Natural selection: Silversea in the Galápagos Islands

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Cruise International editor Liz Jarvis joins Silversea’s Silver Galapagos for an expedition cruise and is wowed by her close encounters with the archipelago’s unique flora and fauna


It’s not every day you encounter a sea lion lying prostrate on a bench, looking as though he’s had one too many the night before, and audibly snoring. But then sailing around the Galápagos Islands is no ordinary cruise experience.

For a start, there’s so much wildlife on display it’s like being in a nature documentary; there are times when you actually have to step over sea lions and lizards to avoid causing some sort of Jurassic Park-style chain reaction. There are blue and red-footed boobies everywhere, too, as well as iguanas; usually small black marine iguanas, which in large numbers can be slightly terrifying, but also colourful land iguanas as big as French bulldogs.

Sea lions, giant tortoises, penguins and land iguanas are just some of the species to be found in the Galápagos

Sea lions, giant tortoises, penguins and land iguanas are just some of the species to be found in the Galápagos

And this is adventure cruising. Which means that while you can of course choose to kick back with a cocktail in the onboard Jacuzzi or be pampered in the Silver Galapagos spa, the whole point is to get off the ship and do stuff, including hiking and snorkeling, as often as you possibly can.

Our Galápagos adventure begins in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, an intriguing, ramshackle city where you’re encouraged to eat the local chocolate because it’s good for altitude sickness. (Quito is 2,850m above sea level, although honestly I didn’t feel any different, but I still ate the chocolate). Highlights here include the stunning mountains and the Old Town. As an introduction to South America it’s certainly colourful and our hotel, the luxurious JW Marriott, was excellent.

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An internal flight the following day brings us to Baltra in the Galápagos, where we don life jackets and board zodiacs to reach our home for the next seven nights, Silver Galapagos.

While this is an expedition cruise it’s also a Silversea cruise, and that means it’s luxurious

There’s an appealing rhythm to adventure cruising, and we all quickly settle into a pattern of waiting for our ship to anchor every morning and afternoon, putting on our life jackets to climb into the zodiacs and zip over the waves for our next adventure.

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Our daily schedules advise us how strenuous the activities on offer will be, so we can choose the ones that suit us best, and whether it’s going to be a ‘dry landing’ (where you disembark the zodiac straight on to land) or a wet one (where you have to wade through water first, sometimes knee-deep). Wetsuits, snorkels and flippers are provided, so, apart from some decent reef shoes, walking shoes, sunglasses, swimsuit and sun protection, plus maybe a cagoule, and of course your complimentary Silversea backpack and water bottle, that’s really all you need.

Most of the 100 guests on board Silver Galapagos hail from the US, although there are some Brits, Aussies and even Russians. We’re all united by a passion for wildlife and an infectious energy that means that no one misses an opportunity to get off the ship and nearly everyone rushes to go kayaking before breakfast. Which also means that, while the al fresco hot rocks dining tends to be popular and lively, as does the ship’s only restaurant, the bar is usually very quiet from around 9pm, with everyone tucked up in their comfortable suites, complete with custom-made Italian bed linen.

While this is an expedition cruise it’s also a Silversea cruise, and that means it’s luxurious; even the most basic suite on board Silver Galapagos boasts sumptuous design and covetable amenities, and as soon as you get back after a day spent exploring the islands you can take full advantage of the amazing all-inclusive service, which includes every drink you could possibly wish for, as well as outstanding cuisine. I’m delighted to find that there are lots of local Ecuadorian dishes on offer in addition to the usual American food, including warm, freshly made yuca bread for breakfast, which is one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted. It’s amazing how quickly you can become used to having a butler, and how much you miss them when you’re back at home.

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Our itinerary also includes the opportunity to explore a few of the towns, including San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz, which are small and friendly with bars, cafés, souvenir shops and stylish boutiques.

But, really, this trip is all about the wildlife. Naturalist Charles Darwin discovered the biological origins of life here 159 years ago, and the variety and numbers of endemic species is breathtaking. Sharks, fur seals, albatross, penguins, giant tortoises, bright orange Sally Lightfoot crabs, owls,

Darwin’s precious finches, and the fabulously prehistoric-looking frigatebirds, which swoop over our heads like pterodactyls, their red gular sacs flapping in the breeze. Unexpectedly, during one of our hikes we also spot a herd of goats, although these are not endemic and we’re told are likely to be exterminated to preserve the ecology of the islands (they also had a problem with rats, which were dealt with in the same way).

Each day brings new islands to discover and the landscape is never the same

As the Galápagos Islands are in fact a National Park, you’re only allowed to explore if you’re with an official guide, and all of the guides on Silver Galapagos are superb, their knowledge of the wildlife and terrain is staggering, and it’s a joy to spend time with each one. They love answering questions and even on occasion join guests for dinner.

Each day brings new islands to discover and the landscape is never the same. The scenery in the archipelago ranges from dramatic cliffs and cacti-covered lava rocks to red sand and sometimes white sandy beaches and translucent water with, occasionally, turtles bobbing about
on the waves.

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But my favourite thing about the Galápagos is the sea lions; while some are content to just bask in the sun, their big brown eyes looking up at us as we walk past with only vague curiosity, we also see them fighting, playing, mating, in labour and giving birth; it’s basically the circle of life. Of course we don’t get too close, but they look so beautiful, particularly when they’re lying on the rocks, their coats shimmering in the sun.

On our final evening on board Silver Galapagos we all gather in the Explorer Suite to sit down and watch the film that the onboard photographer has made of our week. Champagne is served and, by the end, most of the guests are in tears; hugs and email addresses are exchanged. For most of us a cruise around the Galápagos Islands is probably going to be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, but it’s without a doubt one of the most extraordinary, unforgettable journeys you’ll ever take.

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