Exploring Isla Santa Cruz

Silver Galapagos Sunset. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Silver Galapagos Sunset. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

Today marks our last full day of cruising the Galapagos Islands aboard Silversea’s Silver Galapagos. However, just because it’s our last day doesn’t mean the talented Expedition Team has let up on the throttle; instead, today presented guests with a number of different options to enjoy their time in Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz.

There are no shortage of options for exploration today! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
There are no shortage of options for exploration today! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

This morning, everyone disembarked by zodiac raft once again to come ashore. There were initially some logistical challenges to overcome: a large triathlon had closed many of the streets. But, our mini-busses were located just a short stroll from the pier, and soon we were on our way to Los Gemelos.

Behold: Los Gemelos, one of two "twin" craters. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Behold: Los Gemelos, one of two “twin” craters. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Los Gemelos – or The Twins in English – are two massive craters that have gradually sunk into the earth. Total depth: 30 metres. They’re what you might expect of a meteor strike, with the caveat that they are covered wall-to-wall in lush, thick, jungle-like vegetation. The two craters are separated by the highway, which literally divides the two.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
The highway literally runs between the two craters. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
The highway literally runs between the two craters. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

After that, we travelled to Rancho El Manzanillo, a giant tortoise reserve about 45 minutes’ drive from Puerto Ayora. Here, we once again were able to indulge our passions for photographing and viewing these massive creatures. Why did the tortoise cross the road? I have absolutely no idea – but it was “bad pun day” on our drive in and out of the reserve as our path was repeatedly blocked by the slow, lumbering creatures that tended to clamp down and go into Tortoise Witness Protection at the first hint of trouble – or approaching mini-bus. Many of these tortoises are well over a century old, and tend to be more frightened of humans than their younger counterparts. The rationale is simple: they can remember being hunted by humans.

Why did the tortoise cross the road? I don't know - but it's been a great day for bad jokes! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Why did the tortoise cross the road? I don’t know – but it’s been a great day for bad jokes! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
We had more opportunities to view the Giant Tortoises that inhabit this part of the Galapagos, many of which are nearly a century old. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
We had more opportunities to view the Giant Tortoises that inhabit this part of the Galapagos, many of which are nearly a century old. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

After another fabulous lunch at The Grill on Deck 5 onboard the Silver Galapagos, we had three choices for our afternoon activities. We could visit the Charles Darwin Research Facility just outside of Puerto Ayora; we could opt to have free time shopping in Puerto Ayora (a substantially nicer city than yesterday), or we could visit El Trapiche – a local farm that grows its own coffee and distills its own spirits.

In Puerto Ayora, a triathlon caused some logistical challenges...Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
In Puerto Ayora, a triathlon caused some logistical challenges…Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
...not that the Iguanas cared. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
…not that the Iguanas cared. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

We’ve seen so many different types of wildlife here in the Galapagos. I’ve seen creatures I’ve never seen before in my life in the wild, freed from the cagey confines of some half-rate zoo. One thing I haven’t seen this trip, though, are the people who actually live here. So, along with about a dozen guests, I opted to hop back on a mini-bus for the 40-minute ride to El Trapiche.

Welcome to El Trapiche - a fabulous excursion! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Welcome to El Trapiche – a fabulous excursion! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Our Ecuadorian host and owner of El Trapiche...Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Our Ecuadorian host and owner of El Trapiche…Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
...demonstrates how sugar cane juice is extracted. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
…demonstrates how sugar cane juice is extracted. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Like winding back the clock a century or so, visiting El Trapiche is probably as close as you can get to time travel. Everything here is done in the traditional fashion, from extracting sugar cane juice via a massive contraption turned by two humans – or two donkeys, to roasting the coffee beans and even distilling the local sugar cane liquor.

The friendly and affable owner of El Trapiche is a gentleman who speaks no English, but our Expedition Staff translated for us. He almost didn’t have to – even with my rusty Spanish, I caught more than a few jokes, and laughter – as we discovered – is universal and infectious.

At El Trapiche, they roast their own coffee beans that they grow on-site. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
At El Trapiche, they roast their own coffee beans that they grow on-site. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
How do you stoke a fire? Throw some booze into it! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
How do you stoke a fire? Throw some booze into it! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Now, I’m a huge purveyor of local liquors. Apparently, this guy has political candidates who come to get some of his special blend of fire water every time there’s an election. He distills two kinds: a softer Anis liquor, and the raw, unfiltered Sugar Cane Liquor. Alcohol Content: 50 percent. If I’m correct, that’s roughly 100 Proof for my American friends.

Our Ecuadorian host demonstrated how you drink this – you fill a shotglass until the liquid is spilling over the side. Then – uno, dos, tres! Down the hatch.

Ecuadorian Fire Water! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Ecuadorian Fire Water! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

I actually quite enjoyed it. It was strong but not unpleasant, and after a minute or so this amazingly warm feeling begins in your stomach and rises up through your throat. If you had a cold, this would do the trick. Ironically, I was a bit sleepy on the bus ride out to El Trapiche; my Ecuadorian Fire Water woke me up with a snap!

Sunset over Puerto Ayora. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Sunset over Puerto Ayora. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Just another day in the Galapagos! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Just another day in the Galapagos! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
On our way back to the ship, we sailed past numerous other Galapagos passenger ships. Note the difference in size, space, balconies, and the like. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
On our way back to the ship, we sailed past numerous other Galapagos passenger ships. Note the difference in size, space, balconies, and the like. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Today was also an excellent education for my fellow guests, as we boarded our Zodiac at sunset to return to Silver Galapagos, we passed no less than a dozen other Galapagos cruise ships of varying shapes and sizes. It’s a ship-lover’s paradise, but the fact remains that cruising options here are as unique – and diverse –as the wildlife that inhabits these islands. Everyone has to play in the same regulatory sand box, but no two ships are created equal.

After having been onboard for almost a week, I think I’ve nailed down Ten Things that Set Silver Galapagos Apart:

  1. Open Deck Space. Other ships operating in this region – most notably the catamarans – just don’t have a comparable amount of open deck space.
  2. Outdoor Dining. This goes hand-in-hand with the above. Enjoying lunch at The Grill, as well as the occasional dinner cooked atop a superheated slab of volcanic rock, has been a definite bonus.
  3. Inclusivity. From drinks to gratuities, nearly everything is included in the price of admission aboard Silver Galapagos.
  4. Choice. True luxury is all about choice, and Silversea excels in this area, even in the Galapagos. There are frequently multiple options for shore landings and excursions, and these include hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, and cultural diversions. Cuisine is exvc
  5. Butlers! A very luxe touch completely in keeping with Silversea’s existing fleet.
  6. The Crew. Silversea employs a fantastic team of guides, supplemented with a group of truly wonderful crew members. This is not unique to Silversea, but the line and the ship’s top management are really taking a proactive approach to training – and retaining – the best Ecuadorian workers.
  7. Effortless Organization. If you purchase Silversea’s Air Programme, your check-in and checked baggage is even handled for you between Quito, Guayaquil and Baltra. You’re never alone – someone is looking after you and helping you from arrival to departure. Silversea even sets up a private departure lounge at the airport in Baltra.
  8. Generous Suites. There are many ships here in the Galapagos where the term “deluxe” could apply to a ship with cabins measuring 100 square feet and featuring white walls and pull-down, Pullman-style berths. Even the smallest suite aboard Silver Galapagos is well over twice that size, and most suites are nearly three times as large as their competitors.
  9. Private Balconies. You’d be surprised how many ships in the Galapagos lack these; Silver Galapagos has one of the highest proportions of private balconies in the region.
  10. Decidedly luxe touches. Your shoes are polished. Canapés’ are delivered. Room service is extensive for an expedition ship. The internet (also not available on many smaller ships) even provides access to video-on-demand movies and tv shows from laptops and iPads.

Then, there’s also her size. The swells here are rather large, and just looking at some of the smaller vessels rolling around in the harbour at sunset was enough to make me a little queasy.

Silversea's Silver Galapagos waits at anchor for us on Friday, October 10, 2014 in Puerto Ayora, Galapagos. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Silversea’s Silver Galapagos waits at anchor for us on Friday, October 10, 2014 in Puerto Ayora, Galapagos. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Being at sea is a very personal thing for me, even after nearly sixty cruises and well over 400 days at sea. I can remember when cruising to Alaska on my own was Very Big Deal. Then cruising to the Mexican Riviera. Then, gradually, cruising to Europe. South Africa. Cambodia. Vietnam. Norway. Iceland. Turkey. Australia. Indonesia. And, now, the Galapagos Islands.

For me, though, there’s no substitute for the gentle sway of a ship, or the purposeful vibration of her engines from somewhere deep below. As I write this, Silver Galapagos is making her way to Baltra where we will disembark tomorrow. Her screws are biting into the water, propelling us slowly but surely towards our final moments onboard.

Alongside one last time. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Alongside one last time. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

A good ship is like a beautiful woman. Little wonder then that, for centuries, ships have always been referred to as “she.” Thanks to her month spent in a Panamanian drydock, Silver Galapagos is finally on her way to getting the recognition she deserves. Sure, there are some things that can be improved. Lighting in the Piano Bar could go up a notch; lighting in The Grill could go down a notch. Paint could be touched up on her inner hull deck spaces, and removed where it has inadvertently splattered on balcony windows.

Members of the fabulous crew of the Silver Galapagos line the hallway on Deck 3 leading into the Explorer's Lounge for the Farewell Toast. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Members of the fabulous crew of the Silver Galapagos line the hallway on Deck 3 leading into the Explorer’s Lounge for the Farewell Toast. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Yet the fact remains that without the crew of the Silver Galapagos, this sturdy ship would be just that – a ship. Over the last week, the mainly Ecuadorian crew of the Silver Galapagos have stood out as the true soul of this journey. Their English may vary, but their hearts do not. These men and women are giving one hundred and ten percent each and every day – but it’s not easy. You have to understand: Ecuador doesn’t have a Silversea. It is a beautiful country filled with wonderful people, yes, but it is an emerging country. How do you hire butlers from an emerging country? You don’t – you have to create butlers. Remember: the majority of staff positions must first be offered to those who reside on the Galapagos Islands, and only after there are no takers can Silversea offer it to mainland Ecuadorians – who still may not be able to fill the position. The buck stops there; international applicants can’t work in the majority of positions onboard.

The friendly Captain Marcelo Rojas toasts guests aboard Silver Galapagos. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
The friendly Captain Marcelo Rojas toasts guests aboard Silver Galapagos. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

That’s the challenge that faces Silversea – how to pull a luxury expedition cruise product out of a region that just isn’t used to having one. But just as the line faced challenges that no one can really remember when they launched their first foray into luxury expedition cruising seven years ago, so too will their Galapagos operations continue to improve over time. Right now, as things stand, I’d have absolutely no issues coming back. In fact, I wish I were staying onboard for another week.

As I come to the close of this voyage, I wonder if Darwin felt the way that most of us here onboard have confessed to. I wonder if his throat caught at the mere thought of the Galapagos Islands. I wonder if he was frequently lost for words. I wonder. I wonder.

One final dinner in The Restaurant, Deck 2. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
One final dinner in The Restaurant, Deck 2. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Silversea had a lot of growing pains in the Galapagos – that is undeniable. The easy course would have been to simply abandon it and concentrate on the Polar Regions, or Russia’s Far East, or the Kimberly Coast in Australia. They could have easily thrown in the towel, held up their hands, and admitted defeat.

Instead they’ve rethought how they train their staff – how they motivate and inspire them. They’ve dramatically improve the physical appearance of the Silver Galapagos. They’ve invested money, yes, but more importantly, they’ve invested time into making this venture work.

My journey aboard Silversea’s Silver Galapagos has been the real sleeper surprise of my cruising year.

I hope that, someday, it can be yours, too.

Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Our Live Voyage Report aboard Silversea’s Silver Galapagos continues Tuesday as we recap our entire journey through this remarkable part of the world.

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Illustration courtesy of Silversea Cruises

Our full journey:

DAYPORT ACTIVITIES
Friday, October 3, 2014Quito, EcuadorArrive Quito; overnight stay at the JW Marriott Quito
Saturday, October 4San Cristobal, EcuadorFly from Quito to San Cristobal; embark Silver Galapagos
Sunday, October 5Bartolome / Playa Espumilla, Santiago
Monday, October 6Punta Vincente Roca, Isabela / Punta Espinoza, Fernandina
Tuesday, October 7Caleta Tagus, Isabela / Bahia Elizabeth, Isabela
Wednesday, October 8Post Office Bay, Floreana / Punta Cormorant or Corona del Diablo or Champion, Florena
Thursday, October 9Galapaguera Cerro Colorado, San Cristobal / Cerro Brujo Hill, San Cristobal
Friday, October 10Los Gemelos, Santa Cruz / Puerto Ayora and Estacion Charles Darwin, Santa Cruz
Saturday, October 11, 2014Baltra / Guayaquil, EcuadorDisembark Silver Galapagos in Baltra; fly to Guayaquil, Ecuador & return journey.