My family and I just returned from a 2 week trip to the Galapagos. This was my 3rd trip, but the first trip for most of those who went with us. This will probably be pretty long, so if you don't want to read it all, I'll summarize by saying it was AMAZING!
I started planning this trip in October 2019 for my 50th birthday. Because there were so many of us going (14 in total) it made more sense financially to charter a boat than to book individual cabins on the same boat. However this did make the whole process a little more nerve wracking because I couldn't really get trip insurance for the cruise since the boat would still sail, and others would still go even if some people couldn't make it last minute. Not too long after I put down my deposit Covid hit and needless to say my stress level went way up! Fortunately all 14 of us were able to make it into Ecuador and onto the ship without any problems!
Once we decided that we were going to charter a boat it came down to deciding which boat to charter. Heather at CNH Tours was so helpful in giving me all the information in one place so we could make a decision. She sent me spreadsheets with a worksheet on each boat that outlined the price, the itinerary, inclusions and exclusions. Based on this my husband and I decided to charter the Tip Top II. (I'll write a boat review separately)
We all met in Guayaquil late on Dec 22nd/early Dec 23rd at the Sheraton Guayaquil (excellent hotel close to the airport). My husband, kids and I were coming from the NYC area, another 7 were flying from Portland, OR and our former Au Pair and her husband flew in from Sweden. On the 23rd we got up early and had PCR tests administered at the hotel. After that the kids (5 boys ranging in ages from 9 to 12) wanted to play in the pool. I had hoped to do a little exploring in Guayaquil, but after not getting to the hotel until after 2:30 in the morning because of a delayed flight, we ultimately decided to have a relaxing day.
December 24th - we got up early and were in the lobby at 6:00am. Because there were so many of us, the hotel had to run the shuttle twice to get us all to the airport. Once we arrived, we were met by Wim from Tip Top Tours who took over and made sure we made it through the airport to the boarding area. He gathered all of our passports, covid vaccination records & covid test results, got our luggage checked with tags that had our cabin #s, and gave us little pins to wear that had the name of our boat and our names on them. We boarded the plane about 8:30 and we were off to the islands by 9:30. Upon landing we were met by our tour guide Felipe Wittmer (grandson of the first person born in the islands, and the founder of Wittmer tours that owns the Tip Top fleet.). He managed to get us all on a bus to the docks and then we and all of our luggage were transported to the boat. Once on board we were asked to remove our shoes and then we headed into the Salon for an orientation on what to expect on board. After our orientation, lunch and a safety drill it was time for our first excursion - Bachas Beach. We did see a couple of flamingos (which turned out to be the only flamingos we saw the entire trip). When we got back to the boat it was time for a welcome cocktail a briefing about the next day and then dinner. After dinner Santa (aka the Captain) made a surprise appearance for the kids.
Overnight we traveled to Genovesa for our first excursion on Christmas Day. The passage overnight was rough. On my previous two trips to the Galapagos, I was on the Eric on the Booby deck (i.e. practically underwater). This time I was on an upper deck and even though this was a catamaran rather than a single hull boat, there was a lot of movement! Climbing up Prince Phillips Steps was exciting - it is so amazing to reach the top and look out and see Nazca Boobies everywhere. We went on our walk and saw tons of Boobies (both Red Footed & Nazca) and learned so much. After the walk it was time for a snorkel. The water was cold, but the sea life was abundant. At one point I sensed something swimming under me - thinking it was one of my kids I was ready to lecture them on snorkeling etiquette. It turned out to be a sea lion, showing off it's swimming skills! That afternoon we went to Darwin's bay to see Sea Lions and more birds and enjoy a bit more snorkeling.
The passage from Genovesa to South Plaza Saturday night/early Sunday morning was rough. Of the 14 of us on the boat at least 5 were sea sick to the point of throwing up. My sister moved from her room on the upper deck down to one of the kids room on the main deck. Amazingly enough, two of my kids slept right through it and had no idea what we were talking about the next morning! It was overcast and windy that morning as we went for our walk on Santa Fe. Felipe managed to spot a short earred owl, which was the first time I'd seen one. And we also saw red billed tropic birds nesting under slabs of lava. After lunch we went to South Plaza to see cactus, iguanas and lots of sea lions. Then it was a chance to go kayaking and then snorkeling. In between of course there was tons of great food.
Monday was spent on Santa Cruz (if you have kids who like to shop and buy everything in sight they will love Santa Cruz - if you don't like listening to your children nag you to buy them something, you might not like Santa Cruz nearly as much). We went to the Charles Darwin Research station and learned all about tortoises. We also saw the taxidermy of Lonesome George, but the room was dark and we weren't allowed to use any lights or photography so it was difficult to see. Then it was time to head up to the highlands for Los Gemalos and lunch at a ranch. I remember eating lunch at the ranch 16 years ago. At that time there were a few tortoises around, but on this trip they were everywhere! Even driving to the ranch we could see them in fields. They offered us boots to go for a walk - definitely use them, where there are lots of tortoises there's also lots of poo... Then it was back to the town for free time (or as my kids called it torturing them by not buying them everything they wanted).
Tuesday was my 50th birthday - we started the day on Floreana. We hiked up to the lookout and on the way down one of our party slipped and rolled a significant way down the hill (it was scary, but she was ok). I really wanted to see penguins and the panga driver looked for them before we landed but we didn't see any then. Later while we were kayaking most of my family saw a couple of penguins, but I still didn't see any. Next it was off to Post Office Bay - we left a few postcards and picked some up to take home. Back at the beach a penguin swam by (yay!) and then our boat and the Tip Top V played soccer against each other. Crew members, guides and guests played side by side - it ended in a draw 2-2. After lunch on the sun deck we went on a snorkel trip (very rough at first but then calmed down and was absolutely amazing) and then we headed off for Champion Islet. We were hoping to see more flamingos, but none were to be found. We did a short hike to La Picona beach where there were tons of turtles practically on shore (many of them were also busy mating). It was a beautiful late afternoon, standing there in the surf. Then it was back to the boat for a birthday dinner and celebration!
Wednesday we were off to Espanola where we saw the Waved Albatross - it was late in the season, but there will still a few there and it was really fun to see them. We also saw Blue Footed & Nazca boobies as well as a ton of Marine Iguanas and Lava Lizards. In the afternoon we went to one of the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen. The sand was so white and the water was so blue. Sea Lions were lounging around. We did some snorkeling and just enjoyed the scenery
Thursday morning we awoke to Kicker Rock right outside our window - what a marvelous sight. We circled it a couple of times before leaving it behind. Then it was time for a panga ride along San Cristobal itself before jumping in for our final snorkel on the boat. Then off to another amazing beach (there was much discussion about which was more beautiful the one on Espanola or the one on San Cristobal - we finally decided it was a tie). After lunch we headed to town to see the Interpretation Center and do a quick hike. Then we found some ice cream and beer and just relaxed. That night we had our goodbye cocktail and settled up our very impressive bar bill.
Friday morning we went on an early morning panga ride through the mangroves and saw rays and a lot of baby white tip & black tip reef sharks. Then it was back to the boat for breakfast and final packing before heading to the airport. It was really hard to say goodbye to the crew of Tip Top II and my family. It was an amazing to get to spend such a special week with everyone.
Everyone but my immediate family headed back to Guayaquil and then home later that day. My family and I boarded a tiny plane (10 people max including the pilot) and flew to Isabela. We were greeted at the airport and taken to our hotel Iguana Crossing where we had about 20 minutes to get settled before heading out on our first excursion on the island - Las Tintereras. I knew that this was going to be the highlight for one of my sons who LOVES sharks. First we got to see some penguins (yay!) and then we went on a walk where we looked into crevices that sharks were resting in. Next stop was another crevice that we snorkeled through. It was so cool snorkeling over all those sharks, I lost count after about 20. For the most part they just rested on the bottom but some were swimming around under us. Then it was off to a bay to do some more snorkeling. At this point in the trip (and my life) I've seen & snorkeled with so many sea turtles that I don't find them very exciting any more, but everyone else was thrilled to see some big turtles in the bay. We had dinner at a pizza restaurant that was getting ready for a huge crowd (it was NYE) and then we went back to our hotel and were asleep by 8:30.
The next day we had a leisurely breakfast and then the kids jumped around in the pool until it was time to head off on the Los Tunales tour at 11:30. The boat ride there was bumpy, but not horrible. The tunnels themselves are absolutely beautiful - it would be nice if you were allowed to snorkel there, but I completely understand why it's not allowed. It appeared to us that boats are scheduled for this tour every 30 minutes or so. When we arrived there was a boat there that was just leaving, and as we left there was another boat pulling up. The second stop was to snorkel in an area with mangroves in the hopes of seeing a Sea Horse. We did see a sea horse, but the visibility was so horrible from all the people who had been snorkeling there before us that it wasn't that great. I would highly recommend for both this tour and the Las Tinteraras tour to get the first available tour in the morning... We ate dinner at the Endemic Turtle that night which was good but not spectacular. Most restaurants on Isabela were out of fish and had limited selection of everything else while we were there.
Our final full day on Isabela we didn't have any plans. I walked with 2 of my kids to the Tortoise breeding center - it was a hot walk, and not as much to see as the Charles Darwin Research station, but I'm glad we went. For lunch we walked down to a restaurant that is perched above the bay - there was a wait so I was hanging out having a beer when a penguin swam by right in front of me. I was so surprised that by the time I'd pulled out my phone to take a picture or video it was gone. We spent a lazy afternoon before heading back to the pizza place for dinner again.
Monday morning we got up and left for the airport right after lunch. We flew to San Cristobal where we were met at the airport and taken to our hotel. Small hiccup - one of our suitcases didn't make it into the back of the taxi, but our driver went back, picked it up and we had it in less than 10 minutes.
Tuesday we went on a day trip to Punta Pitt where we did some hiking and snorkeling. We didn't really see anything new, but it was still a nice day. Wednesday it was back to Kicker Rock for diving (us) and snorkeling (kids). We went with Wreck Bay divers and they were phenomenal, I highly recommend them. The water was cold and I wore a 7mm wetsuit, a hood and gloves and was wishing I had a shorty on top of the 7mm! The first dive we did was along the outer wall - the ocean drops down so far and fast, you needed to stick close to the wall and the guide to be safe. There were a ton of fish and the marine life on the wall was so beautiful, we got a much better view of a sea horse here than we did on Isabela. The second dive was in the channel between the rocks. We were hoping to see hammerheads, but had to settle for Galapagos sharks. My husband found a big octopus and I managed to see a couple of tentacles before he hid under a rock. The dives were good, but between the water temp and the surge, it was a lot of work and I was exhausted by the time we got back on the boat for lunch.
Thursday was our last full day, and originally we didn't have anything scheduled. We decided to add Isla Lobos in the morning. The walk on the island was nice but again after two weeks I'd seen lots of blue footed boobies, frigate birds, sea lions and marine iguanas. Then it was time to snorkel. We started off and the visibility wasn't great and it was cold. Our guide was trying to get us excited about a sea turtle (again, not that exciting anymore). I was starting to think that we'd just wasted quite a bit of money when we got to a shallow sandy area and there were baby sea lions everywhere in the water with us! We must have spent 45 minutes "playing" with sea lions (or sea puppies as we call them). They would come check us out and then swim away, and then come back. They were so curious and cute - it was absolutely wonderful.
Then it was time to head back to town and go get our rapid tests to fly back home the next day. We went to a clinic a few blocks from our hotel. All 5 of us got tested - my husband was the last to go. About 5 minutes after he went into the room he called and asked me to come in. Two of our sons had tested positive for Covid. We went into a combination panic/strategy mode. We decided to go back first thing the next morning and get them retested. Until then we made them keep masks on at all times unless they were eating (and we ate outside). The next morning we went back and they both tested positive again. At this point we'd been in contact with Kelsey at CNH Tours who told us that if they tested positive again we needed to get them PCR tests to start the Covid quarantine clock. They'd need to isolate in a hotel in Guayaquil and then retest on the 16th to be able to fly on the 17th. They were swabbed for the PCR tests in San Cristobal and then we got packed up and headed for the airport (making sure they were fully masked at all times). Once we landed in Guayaquil, my husband took the two positive kids and headed for the Sheraton Guayaquil to start what we thought would be 10 days of hell. My other son and I stayed at the airport waiting to board our flight. Around 11:00PM just as my flight was about to board I received the PCR test results - they were both Negative! It was too late for them to get to the airport and checked for our fight, but they were cleared to fly the next day and made it home early Sunday morning.
Overall it was an amazing trip. Even though it was my 3rd trip I still want to go back for a 4th (and am already starting to think about it!). The weather was really overcast for almost the entire time we were on the cruise. My parents really enjoyed this because they don't like heat, but I found myself cold most of the time during the day. The second week we had a lot more sunny warm days, but it was still cool at night. I really enjoyed the land portion of the trip, but if I had to pick either land or cruise I'd say cruise hands down. With either option there is so much boat time getting from place to place, and at lease on a cruise there's a lot of room to move around and it's quiet enough you can carry on a conversation without yelling in order to be heard. I really want to thank Heather & Kelsey at CNH Tours who made all the arrangements and made sure things went smoothly. When we got the positive test results it was such a relief knowing that there was someone we could call who could either answer our questions or knew who to go to get questions answered.