Galapagos Network in Miami is the U.S. sales office for Ecoventura, the operators of Eric, Flamingo I and Letty.
Sunday to Sunday cruises depart from San Cristobal Island weekly, year-round.
Cruise fares include two guided excursions daily, bottled water, use of wetsuits and snorkel gear. Extras are international and domestic airfare, alcoholic beverages, tips, Galapagos park fee and transit card.
Whether clients fly to the Galapagos from Guyaquil or Quito, it is advisable to arrive in Ecuador one, preferably two, nights before the cruise.
Pack light, using small or soft-sided luggage. Dress is extremely casual. Cabins have little or no storage space for bags as there are drawers built into bed frames.
Visiting the Galapagos Islands, located 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador, has been at the top of my personal bucket list for years. My biggest decision — and that of the approximately 150,000 annual visitors — wasn’t whether or not to go, but how to travel. Currently, 85 ships cruise the islands, ranging from yachts to catamarans to sailboats and small cruise ships carrying a maximum of 100 passengers.
Blue-footed boobies can be spotted in the Galapagos. // © 2009 Mark Putney
I chose Ecoventura’s 20-passenger yacht Flamingo I, one of the Ecuadorian company’s three identical yachts (including Eric and Letty). By going small, I also went green. In 2006, Ecoventura became the first carbon-neutral operation in the Galapagos, offsetting carbon emissions through the various projects of Native-Energy Travel Offsets.
“We are aiming for the green travelers,” commented Santiago Dunn, president of Ecoventura. “We started with four-stroke engines in 1999. The paint is lead-free. The decks are unvarnished teak.”
In October 2008, Eric was the first of the yachts to emerge from drydock fitted with 40 solar panels and two wind generators. If successful, Flamingo I and Letty will be similarly equipped in the next few years.
Though Ecoventura’s yachts lack such amenities as a pool, gym, alternative dining venues or spacious cabins, the advantages of going small in the Galapagos can outweigh these creature comforts. An exceptional guide, for example, can turn a good trip into an extraordinary learning adventure. Ecoventura employs one guide for every 10 passengers, the best ratio available. Larger ships often have one guide to 16 guests, the maximum allowed by the national park. In addition, Ecoventura markets only to English-speaking countries. Multiple languages are not an issue.
“We sell clients on the small ships. It’s a more intimate experience,” noted Jenn Boyd, who arranges tours for Australia’s Natural Focus Safaris.
Richard Godden of London’s Bales Worldwide, a fellow passenger on Flamingo I, agreed.
“Our yacht has charm and the real feel of a sailing ship,” he said. “You get to know everybody and get to know the crew. Larger ships are more like hotels.”
In the Galapagos, I discovered, all itineraries are not created equal. During our seven-night cruise, Flamingo I called at Genovesa (a.k.a. Tower) and Chinese Hat, where the largest vessels currently allowed carry just 20 passengers. Genovesa is a must-see, particularly for birders. It is the only place we hiked among red-footed boobies. Here, we saw nesting Nazca boobies cradling tiny featherless chicks on their feet.
Another day, we visited Espanola (or Hood) early in the morning and had this remarkable island to ourselves well before other vessels arrived. Espanola is the only spot to see pairs of mating waved albatross and their overly large, fuzzy chicks. Again, that afternoon we were the only travelers enjoying the white-sand beach and excellent snorkeling at Espanola’s Gardner Bay.
Snorkeling provided a view of rarely seen under-water creatures and was offered almost daily. The yacht supplied snorkel gear and wetsuits (essential from about July to December). On various islands, I waded in the surf beside female sea lions with enchanting newborn pups. I swam with a Galapagos penguin, sea turtles, one white-tipped reef shark and schools of colorful tropical fish.
While Ecoventura attracts eco-conscious, physically fit boomers, families are also welcome.
“Family departures are our fastest-growing segment,” Dunn said. “We have about 30 to 35 family departures a year. We offer food and games for kids [ages seven and up]. The captain teaches them sailing knots. We have kid-size wetsuits and snorkel gear. We also have women-only and singles’ cruises. A small ship is more flexible.”