Wednesday, March 9, 2005 - Quito to Los Galapagos
Enchanted Expeditions had booked our flight from Quito to Baltra, in the Galapagos. The tour operators book blocks of seats, and it's difficult for individuals to secure their own tickets. It doesn't matter who books it; the price is the same - $150 for Ecuadorians, $390 for foreigners. An E.E. representative was to meet us at the airport at 6:15 a.m., so we got up at 5:00. Yikes, that's early. Right on time the rep met us at the TAME airlines counter with a "Cachalote" sign (our yacht's name) and handed us our tickets. She had already checked us in. We usually carry on all our luggage, but TAME Airlines is stricter about that, only one small carry-on allowed, and we had to hand over our other bags.
We had assigned seats on the boarding passes, which I was happy about. I had feared South American "festival seating" on the plane. We were assigned seats 15A and 15B, but when we boarded, there was a woman already in 15A, so we took B and C. Then a gentleman boarded who thought he should be in 15B. The sky waiter came over and looked at our boarding passes, and it turned out TAME had double-assigned our seats! But they found a seat for everyone anyway. The plane stops in Guayaquil before continuing to Baltra. I wondered if even more people would be assigned to 15A and B!
Our flight left Quito at 7:30 a.m. and arrived in Baltra at 9:45 a.m. The time zone in Colombia and mainland Ecuador is the same as in Knoxville, Eastern Standard. The time is one hour earlier in the Galapagos, Central Standard. We went through customs, where they collected the $100 national park entrance fee. Be sure to keep the little receipt they give you. You'll need to prove you paid the fee later in your trip, even though there's no way to enter the islands without paying it in the first place.
After passing through customs, there was an area where the different tour operators were gathering their groups together. We found the Cachalote group and Juan, our naturalist guide. He gathered us together, and we all stood around awkwardly, strangers who would be spending the next seven days in close quarters. The national park service only allows groups of 16, accompanied by a naturalist guide, to come ashore at a visitor site at one time. Consequently, most of the yachts, including ours, hold exactly 16 passengers. So here we were, 16 strangers staring at each other. Actually, 15 - one person would join us tomorrow at Puerto Ayora.
The airport personnel unloaded everyone's luggage, spread it all out, then ran dogs over it. Then Juan had us all collect our bags and put them in a pile. We gave him our baggage claim tickets, and he assured us the luggage would follow us to the Cachalote. Tom and I were skeptical, never believing that our luggage will follow us unless we're actually holding it in our hands, but it did. Since you take a small boat to reach the yacht, there wasn't room for anything but the passengers and our carry-ons, so the luggage had to come separately.
We took a five-minute bus ride to the dock, then loaded into pangas, eight passengers per panga. A panga is just a small boat, in this case a rubber dinghy. The yacht never docks during the cruise. You always debark via panga. At the dock, the sea lions were waiting for us - or maybe just napping. Anyway, they were there, and they were adorable. Life jackets were handed out when we boarded the pangas, and most of us were still trying to get them fastened by the time we'd finished the short jaunt to the Cachalote.
Boarding the Cachalote
To my surprise, as soon as we stepped onto the yacht, they confiscated the shoes we were wearing! No land shoes on the yacht is the rule. You're supposed to wear separate yacht shoes. Tom and I knew this vaguely and had brought separate shoes, but we didn't know they'd be taking the shoes we had worn this morning from Quito. We thought we'd have a chance to change first. They ended up letting us switch pairs of shoes, but then we just went barefoot the entire time on the boat anyway.
Cachalote I is a 96-foot, 16-passenger motor-sailor, with eight air-conditioned double cabins with private baths and a hot shower. One cabin has a double bed, and the other seven have bunk beds. The yacht has a crew of six. Motor yachts are supposed to have more deck space than the motor-sailors, but we chose this yacht specifically for the islands it visits, not for a few more inches of personal space (though every inch counts on a yacht).
Our home for a week
Juan herded us into the dining room, where we tried hurriedly to introduce ourselves, then he showed us two at a time to our teeny-tiny cabins. Honestly, if Tom and I both wanted to stand up at the same time, one of us had to stand in the bathroom. There were eight people about our age, one person younger (the woman joining us tomorrow), and seven people older than us, six men and ten women. We were four Americans, two French, one Canadian, five English, and four Scottish. Even one of the Americans was of Scottish descent. Incredible. Who's left in Scotland?
Cachalote had gotten immediately underway after we boarded, and as soon as we were assigned our cabin, we rushed topside. Not 30 minutes into our trip we saw a killer whale! We were ecstatic. This is going to be a good trip.
After lunch we had a safety drill. The captain sounded the siren and we all had to grab life jackets and run outside. I feel like a Boy Scout - be prepared.
Meal time: They fed us three big meals a day, plus usually an afternoon snack. The meals are served family style. Richard, our waiter, barman, and cabin steward, served the meals. He'd bring out several trays of several courses, and we'd all pass them around and help ourselves, then he would bring out dessert. There was always enough of everything for everybody. A few people had special meal restrictions; there was one vegetarian and a few people, including Tom, who wouldn't eat anything that swims. The chef was very accommodating to their needs and would cook extra veggies or an omelet or such for these folks when appropriate.