I’d all but given up on my dream of finding a last minute discount cruise to the Galapagos Islands, my sole reason for flying to Ecuador at the end of my Mexico journey. While Plaza Foch lived up to its reputation as being the central location of dozens of travel agencies, discounts were not as deep as I had hoped. I wandered every street, popping into shop after shop, but nothing seemed to fit within my budget. Between that frustration, the robbery, and my busted camera, I was starting to turn my sights toward a return flight to the US.
I had one “must do” on my list before I left Quito, a day trip to their most famous hot springs, Termas de Papallacta. The hot springs resort, located two hours outside of Quito, had an office near Plaza Foch where I was staying. I was on my way over to inquire about public transportation to the resort, when I passed Tip Top Travel. While I knew their cruises were way over my budget, I found myself turning toward the door thinking, “never hurts to ask.” Turns out they represent all cruise lines, not just their own. Within minutes, my criteria was met, and I was booked on a cruise leaving in just two days…
Tomorrow, I would bask in the healing warmth of the hot springs, 11,000 ft up in the Andes where steam rises off the volcano-heated water to meet the wispy clouds pouring down from the verdant mountaintops. I would soak my cold bones, soothe my shattered confidence, and rest my weary mind while dreaming of finally crossing the Galapagos Islands, the longest standing item, off my bucket list.
Cruises in the Galapagos Islands don’t come cheap. I knew this going in, so I set a “red line” budget of $3,000. This had to encompass everything, including airfare, $100 Galapagos National Park Fee, the $20 transit control fee, and crew tips. While this may sound extravagant to some, consider that this is about half price to what one pays when buying in advance, stateside.
Buying a last minute cruise means you must have all kinds of flexibility, be willing to accept any myriad of combination itineraries, and assume a little bit of risk. It also means you usually must purchase your own airfare, which has limited capacity. It can be a bit of a gamble as the price of the airfare goes up as the last minute cruise prices come down.
I tried to keep my criteria vague, but the more research I did, the more my wish list grew. I had hopes of being able to afford at least an 8 day itinerary. Research cautioned against anything shorter, since the first day would be spent getting to the boat, while an early departure would be required on the last day to vacate the cabins for the next round of guests. While 5 day cruises were certainly more in line with my budget, they only netted out three days on the islands.
Another wish was to find passage on one of the smaller ships. Sixteen passengers was my maximum acceptable size. I wanted no part of the larger boats that hold up to 100 people, preferring instead to have a more intimate experience. Traveling with a larger group means having to choose between different activities, as the Ecuadorian government strictly requires landing parties to have one naturalist guide per 16 passengers. This means on larger boats, one must choose between activities, which tends to give me a bad case of “FOMO” (fear of missing out.) In a smaller group, one gets to “do it all”…or at least all that’s on offer.
There are four categories of cruise ship in the Galapagos Islands; Tourist, Tourist Superior, First Class, and Luxury. While the first two categories were likely outside my budget, I was hoping to be able to afford a First Class boat. This categorization often times dictates the caliber of the Naturalist Guide, something I learned could make the difference between a memorable experience or a mediocre one. The nicer boats tend to snag the better guides, as many of them work freelance. I also wanted a boat that included all snorkeling gear (inc. wetsuit) and kayaking.
I am probably the rare exception in that wildlife, the reason many come to the Galapagos, did not really factor into my decision. I’ve seen sea lions, penguins, and albatross in Antarctica, blue footed boobies and frigate birds in the Baja, and giant tortoises in the Seychelles. So for me, it was more about the overall experience in the pristine national park.
Finally, I was hoping to find a boat that offered a single cabin, without having to pay the usual 50% single supplement. I knew this one was a long shot. While I’ve had to share rooms with other travelers in the past, I know having a stranger for a roommate can be a “make or break” situation.
Gabriel with Tip Top Travel listened patiently to all my needs, helping me weigh the pros and cons. In the end, he was able to come within eight dollars of my red line budget. And so, the deal was done. Day after tomorrow, I would set sail…