The Enchanted Islands of Darwin: Cruise the remarkable island ecosystem of the volcanic Galápagos 650 miles west of Ecuador. See unique and abundant wildlife, some of which are found nowhere else on earth. In the company of naturalist guides we scout for breaching whales, pink flamingos, giant tortoises, marine iguanas, tiny penguins and flightless cormorants: just a few of the many species calling the Galápagos Islands home.

The Galapagos Islands: Large lumps of volcanic rock either liberally covered by bird droppings, or sparsely covered by gray-brown mostly dead vegetation.

If I had known Cruise West had started doing this trip, I would have booked with them. Absolutely Awfulon did the absolutely awful pre-trip documentation; Metropolitan-Touring, an Ecuadorian company did an excellent job, both in Quito and on the La Pinta.

Day 1, Wednesday, November 4 Fly to Quito, Ecuador
Should I even go to bed overnight? Rather than have a another possible problem with StuporShuttle and since it's only 11 days ($66 for parking versus $57 for the shuttle) I drive to the airport, getting up at 2:30 AM and leaving about 3:30 AM which is even earlier than that awful time (3:50) when I was going to Iceland. The only saving factor - all the travel is in one long day since I'm going south, not east or west overseas.

Also again I have to book my own flights between Houston and Miami but I used American AwfulLines Frequent Complainer miles (before I lose them). I could have chosen a flight with a shorter layover (less than 2 hours) but what if the first flight is late (see my notes on the Windwards trip where ALL the American AwfulLines flights were late) or there is a schedule change. I "play it safe" so that there's no trouble even with their probable foul-ups and delays. No meals on American AwfulLines, not even snacks, unless we pay lots of $$$$. At least the flights are short; the total is about 2 hours less than the layover in Miami!

1American AA2127Houston - Miami6:00 AM - 9:20 AM2:208:15

It's a LONG layover - at least 8 hours - so I get junk food junk at the airport. LAN airlines are supposedly American AwfulLines "OneWorld" partners so I try for frequent-complainer miles credit for whatever they aren't worth. Maybe I won't have to fly American AwfulLines again. It's a long wait to check in. The LAN ticket counter was supposed to open at 1:30 but nobody showed up until 2:40 and the line was long, but at least they were reasonably efficient and it went almost quickly.

2Lan Ecuador XL 517Miami - Quito5:35 PM - 9:35 PM4:0014:35

The flight to Quito arrives late this evening (internet forecast is 30% for rain for the time we are here but that turns out wrong - overcast but dry) and we are met by the Local Host, Maria. AwfulLon foul-ups: my documentation said that I did not have an arrival transfer and would have to get an expensive taxi (wrong) and also they never told Maria that the flight schedule had been changed and she looked for me a long time at the original arrival time. I'm the only guest on my flight and once I have my luggage (almost the last on the carousel but getting though Immigration and Customs was super quick) it's off to the hotel.

More AwfulLon foulup: some of their documentation said I would have to pay a $10 Galapagos Tourist Transit fee - wrong again - it's covered by the local host company. It's now late - 10:30 PM after a 20-hour "day" - when we get to the hotel, so there is no dinner unless we got something on the flight. Maria has to go right back to the airport to pick up the next group of victims. It turns out that there are only 10 victims for the AwfulLon tour. There will be other groups on the boat. Ecuador uses the US Dollar so there's no currency problem which is nice for the short time in Quito & Guayaquil. The electricity is 110V and a standard US plug - no adapters needed. The altitude here is given as 9000' but with the many steep hills, it varies from 8000 - 10,000 at least. I didn't have any loss of breath problems but we didn't walk fast on our tour. Hotel: Hilton Colon (SF) (2 nights - very nice room!)

The above picture furnished by Awfulon is VERY misleading

So here's a better map.

Day 2, Thursday, November 5 Quito
Food! Finally! After an excellent breakfast, we leave at 9 (adjusted for S American timing) for a sightseeing tour which showcases Quito's treasures: the historic stone murals of the LEGISLATIVE PALACE, Independence Plaza and the 16th-century SAN FRANCISCO MONASTERY, the Jesuit's LA COMPANIA CHURCH with its stunning golden altars, and paintings at the WORKSHOP and MUSEUM of Oswaldo Guayasamin (waste of time for most of us). One unexpected event - getting caught in a parade honoring artists and artisians. It was quite an experience since their route was exactly were we were to walk on our tour through the old city. It, and we, ended up in the large San Francisco Square. Traffic here is horrible which also slowed things down quite a bit.

Back to the hotel for two hours then off again at 3 to have our photo taken in front of the Equatorial Monument, "the center of the world." This was the site of the French Institute expedition in the early 1800s which was charged with finding the location of the Equator, and whether the earth was round (apple shaped) of oval (egg shaped). The location they found is only about 200 yards from where our advanced GPS satellite system places it. Not bad for the instruments of the day. After a bit of a walk here, we continue this evening to some local greasy-spoon restaurant where we have an almost "edible" welcome dinner. Poor, as expected. KFC or McDonalds would have been preferable. Overall a good day except for the art museum and the lousy dinner. (B,D)

Day 3, Friday, November 6 Quito - San Cristobal - Galápagos Islands (Embarkation)-Cruising
Up at 5:20, bag out at 6:30, we leave for the airport at 7:15. AwfulLon lied some more: their documentation said we would have a direct charter flight to Baltra. Wrong, wrong, and wrong! First we fly to Guayaquil on a commercial carrier (TAME) then continue on the commercial flight to San Cristobal. At least we are get there by about noon and have lunch on board. It's a different time zone so we gain an hour. The meal on the second leg was much better than the "welcome dinner" last night, and almost better than the onboard lunch we get later today.

3TAME EQ 195Quito - Guayaquil9:08 - 9:550:470:38
4Guayaquil - San Cristobal10:33 - 11:151:423:07

Fly to tiny San Cristobal, one of the remote Galápagos Islands, which is mostly just the airport and the capital for the Islands. An interesting occurrence: just before we arrived, a flight attendant went down the aisle opening all the overhead luggage bins - then came back through spraying a bunch of bug spray on everything in the bins. Trying to avoid external contamination? On arrival, we take a panga (zodiac) out into the harbor to board the La Pinta (nice large cabin #316) for eight days of cruising among various Islands. Note: the ship never hard-docks even in the two larger cities. We ALWAYS take the pangas for all transfers. The weather is supposed to be good, at least for the first days - clear (make that mixed overcast) with temps 70 - 82. (BLD with "complimentary wine" - which I don't drink - at dinners - and AwfulLon lies some more: - we get no complimentary sodas with meals or in the bar lounge except by begging though they did start offering me one in the latter part of the trip.)

After a good lunch and an onboard safety lecture (rather than a full 48 guests, there are only 20 though we will pick up 6 more later and lose 4) and a lecture on snorkeling for those who want to, we cruise a few miles down the coast and let those who want to do so go ashore ( Wet landing) and try out their snorkeling skills - or just lie on the beach under windy, overcast skies. Unfortunately for the snorkelers, it's too windy and rough so all anyone can do is just stay on the beach but out of the dead, dry brush. That, by the way, is the first impression of the Galapagos - volcanic rocks either liberally covered with bird droppings or sparsely covered with lots of dead, gray-brown brush. There's almost no greenery at all, but it's at the end of the dry season.

Note: The ship's itinerary will vary according to the Galápagos National Park policies and regulations, weather conditions, and seasonal changes "to create the perfect cross-section of sites visited".

I have a copy of my Equator Crossing certificate if necessary when we cross the Equator by ship on this trip.

Day 4, Saturday, November 7 North Seymour - Dragon Cerro on Santa Cruz
Travel ashore each day to the remote islands with our naturalists who introduce us to the unique fauna living free and fearless of man. Our senior Naturalist is Pablo; his associate is Andreas.

We start out this morning with a visit to North Seymour. Dry land at North Seymour Island for a walk along the coast, observing bird colonies of frigate birds, swallow tailed gulls, sea lions, and marine iguanas. We then split and snorkelers go back to the boat for their gear while the rest of us take the option of a nice hour long zodiac ride to see some wildlife (birds, fur seal, sea lions, marine iguana).

After lunch, most of us make another Dry landing on the north short of Santa Cruz and take a long walk up and around the hill known as Dragon Cerro (Dragon - Iguanas and Marine Iguanas). However, due to excessive engine noise last night I got NO sleep so skip this landing to try to catch up some. At least Fernando, the ship's Hotel Manager very kindly lets me switch to a cabin (#306) nearer the bow which is very nice. Reports back from those who took the walk said that although the terrain was different, overall it was much like the morning one so maybe I didn't miss too much.

Day 5, Sunday, November 8 Floreana Island - aka Santa Maria Island
After a much quieter night and some good sleep, we make a brief Wet landing at the historical Post Office Bay to learn about the human side of the islands (and continue the traditions by leaving our postcards for someone else to deliver), its early inhabitants and the adventures of pirates and whalers. We take some postcards to deliver and leave some for someone else to deliver for us.

Then we come back on board and reposition to Champion Islet where some can snorkel or we can take a panga to transfer (underway) to a glass-bottomed boat and have our chance see the sea-life but almost no chance for pictures due to reflection on the glass, and the constant rocking of the boat. We saw sea lions, lots of fish, one sea turtle, and a couple of the Galapágos penguins.

While we have lunch (on the top/sun deck) the boat repositions again and we Wet land at Point Cormorant for beach activities, then an easy walk to see the flamingos (2) that inhabit a brackish-water lagoon, and other birds like stilts and sandpipers. We even have an extremely rare opportunity: watching two turtles mating as they are washed up by the waves onto the shore right in front of us just as we were leaving the area to go back to the ship. Fantastic, rare opportunity. One other "fun" incident: as we were leaving the ship by panga to go to the shore, we noticed that two sea lions had found new perches: one had climbed up onto the stern landing deck and gone to sleep; the other was stretched out on one of the pangas which was not in use and just tied loosely to the rear of the ship.

Day 6, Monday, November 9 Isabella Island (Sea Horse shaped) and Fernandina Island
The first option this morning is a Dry landing and then a very demanding walk across very sharp lava fields. On the southwest of Isabela, secluded Punta Moreno was in past centuries a favorite anchor for pirates and whalers. An uphill hike through palo santo forest takes guests to the back of Darwin Crater, filled with salt water. The view at the end of the trail is worth the climb. Darwin is one of Isabela's 6 volcanoes, a remarkable contrast to the lower islands to the east of the archipelago. This is a walk for those who have good balance and no physical problems. But there is an option for the rest of us:

As an alternative, we have an option of taking a long exploratory panga ride checking out the shore line for wildlife, and also getting into an extensive Mangrove swamp / forested area. Quite a few different species of wildlife are there. We see many turtles (all underwater so no pictures), Galapagos Penguins (mostly in the water but also a couple on the rocky shore), Flightless Cormarants, Pelicans, etc. It's a very nice trip.

After eating an excellent Ecuadorian lunch while the ship repositions, on the way we come across a pod of Orca Whales and circle around for about 20 minutes trying to see more of them. Once we arrive, we do a Dry landing for a 2-mile walk (more lava) on Fernandina Island. Punta Espinoza has an amazing combination of barrenness with lots of wildlife. Having no introduced mammals, Fernandina has a unique environment with the highest density of marine iguanas, sharing their space with sea lions, Sally Lightfoot crabs, hawks, penguins and the flightless cormorant.

Night Owls among us enjoy cruising right in front of famous Ecuador Volcano, which rises off the water line with one of its halves completely collapsed, and now resting underwater, while crossing the Equator. We actually cross it twice as we round the northern tip of Isabella Island and head back south..

Day 7, Tuesday, November 10 Santa Cruz Island & Darwin Research Station
We have a long day ashore today. First we take our panga (after a near catastrophic first attempt to board our pangas due to extremely high swells - we had to start over on the other side of the ship) to the main dock for a Dry landing. Then we board a bus for a 30 minute ride on a winding, bumpy road to visit the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, a Scalesia forest and the twin pit craters Los Gemelos. We also have a chance to walk through a lava tube larger than the ones I walked through in Hawaii and Iceland.

Then we come half-way back down the road (by bus) to a "farm" with some open fields where we can see lots of tortoises in their migration from the shore area back to the upper highlands of the island. It's a chance to get some good pictures - "up close and personal" where we can get to about 12' (recommended distance) to the tortoises. Back on the bus and back to town.

We then take our panga across the harbor to a hotel where we have lunch, a "BBQ" (so they say), at the Finch Bay Eco Hotel. Then we sit around a while (too long) before taking our panga back across the harbor to town.

Back on the bus, we drive about 15 minutes to visit the CHARLES DARWIN RESEARCH STATION, established to help conserve the Islands' natural habitat. and the giant tortoise pens, an impressive giant prickly pear cactus forest and many land birds. Special Note: This year (2009) is the 200th Anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, and the 150th Anniversary of the publication of his classic The Origin of the Species which changed forever the logical / scientific concepts and thoughts about the evolution of both animals and mankind.

Afterwards, there's time to take a "last quick stroll", i.e. make an hour-long walk back to town and the main docks - along the main street of Puerto Ayora to get on our panga again to return to the ship for dinner.

Day 8, Wednesday, November 11 Bartoleme and Rabida Islands
Our first big activity for the day is to explore Bartolome Island. We can do a Dry landing for a hike to the summit. This is a steep climb of 368 steps (each way) aided by a wooden staircase, and the view from the top is worth the effort. It's the famous view that is generally associated with the Galapagos. Afterwards there are a variety of water activities available.

However with 736 steps (and quite a bit of walking) that's not for me. I take the alternative which is a long panga ride around Pinnacle Rock and other remains of the ancient caldera, to observe sea lions, penguins, the infamous blue-footed boobies, and other birds. We now have a third naturalist, Carlos, and he did an excellent tour for us.

The ship is repositioning as we have lunch. Then we Wetland at Puerto Egas for a mid-length walk. Most of the landscape is tuff-stone layers and more darn lava flows. At low tide, marine iguanas graze upon the algae beds and there is a colony of fur-sea lions. Again after the walk, more water activities are available. The alternative this time is for another ride in the glass-bottom boat but of course, no decent pictures. Moreover it's quite windy with very choppy waves; also it's late in the day and the low sun doesn't help either.

This evening is a special lecture on Charles Darwin, his activities in the islands, and his impact on scientific thought.

Day 9, Thursday, November 12 Espanola Island: Gardner Bay and Purta Suarez
After a night of bouncing around on what has been, I think, our roughest night passage, we finally make it to Espanola Island. It's still windy with somewhat choppy waves. We do a Wet landing at a white coral beach where we can take a short walk and watch the sea lions or enjoy the beach. There are lots of sea lions to see and a few birds but otherwise, it's pretty boring. Others can also go snorkeling in this area.

This afternoon, Dry land (supposedly - looks pretty rough and wet to me) at Punta Suarez for an exciting but very rough walk on more of that lava terrain and some boulders to walk / crawl / climb over to visit its unique sea bird colonies, including the Waved Albatrosses and the famous blowhole. No thanks to the lava and boulders. Another landing skipped. It would have been very nice to have had a sight-seeing panga ride, but the Galapagos National Park has put the area off-limits to that, at least for now. Not the best of days.

As the sun sets on the last night of our cruise, our Tour Director, Fernando, and the Captain host a farewell dinner ending our unforgettable experiences.

Day 10, Friday, November 13 San Cristobal - (Disembarkation) - Guayaquil
We have to have our bag out at 6:30 then an "early" breakfast this morning at 7. We do a Dry landing (via panga, as always) at 8. Then we have an option of staying in town, or taking a bus ride to "La Galapaguera" in the San Cristobal Highlands. It's a very nice addition given us by Metropolitan Touring. At 10:30 we have to take the bus to the airport losing an hour on the flight to Guayaquil.

5TAME EQ 194San Cristobal - Guayaquil12:05 - 2:501:45-

Enjoy time in Guayaquil (How? It's after 4 by the time we're in our hotel) or relax at our hotel this evening. I was planning to take the city tour but it isn't even offered (more Awfulon foulup). So the stop in Guayaquil is A TOTAL WASTE - see nothing, do nothing, accomplish nothing except make tomorrows flight schedule worse than it could have been. More Awfulon total c***. We most definitely should have been scheduled to go on to Quito - it would have been only another hour of flight today. No dinner included this evening. (B onboard) Hotel: Oro Verde (SF) (1 night)

OPTIONAL: Guayaquil City Tour NOT OFFERED. Enjoy an afternoon city tour of Guayaquil, Ecuador's natural port and its largest city. Founded in 1547, this tropical city lies on the banks of the Guayas River, twelve miles inland from the Gulf of Guayaquil. It is not surprising to hear the drama of Guayas, a brave indigenous leader, who in his desperation to avoid falling into the hands of the Spanish conquerors, decided to kill his wife, Quil, before drowning himself in the waters of the river. Their names were joined; a city was baptized. The visit includes the Port of Guayaquil, the heart of the business district, the Centennial Park that honors the heroes of Guayaquil's independence. The Plaza of the Administration and the striking Government and Municipal Buildings, the Moorish Clock Tower, and the monument to Sucre and Bolivar Park, with an equestrian statue of South America's liberator, Simon Bolivar. $26

Day 11, Saturday, November 14 Depart
Get up at 3:45 for a 4:30 departure to the airport. My homebound flight arrives the same day - maybe. There's no way I get the promised "included breakfast" since Awfulon stuck me with a 7:10 AM airport departure. It would have been much nicer if I were already in Quito. D*** Awfulon. (B)

6Lan Chile LA 1733Guayaquil - Quito7:10 AM - 8:05 AM0:551:05
7Lan Ecuador XL 516Quito - Miami9:10 AM - 1:15 PM4:058:25

I'm worried about having only an hour connection time, but at least I will be in "in transit" status and not have to go through many formalities. But there's always my luggage to get lost.

At least with another horrible 8:40 layover in Miami, there won't be any problem getting through Customs/Immigration, claiming my luggage, and then going through the American AwfulLines check-in, even with their probable usual foul-ups and delays. There's even way more than enough time for food - since I didn't get the included breakfast this morning due to the early departure.

8American AA 1811Miami - Houston9:40 PM - 11:25 PM2:4517:15

Day 12, Sunday, November 15 Home
Surprisingly, everything went well after it turned out that the two flights with LAN turned out to be on the same plane. Amazing! Even American Awfulines managed to get to Houston more or less on time. But even then (11:30 PM), there's no way I could get luggage, and even without a long wait for the StuporShuttle, by the time I get home, it would be after midnight - which is why I'm driving myself. So this will actually turn out to be a 12 day trip (particularly since I didn't get any sleep the night before the trip). I didn't actually get home until about 1 AM. (pictures - keep about 350 of 800).

Selected pictures
Click to enlarge

1American AA2127Houston - Miami6:00 AM - 9:20 AM2:208:15
2Lan Ecuador XL 517Miami - Quito5:35 PM - 9:35 PM4:0014:35
3TAME EQ 195Quito - Guayaquil9:08 - 9:550:470:38
4Guayaquil - San Cristobal10:33 - 11:151:423:07
5TAME EQ 194San Cristobal - Guayaquil12:00 - 2:451:45-
6Lan Chile LA 1733Guayaquil - Quito7:10 AM - 8:05 AM0:551:05
7Lan Ecuador XL 516Quito - Miami9:10 AM - 1:15 PM4:058:25
8American AA 1811Miami - Houston9:40 PM - 11:25 PM2:3517:25

METROPOLITAN TOURING which was both the local host in Quito and Guayaquil and onboard the ship did an excellent job - highly recommended. A special thanks to Maria, our local hostess in Quito, and especially to Fernando, La Pinta's Hotel Manager, and to Pablo, the senior Naturalist. They were great.

However ....

1) The documentation they sent said that I did NOT have an arrival transfer but would have to take an expensive taxi to the hotel.
2) They never told Maria (our Quito Local Host) that the flight schedule had been changed and she looked for me a long time at the original arrival time.
3) Some documentation said I must pay a $10 Galapagos Tourist Transit fee - wrong - it's included with the local host company. Same for the airport departure tax in Guayaquil.
4) The flight from Quito to the Galapagos is direct - wrong - it goes through Guayaquil
5) The flight from Quito to the Galapagos is a charter - wrong - TAME commercial
6) The flight from Quito to the Galapagos goes to Baltra - wrong - San Cristobal
7) Complimentary soft drinks with meals - lies
8) Complimentary soft drinks and snacks in the bar lounge - more lies
9) Departure from the Galapagos to Guayaquil is from Baltra - wrong - San Cristobal
10) Another non-charter flight from not Baltra but San Cristobal
11) TOTAL waste of time to stop in Guayaquil rather than going on to Quito on Friday
12) Much confusion about the air flights on return and of course, no breakfast.

I've had similar problems with Awfulon too many times. I won't travel with them again.

Ship Overview: Seeing the Galápagos Islands on board the La Pinta goes beyond the concept of traditional cruising, evolving into an expedition approach in order to authentically discover and explore the natural wonders of this region. The La Pinta is built to luxurious standards and encourages an elegant yet relaxed atmosphere.

The La Pinta's expert crew and knowledgeable multilingual naturalist/guides delight passengers with diverse natural history explanations, superb on-deck talks, and fascinating lectures on this amazing archipelago.

The La Pinta features a Jacuzzi and an observation platform for dolphin and whale watching on the top deck. Each ship's dining room, lounge, and bar are elegantly appointed, as is the well-stocked library/reading room. All 24 staterooms are outside cabins and feature air-conditioning, private bathrooms, hairdryers, and safety deposit boxes. The La Pinta is 207' long and accommodates 48 passengers on three decks.