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Not Dead Yet’s usual advice when first venturing into the unknown is to use the touristy hop-on-hop-off bus to get your bearings and mark off the museums, galleries and coffee shops that you wish to spend more time in.
A trip to the Galapagos doesn’t include that option. Visits to the islands are strictly controlled with only two boats and a limited number of visitors allowed to land at any one time. No one is complaining about that – and certainly not us. The Galapagos are truly beautiful and parts, at least are unspoilt.
Given how selfish, unpleasant and downright scruffy some tourists can be, keeping a careful watch on who goes where is essential. You only have to look at the example set by the ‘well educated’ wealthy, privileged people who flock to Mount Everest every year, take all that the region has to offer and leave behind tonnes of rubbish for someone else the clean-up, to know that strict controls are the way to go.
It is still possible to travel to Santa Cruz – the main inhabited island – independently but not the other islands. You will need to ensure that you have all your paper work in good order and bear in mind that most tours are booked up well in advance.
After a huge amount of research, we picked out the Canadian-based CNH Tours as our preferred company. They offer small boats, separate cabins, on-board meals and an all-encompassing itinerary with the option of a pre-trip tour of Quito and a post-tour trip to the Amazon, both of which we went for.
But all the research in the world is not going to tell you about your travel companions. There were 14 of us on our trip and they can be neatly divided into two groups: those we were happy to spend time with and those we were not. The best advice we can give you on this score is stick with the like-minded, avoid criticising the others and under no circumstances whatsoever push them over board, however tempting that option may be.
Our trip began in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito where we stayed at the very quaint Hotel Mansion del Angel. It smelt like chocolate but was not altogether user-friendly – more like the home of an eccentric aunt who has gathered together vast numbers of large gaudy items over years of travel which she now displays randomly in her old colonial home. Think Miss Marple meets the Antiques Roadshow and you’ll get the picture.
While the rooms were big (a plus) they were filled with bulky old-fashioned furniture as were the public spaces (see photos below). The hotel itself lacked natural light so corridors were dark as was the dining room. There few minuses included no tea or coffee making facilities in room, no room service and unfortunately no restaurants or coffee shops within walking distance of the hotel. We like to get out and about in the neighbourhood and sample the local cuisine but this was difficult to achieve with this property. Taxis or hiring a car and driver are the two main options. We decided on the latter and this worked well for us. The driver was excellent and a great source of local knowledge.
For those of you who are concerned with mobility, the hotel had a few issues. For some reason the stairs were very uneven, the individual steps on the stairs were of different heights, the hotel had no lift and no disabled access – a problem for some travellers. Evening meals had to be booked in advanced and were served in small downstairs dark dining area with caged birds in an alcove and a sleepy dog at the door. We were only there for a few nights, so we laughed and lived with it and, to be fair, some people thought it was charming.
Pictured: Hotel Mansion del Angel reception areas
On day two we met some of our fellow travellers and were taken by coach on a tour of the city and some of its more interesting features. The Teleferica cable car ride up 13,000ft was big hit as was the ride up El Panecillo – Bread Loaf Hill – to view the 148ft high aluminium statue of the Virgin, a much-enlarged version of the statue we saw later in the church of San Francisco. Lunch was in a peaceful, clean and accommodating restaurant and was followed by a few more churches, some shops and what purported to be a chocolate factory but really just another shop/café.
Pictured: Views across Quito
We didn’t make it to the Alabado Museum due to pressure of time but the day gave us a flavour of Quito and its history. I, for one, was very glad we had a coach ready and waiting to drive us everywhere. Quito is quite hilly, with a lot of tourists and full of traffic noise so it was great to be able to take refuge in the coach and be taken to the next place without having to fight the crowds.
On day three we were taken to the airport and flew to Baltra, the Galapagos airport. There seemed to be a problem with transporting people from the airport to the ferry for Santa Cruz. Be prepared for a substantial wait to get on the bus and an intimate ride with your fellow passengers. When we reached Santa Cruz another bus met us and we went on a day’s sightseeing tour and then by dinghy to our boat- The Samba. Be aware that you will carry your own luggage from the airport at Baltra onto the bus that takes you to the ferry to Santa Cruz, the luggage gets unloaded again at the ferry terminal where you carry it onto the ferry. After the crossing you then carry it off the ferry and back onto your next bus. You then carry it off the bus in Santa Cruz and onto the dingy sent by the Samba – so, in short, travel as light as you can. Cabin space, within individual cabins, on the Samba, although adequate, is not vast and your bags and cases have to be stored there. A soft folding bag may be a better and lighter alternative to a suitcase with wheels.
The day’s sightseeing was a highlight for us our first introduction to the magnificent giant tortoise. It was a surprise for us that they were everywhere not just at the nature reserve but crossing the roads on the way there and generally roaming around the landscape. It was at this point we realised we were actually in the Galapagos – a lifetime’s ambition.
Pictured: Giant tortoises roam freely around the El Chato natural reserve in Santa Cruz’s highlands. The Galapagos Giant tortoises cross the reserve on their permanent migrations from the coast to the highlands.
Should you decide to travel independently to the Galapagos, you will be asked lots of questions at the port of entry, Baltra Airport. Authorities will be interested to know your itinerary in some detail before they will let you in. They are keen to protect the Galapagos so independent travel is somewhat limited and rules and regulations prevail.
You also need to expect delays while travelling in and out of Baltra Airport and information may be somewhat lacking. We had a seven-hour delay on our return from Baltra. The airport shops all closed at lunchtime – two hours in – and did not reopen. Try to stay chilled. Those who got agitated did themselves no favours.
On our return to the mainland, prior to setting off for the Amazon by plane early the next day, we decided not to undertake the long and winding road back to the Hotel del Angel (about 45 minutes drive from the airport) but booked ourselves in to the more modern and more relaxing Wyndham Hotel, about half-a-mile from the airport. A free shuttle, restaurant, room service, air-conditioned room, flat screen TV, coffee machine made for a little piece of luxury between trips.
End of Part 1.