How did the Galapagos Islands, a Unesco site so unique that it was one of the first to be added to the World Heritage List in 1978, manage to elude me all these years? I was finally on my way to Ecuador and facing a far more pressing question: How to get the most out of a long-overdue adventure to one of the planet's last great unspoiled places?
The two most popular approaches are obvious ones: boat-based and land-based (most visitors are less familiar with the latter). But in fact there is a third option: a combination of both. And while one could choose a Galapagos cruise alone and be guaranteed an excellent visit, I'm less sure if the same goes for the land-only option. It was the land-and-sea combo that I found promised the most.
It once took three days by boat to cross the 600 miles from Ecuador's coast to the equator-hugging "Enchanted Islands," until a once-weekly flight was introduced in the 1970s. Today there are six flights a day, most from (or connecting in) the mainland's sprawling port city of Guayaquil. Some 180,000 visitors arrived in 2013, a staggering number yet a mere fraction of the nearly 1.2 million who flocked during the same time period to nearby Machu Picchu in Peru, arguably South America's most visited site.
A blue-footed booby. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Touring
Today's visitor numbers put Unesco on edge for the ecological and environmental threats they bring. The Galapagos National Park, founded in 1959 and Ecuador's first, remains highly vigilant: Of the 80-some registered tourist vessels with sleeping accommodations that ply these pristine waters, each must carry one qualified naturalist guide for every 16 passengers, and they supervise visits to the 116 designated visitor sites in the Galapagos approved by the park (54 sites on land and 62 diving or snorkeling sites).
There are just five large "cruise" ships with a 90- to 100-passenger capacity (Silversea's Silver Galapagos and Celebrity's Xpedition are the newest) and a flotilla of smaller craft. A handsome example of the latter is the 90-foot Reina Silvia that sleeps from 12 to 16; it was large enough to accommodate Brad and Angelina and their growing family during their visit in 2012. While these smaller options sound more personable and promise various benefits, how they fare when rough waters prevail should be a consideration.
Aboard La Pinta
I signed on with the 207-foot luxury La Pinta, one of the islands' four vessels of a medium category. It comfortably accommodated 48 passengers, with a seasoned crew and three excellent naturalists who ran a tight but fun ship while keeping us all informed, educated and amused.
The 48-passenger La Pinta. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Touring
Sounds like an effortless job in these parts, but their professionalism was admirable and inexhaustible. La Pinta is owned and managed by Quito-based Metropolitan Touring, the country's oldest and largest tour company and a veritable pioneer in organized tourism to the Galapagos. Some of my fellow passengers, predominantly American but representing all corners, were enjoying the full two-week itinerary of two nonrepeated, back-to-back segments that brought them to some of the more distant of the 18 main islands and surrounding marine reserve, guaranteeing a wider variety of wildlife and geography and snorkeling possibilities.
Mine was La Pinta's five-day cruise that visited five islands and provided us with up-close-and-personal viewings of bizarrely tame blue-footed boobies, penguins (the only breed to live north of the equator), the playful and widespread sea lions and land and marine iguanas — far more than I had expected (and research had led me to expect a lot).
Three-generation family groups had found the perfect life-memory trip; there was something here for everyone, and it was as thrilling as it was educational.
In order to board our boat, I had flown into the new airport on the arid island of Baltra, the newer (2013) of two national airports with an airy and eco-sensitive design that made a welcoming first impression.
Settling in on Santa Cruz
From there it is a short bus ride and ferry hop to the neighboring principal island of Santa Cruz and a 30-minute drive on a paved road over the hilly and surprisingly green interior (most of the islands look more like the moon) to the main town of Puerto Ayora.
The freshwater pool of the Finch Bay Eco Hotel on the small island of Santa Cruz in the heart of the Galapagos. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Touring
Santa Cruz is one of the archipelago's four islands that are inhabited (there is even a small university on Isla San Cristobal). The majority of the archipelago's 25,000 Galapaguenos lives off the thriving tourism industry, and about 20,000 live in Puerto Ayora where our cruise began and ended, as many sailings do.
This is also the location of the Finch Bay Eco Hotel, where I happily spent three days at the end of our cruise. One never thinks of beautiful sandy beaches or resort getaways when thinking of the Galapagos, but the Finch Bay's secluded location adjacent to a small, sparsely visited public beach came as a surprise, as did the excellent meals.
Like La Pinta, it is smoothly managed by Metropolitan Touring, thus making "Land & Sea" arrangements (as well as mainland tours and extensions to Peru) a breeze; it is by far the nicest waterfront property in the islands. I never made the 30-minute cab ride up into the cool highlands and the five-star (by Galapagos standards) Royal Palm to see where Brad and Angelina stayed on terra firma, nor to the stylish Galapagos Safari Camp with nine luxury safari tents reminiscent of East Africa.
Most Galapagos boats don't accept children under 7 years old, and a handful of families with toddlers and young children clearly enjoyed the Finch Bay for its fresh-water pool shared with the occasional gull or heron.
We were an easy five-minute water shuttle away from the busy waterfront town and its animated strip lined with shops selling blue-footed booby T-shirts, laid-back restaurants and small, condominium-looking hotels.
Sea kayaking ranks at the top of easy activities around Porto Ayora. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Touring
Those organizing a land-based tour of the islands choose Puerto Ayora over a boat for various reasons: more comfortable (and generally less expensive) accommodations, more flexibility to arrange single- (or consecutive-) day trips by boat to neighboring islands (returning to the same hotel at night) as well as kayaking, snorkeling and diving excursions (Galapagos Aggressor is a reliable recommendation for live-aboard dedicated dive boats).
Hotel-based visitors commonly have limited time or voice seasickness concerns (though only one brief stretch on La Pinta affected some guests). There is also the chance to explore the island of Santa Cruz itself (by car or on foot): It is about 20 miles in diameter and a sanctuary for the aptly named giant tortoises, the prehistoric symbol of the Galapagos and the world's largest, that roam in its dense interior.
A highlight of our enjoyable stay in town was an afternoon spent at the Charles Darwin Research Center on the outskirts of Puerto Ayora, dedicated to the young British naturalist who put these fabled islands on the map. It is well known that his five-week visit to this "living laboratory" in 1835 inspired his book "The Origin of Species" published in 1859; it would forever revolutionize the way we would look at evolution. A too-brief visit in his footsteps to these Enchanted Islands did much the same for me.
Patricia Schultz is the author of "1,000 Places to See Before You Die" (Workman).