From Quito to San Cristobal to Silver Galapagos
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
Today, I finally embarked Silversea’s adventurous Silver Galapagos on San Cristobal, Ecuador – the most easterly of the Galapagos Islands. It’s been a long but rewarding journey filled with interesting experiences, and because so little has been written about it, I thought I’d add what is hopefully some useful information about the act of getting here in the first place.
I landed in Quito just after 1 p.m. local time yesterday, at the new Mariscal Sucre International Airport. Landing here is one of the most visually stunning approaches I think I’ve had anywhere; the airport is literally perched on the top of a mountain, with the city of Quito residing in the valley below.
As my American Airlines flight descended, the raw beauty of this area became apparent. Imagine someone took the Rocky Mountains or the Swiss Alps and shaved all the trees off of them. Bzzzt! Now dot that barren landscape with farms, houses, tractors, and fields that seem to descend into impossibly vertical angles. It’s striking.
Once I’d landed, I took my two completed customs and immigration cards and stood in line at Ecuadorian customs. Officials speak excellent English, and though the line took nearly 40 minutes to complete, they were friendly and efficient.
Luggage claimed, I was out in the main arrivals area of the airport, where I met my Silversea transfer. It’s also the part of the journey with the most crucial information.
Because the new airport is so far away from where most embarking Silver Galapagos guests will stay (the J.W. Marriott Quito) prior to flying to the Islands, departure is organized like a well-oiled machine. Depending on your arrival time, though, it’s a machine you may not like.
In order to make my 8 a.m. LAN Ecuador flight to San Cristobal, I – along with many other guests – was given a letter directly from Silversea, outlining the procedures for Saturday morning. I’m going to reprint it here verbatim; keep in mind that times and places may change from voyage to voyage:
- 4:00 AM – Automatic Wakeup Call
- 4:00 to 4:05 AM – Your luggage must be outside your room ready for pick-up. Do not lock your luggage, and be sure to attach your Silversea tags.
- 4:05 to 4:35 AM – Luggage inspection. If you wish, you can observe the inspection at the Reception Hall.
- 4:30 AM – Breakfast is served at the Bistro Latino Restaurant located on the ground floor.
- 4:30 AM to 5:30 AM – Please visit the Hospitality Desk for your SHIP ID, Boarding Pass, and Migration Card.
- 5:30 AM – Please meet in the lobby for your transfer to the airport.
- 5:45AM – Transfer to the airport.
For me, none of this really posed an issue. I hadn’t planned to do much other than catch up on some work in the hotel and order room service (mmm…clubhouse sandwich), so after an episode of The Big Bang Theory subtitled in Spanish, I was asleep by 8:30 p.m.
What I don’t advise, though, is flying in on the three later flights to Quito. American Airlines, Delta and United all offer late-night flights, with the United from Houston getting in the latest at 11:00 p.m. From the time my plane landed until I arrived at the hotel, two hours had passed. Thus, people arriving on the night run from Houston will find themselves very jet-lagged by the time they reach the J.W. Marriott, with no real options for sleep.
Don’t do it. Arrive earlier in the day, or a day before. Particularly here in Quito, it’s good to give yourself some time to acclimatize. The city is, after all, at an altitude of 9,350 feet – the second highest capital city in the world. Altitude sickness can also be a real concern here for some, and it’s all the more reason to put some time between your arrival and departure to Silver Galapagos.
As far as altitude sickness is concerned, I didn’t experience much more than a low, pulsing headache that was easily remedied with Advil and plenty of fluids. But it’s recommended to lay off caffeine and alcohol when in Quito if you are concerned you may be susceptible.
Another issue is the sun. The Equator also runs smack through Quito, meaning you can burn super-easily here. My transfer guide yesterday advised me to wear sunscreen, even in the shade, as the sun’s rays are so strong here that many North Americans and Europeans will burn quickly. I didn’t think she was joking, but I was surprised to find myself a bit burned on the face and arms late last night – just from sitting on the sunny side of the transfer van.
This morning’s flights couldn’t have been easier. I took care of all the necessary business at the hotel early this morning, ate a decent breakfast, and before long, I was boarding a coach along with my fellow guests bound for the airport. As if to further prove it’s a small world: I ran into a fabulous Australian couple in the lobby of the hotel that I’d sailed with back in May aboard Silver Discoverer. They’re onboard for this voyage, too, so it was nice to see some friendly, familiar faces!
Once you set your luggage outside your door at the J.W. Marriott, you won’t see it again until you land in the Galapagos. We had a guide that accompanied from the hotel to and on to the LAN Ecuador flight, and once we had arrived at Mariscal Sucre Airport, we simply marched through security. Boarding passes were distributed this morning at the hotel, meaning we’d already been checked in. Helpful tip: if, like me, you love choosing your exact seats, log in with your booking code in advance and pre-select your seat. The reservation system saves that change and the boarding pass you get reflects it.
Like most flights from Quito to the Galapagos, our Airbus A319 made a brief stop in Guayaquil, some 40 minutes’ flying time south, to pick up passengers before continuing on to San Cristobal. From Guayaquil, our flying time was just under two hours across the Pacific. The Galapagos is one hour behind the mainland, putting it on Mountain Standard Time (MST).
The Galapagos is one of those destinations that’s tough to visualize. If you say to someone, “I’m going to the Galapagos!” – it doesn’t quite have the same brand recognition as, “I’m going to Rome!” or “I’m going to Paris – Texas!” Even for me, I’ve found it hard to accurately describe the experiences that lie ahead.
Charles Darwin did a far better job. When he went to the Galapagos, he was so moved by the experience that he came up with his famous Theory of Evolution. This probably led to considerable friction with his fellow shipmates, who no doubt wanted to hit the grog and go off in search of villages and females to plunder, but Chuckie stuck with it. Which is just as well, because there weren’t any villages or females to plunder anyhow.
All kidding aside, I bought a copy of Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle before this voyage and read up on that history-altering Theory of Evolution that he formed after visiting the Galapagos Islands in 1835. It’s not an easy read, but it was fascinating to learn about the region as he saw it nearly two hundred years ago. Despite the numerous changes in the world since then, it sounds as though the Galapagos today has changed rather little.
What’s truly impressive about Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, though, and what remains largely unsaid, is that the experience moved him to the point where he felt everything that the world accepted as correct was completely and utterly wrong. Like a Rubik’s cube locking into place, Darwin looked at the Galapagos not just as a neat place to visit, but as a case study on all life on Earth.
Imagine, if you will, stepping off a plane only to discover everything you know is wrong. We all experience that to a certain degree when we travel; we discover other cultures make coffee better than we do, dance better, write better, make better beer, and so on. Today, the equivalent of Darwin’s epiphany would be stepping off the aircraft to discover the world is indeed flat, and does indeed drop off in front of you.
I did, however, step off the aircraft to discover that paperwork is a huge part of your Galapagos experience. I have with me, in my documents pouch, no less than three forms that I have to keep with me to surrender to authorities at various stages. Since arriving here yesterday, I’ve filled out a total of four customs forms, and keeping track of them is a full-time job.
Once you’ve identified your luggage to the Silversea agents waiting outside the airport, it’s off to the ship – but, since we’re embarking in San Cristobal, we were treated to see the sea lions near the pier. These aren’t your ordinary sea lions – these babies have totally taken over park benches, children’s playgrounds, and even a small ship at anchor. The inmates are running the prison!
But where’s the Silver Galapagos, you ask? She’s at anchor out in the bay – and we’d get to her in style via the ship’s motorized, inflatable Zodiac rafts.
Fresh from a month-long drydock in Panama, Silver Galapagos looks fantastic on the outside – and her refurbishments have left her looking spectacular on the inside. Her new interiors are a massive improvement over the ex-Renaissance décor that was looking long in the tooth after 23 years, and they perform double-duty by bringing Silver Galapagos more in-line with what guests have come to expect from the line’s luxury expedition ships.
Because Silver Galapagos operates in, well, the Galapagos, you will notice some unavoidable differences: the crew here are primarily Ecuadorian, so you won’t be able to say hello to your past Silversea favorites. However, I don’t know that this is a negative – after all, who knows Ecuador better than Ecuadorians? If Silver Galapagos sailed all over the world, this arrangement wouldn’t work. But because she’s here on a year-round basis, it’s a positive.
The crew are also incredibly keen. My butler, Alvaro, is one of the most attentive I’ve had. Throughout the ship this afternoon, I’ve met countless crew members who perhaps aren’t quite as polished as those on the rest of the fleet, but damn, they’re trying really hard.
Because today was embarkation day, I’m going to save the full tour of my suite and all of its changes for another day – or you’d be stuck reading another thousand words! Let me simply say this for now: colossal improvement over the previous design. The pictures I’ve seen of the ship’s appearance in the past made her look dated, and there were some frankly bizarre colour choices. No more – suites onboard are bright, sleek and modern. In fact, the entire ship smells brand-spankin’ new. Brand new wall treatments, carpeting, lighting fixtures, signage, chairs, tables – they’re all present throughout. In fact, the only areas that seem to remain untouched are the Restaurant, the open decks, the Reception Lobby, and suite bathrooms, which were substantially upgraded last year.
I do have some bad news, though: if you love the Bulgari toiletries present on the rest of the fleet, as I do, you won’t find them here. Instead, Silver Galapagos is equipped with an Ecuadorian-made brand called Makinti. They smell nice, and the line has chosen them because they reflect the region in which Silver Galapagos sails, and their byproduct isn’t harmful to the sensitive ecosystem here.
But other things present genuinely surprised me: the Silversea Expeditions backpack has reverted back to the fabulous lightweight one I know and love, and the reusable water bottle is now black and embossed with the Silversea logo. It looks super-smart!
A few images from around the ship this afternoon:
Tonight at 1915 – or 7:15 p.m., we had our first Expedition Briefing. Seeing the Silversea Expeditions logo up on the screen as tomorrow was outlined brought me back to my previous trips aboard Silver Explorer and Silver Discoverer. I’m truly glad to be back – and I am excited to let Silversea show myself and the other 99 guests onboard Silver Galapagos this exciting part of the world.
Tomorrow begins for most of us at 0630, as we hike up the eastern side of Bartolome. It’s early, yes – but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Our Live Voyage Report from Silver Galapagos has officially begun!
Our Live Voyage Report aboard Silversea’s Silver Galapagos continues tomorrow with our first full day of exploration in the Galapagos.
Our full journey:
|Friday, October 3, 2014||Quito, Ecuador||Arrive Quito; overnight stay at the JW Marriott Quito|
|Saturday, October 4||San Cristobal, Ecuador||Fly from Quito to San Cristobal; embark Silver Galapagos|
|Sunday, October 5||Bartolome / Playa Espumilla, Santiago|
|Monday, October 6||Punta Vincente Roca, Isabela / Punta Espinoza, Fernandina|
|Tuesday, October 7||Caleta Tagus, Isabela / Bahia Elizabeth, Isabela|
|Wednesday, October 8||Post Office Bay, Floreana / Punta Cormorant or Corona del Diablo or Champion, Florena|
|Thursday, October 9||Galapaguera Cerro Colorado, San Cristobal / Cerro Brujo Hill, San Cristobal|
|Friday, October 10||Los Gemelos, Santa Cruz / Puerto Ayora and Estacion Charles Darwin, Santa Cruz|
|Saturday, October 11, 2014||Baltra / Guayaquil, Ecuador||Disembark Silver Galapagos in Baltra; fly to Guayaquil, Ecuador & return journey.|