our first glimpse of the largest of the Galapagos Islands….. Isabella. As the sun’s rays crested the humped mass off our stern, we got our first glimpse of Punta Moreno and how Isabella had been formed. A vast alien landscape of black lava rock, appeared to be still bubbling forth and flowing in slowly swirling eddies to the sea.
Our first excursion of the day, involved sturdy walking shoes as those soft toffee looking flows, were as hard as rock and scattered with razor sharp broken edges and shards. At first glimpse it would appear that nothing could live in this black, sun baked wilderness yet nature always finds a way. Our destinations were a series of ponds. The first close to the shore and linked to the sea by underwater tunnels, contained white tip reef sharks snoozing under the ledges. The last one was worth the hot, sweaty slog as it had its own population of flamingos. With heads down and bums up, they flamed pink in the morning sun as they swept the brackish waters for tiny shrimp.
Back on the panga we headed home for a much needed cool drink. Yet we had one more surprise to come…….. Penguins! Yes penguins! A group of 4 were floating just off shore as went by. Where else in the world can you see flamingos and penguins living wild within just a few metres of each other?
Next up was a snorkel, the anticipation was high; we all wanted to see those penguins again. We dropped into water as green as pea soup, nowhere near as warm though. Visibility was low, giving us fleeting glimpses of hunting sea lions, but excellent views of grazing turtles, huge schools of fish, and monster lobsters. As we progressed along the cliff face the visibility cleared giving us glimpses of giant stingrays and porcupine fish as well. There were also lots to see out of the water as well, as this is the home of the flightless cormorant. After each fishing session these strange birds extend their pared down wings to the sun to dry off.
After such a busy morning, we devoured both the hot chocolate waiting for us back on the Mary Anne and the substantial lunch that followed. Our afternoon was a little less strenuous but just as thrilling. This was our chance to explore the unique habitat of the red mangrove swamps that fringe Elizabeth Bay. Upon arrival the outboards were turned off and we slowly paddled our way through the swamp. Smaller and often sleeping turtles abounded here, as did hordes of birds. Each clump of mangrove was festooned with roosting groups of frigates, pelicans and the more solitary herons and ibis’s.
As the sun dipped towards the horizon we headed home, with a slight detour along the way. A couple of fishing boats each with a string of smaller manned boats had had a successful day. The fishermen were gutting and salting their catch, the result was a scene right out of the movie “The Birds”. Clouds of frigates and a few pelicans, swooped and dove around them, catching guts and bones mid-air as the fishermen tossed them aside. What a day!
We had a 6.30 am start at Tagus Cove, Isabella on day 5. With just coffee & buns to sustain us, we were in search of bright orange land iguanas and giant tortoises, before the heat of the day drove them and us under cover. It is a land of dry dense vegetation, bisected by well-trodden tortoise pathways and pocked with iguana burrows. There are slim pickings here and both species have to forage far and wide for food, even resorting to eating the prickly cactus pads and the poison apples from trees similar to the poisonous machineel tree that inhabits many tropical beaches. After watching one large tortoise slowly work his way through a pile of these apples, one can only marvel at how adaptable these creatures have had to be to survive.
In need of some survival sustenance ourselves; we headed back home for breakfast and a short siesta while we headed over to Fernandina and Punta Espinosa. Luckily the siesta wasn’t too long as in transit we saw whales breaching, blowing and tail slapping. Rumour has it a sunfish was spotted too.
Next up was a snorkel to see marine iguanas feeding. These are the only iguanas that feed on seaweed covered rocks and to see them feeding underwater is one of the world’s most unique sights. Sadly there weren’t many around but we did manage to catch some footage.
The highlight though, was from something else feeding. As we were hovering above a shimmering mass of fish, they suddenly darted off as if frightened. And frightened they should have been, in hot pursuit was a sea lion, cleaving the water like a hot knife through butter and boy was she fast! So fast she had gone before it had even registered. Not too worry though, the school of fish had circled back to us and as they flashed by we knew what was coming next. Cute and cumbersome on land, sea lions undergo a transformation once they are in their element and become sleek fast hunting machines. All we could say was “Oh My God”!
Our final event of the day was an afternoon walk on Fernandina, in search of more marine iguanas. This again was an otherworldly land of congealed lava flows. Think of a truckload of tarmacadam or blacktop, slowly pooling out, crusting and swirling as it cools, then expand that so it stretches in every direction around you.
The highlight here was at the end of the walk. As we were in the islands in January there were young sea lion pups everywhere. Mum sea lion leaves them on shore, sometimes in sea lion nurseries or playing in shallow pools while she goes off to hunt. These babies are so curious about these tall upright creatures. We had been teasing Tony (a fellow passenger) about being a sea lion whisperer as they all loved to come up and gently nudge him. Our own up close and personal experience was with two little babies who came wondering over to check me out as I sat nearby (check out the grin on the video).
After a full day and another excellent dinner it was early to bed as we were going back to Isabella to explore stunning Tagus Cove.
Several years ago (while still living and working in Vancouver) we were looking for somewhere warm to take a break from the Rat Race and the grey Vancouver winter for a two week holiday. But where to go?
We toyed with the idea of going to Cuba. This was well before Cuba’s borders were officially open to American citizens. The resorts in Varadero were well known Canadian enclaves (these days you will find probably find more Eastern Europeans).
At the time we really were not interested in an all-inclusive type place, but we did not want to do any hard core independent travel slogging either. In the end we rented a self-catering condo in Maui and had a very relaxing vacation. In was the perfect decision for us at the time and in retrospect we were right to skip Cuba.
Cuba has always been on our travel radar screen and earlier this year (2017) we had some time between house sitting assignments in Ecuador and Mexico. We wanted to stay in the area and only had a couple of weeks. So…………..
We decided to go to Cuba on a whim – we did not do any planning or research – just bought a ticket and booked a Bed and Breakfast (Casa Particular) in Havana. So how did that work out for us?
The first impression of Cuba was going through immigration at the Jose Marti International airport. The immigration official gave me shit for approaching the wicket with my wife Yvonne. As the customs forms were like any other with the declaration one per family and in most places you can approach the immigration official as a family. Apparently not in Cuba.
Once it was my turn the gruff, officious, woman scowled while she reviewed my documents and photographed me. Upon leaving I (proud of my fledgling Spanish) said “Que tena un beun dia” – the officer could not hold her poker face and the real person behind the uniform was revealed with a beaming smile.
My first taste of Cuban Spanish was to say the least ‘confabulating’. At this point we had spent 3 months in Ecuador, so my ear was in Ecuadorian Spanish mode. Stopping over in Miami also meant that we did not have to take a break from having to function in Spanish.
I was feeling pretty good about my ability to communicate in Spanish – that was until we got into the cab. The Casa Particular we were staying at in Havana had arranged for a car to meet us at the airport. Jesus’s full on Cuban Spanish was no match for my Tarzan Spanish skills. To my ear, he sounded like he was trying to speak as quickly as possible with a mouth full of marbles. This Spanish was almost void of consonants. Every time I asked ¿Como? he just spoke louder and quicker.
Through the rad – a dad conversation I did get the jist that he really liked my gold chain and was offering to buy it from me. Although at the time I thought he was telling me he had a sore throat. He was also very persistent (maybe it had something to do with the number of ¿Como?s).
Once settled in, we went exploring Havana on foot. At first it was little disorienting, just like walking through a looking glass and going back in time. The abundance of 1950’s vintage American cars, Yank Tanks painted gumball colors were augmented by a fleet of aging Soviet vehicles including Ladas, Moskviches, and Volgas and Gazs.
The air pollution in Havana was grim – 1950’s vintage cars belching black clouds of 1850’s quality exhaust. Walking down main streets was an assault on your lungs as well as your ears.
Some of the pollution belching cars looked like they had just rolled off the assembly line while others appeared to be one twist of baler wire away the scrap heap.
Cuba’s buildings also show the same variation in condition. Some of the elegant, charming buildings were gracefully reaching a ripe old age, while others appeared to be ageing like crack addicted whores.
As independent travelers who like to self-cater, we found the lack of shopping options in Havana difficult. There were no stores per-see – I am not talking about purchasing Gucci or Rolex’s either – just a bottle of water and something to eat was all we were looking for. There were always places offering rum and beer. The stores we did find, had people lined around the block all clutching ration books. When we went inside (after gazing in puzzlement at all the empty window space) we found out why, there was nothing to offer except a few tins here and there!
I have to admit that there was trepidation about entering these establishment – we were not sure if we needed ration tickets or what currency they would accept.
We were forced to feed ourselves by going to restaurants. I am glad I went to a Cuban restaurant in Miami before we came to Cuba – otherwise I would have left Cuba with the impression that Cuban food consisted of burgers, pasta and pizza or maybe some over boiled vegetables.
Getting cash from ATMs proved to be interesting as well – sometimes they worked and other time Nada! – If you are unfortunate enough to be traveling with a US bank card you were totally shit out of luck. After having mu card rejected by the first ATM I realized how stressful it is when you are cut off from your money supply – your “Bio-survival Tickets”.
For Internet junkies – Cuba is enough to give one the shakes and visions of pink elephants. Internet is existent, it is slow and availability is downright spotty. You can always spot the WIFI hot spot in Cuba, because you will see groups of people on the corner of a street huddled together under the shade, glued to the screens of their handheld devices and laptops. These folks (along with us Gringos) have to buy scratch cards that reveal a code for an hours worth of internet access.
There was also a high coefficient of strangeness about, especially when viewing Cuba through a North American reality tunnel.
There was definitely Voodoo shit going down in Havana. We observed Santeria rituals of offering herbs and roots as well as rubbing rituals where the practitioner uses a sacrificial chicken (or other bird or animal as prescribed by the priest or priestesses known as “Santeros” or “Santeras”). The main idea as, I understand it, is to pass evil from the practitioner to the sacrifice. Once the practitioner was done with the sacrifice it was ceremoniously heaved into the river or the ocean along with the plastic bag it was in.
Time has a different meaning in Cuba – not only is there the whole time warp thing going on – there is also the Cuban people’s relationship with time which took some adjusting to.
What we experienced was a kind of “just in time” temporal relationship – a Cuban go with the flow vibe.
Our first experience of this go with the flow thing was at the Casa Particular we were staying at. The wonderful gracious, owner of the Casa said he would help us make arrangements for our onward travels – what he didn’t tell us is he had his own agenda. When we decided to come to Cuba we had been travelling in Ecuador for 3 months and had just finished a tour in the Galapagos which was full on. Our plan was to visit Havana for a while before heading to Varadero for some, sun, surf and some down time.
The owner of the Casa had other plans for us. This mainly involved travelling hallway around Cuba at places he would arrange. Cuba is a big island and we weren’t interested in spending multiple days traveling.
We explained we were not interested in traipsing around the country in the effort to see everything everywhere (like a “normal tourist” maybe?). When we said we just wanted to go to Varadero and he said he would make arrangements for us. One day passed, two days passed, the day before we were to leave (as the Casa was fully booked) we still did not have a place to stay. Not having internet made things even more frustrating.
The lazy go with the flow vibe went on until 8 PM that evening. Sensing our frustration, our host finally got on the phone and after a half hour we he had made arrangements for a roof over our heads for the next two nights. This is yet another story.
Upon leaving the country we felt like we were being held captive by the Cuban laid back approach. We got to the airport 2.5 hours before the US Delta flight was scheduled to leave. We got in line and waited and waited and waited – this line was not going anywhere. A snowstorm in New York and cancelled flights may have had something to do with the situation.
Then again maybe not, as there seemed to be an emphasis for the ticketing agents to give each other kisses on the cheeks engage in warm embraces and catch up with what happened on the weekend. There definitely was no sense of urgency here at all.
By the time we had checked in and checked our bags (which according to all the signage was supposed to be checked in 1 hour before departure) we had 20 minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave and we had not changed our CUCs into a real currency or gone through security.
The line up at the money exchange was also going nowhere quickly – I figured this was a scam to promote spending in the shops. After all if people can’t unload their CUCs before they became worthless paper with pretty ink markings they have to spend it.
We decided to skip the currency exchange and ended up spending our last CUCs on overpriced coffee and chocolate before sitting at the gate. Where once again we Waited and Waited and Waited.
We finally got on the plane and into our seats and we Waited and Waited and Waited – we just hurried up and waited. The Captain finally came on the PA and explained that the delay was because they were waiting for the ground crew to give them baggage weight information before we could depart. It would appear that the folks on the ground were catching up with what happened on the weekend as well.
Before too much longer we were in the air and on our way back to Miami.
Looking out the window, peering at the Florida Keys I realized what I had learned while I was in Cuba. I discovered that inner peace is about accepting things as they are – and just going with the flow.
Oh yeah the final surprise was the email from Delta apologizing to Yvonne for her lost baggage. Which just happened to be sitting in the corner of our room and which of course we never reported missing.
Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing gonna be all right.
With 5 years of full time travel and over 60 different countries stamps in my passport my “Philosophy of Travel” is starting emerge.
I have realized that traveling in a country is not only about the geography, seeing the sights, tasting its cuisine or it’s getting to know its people – the experience of travel . It is a way to observe how I as a traveler react to the situations travel throws my way. I now see travel as a dance between the native inhabitants and myself as the visitor.
Sometimes a little time is required after visiting a country before being able to honestly reflect on the experience. This is true especially in those destinations where travel can be a tough slog, especially as an independent traveler. These countries are usually totally amazing but can be very difficult to travel through. Countries like India and Indonesia come to mind. On reflection I realize that I saw some amazing things when visiting these countries, however at the time I was standing in a ‘pile of shit’ while being pestered to death.
As a traveler I often feel as if I have ATM tattooed on my forehead. It is the same everywhere you have tourists – locals look at travelers as …
a) being wealthy (which most of the time you may well be, relativity speaking) and…
b) an opportunity to extract some cash.
The approach as to how money is extracted from the traveler may differ from place to place. Sometimes it is full on, in your face and other times it is a little sneakier. Sure street smarts and travel savvy will insulate you a little from a bleeding wallet, however keeping your guard up all the time gets tiring.
Time has the effect of rounding the ‘rough’ corners off of a travel experience. Time tempers the annoyance of being hounded by touts and constantly being ripped off, as well as lessening the effects of stomach parasites or mosquito borne diseases. Time also has the effect of relieving the effect of those horrifying smells.
Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen. Benjamin Disraeli
I have realized that the most endearing memories of travel, are those from the places that were the most discombobulating or the most difficult to travel in. The more a place ‘pisses you off’ or frustrates you – the more opportunity you have as a traveler to learn about yourself.
Travelling in Cuba, fit into this category for me.
I found Cuba a fascinating place to travel and at the same time a very frustrating one.
There were things about Cuba that drove me nuts, there were aspects that made me feel really good. At times I felt like laughing and crying at the same time. For greater insights into what I mean see our post ‘Cuba Time – Going with the Flow’.
What our trip to Cuba has shown us is that we have become “soft travelers”. I place the blame squarely on the shoulders of ‘house sitting’ and the fact that we house sit up to 90% of the year.
When we are house sitting, we are living in one place rather that traveling constantly (especially if you are performing repeat sits and already know the ropes!). Sure you still have to deal with the annoyances of everyday living. Who doesn’t, however; you are not constantly spending massive amounts of energy every day, just to look after the basic needs of where am I going to sleep tonight, is this stranger going to try and con me, or where and what am I going to eat.
If it was not for house sitting we probably would have quit travelling after about a year.
because we could not afford to travel in the standard that house sitting affords us and
We would be burnt out from travel stress
What our recent trip to Cuba revealed to me was. People are people – no matter where you go in the world. If I allow myself to react, tense up and build a wall to shield myself from people who get in my face or annoy me– I will be isolating myself from the people and the situations that make travel (and life for that matter) a rewarding experience.
Traveling is a mirror reflecting back to the traveler one’s own life and how you live it – the traveler just has to be open to opening their eyes and seeing what is being reflected back at them.
Travel is a mirror. When a monkey looks in, no philosopher looks out!
Finally the first day of our adventure rolled around. On the morning of January 14th 2017 we checked out of our hotel in Puerto Ayora and caught a cab up to Rancho Manzanillo to meet our fellow shipmates. They, like the majority of Galapagos cruisers had been picked up straight from the airport and we were intrigued and (we confess) a little apprehensive about the folks we would be sharing the next 8 days with.
As we got to know each other an impressive 3 course lunch, we knew that we were going to have a ‘whale of a time’ and we were right. After lunch and a brief lecture by our guide on the do’s and don’ts of the Galapagos (primarily don’t touch and don’t get within 2 metres of any animal) it was time to see the giant tortoises that range freely around the ranch. These seemingly prehistoric giants were everywhere and completely unconcerned about us. They were much more concerned with each other, at least the males were as it was mating season. No fancy courtship behaviour here though, the males follow a female until they manage to get her temporarily stuck and then mount her. There second favorite pastime was semi submerging themselves in a handy water/mud hole. After cooling off and thoroughly covering themselves with mud, out they come to feed. Grass, cactus and poisonous fruits have little food value, so they eat a lot of it. Oh yeah, did we mention the tortoise poop logs?
From there we clambered aboard our mini bus and with the driver weaving around the tortoises sunbathing on the roadway we meandered back to Puerto Ayora and our next port of call. The Charles Darwin Research Centre is an information center dedicated to continuing the ongoing conservation work required to preserve the unique biology of these islands.
Back once more to the van and onto the dock where we got our first glimpse of the Mary Anne. After being ferried out to her on one of the two pangas (dinghy’s), we were assigned our cabins and settled in. The Mary Anne at 119 ft is a good size, with spacious decks and communal areas. The cabins not so much though. Ours was somewhat on the small side, although it did have a double bed with a single bunk above. We had a small en-suite bathroom with a tiny shower stall and surprisingly a regular flushing toilet and not one of the dreaded ships heads.
The rest of the day passed in a blur of safety drills, introductions, a briefing of tomorrow’s activities, a wonderful dinner of fresh wahoo. With our fellow travelers jet lagged and weary it was an early night for all.
Our first full day dawned clear and calm, we were on deck before 6am as the rising sun lit Cormorant Point on Floreana. Our day started with a short panga ride into shore and we were on our way to visit the salt ponds and their resident Flamingoes, glowing cotton candy pink as they filtered the briny water for shrimp. From there it was a short walk to a soft sand turtle nesting beach-evident from the multiple tracks left behind by last night’s females. Gazing into the shallows we spotted dozens of small stingrays and had a run in with a small shark who almost beached himself chasing fish onto the beach right by my feet.
Back on board we had a drink and a snack before getting our snorkelling gear sorted. Take the wet suits offered! You need them the water is cold, as we soon found out.
Our destination was Devils Crown, a roughly circular outcrop shielding a snorkeler’s paradise. Not sure what was more shocking, the cold as we hit the water or what we saw beneath! Fish overload, with schools of different species ‘layered’ at different depths in the clear sea below. It was a staggering, somewhat overwhelming experience even for us who have snorkelled and dove in many parts of the world. For the novice snorkelers it was mind boggling.
Exhilarated and chilled its back to the Mary Anne for a 3 course lunch before heading off to Post Office Bay. This has to be one of the most touristy spots on our itinerary. Centuries ago seafarers wanting to send mail home had to rely on fellow seafarers! They would choose a handy location and leave carefully addressed letters and packages in the hope that the next boat along would be heading in that direction and be able to pass the message along. The remnant of that system is a barrel ‘post box’ clearly marked a sort walk on shore. Today’s visitors leave a postcard in the barrel and then sift through the pile already there to see if they can (ideally) hand deliver one in return.
Then it was time for our second snorkel of the day, right off the beach. Turtles everywhere! Grinning from ear to ear we hung out in the swell with them, as they calmly grazed between the algae covered boulders. They didn’t give a damn that we were there and would surface right next to us when it was time to catch a breath.
Tired, cold and exclaiming ‘OMG’ it was back to the boat for a hot shower, a sunset drink, dinner and an early night. Which was somewhat delayed, by a sea lion racing through the school of fish attracted to the galleys lights in search of her dinner. What a day, this alone made the trip worthwhile, yet there was much more to come.
Day 2 started with a trip into the small town of Puerto Velazco Ibarra, Floreana, here we saw marine iguanas in full courting colours. Seemingly draped over every rock of the harbour and the dock, were clumps of females and youngsters, the large males guard their territory with head bobbing displays and hisses. Add to that the nose exhalations of excess salt flying through the air and you could imagine yourself trapped in a Jurassic Park movie.
From here we clambered aboard the truck/bus and we were off to explore Floreanas oldest settlement. Evidence of where old caves in the soft friable rock had been extended to shelter both humans and their beasts were easy to see. Especially when supplemented by the carefully preserved photographs of that era. Here we saw yet another sub species of tortoise and lots of Darwin’s multi purposed finches.
An anticipated highlight of this trip was to be our afternoon sail to Isabella in search of whales and dolphins. Although the sails were up, with little wind we motored along with nary a whale in sight. Oh well, it was perfect for catching up on some sleep, reading or to soak in the vast expanse of still calm ocean with nary a ship in sight. After another exquisite sunset we readied for bed and dreams of another day.
If you ever hear anyone say that you ‘don’t have to spend a fortune on a Galapagos cruise’……. They are right! You can indeed see a lot of the islands and the wildlife by staying on the populated islands and going on various day trips to see some of the islands wonders. Be warned, these trips are often rather bouncy rides in small open boats. Exploring the islands this way will cost much less than going on a cruise, unless you find a short, last minute 4 day trip on one of the budget class boats that toil these waters. This island hopping was our back up plan, however we knew that to experience the full beauty and depth of this magical place we wanted to do a cruise.
The Galapagos islands are not a cheap place to get to. First you have to get to Ecuador, then pay another $400 or $500 each to get to Baltra airport, plus the $100 park fee it all adds up. Why travel all that way and pay so much to experience tiny snippets of what the islands offer?
This is why we decided to splurge and take an 8 day cruise through the islands on one of the higher end vessels. For those of you running ‘google’ searches right now, we agree it is not cheap. If you have specific dates and limited time, boats have to be booked way ahead of time and you will be looking at $4,000 to $8,000 per person for an 8 day cruise.
Even though visiting the Galapagos has long been on the bucket list, our budget wasn’t going to stretch that far, which is why we went the ‘last minute’ route. ‘Last minutes’ are just that, last minute bookings at discounted prices to fill empty berths on upcoming sailings. After carefully studying the offerings on this site we figured that we might just be able to swing a deal if we had a bit of flexibility in our schedule.
As the first and final days of a cruise are pick up and drop off days, we decided that we wanted to do at least an 8 day cruise. After all what could you actually see on a 4 day cruise? We knew that we wanted to spend some time visiting the accessible land sites in Santa Cruz as well. We were 2 months out when we went ahead, booked our flights and gave ourselves 14 days in the islands.
Now the nail biting began, how late should we wait to book our cruise? More importantly did we care what type of boat we chose or where its itinerary would take us? After hours poring over yet another useful site the answer was a definitive yes! We wanted to do the lesser travelled western itinerary which goes around the younger and more volcanically active Isabella & Fernandina. This of course limited our choice of boats. Careful study of reviews and amenities on each available vessel also allowed us to start narrowing down on our choices.
In the end we had 3 firm contenders The Anahi, The Mary Anne and The Nemo II all had a similar itinerary, a maximum of 16 passengers and good reviews. There the similarity ended, the Anahi was a luxury catamaran with a price to match, The Mary Anne was a 119 ft. sailing vessel (one of the few in the islands) and The Nemo II a smallish catamaran with only 12 guests. Which to choose?
The final choice was easier than anticipated, especially the longer we waited. The Mary Anne had become a firm favorite but the first quote just before Christmas 2016 at $2900 each was just a little too steep. With our departure to Baltra on the 10th January not that far away, we hummed and hawed, do we don’t we? Between Christmas and the New Year the price dropped to $2400, yet still we waited. With just one week to go before our flight out to the islands we booked the Mary Anne for $2100 each instead of the $4800 listed in the brochure.
Was it worth it? Absolutely!
To wet your taste buds here are a few of our photos. (Click on an image to see the slide show)