The wheels of the plane lift off from the tarmac. Through the window, I watch as arid terrain and patches of abstract cactus begin to shrink away and abruptly yield to the azure blues of the surrounding ocean. As we ascend further, Baltra and then Santa Cruz Island appear and then fade slightly, their landforms suddenly filtered through the white veil of clouds that dominate the skies. I sigh, sit back and stare at the headrest of the seat in front of me, closing my eyes slowly as a smile capriciously crawls across my sunburned lips. I embrace it and beam proudly, wholly content and satisfied with my trip to the enchanted isles. Looking out the window once more, I marvel at the bigger picture of where I just was. Distance has a funny way of doing that, I realize – it somehow allows us to get a better sense of where we’ve been and evaluate it (the experience) more objectively.
My days in Galapagos had been replete with a newfound appreciation for life and this Earth. What’s more? Fascinating excursions, exquisite cuisine and a pleasant sleep had somehow summoned dreams of being a sea lion and drifting through spectacular underwater worlds (some of which were exact replicas from my snorkeling excursions with sea lions in Galapagos). Another dream had me awkwardly ambling across the stage towards my high school diploma, only to realize that the source of said gait was my own pair of blue and webbed feet. All of this came to me as an audience of blue-footed boobies looked on with their perpetual stare of astonishment.
Subconscious idiosyncrasies aside, I would always manage to wake up from said dreams in the comfort of my warm, clean bed; well-rested and mildly relieved to have Paolo, the onboard Hotel Manager, give us our pleasant wake-up call at 7 each morning. Looking back, I realized I had slept like a baby aboard the Santa Cruz II, and that each new day had dawned on me with the crisp freshness of the equally fresh fruit that was served for breakfast every morning. I bit into each day in the archipelago with such zest and vigor that I can’t recall ever having felt so alive than I did during that brief handful of days in the Galapagos…
I’m broken from my reverie as the man beside me grunts and stirs uncomfortably in his chair. He’s rather skinny and looks to be about in his late 50’s, with greying hair and endearing wrinkles at the corners of his eyes that are interrupted by these enormous bags underneath. He snaps out of his restlessness when he sees me looking over at him, and lets down his shoulders in what appears to be a defeated expression of complete and utter disappointment.
“I’m sorry, I haven’t had a proper nights’ sleep in about a week, and these chairs, well… you know? I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say anything positive about airplane seats,” his voice drawls out of him with a thick Australian accent. He’s exhausted, and his body sinks into an uncomfortable-looking contraption of bones as his eyes stare up at me, pleadingly. “Tell me,” he implores, “did you sleep on a boat during your visit to the islands?”
I smile endearingly and begin to regale him with my nights aboard the Santa Cruz II, telling him how impeccable the service was and how tidy my cosy room had been kept throughout each day on our itinerary. His jaw, throughout my brief speech, slowly descends to the ground. His eyes look at me in complete shock before he reels back his sinking jaw and asks me reluctantly, “and… and tell me, what kind of boat were you on?” His jaw unhinges itself once more the moment I tell him I’d been on a boat with about 80 passengers.
Turns out Jarred had booked his tour on an exponentially smaller boat, thinking he might as well go “all out” and get a nice luxurious experience aboard a more “comfortable” and “personalized” 12-passenger boat. But the reality had been the complete opposite. On the first night alone, he had already realized the gravity of his mistake: the boat sailed from island-to-island during evenings (as is the case with nearly all boats in Galapagos, given the distance between each one), and the continuous drone of the engine and relentless movement of the ship over rocky waters had kept him wide awake throughout each voyage.
Comfort (and everything it entails) is paramount when traveling to a place as special and pricey as the Galapagos. But it’s also something that’s so easy to underestimate and overlook given a.) the price we’re paying and b.) the marketing behind each vessel we browse. Common sense would make us believe that comfort is included in the price, but it’s not always the case. What a bummer it was to think Jarred had been really pushing himself throughout every excursion, his exhaustion barely capable of carrying him throughout each visitor site every morning and afternoon. I sadly wondered if his only memory of the archipelago would ever be anything other than plain exhaustion.
My layover in Guayaquil finds me sitting at my gate directly across from a group of friends sitting separate from each other, their eyebrows stitched into furrows and their livid gaze buried deep into their electronic devices. I idly wonder why they all look so bitter. Two of them on adjacent sides of the young man in the middle stand up and go their separate ways, but not before mumbling something over their shoulders to the one in the middle. The young man that’s left behind rolls his eyes and catches me observing the whole scene.
“Friends, you know? Right when you think you know them, traveling together shows you otherwise,” he tells me with a pretty heavy French accent. I get the ball rolling with a series of questions that has me gradually uncovering the disaster that their trip had been, all simply because they had opted to share a cabin on a medium-sized boat in Galapagos. The main problem had to do with their having just one bathroom for their small group.
“Every morning, before or after every meal, or worse – before each excursion… I would end up making us be late to our expedition, delaying the sights and wonders that, nous atteindant… waited for us outside” he explains, both ashamed and guilty of his over-the-top hygiene habits, “the anxiety of having to do quickly whatever in the bathroom didn’t help either. I like to stay very clean, you see….” He goes on and tells me about how he likes to take long showers and lists the organic soaps and special loofa that he uses for his daily upkeep.
“Now, after 7 days of that! Imagine! They hate me and my cleanliness! But I mean, what did I do wrong?” Perhaps nothing, I think to myself. Perhaps you all just underestimated the necessity of multiple bathrooms on a trip this special.
Distribution is key. Pinching pennies in the Galapagos to simply save on a room is a double edged-sword: sure, it saves you money, but in the end, bathroom periods take precedence as the number one timewaster aboard a vessel. Sharing something so important means that you simply can’t start your day the way you’d like to, mainly because you’re constantly caught behind or in front of a line of friends or family that need to use it too. Time is a golden luxury in the Galapagos, and choosing to have to play bathroom roulette with your friends or family in a single cabin is poor decision-making.
On my flight back to Houston, I find myself sitting beside an elderly lady with long blonde hair that she has pinned into an extravagant bun at the back of her head. She wears silver-rimmed spectacles and smiles at me warmly when I come and sit down at my assigned seat beside her, quickly returning to her task at hand – a notebook in which she swiftly writes things down, as if trying to make a shopping list of all the things she needs to get last minute before the grocery store closes.
It wasn’t long before the airline attendants came by to tell us all to put our trays up and seatbacks in their upright position. She let out a tremendous sigh and closed her notebook with a look of relief on her face before I found myself asking her if she was a writer. It turns out she was, but being a writer in the Galapagos came with certain caveats, apparently.
“People like me, sweetheart, we need the world as our muse. That’s why when I came here hoping to find inspiration…” she pauses and lowers her eyelids before mumbling, “I ended up completely dismayed when I found little to zero time on the boat to myself.”
Despite having a tiny little cabin to herself aboard her single-guided yacht, Eleanor needed the ocean and breeze as her creative impetus. Being on the move was necessary, but so was solitude. She’d opted for a small boat, thinking it would be more “intimate”, except she’d found none of what she sought aboard her 16-passenger yacht. “It seems so poorly advertised. They make it seem as if you’re going to get this highly personalized and luxurious experience, when all you get is a shoulder-to-shoulder trip throughout the archipelago!” she yelps as she raises her arms up into the air before letting them drop down on her lap with an audible slap, “as a moderate introvert? No thank you!”
I’d remembered reading about Guest-Space Ratios while doing my research on expedition vessels in the Galapagos, and I guess I got lucky using it at as a benchmark of sorts in choosing the Santa Cruz II as my ship during my trip. Per this cruise industry “guideline,” any ship that has a Guest-Space Ratio over the number 25 offers greater comfort and space for relaxation and most importantly – reflection and alone time.
Despite having charming people on board, Eleanor found it hard to have proper alone time for sitting down and gathering her thoughts and memories — it turns out she had wanted to use the Galapagos as the prologue to her own memoir that she was on the verge of finishing. The only time she’d found to jot down at least some ideas and thoughts, however, was right before taking off to Houston on this very plane. It was both a shock and surprise to me.
“Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved the wildlife and the beautiful beaches we got to see,” she tells me as she taps on the small sea lion-shaped hair brooch that holds her bun together, “that goes without saying. But I never expected it to feel so… claustrophobic. Logically, you would think that a smaller ship with less passengers would allow for a less crowded experience… but I’m telling you, it’s their way of marketing that does it! After the 3rd day and having to listen to my fellow passengers talk constantly about politics, I was just about ready to be left as a castaway on one of the islands!”
Size matters. Despite thinking that an 80 passenger ship might be overcrowded, the fact of the matter is that it’s pretty much the opposite. Bigger ships offer plenty more space and communal areas than smaller, single-guided yachts. Never opt for a smaller vessel if your goal is to have lots of private time outside your cabin.
Some say hindsight is 20/20 vision, I say it’s wisdom for anyone else who finds themselves headed down the same path in similar shoes. Keeping in mind all three of these experiences, I’m irrevocably glad I chose to book my trip to the Galapagos on the Santa Cruz II Galapagos cruise.
In a sense, I can’t help but feel incredibly lucky to have made the right choice when it came to picking the vessel that was right for me. But looking back, it wasn’t even really luck: it was proper discretion and a good evaluation of what’s out there. So when it comes to a place as spectacular and amazing as the Galapagos, I now tell my friends over and over again: don’t think twice – choose wisely!