The Galapagos islands are a world of extremes, silent uninhabited coves and bustling little towns. Some parts look more like the surface of the moon and others like idyllic Caribbean beaches, with powdery flour-like white sand and mesmerising turquoise waters. Our recent visit to the Galapagos is up there with one of the best trips I’ve ever been on, and perhaps one of the best I’ll ever have. It takes top spot on the best place I’ve visited in 2017 and our experience on the luxury Alya cruise is definitely part of the reason why.
Having been there and tried all types of options (from land-based tours, hotel day trips and luxury cruises), I can wholeheartedly recommend that a cruise is an absolute MUST when coming to the Galapagos. In my eyes, not sailing these islands would be akin to going to Egypt and not seeing the pyramids, going to Peru and skipping Machu Picchu or going to Italy and avoiding pasta. An absolute tragedy!
In a future post, I’ll share a full guide of how to plan your Galapagos adventure, but to give you a flavour, here’s a day-to-day view of our three-night luxury cruise aboard the Alya Catamaran. We picked this cruise based on a recommendation from a friend who visited earlier in the year, and we did extensive research on the alternative luxury cruises. Given limited time, and that we wanted to experience both cruise and land-based options, we opted for Itinerary A, covering the South Eastern islands of the Galapagos. This is our day-by-day experience.
We arrived a little later than most guests on the cruise given that we booked on at the last minute. We were picked up in a skiff from the port in San Cristobal and greeted by Jamie, the Alya’s newest recruit and our bartender for our voyage. Before we could ask where our room was, Jamie whipped up some enormous Pina coladas as our welcome drink and promptly gave us a tour. “Please make yourself at home!”
With hardwood floors, a huge king-size bed, a dressing area, full wardrobes and a generous sized bathroom, we almost forgot we were aboard a boat. Our first evening was very relaxed. After a short safety briefing and introduction to the nine other passengers who had picked the Alya cruise too, we met our naturalist guide, Juan for an overview of the week before our first of many three course dinners. This was one of the best meals of the cruise with a delicious soup and divine local fish dressed with fresh mango salsa. The boat travelled to our stop over point whilst we had dinner and anchored here for the night, gently rocking us to sleep.
We kicked off with a wakeup call and a breakfast buffet consisting of eggs, bacon, pancakes and fruit, before our morning visit to Lobos island. I found the breakfasts somewhat disappointing and more in keeping with a 3* hotel than one of the best cruise liners in Ecuador – however, to be honest, I found a lot of the food lacklustre in the Galapagos generally.
But we weren’t there for the food! We were there for the amazing surroundings and incredible wildlife and nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to see on Lobos Island.
We hopped off our skiff and tip toed over the unsteady black rocks, watching out for iguanas, lizards and crabs.
These were really raw surroundings and a wrong step could easily leave you with a twisted ankle. Fortunately, Alya provides complimentary walking sticks to help you traverse the terrain. We were greeted by lots of frigate birds with their scarlet expanding chests, fleeting females and their white feathered babies. The males are famous for their red sacs, which inflate to attract females. We beamed with excitement and papped away at the birds, who didn’t bat an eyelid, let alone a wing, at us. They didn’t seem to notice us at all, even when we stomped across the rocks. We stifled our giggles as Juan made impressions of the male mating call of the bird and continued on! The trail was alive with lava lizards, eagerly scurrying across to find more insects and many birds flying overhead or nesting just metres away. The sounds were absolutely incredible!
Eventually, we got to the middle of the island where we were surrounded by dozens of sea lions, mainly females and their babies overseen by one alpha male. It looked like a sea lion harem!
The alpha male wielded his deafening bark and sharp teeth to chase away any other males and discipline the little infants clambering over his tail to get to their mothers. The mothers seemed completely uninterested in anything other than cooling off from the heat!
The babies were my favourite – whether lapping the water, covered in sand or playful on land, they were all unbelievably cute.
We re-joined the narrow trail and had our first sight of blue footed boobies. Their striking turquoise feet and animated dances were amazing, and despite being someone who has never expressed an interest in birds, I was absolutely captivated.
We saw hungry babies squawking at their parents to provide them with a much-needed meal. Witnessing the dance of the blue footed boobies courting is something I’ll never forget.
After an hour and a half, we got back onto the skiffs and returned to the boat. As we had experienced on the night before, the service was exceptional, we were handed large towels and refreshing welcome drinks instantly, all greeted by name and with beaming smiles. Our shoes were taken away for complimentary polishes and we enjoyed a few hours of free time to rest and reflect on what we had seen.
We loved the relaxation deck of the Alya with soft furnishings, tonnes of sunshine, loungers for reading or catching a tan, and found this quickly becoming our favourite viewing point.
With adrenaline high and excited smiles, it was time for our next excursion. Armed with the protection of Alya’s thick full-length wet suits, we chatted away on the skiffs which sailed us to our snorkelling spot. We braved the cold but beautifully green turquoise waters, gasping against the initial cold.
We saw majestic green turtles gorging themselves in the shallows, beautiful multi-coloured fish and a stingray peeking out from the sand below us. Sea lions sunbathed besides us and it was something, honestly, we could have thought up in our dreams.
The excitement didn’t wear off as we boarded the boat for our next three course lunch. Whilst we chatted to our new friends, Rick and Theresa, the boat sailed to Pitt Point. Once again, we were the only tour group in the vicinity and the isolation was bliss. This little cove was an idyllic little spot in a deserted part of San Cristobal, where we were sure to spot lots more wildlife.
We slipped off our shoes and enjoyed the feeling of the soft sand between our toes on this protected cove of beach, before enjoying the guided tour of this island. It was a truly lovely island, with dramatic cliffs and beautiful views of the water and our boat.
We slowly made our way up a protected cove beach, passing more beautiful blue footed boobies protecting their nests. Every so often we’d have tiny Darwin finches twirl pass us and yellow warbles singing.
Our knowledgeable guide, Juan, really took the time to explain to our group how the islands of Galapagos formed over the recent millions of years and we were wide-eyed with excitement to be here.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing on the beach, swimming in the sea and thanking our lucky stars for this opportunity to see so much in just a few days. As we sailed back to the Alya, I shared a knowing smile with the Doc – we were super lucky.
That night, we had another three-course meal including a vegetable lasagne and a steak – unfortunately, for me, it didn’t quite hit the mark, but still overjoyed with all of the wildlife we had spotted, we settled in for an early night.
Our final full day arrived quicker than I’d hoped, but I was super excited to be visiting the oldest island in the archipelago, Española Island.
This island is furthest away from the volcanic activity that has resulted in the formation of the Galápagos Islands and as a result of its isolation, it’s home to some of the rarest species in Galápagos. The particular one that we were interested in spotting today was the Giant Albatross bird.
Instead, we had entered the land of the prehistoric Marine Iguanas. Trail or no trail, they would find any spot to bask in the sun and warm up. This of course included our landing site. As we tiptoed around the incumbents, we noticed the variety of colours across the backs of these iguanas – absolutely spectacular; they looked like mini dragons! Apparently, the redder they are, the more chance they have at attracting a mate, so we oohed and aahed over the colours!
The most vibrant of all on the beach were the Graspus-Graspus Crabs. The Doc captured some incredible shots, of which this is my favourite! These crabs are quick, colourful and work with the marine iguanas to help them keep away the insects!
A little further up the beach, Juan, our guide, called back to us. He had spotted something incredible rare and the excitement in his voice was evident.
Unsure of what was going on, we slowly caught up and Juan beckoned us closer. “Look here!” In front of us was a patch of red over the sand. “It’s sea lion placenta and it’s fresh… there’s a baby sea lion just a few hours old somewhere here!”
We waited with baited breath until a tiny sea lion pup appeared at his mother’s side. He was only hours old but he was already curious of the alien tourists who had congregated to take his photo. I felt like we were part of a wildlife documentary and truly it was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen. The baby hovered around his mum, just by the water. He was the softest, snuggliest looking pup and could make the toughest of people shed a tear.
Eventually, we tore ourselves away and continued along the trail. It wasn’t long till we were walking through the Great Albatrosses nesting sites. These birds have the largest wingspan of any birds on the earth and interestingly, they mate for life. We were in awe of the mating dance performed between males and females after months at sea along the Ecuadorian coast. They come back each year and dance for one another forevermore. Our guide informs us that they could continue for hours! If only we had the time.
We took some more snaps and our time was up on this island and we were whisked back to the boat for a mid-morning snack and our next snorkelling destination.
I opted out of this second excursion of kayaking and snorkelling. Instead, I decided to take advantage of our gorgeous boat and its amazing facilities; I lost myself in a book and had a nap in that oh-so-comfortable bed. It sounds great but I instantly regretted my decision when the Doc returned with a beaming smile plastered across his face. He described spending an hour playing with lots of young sea lions in the water, who were following the group. This moment was literally the epitome of FOMO. He exclaimed that the sea lions twirled, danced and contorted themselves around the snorkelers. Regularly they checked in by blowing bubbles in their face and trying to nip their snorkelling fins. He just didn’t want to get out of the water. I regretted my decision, so, if you go, don’t miss this!
After another nap (clearly tired from the previous nap), a somewhat disappointing lunch (they served fruit cocktail from a tin as dessert – so not acceptable on a luxury cruise!), and rest on-board, we made our way to the final excursion. It was time to visit Gardner Bay.
This is the most beautiful beach I’ve ever laid eyes upon. Powder white sand. Crystal waters. A stretch of beach so perfect I squealed in excitement. The sand was the softest thing I’ve ever felt and there was an air of calm that I’d never experienced. Of course, it wouldn’t be the Galapagos if there wasn’t a harem of sea lions sharing the beautiful vista.
This was our free time. We walked hand in hand along the beach, watched the gorgeous sea lions playing and enjoyed the tanning time, occasionally braving the icy waters to cool down. It was the most magical afternoon and I couldn’t help but wish we had a few more days there to enjoy it! Just as another tour group arrived – the first we had seen in days – we hopped onto our skiff back to the haven of the Alya.
Just in time, I say. The hot tub was ready and the wine had been opened. We went back to our favourite spot on the top deck, into the bubbly hot tub with our wine and toasted. Sunsets rarely get better than this. I loved this about the cruise as not so many have a proper Jacuzzi and it’s not so easy when you’re on a boat but Alya’s was heavenly.
We opted to hop off the cruise an hour early to suit our travel plans of visiting Scalesia Lodge and loved the flexibility of the Alya crew, who agreed to drop us off where we needed the next morning. We shared our final dinner with the rest of the passengers, with whom we’d now gotten to know so well.
Lifelong friendships and bonds forged, we headed to bed in anticipation of an extremely early morning start, where we’d be heading to Isabela island.
And then we were off, the cruise was over, and it was time for the next Galápagos adventure. And what an adventure it was! Our 3 nights aboard the Alya were amazing and to experience all of that wildlife within luxury settings is something we’ll never forget.
We booked the Alya cruise directly with Royal Galapagos. For more information and some more snaps of the boat itself, head over to their website here.