Saturday, October 8, 2011

Galapagos Part 1 of 5 - Ecuador

Before I get started I should mention that this post does not contain any of the magic that we later experienced on our island hopping cruise.  You can read about this in the following posts but instead this contains the gritty reality that is wandering round the main Galapagos island of Santa Cruz trying to book a last minute cruise in order to find a bargain. 

It would probably be fairer to begin by mentioning that we spent two days in the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil prior to departing for Galapagos, yet those days will certainly be amongst the first to be lost to memories foibles as they passed with little consequence especially when compared to the magic that was to follow.  Using the national currency of the American Dollar was novel and made it all the more clear that we were again paying more for the day to day necessities than we had been in Peru and Bolivia, namely a bed for the night.  Although we were staying on the outskirts of the city I believe we were able to absorb what little atmosphere there was and understand the nature of the place.  It all felt a little too modern and fell victim to the monotony of personality-lacking chain stores (in the most part) and big city wariness that makes it hard to strike a chord with locals.  People did seem friendly when you got to know them and there were some positives, the main one being that we arrived on a Saturday and the hostel we stayed in had three, yes three, channels dedicated to live English Premier league so I had the benefit of watching my first games so far this season including United thrashing Bolton.  The other benefit was the Michael Jackson impersonator shaking his stuff in front of cars for change at the traffic lights of a busy intersection. 

The main reason we were here was to catch our flight to the infamous Ecuadorian owned Galapagos Islands.  We were yet to book a tour and decided to take the risk of waiting until we were on the Galapagos Island of Santa Cruz before we did so in order to save money, contrary to many travellers’ recommendations on this hotly debated topic.  The risks of waiting until the last minute to book a cruise are quite simply that boats are limited and therefore fill up so you could be left in the lurch, stuck with doing tedious day trips and booking expensive hotels on limited islands without being able to see all the additional wildlife and terrain that a cruise would offer.  There is also a chance that you won’t get the kind of boat you want as they vary greatly in class or you may have to settle for a substandard itinerary as not all the cruises do the same route!  The benefits are that you could end up paying a lot less than somebody who booked in advance, especially if they booked from their own country (potentially hundreds or even thousands of dollars difference).  Nonetheless we had travelled enough to realise that it was often ‘who dares wins’ and we would roll the dice and look into shopping around for an eight day cruise on arrival.  We had given ourselves an extra two full days as a kind of contingency in case we needed to wait for our boat.  

The day to fly arrived along with nervous excitement.  It really hadn’t yet sunk in that today, the 12th of September we would be flying to a place that less than a year ago had seemed so remote, enchanted and unreachable.  The flight went without hitch and the view of the islands as we descended was spectacular.  Yet all paradises come at a cost, this particular paradise’s cost came in the form of cold, U.S. greenbacks.  From the very start Darwin began shaking us upside-down by the ankles with a $10 processing fee followed by a $100 park entrance fee upon arrival in the island of Baltra (apparently we should feel lucky as this is rumored to double in the near future).

Flying into Galapagos

Stepping off the plane in Isla Baltra

Lining the arrivals area were cruise operatives who had come to collect their soon to be boat passengers, those who had sensibly prebooked and who’s work and necessity to think for themselves had stopped once they had successfully lugged their bags from the arrivals hall.  This presented itself as an opportunity to us and I swiftly began asking if there were spaces available on any of their boats.  Many hadn’t any room, but the first ray of luck shone on us when a shifty short fat fellow named Freddy mentioned he had two spaces left for a cruise but the offer was only valid until we left the airport.  He wasn’t very keen when we began writing down his prices ($1050 per person) for eight days and as he didn’t have any itinerary information on him this didn’t leave us with much confidence so we politely refused.  We took the free bus to the jetty where we scrambled onto a boat with other tourists to make the very short crossing to the island of Santa Cruz, from where we would take another forty minute bus across the island to the busy and tourist-ready town of Puerto Ayora. 

Some of the beautiful shops in Puerto Ayora

Puerto Ayora is home to the majority of agencies from where it is possible to book yourself onto a cruise, namely those of the last minute variety.  Having got off the bus, we saw Freddy again where we discovered that his offer still stood but we now saw that there were plenty of agencies where we could try our luck.  Unfortunately, many had prices offered which lured you in only to discover that they had no intention of giving you anything for that price or the itineraries on offer were simply substandard. 

We had hoped that we would be able to secure an eight day cruise for something in the region of six hundred U.S. dollars per person but it was rapidly becoming clear that this would be impossible.  There was a difficult decision when a ‘luxury’ class catamaran was leaving within the half hour and we had a significantly discounted offer of a thousand dollars as we walked out the door, but whilst the cruise was a healthy seven days long the route sucked and didn’t include the island of EspaƱola which we were especially keen to visit.  With gritted teeth we turned him down as we didn’t need such a high class of boat and what we would see and experience was more important than how much room we had in the cabins.  

Another agency got our hopes up with the offer of a boat which had a great itinerary, practically covering all the major islands for $1,100 but after further pursuing for a price drop a phone call to the captain revealed it was now full.  It was becoming apparent that it wasn’t so much the agencies that mattered but the availability of the boats that were on offer.  The agencies tended to call the same boats and therefore contrary to our usual method of shopping around agency hopping here was proving fruitless.  A company had a boat with a better route, luxury class again, leaving that evening but at a heavy $1,250 per person after haggling with the agent and even the captain of the boat.  We were still trying to get the price down and were leaving to talk to the captain again when who else but Freddy drove past on his motorbike and we thought it was time to talk.

Driving us to a hotel, we grilled Freddy on the itinerary and the boat which although he astoundingly didn’t have any pictures, described that it was an old pirate ship of a lower class.  The itinerary included everywhere we wanted to go and now it simply came down to price.  Ultimately, we managed to knock him down from the original offer of $1,100 to $950 dollars each, but our tour would now be eight nights instead of seven, starting that evening because this price would also include a night in the luxury ($150 a night) hotel that we were now in along with dinner and breakfast before being collected to go to the harbor the next day.  We would also be given first choice on the cabin as the other passengers were being picked up at the airport the following afternoon and we would be on the boat beforehand.  On that note we shook weary hands and enjoyed some dinner before going to bed in the nicest room we have had on this entire annual trip, in heavy anticipation of the week that lay ahead.   

Catalogue pose in an actual hotel room

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