I feel like we got 110% back.
Between the fact that I was raised by a half-Ecuadorian mother and my lifetime interest in evolution, the Galapagos Islands has always been high on my list. Barbara and I are living in Peru, so it became a matter of when, not if. In March, we started planning a short trip for our October break, so I started asking around and searching online.
One link sent me to "Royal Galapagos," the cover photo of which was a gleaming white vessel, Majestic, with large port holes, sitting serenely at anchor at sunset. We contacted them; they responded quickly, and we hemmed and hawed for a few weeks, until a strategic email informed us that if we wanted to reserve a cabin on the main deck, we would need to act. We had to pay a sizeable deposit and I got a little nervous when the bank transfer seemed to go okay from our end, but not theirs, and I began to fear I might soon be smelling the sour stench of scam. PayPal ended up working okay, but cost us an extra 4%. When our reservation seemed to be set (Thank you for your patience, Elizabeth!), we waited, and waited, grateful that we had acted early.
By the time the trip approached, we had vouchers, itineraries, free reservations at a nice airport hotel in Guayaquil, free flight to the islands, pick-ups and drop-offs, etc. We were picked up, taken to the airport, handed boarding passes and more detailed information and practically escorted to the gate. By the way, the new Guayaquil airport is obsessively clean. There was nobody there, so the place was like some sort of white, shiny shrine with people pacing up and down the long corridor with mops, cleaning the floors.
Anyway, we got the same treatment when we arrived. We had to pay $20 back in Guayaquil and $100 in San Cristobal for the park service. We had been aware of that and were happy to support the good work the park service does. The guides, Simon and Peter, who turned out to be the onboard naturalist, greeted us and before we knew it we were on the wharf. Off in the distance, the Majestic was moored. They have two very sturdy, very stable inflatable dinghies that make embarkment and disembarkment easy, supported by the sure hands of the boarding crew.
Pretty much everything surpassed our highest expectations. What I had briefly feared was a scam turned out to be a well-oiled machine. Every member of the crew was professional, skilled, courteous, genuinely friendly, multi-talented, and all-around amable. These guys never stopped. Jonathan would serve breakfast, help us board, work on deck, etc. yet with every skill, he, like all of them, was on top of his game. The crew quietly brought our backs to our cabins during the orientation. We newlyweds of 37 years enjoyed the "Matrimonial Suite."
Peter deserves his own paragraph. He has the build of a guy who runs up and down mountains - lean and mean - but there is no meanness in Peter, only a serious and multifaceted skill set. He is a walking encyclopaedia. He can identify a bird on the fly from 50 meters. He organized the itinerary to ensure the best chances of seeing wildlife and he managed time so effectively that we felt like we were packing in lots of action during the days, but not at a breakneck pace - we never felt hurried - and we still had a nice after-lunch siesta time before striking out again to some other amazing experience, where Peter knew we would see some animals up close. He was also thorough in his safety precautions and instructions.
That first night, the crew lined up, decked out in their dress uniform best. Everybody introduced themselves and we had a champagne toast. Peter drew up a dry-erase board (every night) with the next day's itinerary, along with a detailed list of what to take along to each different place, and whether it would be a "wet or dry landing." Wet landings were never deeper than my knee. Decisions of which shoes to take led to generally less and less wearing of shoes.
At night, the soporific combination of the salt air, the lulling of the hull, and the end of an active day was enough to soothe us to sleep. But the boat made the long hauls from island to island at night, so that when we woke up, we were there! That created a few issues. The sound of the diesel engine, blended with the sound of the waves in the wake, was not unpleasant. When weighing anchor, however, the somehow unpleasant sound of the chain dragging across the deck seemed to be just outside, or maybe in the same cabin. It took only a minute, but there was no sleeping through it. October is a season of choppy seas, and the nighttime passages were pretty rough if you were trying to walk around the deck. I ended up sleeping better than Barbara did.
That first morning, I wandered out to the rear deck and gazed at the striped Wrasses slowly swimming through the clear water; then a large shark slowly made its way to the gunnel and beneath the boat. Breakfast followed, including fruit, frittata, huevos, cheeses, ham, breads, juices, and on and on. The quality of the food was actually amazing. One night Chef proudly walked in with a whole roast turkey! Every meal consisted of at least two gratuitous courses that were just too much to get to. The first day, after a morning snorkel off the beach at Post Office Bay, we arrived to a small buffet of fruit, sandwiches and juice. We thought it was lunch, but it was "morning tea." To our surprise, about an hour later, they served a full-on lunch on the top deck where the bar and jacuzzi are. We learned to expect a substantial snack after every trip off the boat. Pacing was key because it was all delicious, especially the unique fruits that I had never even heard of. Service was professional and we wanted for nothing.
That the islands are amazing is such an understatement. There are no words for that feeling when birds hop or fly right up to you and seals and iguanas seem unaware of your very existence. It's like being invisible. We were lucky enough to see mating rituals of Albatrosses and Nazca Boobies. We walked among sea lions, barely a week old, hanging out on the beach with their mothers. We saw rocky shore boiling with brightly colored Sally Lightfoot crabs. In close to shore it was a casual buffet for the sea lions and birds. Turtles poked their heads up amid the feasting. We saw huge tortugas, strewn across a field like bales of hay. Snorkeling was hit or miss, but when it was a hit, it was a party. Sea lions considered us temporary distractions, nosing up to us and shooting past us. Unconcerned, Turtles slowly made their way past us. We swam in the midst of schools of brightly colored tropical fish of a range of sizes, swirling around the ancient sunken caldera called the Devil's Crown. In swim-through caves, White-tipped sharks patiently lurked, occasionally taking short, smooth glides along the vertical rock wall.
This is meant to be a review, not a travelogue, but suffice it to say, there is nothing like it. If you want to see a few different islands, a boat is the way to go, because you travel at night and wake up at your destination (see note above.) I could not have been more impressed with the service, from start to finish. It's a little nerve-wracking to pay 100% up front for an unimaginable experience. I feel like we got 110% back.