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“It’s not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change,” Charles Darwin famously taught. Today, visitors can still observe in the same classroom as Darwin did more than 100 years ago. Each of the Galapagos Islands offers unique wildlife encounters allowing visitors to see how different species have adapted to live within their habitats. Thankfully, this fragile ecosystem is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a national park with a strict set of rules and regulations in place, which makes booking the appropriate guide and tour operator imperative for this once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Locally owned and operated, Ecoventura is an excellent way to explore the islands. Since its launch in 1990, the company maintains a very strong environmental ethic, ecologically outfitting its four yachts and sustaining the community of the islands through educational programs such as helping to establish the Galapagos Marine Biodiversity Fund. Ecoventura has also maintained its ecological certification of Smart Voyager since 2000 and is the winner of numerous other environmental awards.
Onboard the Eric, the first hybrid yacht operating in the Galapagos, I admired the knowledge of the two English-speaking naturalist guides and their ability to answer any question regarding the fragile marine and land ecosystems of the archipelago. The captain explained how the 40 solar panels and two wind generators assist in powering the yacht with alternative renewable energy, about 17 percent of the ship’s power.
We also were very impressed with the efficiency of the crew and its diligence in enforcing the rules of the national park. For instance, the wet suit and the full set of snorkeling equipment we were given to outfit ourselves at each of the eight islands visited were dipped and rinsed in tubs to ensure that sand from one island would not be transported to another.
Ecoventura’s yachts, the Letty, Flamingo and Eric, were all constructed primarily as expedition vessels for cruising the Galapagos. The company’s fourth yacht, the Galapagos Sky, is a “live-aboard” yacht for experienced scuba divers. Like the other vessels, Eric is 83 feet long with a 24-foot beam. Each ship also features 10 teak-finished cabins with windows or portholes situated on three decks; two cabins are triples. Our stateroom was small but very comfortable, with a closet to hang clothes and gear as well as drawers under the twin beds for stashing more items. The long rectangular window spanned the length of the bed and provided great views of the sunset. We had to take turns opening our bottom bed drawers but, overall, the space fit our needs. The bathroom had enough room to hang our damp swimsuits and offered the basic comforts of toilet, sink and shower with hot water. Ecoventura provided biodegradable soap, shampoo and conditioner.
During the cruise, the activities passengers can choose (both water and land) vary with each island’s terrain. On one of my favorite days, we took a coastal hike during which my small group encountered dozens of miniature Godzilla-like creatures, which are prehistoric-looking Galapagos Marine Iguanas, an endemic species.
Most of our group was made up of Americans, Canadians and a few guests from the U.K. Typically, most of the clientele are from English-speaking countries, with North Americans accounting for 60 percent. There is also a sizeable number of Europeans. With the captain, eight seasoned crew members and the two naturalist guides, it was easy to relax in an informal family-style setting. If we were not on the top observation deck enjoying cocktails and taking in the view of distant islands and dolphins, we were getting ready to go on an excursion or returning from one and chatting about our experiences over appetizers.
Breakfast and lunch were buffet-style; at dinnertime we had table service. Wine and beer were offered for an additional cost at the time of our sailing but have now been included for 2011 cruises. The main deck — where the dining area, the bar, the meeting lounge, the captain’s table and the bookcase boutique were located — seemed a bit cramped when all onboard were taking part in an event at the same time, but a subsequent refurbishment has opened up the dining room, and staterooms were redecorated with new soft goods.
Cruises are priced from $3,375 with discounts for children. Special family departures, where children as young as five can participate, are offered on specific dates.