Story and photos by Melanie Votaw
Latin Trails Galapagos
Sea Star Cruise Journey
Anyone who has been to the Galapagos will tell you that it’s the trip of a lifetime. But cruising the Galapagos on a luxury yacht is the trip of a lifetime times ten. For five nights and six days, I had the opportunity to experience the Latin Trails Sea Star yacht, which is newly renovated and the South American Leading Boutique Cruise 2017 award-winner (by the World Travel Awards). My companion and I were joined by just 12 other guests, who were mostly Europeans, and enough crew members to make it almost one-to-one.
First, Latin Trails arranged for us to have a day tour of Quito, which included seeing the changing of the guard at the President’s Palace. Then, we flew to the island of San Cristobal, where we had a short tour to see giant tortoises. In the evening, we boarded the ship that would become our beloved home for almost a week.
The Sea Star has three decks and was recently refurbished so that some staterooms are equipped with balconies. We were lucky to get one of those rooms, so we could sit out on the balcony, which was large enough for two chairs and a small table.
The Sea Star’s staterooms are about twice the size of those you find on most other small ships. My Nile cruise room from a few years ago, for example, was much smaller. Our stateroom had a closet and a spacious bathroom and shower with a large rainshower head, as well as bedside tables, refrigerator, storage areas, and even a choice of pillows. Each day, our room was serviced, and fresh towels were left on our beds, twisted into fun animal shapes with chocolates used for their eyes.
Every evening, our naturalist guide would give us a briefing about the islands we’d visit the next day, complete with a list of the animals we’d see. Galapagos is unique in that you can predict with relative certainty what species you’ll see on each island. The only species I recall being iffy was the flamingo, which is migratory. Most other animals live on their islands year-round. In fact, there are several different species of mockingbird, and some islands have their own resident mockingbird species that doesn’t travel elsewhere.
We often sailed overnight and after breakfast, went out to an island in the morning on Zodiacs. We then hiked on the beach and sometimes over rocky terrain. My walking stick was my friend some days, but none of the hikes were difficult. Some of our fellow travelers were even in their 70s.
I’m not a diver or snorkeler, but I was told that the snorkeling was some of the best the experienced traveling snorkelers have ever experienced. There are many colorful fish, sea turtles, mantas, and even whale sharks in the waters. In one location, they swam with baby sea lions, and kayaking was also an offered activity.
After our morning excursion, we would return to our ship, greeted by the friendly crew with disposable towels, snacks, and drinks. After a short rest, we’d have a wonderful lunch and go out again, either to the other side of the same island or to a nearby island. All in all, we managed to visit seven islands – San Cristobal, Espaniola, Floreana, Santa Fe, South Plaza, North Seymour, and Baltra, returning to Quito via the Baltra airport.
Upon return from our afternoon excursion, we would be treated to a delicious dinner, followed by our briefing for the following day. Most of us lounged on the sun deck at dusk because the sunsets were not to be missed. The great frigate-birds which have a prehistoric silhouette in flight, often chased each other overhead. One night just before sunset, a couple of males sat on top of the boat, and we got a close look at them as we leaned slightly at the railing.
Of course, the sundeck was also the perfect place to soak in one of the two Jacuzzis, while sipping on the Pisco sours that we were served. It was truly a slice of heaven.
While the meals weren’t exactly gourmet, they were excellent and varied. One day, we had a roasted pig as part of a traditional Ecuadorian lunch. Another day was an Italian theme with spaghetti and two kinds of sauce, shrimp, and minestrone. Dinners always began with soups, which are a major part of Ecuadorian cuisine. In fact, Ecuador has finally sold me on soup! The rest of the meal was always buffet style with a few options to cater to everyone’s tastes. We had at least one vegetarian on board, and the crew was sensitive to the fact that I couldn’t eat milk or cheese.
Of course, the real draw of the Galapagos is the wildlife, and the islands do not disappoint. One of the highlights for me was the many sea lions with newborn babies. In some cases, we even saw the afterbirth still on the beach. In one location, two Galapagos hawks waited for the mother to leave the scene so that they could eat the afterbirth.
Another highlight was seeing the male frigatebirds in full display with their red throats inflated and their wings extended. Everyone wanted to see the blue-footed boobies, which are perhaps the poster children of the Galapagos. We saw plenty of those, as well as the white and brown Nazca boobies. Unfortunately, none of our islands had red-footed boobies. But there was no reason to complain, as we saw literally hundreds of iguanas – both the red and black marine iguanas and the yellow land iguanas, along with countless small birds and bright red crabs, as well as full-grown and baby albatrosses.
While you’re told to stay a certain distance from the animals, the islands are much like a natural zoo because the animals aren’t at all afraid. At times, they’ll come quite close to you! The mockingbirds even pecked at our feet. It’s nothing short of thrilling.
Besides the Sea Star Journey, Latin Trails offers itineraries to other islands and of varying durations. The company also has other vessels in the Galapagos, a lodge in the Amazon, and a new 5-star hotel in Quito called the Illa Experience. Of course, the government of Ecuador carefully monitors all vessels in the Galapagos and the number of guests that visit each island each day. Itineraries have to be approved in order to protect the flora and fauna of this sacred locale.
When you ask an Ecuadorian about the Galapagos, they get a faraway look in their eye, and they usually say, “Paradise.” There’s no place else in the world like it, so if you’re an avid traveler, I consider it a must-see. But there’s no better way to do it than on the Sea Star. There just aren’t enough clichéd travel-writer superlatives for me to convey the superb experience on board this yacht in this magical place.
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