©Stephanie Scheffler

©Stephanie Scheffler

If You Love Nature, This is The Best Cruise Experience You Will Ever Have

A visit to the Galapagos Islands is a nature documentary come to life around you. You will be up-close and personal with wild animals and birds who have absolutely no fear of humans in perhaps the most starkly beautiful place on the planet. Metropolitan Touring stage-manages this experience to perfection, seamlessly anticipating your every want and need in the luxury of 40- passenger motor yacht.










Three experienced nature guides were personable and informative in two languages during both excursions off the ship and in their lectures on board.

A luxury motor yacht with beautiful, functional cabins, and a great overall layout.

Smart, flexible meeting options saved us several hours.

The variety of environments and animals/birds able to be viewed in a four-night cruise was unbelievable.









Food was fresh, varied, and consistently excellent.

So good at anticipating needs it was rare to ever have to ask for anything.

A widely varied, international group of well-traveled, incredibly engaging people.

Not bad for such a remote place, but speeds are slow and some areas had no coverage.





We were taken directly to the airport and the crew escorted us to the VIP lounge to wait for our flights.

After three excursions/activities per day and late dinners, the bar was generally empty as passengers opted to rest.

This place is so spectacular that neither words nor numbers can do it justice.

The snorkeling over the volcanic reef was excellent. Very calm, clear waters, shallow enough to float silently among the fantastically-colored fish just a few feet below without worrying about making contact with the blocky, plant-covered rocks. Black-and white striped Zebra-fish, plate-sized black angelfish with yellow-lips, parrot fish in aquamarine and pink. A flick of a flipper to change direction and two giants appeared. Two Galapagos green turtles, each five feet long from the tip of the nose to tail, gliding slowly and impossibly with gentle strokes of their wing-like flippers, gorgeous mosaic patterns on their proud heads. They chose different directions and I followed one, floating along behind at a respectful distance as he went along his or her business, scraping plants from the reef with his beak, groups of tiny colorful fish clumping at each place he bit to consume whatever small particles were loosed by his efforts. Time moves differently underwater and I don’t know how long I watched the sea turtle pursue his life’s work: dive, eat, float up to take a breath, repeat the pattern. But eventually I turned away and passed the edge of the rocky area of the bottom onto a sandy area and the world changed. I was in a huge shoal of small white fish, each only a few inches long but thousands upon thousands of them in a three- dimensional array, just hanging in the water, existing.

©Stephanie Scheffler

The scale was overwhelming as the school stretched into the distance. I had the thought that fish colored to blend with the sand below couldn’t compare to the neon electric hues of the reef fish, colors normally absent in the natural world. But then a cloud shifted overhead and the picture changed again. Sunlight hit the water, filtered and refracted by the surface ripples, and was redirected over the shoal like a spotlight, lighting up different parts of individual fish in dazzling patterns of bright white flashes as the fish moved ever so slowly as the waves shifted them. Then the sharks came. Juvenile black-tipped reef sharks, no more than two to three feet long, two or three at a time, threshing their tails powerfully as they prowled below. Not hunting, just swimming around and through the school, the fish reacting and clearing space for the predators, curving the edges of the school and creating halls and corridors in the overall structure as the sharks passed through. The shoal became a white cathedral, reforming and reshaping itself to the demands of each individual fish warily giving way to the muscular, torpedo-shaped sharks. This was the experience of just one hour in the Galapagos. It would be easy to assume it was one of rare, fortunate happenstances when weather and wildlife just happened to cooperate at that moment to gift something extraordinary. But that would be wrong. You don’t have to get lucky to see incredible things in the Galapagos. You just have to get there, and they happen all around you.

The Galapagos Archipelago

The Galapagos are a chain of volcanic islands in the Pacific ocean, located 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador to whom they belong. Of the 19 larger islands, only four are inhabited at all, with a population of just 30,000 people. Half of these live on the island of Santa Cruz. There are a total of 127 smaller islands/islets, many no more then glorified rocks sticking up out of the sea. Isolated by winds and currents, the Galapagos is home to many unique animal species that can be found nowhere else including giant tortoises, flightless cormorants, and blue-footed boobies. Best known as the place that inspired Charles Darwin’s theories on evolution, they are absolutely unique on planet Earth. Quito, Ecuador was our gateway to the islands. A very pretty mountain city, we took some time to view spectacular volcanoes and enjoy the hospitality of the Hilton Colon Quito– one of the best-run hotels I have ever stayed at. Our Avianca flight to Baltra Island took about two hours. ( Note : There are some special rules for flying to the Galapagos–not terribly complicated but very poorly explained by the Ecuadoran government on-line, so I’ve bottom- lined it for you toward the end of this piece

under “Galapagos Entry.”) The entry process at Baltra Airport was fairly quick, not more than 10-15 extra minutes. There’s a short bus ride to a ferry terminal to cross the straight to the Santa Cruz Island, and then a choice of a bus ($5 per person) or a taxi ($25 total) to get to Puerto Ayora where most of the hotels and hostels are clustered. Hotel Acacia Galapagos. One of the white pick-up trucks that function as taxis on Santa Cruz deposited us at the Hotel Acacia Galapagos. This pretty little place is everything a boutique hotel should be, located just a short half-block off of the main drag of the small waterfront. The reception area opens up into a walled white courtyard with a few trees, a pleasant little pool, and a breakfast area. The small staff, led by Carolina, is very welcoming and greets visitors with a fruit drink and an iced towel. The rooms are not large but very well- designed and comfortable with powerful air conditioning, WiFi is by Starlink that works very well, and the breakfasts are cooked to order, have multiple courses and are really excellent. Another huge bonus: laundry service at $2 per kilo that was ready in less than a day. Overall it’s a very tranquil and relaxing place and I recommend it highly.

A marina anchors one end of the waterfront, and behind is a skateboard park with lots of small happy local kids playing. A beautifully- designed modern pier features shade and benches, and is a very pleasant place to pass some time looking down into the water. A few sea lions were napping on benches or on the deck like passed-out drunks, but even when awake the Galapagos variety is mostly silent and wholly non-aggressive, unlike their boisterous cousins you may have encountered at Pier 39 in San Francisco. Just watching from the dock we saw a swimming sea turtle, two different types of manta rays, lots of small black-tipped reef sharks and a few other types of fish all in the course of perhaps half an hour. Cafe Bahia Mar is a restaurant right on the water and we passed a relaxing hour over drinks that night. It’s a beautiful place, through why anyone would think that 80’s American hard rock was the right ambiance for an upscale restaurant by the sea will forever remain a mystery. (They did switch to mellower 70’s American music on request. Not my idea of perfect, but a definite improvement). You can get cash at several ATMs and for the most part this worked just fine. One small issue: pay attention to the “transaction limit”. Some ATM’s give you an option to withdraw $300, but have a transaction limit of $200, so they let you select this option but it does not work. No idea why they would do this, but you have been warned.

Santa Cruz

One of the first things we noticed after we walked the first block of the picturesque waterfront of Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz were the statues of sea lions lying on a public bench next to where the fishing boats come in. Except they weren’t statues, they were actual sea lions, napping after a meal of scraps from the small fish market. Black marine iguanas looking very much like tiny Godzillas were everywhere, in sizes from a couple of inches up to two feet. Pelicans and other sea birds completed the trinity of types of wildlife on display before we even left town. The fish market, as the boats bring in their catches in the mornings, was some of the best entertainment in town. The fresh fish looked amazing. We heard very good things about Midori, the best-known sushi restaurant in town, though we didn’t have a chance to eat there. The area is very touristy and you can expect souvenir and art shops and Americanized restaurants at gringo tourist prices. We had lunch at the Santa Cruz Brewery two stories up. The food was average (Jack Daniels ribs, calamari salad), the Sangria was better, and the gorgeous view of the waterfront and the ocean beyond was spectacular and more than made up for any shortcomings.

The waterfront is less than a mile long and we walked the whole thing a couple of times.

Blue-footed boobies meanwhile, were raising their young on the island. Pairs of these birds nest on the ground, drawing a circle in excrement to keep insects away. We walked within a few feet of them as they had no fear of us, taking cellphone pictures of them and their strange-looking young.

South Seymour Island

We had an extra day before boarding our cruise, so we opted for a day trip to South Seymour Island for bird watching followed by the beach snorkel described above. I had booked this trip in advance and perhaps overpaid: all along the waterfront are signs offering deals on “last minute” excursions, though I didn’t get the chance to do any comparison shopping, I suspect there are bargains to be had. We boarded a small cabin cruiser with about 10 other guests for a really pleasant hour boat trip out to the uninhabited island. South Seymour is scrub land. Rocks, dry grasses, shrubs, stunted trees. And home to huge numbers of iguanas and birds. Magnificent frigate birds are enormous birds with wingspans up to eight feet in length. Despite living near the sea, they're not adapted for water and can’t get their feathers wet, so they must either catch fish very near the surface, or harass other birds by stealing their catches and forcing them to regurgitate meals for them, a behavior known as kleptoparasitism. It's this bullying behavior and not their penchant for following warships to hunt fish in their wakes that gave them their name. They are perhaps better known for the huge red pouches under the throats of the males, which they inflate to attract mates. Mating season was in full swing when we arrived on the South Seymour, and males with bright red balloons were everywhere. Each bird can keep his pouch inflated for up to eight hours, but during that time he can't eat or drink. He will perch in a small tree or bush and wait and hope for a female to visit. If she accepts him, they mate and then he leaves, letting her keep the tree. At least that's what our guide told us was supposed to happen. Reality seemed a bit more clumsy, as we watched a female land on top of male, stay there for a few minutes and then take off without consummating the relationship as far as we could tell.

Adult boobies are elegant birds with long, shapely beaks; regal stripes; and of course their distinctive bright-blue feet. When chicks are a few days old they look like white clay models made by someone with only a vague idea of what a bird is supposed to look like. After a couple of weeks, they look like some sort of weird pile of bird parts--some assembly still required--with dark eyes, long black beaks, and scraggly white feathers sticking out in various directions. After a full day of birding, snorkeling and relaxing on the boat, we returned to Puerto Ayora, had a relaxing dinner and bought a few over-priced souvenirs, and rested up before joining our cruise the next day.

Primicias Ranch

Most of the Metropolitan Touring guests were collected directly from the airport, an inconvenient meeting point for those already on the island of Santa Cruz, so we were instructed to meet at 1:00 at Primicias Ranch, a giant tortoise preserve. It soon became clear what a good call this was, as it gave us an extra three hours plus. We tossed our luggage in the back of a white-pickup taxi cruising the waterfront, and a took 25-minute, $20 drive up to the highlands. We spoke with the driver in Spanish, learning quite a bit about the tortoises that we spotted at the side of the road as we drove through the lush green countryside. Primicias is beautiful, set in a high open meadow surrounded by hills and trees where light breezes kept us cool. A restaurant takes the form of a large covered wooden deck, very pleasingly designed, and we ordered drinks and empanadas for snacks as we waited for the rest of the group. And watched the monsters. The largest male Galapagos tortoises take years to make their ways from the lower elevations to the highest points on the island to rip two kilos of grass from the ground per day, drink water, and sleep. Occasionally a female will show up and they will mate. The females then to descend about 5 miles toward to the coast in order to find more favorable conditions to deposit their eggs. The scale of these animals, a prime example of island gigantism, is hard to fit into the imagination. The largest animal recorded was 6 feet long and weighed 919 pounds. Plenty of 5-foot-plus specimens lumbered slowly through the meadow, individuals over 150 years old going slowly and steadily about their business. Galapagos tortoises continue to grow and mate throughout their lifespans, and no one really knows how long they can live because people haven’t been paying long enough. The oldest known tortoise, named Harriet, died at age 175 at Steve Irwin’s zoo in Australia in 2006. But we only know how old she is because she was collected by Charles Darwin himself and her history has been documented. Older specimens are almost certainly extant.

©Stephanie Scheffler

The buses arrived a bit late from the airport with the rest of the group, probably due to a couple of flight delays, but it was so pleasant at the Rancho we were very relaxed once and in no hurry at all. An “Isabella II” sign in the restaurant let us know we were in exactly the right place so we didn’t need to worry about the delay. This was of one of the many, many small but very important details that Metropolitan Touring never misses. Once the group arrived, Lola, one of three guides who sailed with us on the ship, took us for a 20- minute walk around the animals, explaining habitats and morphologies and taking some fantastic pictures. There are again more than 3,500 giant tortoises on Santa Cruz and about 15,000 in the Galapagos as a whole, thanks to Herculean efforts by humans. Population numbers are down due to the historic practice of taking the animals aboard ship as an ever-fresh food source and even more so due problems with invasive species that eat tortoise eggs, young or eat the plants they need to survive. Ongoing, mostly-successful efforts eradicate black rats and feral cats, dogs, pigs and goats. Already, more savanna-like grasslands and fewer trees can be seen where tortoise populations have rebounded, as their large bodies push over new shoots as they browse. The care that is taken with this animal here is nothing short of incredible. Females lay a clutch of 10-15 eggs every one to two years. These hatch in about 40 days and the babies are on their own and very vulnerable to all sorts of predators.

©Stephanie Scheffler

However, a core of conservationists are dedicated to finding and digging up the clutches, transporting them to the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center down near the sea front and incubating the eggs in safety there. This was our next stop. Guides explained more about the process of caring for and raising the animals, their life cycles, and the threats that they had to overcome. There are 15 different species of Galapagos tortoises and all are represented at the center. Incredibly, they are cared for until they are 16 years old before they are released back into the correct island habitat for their species. Fully 25% of the animals living in the wild on in the islands were hatched at the center. After a pleasant afternoon among the tortoises, we boarded the bus for the pier and headed out to the Isabella II. From a distance she looks tiny, especially if you are accustomed to big cruise ships, but inside she is surprisingly spacious and comfortable. The cabins are very nicely appointed and organized with plenty of space for storage. No detail has been overlooked from clear instructions for how to use the (slightly different) showers knobs to plenty of bathroom shelf space to store toiletries. The Isabella II is a luxury motor yacht. As we learned in a diverting half-hour when we visited with the captain and first mate on the bridge later on as they navigated the ship, she was originally built as a cargo ship in New Orleans in 1979, this humble beginning giving her a 1,000 horsepower engine. It was later refitted as an excursion yacht in Pensacola in 1988. Every aspect of the ship is in excellent condition and she shows absolutely no signs of wear and tear.

©Stephanie Scheffler

Isabella II, named after the largest of the Galapagos islands, has just 16 two-person guest cabins plus two four-person family cabins, all of them located on the second deck of the ship. The bottom deck has a reception desk, a bar for lectures and of course drinks, and the dining room. The top deck features tables and lounge chairs to enjoy the sea air, a hot tub, and areas for snorkel gear and wet-suit storage. She carries three inflatable zodiacs boats plus a glass- bottom boat for underwater wildlife viewing by those who prefer to stay dry and out of the sun. Our trip had only about 25 guests on board, a very international group with passengers from the U.S., Ecuador, Colombia, France, Mexico, Germany, England and Malaysia. Ages and groupings included two families with a pair of teenage kids each, a mother and daughter, and couples ranging from their 30’s to late 60’s. Groups divided for tours and lectures into Spanish and English, though most of the Spanish-speaking passengers spoke a significant amount of English as well. The crew all appeared to be at least bilingual with solid though accented English. The first night on board featured the obligatory life-boat drill, some welcome information, excursion information for the next day, and a buffet dinner which was excellent. For subsequent dinners and most lunches a menu was provided at breakfast so passengers could make their selections in advance. We also collected scuba gear and wet suits for the week and signed up the next day’s activities.

The steady chop in the harbor made the transfer from Zodiac to ship a little bit dicey, but crew members stood by to offer forearm grips and balance to get everyone safely on board. We opted to take the proffered Dramine pills right away even though it's a strong soporific. The problem with Dramamine is if you wait until you really need it, it's too late. A few other passengers did not take it early and were in for a rough night of sea sickness. But even with the pills sleeping was difficult with the somewhat erratic movements of the ship as we sailed through the night to Bartholomew Island. This was the only time we experienced rough waters on the whole trip, and we had calm seas for the rest of the journey. The Isabella II has a physician onboard at all times during the cruise, and it was good to know she was there in case we needed her.

Bartholomew Island

After a fantastic breakfast on Day 2, we boarded Zodiacs in groups at 7:45AM to visit Bartholomew Island, a 0.5 square mile volcanic promontory with wooden steps climbing 375 feet to its summit. From the boat we spotted a pair of Galapagos penguins sunning themselves on the rocky shore. The boat driver simply parked the inflatable right next to the birds, and we spent the next 5-10 minutes taking incredible cell phone photos and videos from about three feet away as they simply ignored our presence. While the Galapagos is all about wildlife, the deeper story here is geology. What makes the Galapagos so special is that the islands are young, with the oldest likely formed only about four million years ago and land still being created today. They are a natural laboratory to study and understand evolution not because they are welcoming to life, but because they are so harsh with very little fresh water and many areas can’t even support vegetation. Life has almost no margin for error here, and species must adapt to fit very narrow niches if they are to survive.

We were blessed with cloud cover though it was still hot for our hike up barren Bartholomew, among the red, rocky new terrain, probably created less than 500 years ago (exact scientific dating is apparently difficult). We hiked up wooden steps along a series of 30-50 foot dome shaped protuberances, all but one collapsed, that show the volcanic forces that built the island as our guide explained the details. In other areas lava tubes, again some covered and some hollowed out with the decay and collapse of the covering rock showed a record of how the molten rock flowed down hill From the top we took more pictures of the incredible scenery, looking forward in time over the water to the peaks and valleys of lusher islands that have had a few million years to break down rock into soil and welcome pioneering plants and animals.

We returned to the ship to get cleaned up for our lunch. Racks are ready to store wet gear by cabin number to keep everything organized and efficient. Rooms on board are cleaned three times a day, and again the crew knows exactly what is important: in this case, clean towels. You will shower a lot on a trip like this after sweating or swimming, and having two fluffy white clean dry towels always at the ready is a godsend. Of course, anything else you need you only need to ask for and it immediately appears. My girlfriend requested an extra blanket the first night to combat my addiction to air conditioning (and the air conditioning on board is fantastic) and there was a knock at the door with a fluffy blanket almost before she hung up the phone. Though it took me a while to realize it because the whole operation is so seamless, the real genius of Metropolitan Touring is that, because they've already anticipated your every need in advance, you never really need to ask for much of anything because you already have it exactly when you need it. The afternoon activity was a short hike followed by a snorkel from a white sandy beach though a lot of guests chose to head directly to the beach. Snorkel gear and towels, all in our bags conveniently labeled with our cabin numbers, were left in the Zodiacs while we headed out with our guides in small groups.

Sullivan Island

After a total excursion time of perhaps an hour and half, we were back on board getting ready for the next activity. Most chose the deep-water (up to about 20 feet) snorkel while a few less-aquatic passengers opted to view the same area from the comfort of the glass-bottomed boat. Everything was perfect: the equipment provided is excellent quality. The water was completely clear all the way to the bottom. Temperature was about 72 degrees, just right for shorty wet suits. And the views are, of course, incredible. Thousands upon thousands of different types of fish. Enormous sea stars with fascinating colors and patterns. A stray manta ray or sea snake cruising along the bottom. Giant sea turtles. Reef sharks up to about 5 feet long. Even a flock of about a dozen penguins, flying together under the water as they went on to hunt for their lunch.

And onto some of the newest earth there is. An undulating field of black lava, about 100 years old, stretched out before us. The ropy formations of the flow before it solidified were clear in the rock, as were bubbles solidified and bubbles solidified then burst. Some areas were like basins where others had cracked and collapsed in the frequent earthquakes the area experiences or had fallen when flows subsided and left empty space underneath. Lola compared the land to Dante’s Inferno, and indeed some of the lava had congealed into fantastic, modern- art-like forms that were easy to imagine as trapped condemned souls.

standing here, looking for basic needs. But there is no food, water, or shelter. Instead only this dry, black, otherworldly expanse, home to only the occasional scurrying lava lizard, and the voice of nature saying, “Turn away, human. There is nothing for you here.” And there won’t be for hundreds or thousands of years until winds and rain and uncountable generations of hardy plants convert the rock into soil suitable to sustain the basic elements of mammal life. We walked from the lava fields onto a pleasant white-sand beach, passing about an hour snorkeling from shore, or just lounging in the water or on the beach. There were some fish, sea turtles and rays to be seen in the water—one ray could even be seen swimming along the beach in about 4 inches of water—but it was more about relaxing than wildlife viewing. Back on board, we passed through the already-familiar evening routine of showering and changing, hearing about and selecting the next day's activities, and listening to a brief wildlife lecture. After another great dinner, the crew invited us to the top deck for a special treat. Once we were all assembled above--Spanish speakers on one side and English on the other--they turned off all of the lights on board, and as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we watched the stars come out.

Despite the irony of arriving with every creature comfort, pampered onboard a luxury yacht, being in such a remote place as the Galapagos can put one in the mindset of an early explorer coming to this place on a simple wooden ship. It was easy to imagine

Human History In The Galapagos

Oral history from Incas in Ecuador say they were the first humans to visit the islands sometime between 500-1200 A.D. There’s no evidence that happened, though they were certainly capable of doing so and there would have been no reason for them to stay if they had. Then, in 1535, a Spanish bishop named Fray Tomás de Berlanga got lost on his way to Peru. In a letter to King Carlos of Spain he noted it was a barren place where “God…had rained stones” and the land so infertile that it had not “even the power of raising a little grass.” He noted the saddle-shaped tortoise shells and that name, “Galapagos,” has stuck. As far as we know, no one came back for another 11 years. It was then that the islands got their sobriquet “Las Islas Encantadas” (“the Enchanted Islands”), when sailors banished by Pizzaro after a failed coup saw them appear and disappear in heavy fog, and reached the not-terribly logical conclusion that the islands were moving under their own power. Then it was back to the ship for lunch, and we had time to relax while the ship headed to Buccaneer’s Cove on James Island (aka Santiago Island). After lunch I went to the lounge to hear Enriqué, a Galapagos native, talk about the human history of the Islands. What that talk drove home is part of what makes these islands so unique— there basically isn’t any. Consider:

Few places are as remote from the human world of artificial light as the Galapagos Archipelago, and the night sky is spectacular. Enriqué, the most experienced guide, traced constellations for us with a green laser- poiner, filling us in on the mythology behind the names as well as more practical things like how sailors of old used the Southern Cross and Summer Triangle for navigation. But the best part for me was simply being there, seeing the bright points of the stars and the soft luxurious glow of the Milky Way for a night; what all humans were once treated to when they looked up. When we awoke the next morning, we were anchored off of Santa Cruz and boarded Zodiacs for an easy hike up Dragon’s hill. Here we walked among dozens of terrestrial iguanas up to four feet in length nose to tail. These easy-going herbivores dig large burrows to sleep in at night and spend much of their time soaking in heat from the sun and eating various plant-life with a special affinity for cactus. As with all of the animals we encountered, they ignored us completely and cell phone cameras were fine for close- ups. We watched a male and female interact for a while, she seeming to want to get to know him better and he cautiously disinterested.

World War II brought the US military to the island of Baltra, where they built an air base to protect the Panama Canal. This is the location of the current airport. From the 1950’s on various steps were taken to end commercial fishing and salt mining operations and begin steps to strictly limit human population and preserve and restore the environment. And that’s about it. Few places on the planet have had so little contact with humans.

For the next three hundred years, buccaneers used the islands as a base to hide out between attacks on ships and hide treasure. Enrique showed us pictures of a Spanish dagger he found and told us about a neighbor who got rich after finding actual pirate treasure. Whalers also came to the two places in the entire islands chain where fresh water can be found and of course took tortoises for fresh meat, but no one lived there. Charles Darwin showed up for five weeks as a 22-year-old in 1831. He didn’t publish Origin of Species until 1859, more than 27 years later. After a number of failed attempt to colonize the island of Floreana in the 1800’s, a successful colony was finally established on Isabella in 1893. By 1908, 200 people lived there. Enriqué showed us old black-and-white photo of some of the first permanent settlers on the island, a couple with a young son and a baby. “That guy,” he said, pointing to the baby, “still lived in my town when I was I kid.” Enriqué, (though he looks about 25 years old) is only in his mid-forties.

It was quite a moment to be swimming that close to such a beautiful wild creature. Later that day we took an early-evening Zodiac tour around the cliffs. We saw incredible raw landscapes (including “The Bishop” a towering rock formation that resembles a praying clergyman), and saw lots of blue-footed boobies, black-and-white Nazca boobies, and other seabirds on the cliffs. But the highlight by far was the flock of shearwaters in a feeding frenzy on a school of small fish. Twenty or thirty strong, the birds took off from the water, gathering together as they flew in a great sweeping arc covering more than a quarter-mile, more joining their mission along the way. As they flew they organized, gained speed, and all suddenly dived together into an area smaller than half a tennis court, rocketing down into the water above their prey and with synchronous explosive splashes. There would be a brief pause while they swallowed their catch, then they would take off, gather again, repeating the same behavior over and over again while we watched and took pictures and video as the sun set.

Buccaneer’s Cove (James Island)

We anchored off of Buccaneer’s Cove for our deep-water snorkel or glass-bottomed-boat option. Each snorkel location was carefully selected to showcase a subtly-different environment. Here we snorkeled close to sheer cliffs, rising directly out of sea. As soon as we were out of the Zodiac, we were looking down at giant basalt blocks that had fallen from the cliff face, regular rectangular shapes easily 50 feet on a side. One highlight was swimming between rocks where they formed a sheltered underwater chamber to suddenly be among 10,000 fish, at all levels of the water and in all directions. Huge shoals of smaller, less-colorful varieties were punctuated by brightly-colored reef fish, and it felt like being transported to an animated movie. While conditions started out great with perfect visibility, as I proceeded along the edge of the cliffs there was more shade and it became harder to see. I turned to go back toward the Zodiac, thinking I had seen everything this location had to offer when I looked to see a sea lion swimming four feet away. I think we surprised each other, hovered together in the water for a moment, and then he swam away.

©Stephanie Scheffler

©Stephanie Scheffler

©Stephanie Scheffler

©Stephanie Scheffler

The female entered the water first while her paramour hoped along the shore to keep pace, then jumped in beside her, swimming with his right side pressed up against her left. Their necks intertwined, making heart shapes and they twirled in the water, doing pirouettes on the surface. This dance want on for several minutes, starting and stopping, leaving the water and re-entering. It was like the crowning moment from the nature documentary that the wildlife photographer waited months to capture, but it was happening in real time just a few feet from our small inflatable boat.

Punta Vicente Roja (Isabella Island)

The next morning we anchored off of the exposed Pacific side of Isabella Island. Part of the caldera of a large ancient volcano collapsed here and the ship was floating inside footprint of the original the caldera ring. Sheer walls of the remaining part of the caldera lined the island. The driver took the Zodiac inside the entrances of sea caves, enticing curious light-brown Galapagos sea lions to swim and play around the boat. Every time I thought I had seen every wonder these islands offer, the Islands would respond, “Oh yeah? Watch this.” Flightless cormorants are a species of sea bird that exists only in the Galapagos and has evolved to lose their ability to fly; their stunted wings only current function is to help them balance as they hop along rocky shores. On land or when swimming on the water’s surface they look like skinny ducks with long necks and stunning azure blue eyes. But we didn’t just get to see them up close. They literally danced for us.

On the sandy bottom larger shapes came into view. Two sea turtles, then six, then a dozen, all resting on the bottom under the waves. Snorkeling along the cliffs to deeper water, I looked down about 20 feet to see a larger turtle, about five feet long, stationary in the water. Hovering around him like a cloud of brilliant butterflies was a school of king angel fish, with dark purple bodies, broad white stripes that seem to shine underwater, and neon highlights of orange and blue. The fish nibbled off accumulated algae from shells and flippers, making it easier for the turtles to swim while getting an easy meal in return. Generations of fish and turtles have been known to keep these “cleaning stations” in the same place for many years, always meeting up in the same place for this symbiotic cooperation.

water, flashing noses and tails as they jumped and dove, some with their entire bodies coming all the way out of the waves before disappearing below again. It was a spectacle of pure innocent joy. While they are called “seals” these are actually another variety of sea lion, and we watched these wild babies play from about twenty feet away while they ignored us completely. Our final deep-water snorkel took place near by. Again, the environment on this side of the island was slightly different. Exposed to the open Pacific the water was 5-10 degrees colder than on previous water days. (Though in nature-guide-speak, water is never cold, it’s just “refreshing”, or better yet “refescante” in Spanish). I was still very comfortable in the short wet-suit, but it was a bit chilly for some. The water depth varied more here, from as little as ten feet to perhaps as much as 70 feet in places, but visibility was perfect. The water moved with more force in some of the shallower places, moving huge shoals of aptly- named grey-striped shorefish passively back and forth as more colorful fish swam above and below. ©Charles “Shay” Brantigan

We saw flocks of penguins feeding. The little birds “flew” in groups through clouds of very tiny reddish fish to catch their meals, using their front flippers to power them along. In between they would surface to rest inches away from surprised snorkelers, before rejoining the flock again. While flightless cormorants may resemble skinny ducks when they’re on shore, underwater they barely look like birds. They stretch out their necks and bodies, vestigial wings tucked tight to their sides, and use their webbed feet to kick this long, narrow shape efficiently through the water. They dove down to about 30 feet below the surface (though their limit is around 80 feet), shoals of the black and white fish opening 3-foot passageways to let them through as they hunted among the rocky underwater crags. They’re so strangely constructed they hardly look real, more like puppets without strings than actual functioning organisms as they stretch and swim below the water, until they finally shoot to the surface and again take the form of long-necked sea birds, like the penguins completely unconcerned about surfacing and floating right next to humans. We had a few hours to sail before arriving at Fernandina Island for our final hike. We met on the top deck where we were served another excellent lunch as we watched the island landscapes slide by as we sailed.

©Charles “Shay” Brantigan

Punta Espinoza (Fernandina Island)

Later that afternoon, we again piled into Zodiacs for an easy walk on Fernandina Island. It was here I took many of the trip’s best pictures as there was a lot of wildlife in front of magnificent backdrops. There were a fair number of sea lions, including several pairs of mothers with their babies both on shore and lounging in shallow pools. Marine iguanas swam back and forth, out to the depths to feed and then return to warm in the sun, often lounging in big piles of animals. A few slender racer snakes unsuccessfully hunted the baby iguanas, and we watched as two snakes were unsuccessfully hunted in turn--first by a Galapagos mockingbird, then by a Galapagos hawk that landed about fifteen yards away and then ran across the rocky ground. It was an excellent choice for a final excursion.

©Stephanie Scheffler

everything not having to do with the maritime operation of the ship itself, who deserves more credit than I can possibly give him for how well this operation runs) gave each passenger a new name based on a Galapagos creature and handed us certificates signed by “King Neptune” to attest to it. Following that, a few of us requested and were granted control of the Bluetooth audio system on the deck, and we had an impromptu Latin dance party. We then watched a magnificent sunset before our final dinner onboard later that evening. After another excellent dinner (complete with two birthday cakes for guests who had had birthdays that week) we gathered in the lounge for a slide-show of pictures taken during the cruise by the guides, brief debarkation instructions, and a farewell cocktail.

Marine Observation

Back on board and cleaned up, we met back on the top deck in the cool of the early evening for drinks as we started our journey back toward Baltra Island. For me, sitting on an open deck or balcony and watching the water is always one of the best parts of any cruise, and as action-packed as this trip was, I was grateful to have some time to enjoy it. There’s an old naval tradition known as a “Crossing the Line” ceremony wherein sailors crossing the equator for the first time are converted from mere “Pollywogs” to “Trusty Shellbacks.” To honor that tradition, (and as we’d actually crossed the equator several times during the voyage), we had a small ceremony. Francisco, our hotel director (i.e., the man in charge of

Debarkation and Airport

What To Pack

A few thoughts on packing. Dress aboard is very casual, so focus more on the practical than fashion. Weather is hot so less is more, but light long-sleeves and even lightweight long pants can be a good option for sun protection if that's an issue for you. It's important to remember that you will likely be showering/changing clothes several times per day after snorkeling and hiking, so bring more changes of t-shirts and underwear that you think you need. A clothes dryer is available on the top deck, and I should have taken advantage of this as damp clothing dried very slowly in the cabin. Hiking boots take up a lot of space when traveling and I always think carefully before committing to drag a pair around with me for the duration of a trip. However, in this case I would definitely recommend bringing them for the rugged trails and lava fields. You can get away with sneakers, but I appreciated having thick soles and ankle support. Boat shoes, sport sandals and closed-toe sport sandals can all come in handy onboard, around town, or in the Zodiacs. Sun hats, sunglasses and sunscreen are necessities, and a lot of the locals also sported tubular face-coverings for extra protection. Very nice metal water bottles are provided on board as are small branded backpacks, but I was happy with my own $20 folding day-pack from Amazon to carry these plus a few other items--extra sun screen, etc. I did not bring any insect repellent, and was fortunate that other passengers were able to give me some. Considering how much of this voyage was about watching wildlife, ironically the only things I really regretted bringing along were two small pairs of binoculars that never came in handy at all.

On the last morning of our cruise, we put our bags out in front of the cabin door and headed down for breakfast. We had a little bit of time in the cabin afterward before taking the Zodiacs to the pier on Baltra Island. From there we took the short shuttle bus back to the airport where our bags were waiting. Our nature guides and other crew members were there to help, and to escort us to a very pleasant VIP airport lounge, open to the outside air but with large ceiling fans that helps keep us cool. As the surprises keep coming in the Galapagos, there was even an iguana there to greet us. (We were told she wanders in from time to time and they give her water and food). Non- alcoholic beverages, snack food verging on a full meal were available free, and alcoholic beverages were available for purchase. The airport has a nice selection of souvenir shops, which surprisingly seemed to be a little less over-priced than in Porto Arroyo. We had a pleasant time shopping and relaxing in the lounge as we waited for our flight back to the mainland in Quito.


You will take the best nature photos of your life on this trip, though how you approach it is up to you. When animals have no fear of you, your cell phone camera is more than capable of professional-quality pictures. Landscapes, sunsets, and videos of action close by are all well within reach of your device. I was very happy to have a camera with a zoom lens, however. Most of the pictures accompanying this article were taken with a 10-year-old Sony 5000a mirrorless camera with a 210MM zoom lens. This is far from top-of-the-line equipment and only cost about $650 new, but being able to pick your shots from a distance will greatly increase the types and quality of wildlife pictures you can take. A bigger, more powerful lens and a camera better equipped to handle the movement of the Zodiac would reduced the reduced the number of shots that were either unfocused or had too few pixels to print on a larger canvas, but overall I was very happy with the pictures I took. I did not take any underwater pictures or video, but given the chance to do it again I would absolutely have invested in a GoPro or something similar for underwater shots. Guides and some of the other passengers took a lot of underwater video and there were definitely experiences that I wish I had captured.

©Stephanie Scheffler

5. Once you arrive on Santa Cruz, you have a choice of a bus for $5 per person or a taxi (which will be a white pick-up truck for some unknown reason) for $25. It’s a 25-minute ride, and we opted to spend the extra $15 (for two people) to go to our hotel without stops.

Galapagos Entry


To get the Galapagos, you need to fly through either Quito or Guayaquil. Before you go to the airport, find an online form called: “Pre-registro TCT.” It has options in English and in Spanish. On the left side of the page click on Pregistro and then select Individual form. This is actually a very-well designed form once you find it, though it is much easier to complete on your laptop or a hotel computer than on your phone. Complete an individual entry form for each person in your party. You will need all of your itinerary and passport information (hotels and cruise ship names, check-ins and check-out dates, and flight information so be forewarned.) When you get to the airport, you’ll find a long line of people waiting to get their TCT cards. These people, by and large, did not find the form online so it’s a slow line. You will need your passport, your boarding pass or ticket, and $20 in cash (Ecuador uses US currency) for each passenger traveling to get your entry card. Avoid stress by getting to the airport 3 hours early. Really. If you have a Priority Pass lounge card (highly recommended–comes free with a number of American Express Cards) the Quito airport has a selection of several very nice lounges to relax in if you do have time. Bring cash. You will need to pay $100 cash for each US citizen entering the Galapagos ($50 for citizens of some South American countries). There is one ATM in the Galapagos airport. It does not always work. You will also need cash ($5.00) to buy a bus ticket to get from the airport on Baltra Island to the ferry terminal. You will then need another $1.50 to buy a ferry ticket to cross the channel to Santa Cruz. None of this is particularly difficult or stressful as long as you have cash in hand and know what to expect.


Final Thoughts There’s an old story about a young actor who was filming his first movie role, playing a butler serving the movie’s lead. He was very confident in his performance until the director came over to give him some notes. “Less acting,” said the director, “A good butler is invisible.” In the Galapagos, nature will always be the star of the show. Metropolitan Touring and the crew of the Isabella II are both director and butler. They make all the behind-the- scenes decisions to make sure you experience the Islas Encantadas in the best way possible, and are always there invisibly, unobtrusively, to meet your every need before you even know you have it. As an avid cruiser and the CEO of a company in the cruise business for twenty years, I have been to a lot of places and on many ships. This was by far my very favorite voyage of all time. I hope you get to experience these incredible islands and that you enjoy them as much as I did.




Metropolitan Touring is a prominent travel company in Ecuador renowned for its exceptional tourism services and eco-friendly approach. With over 70 years of experience, the company offers a wide range of captivating tours and expeditions that showcase the country's natural wonders, including the Galapagos Islands, Amazon rainforest, and Andes Mountains. Metropolitan Touring prides itself on providing responsible and sustainable travel experiences that prioritize conservation efforts and local community engagement. The company's team of expert guides and staff ensures that visitors gain a deep understanding of Ecuador's rich biodiversity and cultural heritage while fostering a minimal impact on the environment. Through their dedication to excellence and preservation, Metropolitan Touring has earned a reputation as a leading tour operator in the region.

Western Galapagos Yacht Isabella II 5 days / 4 nights Baltra – Baltra

Southeastern Galapagos Yacht Isabela II 7 days / 6 nights Baltra – Baltra See endemic wildlife in Galapagos’ southeastern region: Santa Cruz, San

 Northern Galapagos Yacht La Pinta 5 days / 4 nights Baltra – Baltra

View endemic wildlife, visit the Galapagos’ western islands aboard Yacht Isabela II: Santa Cruz, Bartolome, Santiago, Isabela, and Fernandina Islands.

Observe native and endemic wildlife in the northern region of the Galapagos: Santa Cruz, Chinese Hat Islet, Bartolome, Genovesa, and Santiago Islands.

Cristobal, Española, Floreana, Isabela, Fernandina, and North Seymour Islands.



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