I’m a bit nauseous so I’m not sure how this will come out (pun intended). I’m on a yacht cruising through the Pacific waters to our next island here in the Galapagos. The “Estrella del Mar” (star of the sea) sleeps 16 passengers plus a crew of about 7.
The boat is much nicer than I imagined—ultra shiny wood floors throughout, a lounge with white leather couches, and a lovely dining room. The rooms are small, but have comfy beds. The three course meals are amazing, plus everyday after returning from an excursion we are greeted by tuxedo-clad Herman, the waiter and all around manager of the boat, with plates of snacks like pizza or chicken wings. I just don’t think I will be met with food and tasty snacks again on my trip.
I am on a tour that is just one of many Galapagos Islands Tours available. On our sea vessel it’s another stew of folks from all over the globe: a cute young couple from Ireland, some loud overbearing Poles from Canada, two older lesbian lovers from France, and others from the Canary Islands of Spain, Japan, Brazil, England, Switzerland, and me, the sole Americano. Uh-oh, I feel another reality show coming on. It’s Survivor: Galapagos Islands. Who will be voted off next and forced to swim ashore?
After about four days (halfway through the tour I’d bought) I was just about getting used to the rocking sensation of the ocean. When the first group of folks left and the second arrived, I was happy to see a few more young people come aboard. On the other hand, part of me was a bit tired of making small talk with strangers. There’s the typical traveler chat: where we’ve been, where we’re going, how many months we were traveling, what to see, where to go, etc. But then, at the same time, I also started really relaxing, and getting to know the crew. They were a bunch of nice Ecuadorian guys some of whom love to hit on the solo chica traveler.
Pancho was the oldest. He was the chef, a musician, and all around bon vivant. He marveled us with meal after meal of fabulous gourmet fare—beautiful homemade soups, vegetable and meat dishes. My first day on board, I sat right down to a bowl of steaming chicken and rice soup. I slurped up the last drop thinking that was lunch. But, no, it was just the first course. Next came a plate of succulent chicken topped with a savory mushroom sauce, tasty green beans, and a small salad. And after, came a plate of fresh island fruits. And this was just lunch! Dinner was another three-course affair every night with dishes like filet mignon, calamari in a light tomato sauce, stuffed pepper with meat, vegetables, and eggplant cakes. It was all so good. My diet plan of losing weight on this trip was suddenly going by the ‘weigh’ side! The food was way more than I expected. Chef Pancho was a tiny wrinkled man. He spoke no English, but was perhaps the funniest of all the crew—doing little dance jigs here and there and taking bows on cue—a real character—just adorable.
Herman was the all around boat manager, bartender, chamber maid, and waiter. He was tiny and cute and they called him “Nato” which means little nose, which of course, he did not have. He was cute and friendly and always quick to joke. When we asked what he was serving, he’d say that it was ‘filet of pinguino’ or ‘turtle soup!’
The captain, Efran, was — you guessed it — also a small, leathery faced older guy. He was perhaps around forty-five, but looked older due to the constant exposure to the equatorial sun. He let me steer the ship one day, which was quite fun. He led me snorkeling another day and would grab my hand to point out cool sea life. But the problem was he didn’t ever let go. Hmmm. Do I pull it away forcefully and possibly offend the captain of the ship? This made me slightly uncomfortable, but others said he’d done the same with them—of course they were all women, though.
Things did get a bit strange one night when I was lying in a lounge chair on the top deck taking in the fresh air so as to not get seasick. He came up and laid next to me and helped me practice my Spanish. But, whereas I was lying on my back gazing at the stars above, he was curled on his side gazing onto my face—more uncomfortable! Eventually I actually fell asleep only to awake to him draping me with a blanket. Finally, he fell asleep and I crept off to my cabin. The next day I casually avoided him and he began to give me the cold shoulder. Apparently, he was hurt because the next evening I went ashore into town with another couple from the boat and Javier, our tour guide.
Javier was the ‘naturalista’ guide. The boats all come with different guides of varying degrees of knowledge. I chose this boat, which cost a little (a lot) more because Javier was a “Naturalista III’, which meant he had a biology degree (in his case studied biology for 2 years) and spoke very good English. He was the biggest crew member—about six foot four, with a big build, big round face, and even bigger smile. Every evening he gave us a briefing of the next days activities. The way he over-pronunciated his English made me chuckle.
“Tomorrow we go on a rrrocky trail.” The way he said ‘rocky’ reminded me of Ed Sullivan and how he sounded like he spoke with a mouth full of marbles: “Right here on our stage…”
After each briefing, he would wrap up with “any comment? any question?” and then ring the dinner bell. I became sort of his assistant and he’d flirt with me off and on. It was harmless fun.
One day after an excursion on one of the islands, the crew took a break to play some fútbol (soccer) on a small dirt field just behind the beach. Javier kept bugging me to play. I really wasn’t going to as I’d never even played before (well maybe a few times way back in high school gym class), nor did I know the rules of the game. Eventually, I and another woman, Sinead, who played on a team in Ireland, couldn’t resist their urging and joined it. It was so much fun! We were only playing on half the field and I realized I was running around a lot more than most of them. Amazingly, I somehow managed to score 3 goals, more than anyone on my team. They all thought I lied about my minimal soccer experience, but I think maybe the fact that I was playing in my bikini top was an inadvertently strategic move.
But really the show here was the animals. It was truly amazing. Most of the animals here are indigenous and found nowhere else in the world. AND there are no predators here so none of the animals are afraid of us (although, looking at our motley bunch, they should have been). We strolled by one hundred-year-old tortoises, swam up to sharks and penguins, and even snapped photos mere inches from sea lions basking in the sun.
This barren, volcanic group of islands lies directly on the equator about 1000 kilometers west of Ecuador. It was discovered by Peruvian Spaniards around the 1500s, but really hit the spotlight thanks to Charles Darwin. He visited the islands for three weeks in 1853 and what he discovered here eventually led him to write his theory of evolution. There are 13 major islands as well as many small ones, and the whole lot of them are a national park so you must pay $100 cash dinero just to get on. By the way, just a little trivia for ya: The national currency of Ecuador is the US Dollar. That’s right—our greenbacks, with our presidents on them is the official dinero in these parts.
Every day on our 8 day cruise was another adventure. Javier would lead us around a different rocky volcanic island. Most islands are off limits to visitors unless they are escorted by a guide. And most of the islands are very dry. It’s almost like a moonscape, but here life abounds. We saw hundreds of marine iguanas and lava lizards lying next to crabs and barking sea lions. We also got to snorkel nearly every day which I loved. We swam around rocky outcroppings and the waters teemed with beautiful colored schools of fish, star fish, blowfish, stingrays, and even a few white-tipped sharks.
The final evening was capped off with a song and dance by Pancho (as he ‘played’ the cheese grater!) and a wonderful buffet dinner. I was sad to leave my new friends and home at sea.
Back in Quito—I missed my life of sun and leisure in the Galapagos Islands. I went from amazing three course meals of fresh seafood, meats, and fruits to a dinner of Ritz crackers and Oreos. Nothing was open due to a holiday here and I was stuck raiding the snacks in the hotel lobby. Back to the reality of a budget traveler, I guess.