Saturday, 4 March: Baltra and Santa Cruz, Galápagos Islands

Frontiers Note: Henrietta Strutt and Lara MacDonald are from the Frontiers UK office.  They share their spectacular experience during a recent trip to the Galápagos Islands. This is part one in the series.

I was full of excitement by the time my journey to the Galápagos began. Lara and I were guests of Lindblad Expeditions on whose Advisory Board one of the co-owners of Frontiers, Mollie Fitzgerald, sits. Lindblad is a very highly regarded expedition company with National Geographic Expeditions as their partner. My journey started at Heathrow Terminal 2 to catch my Avianca (Columbian Airline) flight to Bogota at 10:05 p.m. We were late departing and arrived early so my flight was about 10 hours. The flight was not full and I had an empty seat next to me which is always nice. In my ten days I took six flights with Avianca, none were delayed. Food was acceptable, there was a good choice of movies and the economy seats were fine. The equipment was very modern, we were in a 787 Dreamliner. We were served a late dinner and after watching a film it was time to get some sleep. Bogota is five hours behind us so we landed at 3:45 a.m. There were quite a lot of passengers in transit asleep waiting for their early morning onward flights. My connecting flight was at 8:10 a.m. (my route was the most direct route as confirmed by one of our guides, Gaby, who lives in the UK) so I had some time to wait. I noticed on a sign that there was an American Express area (you need an Amex Card to get in). It did not open until 5:00 a.m., so I had a wander around the airport. Inside the lounge there were comfy seats and food and drink which was all complimentary as well as good charging stations. It was beautiful watching the sun come up over the mountains that surround Bogota airport.

Before I knew it, it was time to go to the gate for my flight to Guayaquil, Ecuador. We were put on buses for the short ride to the Airbus A320 for the 1 hour 45 minute Avianca flight. We were given a hot roll for our breakfast along with drinks.

Upon arrival at Guayaquil I made my way outside the terminal into the heat to look for the shuttle bus for The Hilton Colon Hotel where I would be staying the night. This is all part of the Lindblad package. They advise you not to take taxis outside. I did not have to wait long for the shuttle to arrive and I met a fellow guest for the Galápagos experience on the bus. The Hilton is only a 5– 10 minute drive from the airport so it is very convenient. After checking in I relaxed and slept for most of the afternoon. All Lindblad guests are given a welcome pack which has a token for a complimentary drink and for your breakfast the following morning. Lara had flown to Ecuador a day earlier than me and had gone to Quito (the capital of Ecuador) to visit some hotels.  She arrived at The Hilton Colon at 5:30 p.m. and we had a look around before having some dinner and going to bed ready for an early start and the excitement of the week ahead.

The following morning, after an early start (our luggage had to be outside our room ready for collection at 6:45 a.m.) we had breakfast in the Café Colon Restaurant before assembling in the hotel lobby at 8:00 a.m., where together with our fellow travellers we boarded buses for the ten minute transfer to Guayaquil airport. We had to identify and collect our luggage before checking in at the Avianca counter for the one and a half hour flight to the Galápagos Islands (Baltra) which departed at 9:35 a.m.

Once we landed in Baltra we were met by staff from National Geographic’s Endeavour II and shown to a lounge where we were offered cold drinks, sandwiches and pastries whilst staff collected our luggage. It was then a five-minute bus ride to the dock where we spotted our first sea lions as we were shown how to put on our life jackets before boarding a fleet of Zodiacs (sturdy inflatable rubber boats powered by four-stroke outboard engines) for the transfer to the National Geographic Endeavour II, our home for the next seven nights.

The National Geographic Endeavour II is Lindblad Expedition’s new ship operating year-round in the Galápagos (they also have the 48 passenger Islander). Lindblad purchased the ship from Australis in 2015 and had it completely refitted in 2016 to accommodate 96 passengers in 52 cabins. We had been invited on one of its first sailings.

This is a standard cabin, not featuring the pull down bed.

Henrietta and I were sharing Cabin 326, a category 3 twin cabin on the lounge deck with a fold down third bed (ideal for a child – in fact, the Endeavour II is ideal for families as in addition to the triple cabins it has 7 sets of cabins with connecting doors).  There are four categories of cabins on board plus three types of suites – Suite B, with floor to ceiling windows, was my favourite. The cabins were larger than I was expecting and all face outside with a large window, desk, chair, night side table and a wardrobe with ample space for two to store and hang clothing. There is also space under the beds for storing luggage and plenty of hooks from which to hang life jackets, day packs etc. All the cabins are ensuite with a sink, loo and shower (with excellent water pressure and always plenty of hot water).

Soon after our arrival on board the ship we were invited to the ship’s lounge (same level as our cabin which was very handy as this is where we were to gather on a regular basis for daily recaps, lectures and presentations) for a welcome drink whilst we had a briefing from expedition leader, Cindy Manning and an orientation briefing from hotel manager, Roberto Zambrano. This gave us an insight into the adventure ahead as well as much practical information about life aboard the ship and the Galapagos National Park rules and regulations. A mandatory boat drill followed.

Lunch was a buffet in the dining room whilst we sailed from Baltra (where the airport is located) to the nearby island of Santa Cruz.  After lunch we had time to settle into our cabins before arriving at our first stop, Las Bachas on the northern coast of Santa Cruz island.

Sporting life jackets and having updated the status board to show we were leaving the ship, we boarded the ship’s fleet of Zodiacs. The ship’s dual Zodiac boarding platform made boarding the zodiacs fast and efficient which is pretty important when there are potentially 96 passengers wanting to disembark the ship at the same time!

We rode the fleet of zodiacs to shore and disembarked (our first ‘wet’ landing) on Las Bachas, a sandy white-coral beach that is a major nesting site for sea turtles.

For a ‘wet’ landing, once the zodiac has got as close as possible to the beach, you slide to the back of the boat and swing your legs over towards the water which is normally no higher than your knees and then walk ashore. We were always advised in advance of the type of landing required by each activity (wet or dry) so we could plan the kind of shoes to take. For wet landings, you can either wear water shoes (Crocs or Tevas or other waterproof sandles) or choose to go barefoot. Towels are always provided on the beach so you can towel off and exchange your waterproof shoes for dry socks and trainers or, if you prefer, keep going with the waterproof sandals which will soon be dry.

During our walk with Naturalist Guide, Gaby Bohorquez, we encountered our first marine iguanas, sea and shore birds and lots of brightly coloured sally lightfoot crabs. We were told that flamingos can often be found in the lagoon behind the beach.  There was time for our first dip in the turquoise Pacific waters before returning to the ship.

Everyone had to be back aboard by sunset as we had been invited to join Captain Pablo Garces in the lounge for welcome cocktails and to be introduced to some of the crew members (62 on board our voyage) and the six natural guides before sitting down to dinner at 7:30 p.m.

Our six naturalist guides onboard the Endeavour II.

All meals on board are served in the dining room in a single, unassigned seating. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style and most dinners are plated with a choice of three main courses (meat, fish or vegetarian). There’s a very informal atmosphere in the dining room – you definitely don’t need to dress for dinner.

Grabbing an after dinner drink in the lounge, some of us wandered out onto the observation deck to take in the night sky. It was then off to bed while the ship sailed on through the night. Our Galápagos adventure had commenced.

Some photos courtesy of Lindblad Expeditions.

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