Like many backpackers visiting Ecuador on our South America trip, we wanted to get to the Galapagos. The prices are pretty forbidding for the most part, but we’d heard and read in our Lonely Planet that it is sometimes possible to find last minute deals on boats that aren’t quite full.
We found one such deal (online), and the timing was right but we couldn’t help worrying that the price was too good to be true. After reading reviews of the Galapagos Vision online, we decided to proceed but took with us our low expectations. And while the trip itself was fantastic – we saw all we wanted to see and more of the islands and its famous wildlife – there were are few things we wish we’d know before boarding.
These few things would have helped us prepare for the trip ahead, to couch our expectations a little. If you have found this blog because you are thinking of sailing with the Vision, here is what we wish we knew:
Cabins are not assigned. When we booked with our last minute travel agent, we had checked out the layout of the boat and we requested a specific cabin – double bed with a shower on the Starboard side. (The port side is accessed through the kitchen, the middle double cabin has no shower and the stern cabins are twin beds). Our agent said he would pass along our request but said it would not be a problem. When we boarded the boat we discovered that the cabins were not assigned and we had to awkwardly discuss who would get which cabin. It was incredibly uncomfortable to lobby for one of the shower cabins with people you were about to spend 8-days at sea with. We ended up apologetically taking the port side…which turned out to have its own issues.
Cabins are not equal. Every cabin has its issues (with the exception of the starboard/forward cabin – which is the best). Our cabin had a rotten egg smell mixed with the petrol smell from the noisy generator right beside the room. The middle cabin is very short (even a 5’3” passenger could not stand up) and has no shower. The back two cabins have staggered bunks (and being a couple does not guarantee you will not end up here depending on how many couples are on board). The biggest issue was that these two back cabins are right over the motor of the boat. Being a sailboat, you might not think this a problem, but they run the motor even when the sail is up. Much of the transiting between islands happens at night and several of the tenants found that sleep was impossible with the motor going – both fumes and noise drove them to sleep on deck.
A private cabin is not private. On a small boat with 16 passengers (10 guests and 6 crew) every single inch of the vessel has a purpose – including those inches that reside within the boundaries of your room. So, for example, if the chef needs to pump out some of the water, he has to enter the cabin’s bathroom to do the job…even if you happen to be showering at the time. Uh, yeah…that happened! The crew appears to help themselves to rooms whenever needed, and while the rooms are cleaned twice everyday – you have to wonder what else is going on when you find a crew shirt in your room.
Meal requests need to be confirmed and reconfirmed. My travel agent had assured me that my special diet requests had been sent and would be met. He reassured me by showing me that my service certificate clearly stated my needs. I felt confident and didn’t mention it. The first dinner was well within my special needs, no problem. Breakfast was too. Then lunch on the second day was not. I asked about my meal and they seemed surprised…apparently it had been a fluke so far and they claimed not to have been given any special instructions. Further complicating things, we were a day away from any market where the chef could restock…I’d have to make do with exciting meals like mashed potato and rice or cheese and cauliflower. Once we restocked, the meals got better. I’d recommend that anyone with a special dietary need confirm it with the guide and the chef BEFORE setting sail on the first day.
Vegetarianism is loosely understood. The chef twice tried to pass off non-vegetarian meals as vegetarian. Now, I know that vegetarians can be confusing – some eat fish, others don’t, some eat eggs, others don’t, some won’t get mad if you slip meat in a “vegetarian” meal while others will. I had to explain to the chef (who has apparently been serving foreign tourists for years) that I was the kind of vegetarian who believes chicken stock and beef stock make a meal non-vegetarian. Luckily I had brought meal bars on board for just such an occasion. My blessed husband served as my meal-tasting meat detector for the remainder of the trip.
It’s their boat too. The crew lives on this boat. It’s easy to forget about the crew and think that the space is all for the passengers. We quickly came to understand that the inside tables were the domain of the crew and settled ourselves comfortably at the outer table. When we were in an inhabited port overnight, the crew had guest on board…most of the time they were quiet, but we could hear them enjoying drinks on the deck. It can’t be easy to live on a boat for months on end and only see your family during a short 3 hour port call.
Boats can’t be fixed when they never stop working. During our trip, only one of the two motors was working. While this was good news for one of the back cabins who had relative quiet, it meant that motoring times were a little longer. The captain did a good job ensuring that we got were we needed to go with little interruption to our time on the island or at a snorkel spot but it’s a good reminder that you have to expect that there will be problems because they never have time to take the boat to the mechanic and all problems have to be fixed on the go.
We all learned to adapt, giving the boat a fair amount of leeway since there was no denying we were on the cheapest boat plying the waters of the Galapagos.
On the positive side, I should add that those without meal restrictions found the meals fantastic – delicious and plentiful. Breakfasts included coffee, juice, fruit, toast, cereal and some form of hot dish – usually eggs and meat prepared differently each day. Lunch was always a hot meal and resembled the dinner. Each meal had a starter, a main, and a desert (fruit at lunch).
The beds were very comfortable and the rooms were kept clean. The crew were very friendly. Being a catamaran, seasickness was very limited – something other boats seemed to have a real problem with.
The best part of our tour was our guide. John was an incredibly patient man with a wealth of knowledge. He had an authentic passion for the life and preservation of the islands which he shared happily. We never felt rushed on the island and we felt like he was showing us areas that other groups weren’t seeing. He made a point of knowing the other boats schedules and adjusting our visits (even if it meant doing the route in reverse) to ensure that we didn’t encounter the crowds of larger boats.
Being the conduit between the passengers and the crew, he was the one who had to handle the complaints and issues and he did it with grace. If it had not been for him, this cruise would have been about the problems and not about the amazing islands and the wealth of wildlife on land and below the sea.
Despite the issues, we loved our trip to the Galapagos and would tell anyone considering sailing on the Galapagos Vision that it is worth it…especially if the price of other boats would take the islands out of the itinerary. It was very relaxing, there was lots of down time, the itinerary is great and being in a smaller group was fantastic. Just, know not to expect too much and be ready to roll with the punches. Oh, and lock your bathroom door…despite it being in your room, it’s not a private bath!