In the depths of the pandemic, back in the fall of 2020, when we all desperately needed something to look forward to, I had the opportunity to secure a one-week yacht charter in the Galapagos at a deeply discounted rate. I reached out to some friends and family to see if anyone would be interested. I got a resounding YES. So I grabbed a week in November 2022. I rounded up my sixteen people to fill the yacht, crossed my fingers that travel would actually be possible again by then. And started counting down the days.
Fortunately, the pandemic eventually receded, and the majority of the group was still ready and willing to travel when this year came around. It became clear that this bucket list trip was actually going to happen! That’s when I started to worry that the experience might not live up to the hype. What if this long-awaited adventure turned out to be more hassle and expense than it was worth?
Yeah, that didn’t happen 😊
The entire experience — from our pre-cruise stay in Quito to the yacht itself, to the wildlife, the crew, and the weather – turned out to be better than anyone had even hoped. A few airline mishaps aside, this trip was one of the best I’ve ever taken! And I think the rest of the group would agree.
If you’ve ever thought about visiting The Galapagos, please read on for the details. And please plan to go there sooner rather than later. Don’t wait until you have “enough” time and money, because this unspoiled habitat might not be around forever, and you will never be healthier, more fit, or more able to get out and enjoy nature than you are today.
We flew into Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, and spent two nights there prior to the cruise. We stayed at the Swissotel Quito, which is a modern hotel in the business district of the city with all the onsite conveniences you could want. It was perfect for our short stay, but if I were to return to Quito I would probably stay in the historic center. The center is a little more charming and has more dining, shopping, and sightseeing within walking distance. (I have my eye on the Hotel Plaza Grande or the Casa Gangotena for next time!)
With our one full day in the city, we did a private tour that hit most of the highlights. We visited the Intinan Museum at the Equator and enjoyed some cool hands-on experiments and photo ops there, and then we strolled through the old colonial center of the city, visited the cathedral, and had a lovely lunch in a local restaurant.
Quito was an unexpected pleasure, as none of us really knew anything about the city beforehand. It is at a high altitude (it’s the second-highest capital city in the world, at about 3,000 meters above sea level!) So you have to be mindful of that and make sure to stay rested and hydrated. But it’s well worth a visit!
Boarding the Ship!
From Quito, we flew to the island of Baltra, in the Galapagos. These flights (and all travelers to the Galapagos) are very strictly controlled and monitored. This is to ensure that no one brings in any non-native plants, insects, or other animals. We went through extra security screening before boarding. Our belongings were fogged with insecticide while on the plane. And the checked bags were all inspected by dogs once we arrived. It was very interesting to see all the precautions they have in place!
Once we collected our bags in Baltra, the naturalist, Jaime, met us. He would be our guide for the week. We took a short bus ride to a nearby dock, and then our first zodiac ride from there to our waiting yacht – The Grand Queen Beatriz.
The zodiacs are small inflatable boats that are used to ferry everyone from the yacht to the islands. They hold about eight people and can be used for “wet” landings (where they run the zodiac as close to the shore as possible and you jump out and wade in from there) or for “dry” landings (where they bring you to a dock). We were on and off zodiacs multiple times every day on this trip.
The yacht itself is spacious, modern, and clean. It’s about 130 feet long, with three passenger decks (two decks of cabins, and one open sun deck). There are eight cabins, each with its own surprisingly large bathroom (the shower was bigger than any that I’ve had on a cruise ship). And some of the cabins even have small balconies. We ate our meals family-style at two large tables in the main salon. And we had our evening briefings/meetings in a cozy upstairs lounge.
The top deck has sun loungers and a small hot tub. They provide wetsuits, snorkels, masks and fins of various sizes for everyone. And we were all given nice metal water bottles (refillable at the water/coffee/snack station) to keep as souvenirs. There is a bar (and a bartender) onboard, and you pay for your sodas/alcohol based on consumption.
Our seven-night itinerary focused on the southern loop of islands. (Santa Cruz, Isabela, Floreana, San Cristobal, Santa Fe, and Espanola) and we were traveling during early November when the weather was fairly warm and dry. The water was still cold enough that we needed wetsuits, but the daily temps were in the 70s. It was very pleasant overall!
Every evening we gathered before dinner for a briefing from our naturalist. He would outline the next day’s activities, telling us what time to be ready for the various excursions, what wildlife to look out for, and whether we would be doing wet or dry landings (so that we could dress accordingly).
Our days were busy. We would typically start with breakfast at 7 or 8 am, then head out to snorkel, hike or both. We would come back to the yacht in the middle of the day for lunch and a siesta, and then do another activity — sometimes moving to a different island – in the afternoon. Evenings found us back on the yacht for a shower and a cocktail before our evening briefing. Then an early dinner and everyone was in bed (exhausted) by 9 or 10pm.
The daily schedules are all regulated by the National Park Service. This is to ensure that there are never too many people in any one place in the islands, so as not to put pressure on the wildlife.
We did see other yachts and cruise ships as we traveled along, but everyone followed their own set schedules and stayed out of each other’s way. The whole thing is very carefully orchestrated.
There were two days that we stopped at small towns and had some time to wander and shop at our leisure, but that (plus the afternoon siestas) was really the only free time.
You could, of course, skip an excursion one day and stay behind to rest, read, or soak in the hot tub. And some of us did do that from time to time, but who would want to miss out on the baby sea lions?!
Obviously, wildlife is the main focus in the Galapagos, and we saw plenty! We swam with turtles, rays, marine iguanas, reef sharks, and playful baby sea lions who nibbled on our fins.
The Galapagos boasts every variety of bird! From blue-footed and red-footed boobies to hawks, frigates, gulls, finches, albatrosses, and even a Galapagos penguin.
We visited a baby tortoise breeding center, and we saw giant Galapagos tortoises in their natural habitat in the highlands.
All along the way, we had expert guidance and commentary from our naturalist. They patiently answered hundreds of questions a day!
What we did NOT do was email, text, or scroll social media. For days at a time, we had little to no internet or cell service. And it was honestly wonderful. We enjoyed nature and one another’s company. We relaxed. And we talked!
When the week was over, we settled up our bar tabs, tipped our crew generously, and flew back to Quito to catch our overnight flights back home.
If you’re still reading, you’re obviously pretty interested in the Galapagos, so here are my key takeaways and advice:
- This is an active/outdoorsy destination that requires a certain minimum level of fitness in order to get the most out of the experience. Be prepared to walk over uneven terrain, swim in open water, and climb in and out of small boats.
- For a trip like mine, you do not need fancy clothes. You can and should pack lightly. We lived in swimsuits and athleisure, for the most part. Layers are important, as the weather can be changeable. Sun protection is key (sunscreen, hats, long sleeve shirts, etc) And you need both water shoes and sturdy walking shoes. *If you do the Galapagos on a cruise ship, there may be other dress code guidelines to follow as well
- Bring an underwater camera – that can be a GoPro, or just a waterproof case/container for your phone
- Bring cash. Ecuador uses the US Dollar, and you can get more at an ATM on one or two of the islands if you absolutely need to, but it’s best to be prepared with more than you think you’ll need. We did not know the bar tabs would have to be paid in cash, and that caused some last-minute scrambling.
- If you want to have time to do something specialized, like diving, or sportfishing, add a couple of days onto the end of your trip and stay on one of the islands (there are plenty of casual hotels and B&Bs) so that you can plan a daytrip with a local boat.
- If you have a group of like-minded friends or family, explore the idea of a private yacht charter. While it sounds extravagant, it’s not. The yachts are all designed for 16 people maximum, and there’s something really special about traveling with just your own group.
Above all, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post — go now. Don’t wait until retirement! Or some other “ideal” time when you think you’ll have more time and money to do a big trip like this. Our group was predominantly in their 40s and 50s, and some of the days kicked our butts. I am glad that I did not wait until I was older 😊