Book It on the Spot--and Save! Part III: A Galapagos Cruise

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Sunset at the lookout on Bartolom, Island, and it's business as usual in the Galapagos: Squadrons of blue-footed boobies dive-bomb the Pacific's azure waters, plummeting headfirst in rapid succession in search of an evening meal. An hour ago, our group of seven tourists and a guide watched six stealthy sharks and an eagle ray prowling the surf. Earlier, we clambered over the cinders of a black lava field, then snorkeled off a powdery white beach accompanied by penguins, nosy sea lions, and marine iguanas as wizened as shrunken Godzillas. It's a typical afternoon of a seven-night cruise that will take us to 11 islands. We're on the equator, 600 miles west of Ecuador on mainland South America.

This is budget travel in the Galapagos Islands. Not bad for something that costs you $65 per day, and not too different from the cruises that charge some suckers $300 per day for the same itinerary. That's right: forget about those prices you see at home, many of which start north of $2,000 for a week in the islands before air, which can tack on another $800 to $1,200. With flexibility and gumption, you can do the whole thing--including airfare--from $1,500.

Before you read any further, a warning: if you don't like boats, a Galapagos cruise may not be for you. Because the archipelago is an Ecuadorian national park, the only practical way to tour the islands is on one of about 85 government-licensed vessels, usually on a tour of four to eight days, with an approved guide. And with a few exorbitant exceptions, the boats are designed, well, like boats--for efficiency, not luxury, for 8 to 16 passengers. On the cheapest cruises--which are better termed "tours"--cabins might be cramped and passengers share the head, but in general the crews are friendly and accommodating, the meals hearty, and the living quarters spotless. Fortunately, most evenings you'll be too tired to care that there's no swing band or midnight buffet. This is an active vacation: days begin around 7 A.M. and involve lots of walking, snorkeling, and photographing.

Even for rock-bottom amenities, if you book from home, the lowest-priced tours don't come cheaper than $1,000 for seven nights, without air. Before we flew to Ecuador to seek saner rates, look at what we were quoted for a week on the following boats: the rather basic Cachalote, $1,354 (Kon-Tiki Tours and Travel); the better Santa Cruz, $2,010 including four nights in Quito (Metropolitan Touring); and $2,375 on the fancy Galapagos Explorer II (Lost World Adventures).

Book instead in Quito

Don't pay that! Spending more doesn't buy you greater access to the islands, and the animals don't care how much you shelled out. When boats have unsold spaces, many owners slash prices, so book your cruise in Quito, Ecuador's capital, or in the islands themselves, and you'll get cut-rate berths.

We'll start in Quito, a safer, if slightly more costly, hedge bet (the other alternative is to book your boat in the islands themselves, namely in Puerto Ayora; see below). Ideally, you should set aside at least two weeks for your trip, which will give you eight days of cruising, two days' international transit, and a few days to explore the colonial byways of Quito, which is nestled among the volcanoes of the Andes.

Getting to Quito should be your biggest expense. Discount round-trip airfares from the East Coast run about $600; from the Midwest $600-$700; and from the West Coast $600-$800. (Airfare discounters specializing in flights to Quito include Odyssey Travel at 800/395-5955, Exito at 800/655-4053, and Dan Travel at 800/362-1308.) Often, frequent-flyer mileage can also be a pretty good deal. American Airlines, which flies to Quito from Miami, and Continental Airlines, which flies from Houston, require only 35,000 miles--for less than the 60,000 miles sometimes required to reach South American destinations such as Lima or Sao Paulo.

You'll also have to fly from Quito to Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos, from which the cruises depart. Always keep in mind that the government has a monopoly on flights to Puerto Ayora, which is the islands' central town; you must take a TAME (TAH-may) jet from Quito or Guayaquil. The agency that sells your tour should also arrange your air reservation to Baltra--the airport, in effect, for Puerto Ayora--to coincide with your boat's sailing. From June 15 to August 31 and December 1 to January 15, the set price for foreigners is $385 round-trip, and at all other times, it's $329.

If you plan to find a boat on your own in Puerto Ayora, sans travel agent, you must arrange the flights yourself. You can reserve ahead (call 011-593-2-509/383-4678) but to avoid getting bumped, obtain your first boarding pass (prechequeo) at the TAME office at Avenida Amazonas and Avenida Cristobal Colon. In Puerto Ayora, when you find out when your cruise will end, you can pick up a return pass (Av. Charles Darwin and 12 de Febrero); there's a fee to change a flight once a boarding pass is issued. In addition to airfare, everyone must pay a $100 national park entry fee in cash at Baltra's airport; unmarked $20 bills work best as larger bills are scrutinized with great suspicion.

With airfare squared away, you can concentrate on choosing your cruise. In Quito, travel agents are clustered around Avenue Amazonas in New Town, so it won't take long to canvass for bargains. Different companies (closed weekends) offer different boats, so visit several. We like dealing with Angermeyer's Enchanted Expeditions (Foch 726, 011-593-2/569-960, angerme1@angermeyer.com.ec) and Safari Tours (Calama 380 or Pasaje de Roca, 011-593-2/234-799/552-505, admin@safari.com.ec), where you can read tourist reviews of the boats. Other shops include Pam Tour (Cordero 1424, 011-593-2/225-916/543-793, pamtour.com.ec) and Galasam (Cordero 1354, 011-593-2/507-0811, galasam@accessinter.net), but there are more.

When we most recently collected quotes from the shops--and by the way, our research was conducted without speaking Spanish - we found big savings: Angermeyer's offered the well-reviewed Cachalote for $800--a 41 percent cut from U.S. rates. Pay with traveler's checks or in cash, but be extremely wary of toting money around Quito. Ecuador's economic troubles have led to routine tourist muggings; outside of business hours, we strongly advise taxis ($1-$4), even if you're only going a few blocks. (The islands, though, are safe.)

Once you book, your work is done. Unless, of course, you're willing to try for even cheaper rates in Puerto Ayora.

Or book your cruise in the islands themselves (Puerto Ayora)

Puerto Ayora, pop. 8,000, is the cheapest place of all to buy your Galapagos cruise, but there's a catch: prices are lowest here, but so is availability. In high season (July, August, and December), boats can sell out early, so unless you're willing to wait as much as a week for a spot, it's a risk to try then. That said, we had no trouble finding space in the first week of July.

First, learn which boats have space. For the latest rundown, there are a half-dozen shops along Avenida Charles Darwin that specialize in last-minute offers. Victor Vaca at Gal pagos Discovery (Padre Julio Herrera on the main square, 011-593-5/526-245; victor_vaca@hotmail.com) has the best agent price, $65-$85/day ($520-$600 for an eight-day cruise), but be warned that many of his ultracheapies are of the most basic quality - which in a country like Ecuador can translate into safety concerns. While many budget travelers are satisfied with the value, others have complained. Similar boats and rates are on offer at Enchantours (Av. Charles Darwin across from the Capitania de Puerto, 011-593-5/526-657, xavieraguirre@hotmail.com) and Galasam (on the main square, 011-593-5/526-051, hepartou@ayora.ecua.net.ec). If you don't want to worry about the boat's reputation, see trustworthy Yenny Divine at Moonrise Travel Agency (Av. Charles Darwin across from Banco Pacifico, 011-593-5/526-348, sdivine@interactive.net.ec), whose "tours" (cruises) cost more (at $90-$110/day), but who is widely known for her discerning representation.

Most of the boats have bases in town, so negotiating an unbeatable rate (and inspecting the boat) is as simple as heading for the proper office. That's how we recently booked the delightful ten-passenger Beagle III, for which we originally obtained a quote of $110/day from Moonrise. Negotiations with the boat's owner finally won us an eight-day tour for $80/day, with one day for free ($560 total). If we had paid at home through any of the famous Galapagos tour operators, the same cruise would have set us back $1,795. Our tour was comfortable, our Naturalist III guide eloquent, and because the operator lives in Puerto Ayora, our money remained in the islands instead of going to Miami or Quito, where many boat owners live.

Cheap Galapagos tours won't be a secret for much longer. Last April, the seeds of revolution were sown: Quiet Puerto Ayora was fitted with 1,000 new telephone lines. Boats that for years depended on agent bookings can now bypass middlemen and solicit tourist reservations through the Internet. The Galapagos may be a trip of a lifetime, but from now on, it shouldn't cost your life savings.

Alternatives 

If you don't want to spend your entire vacation on a rocking boat, you can substitute individual day trips from Puerto Ayora for a multiday cruise.

Let's assume you're uneasy about the motion sickness that can sometimes be encountered in the course of a five- to seven-day journey in a small boat. Agents want you to fork over big bucks for those traditional cruises leaving from Puerto Ayora. But base yourself on the island, staying in a number of small and very inexpensive hotels in sleepy Puerto Ayora (see below), and you can experience the Gal pagos on day jaunts to some of the same islands (Seymour Norte, South Plaza, Santa Fe, and Bartolom). The cost? Between $20 and $50 per day trip, depending on the island and your bargaining skills. Overnight sojourns to Floreana and Espa ola are offered for $80-$100. Boats rotate, so you may have to wait a few days for the island of your choice. Would you cover more ground on a cruise? Certainly. Would you be missing the Gal pagos experience without one? Decidedly not.

There's plenty to see near town. At the Charles Darwin Research Station (free), giant land tortoises are raised from hatchlings (open daily; walk 10 minutes east of town on Darwin).

Afterwards, hire a taxi for the day rate ($35) and possibilities develop: In the Cerro Chato reserve, tortoises run wild-if that's the phrase--through the thicket. At Mr. Moreno's farm, a guide will lead you on a 45-minute trek ($3) to a lake where they congregate. The island is threaded with tunnels of volcanic rock called lava tubes, many free. Just 12 miles from town, two massive sinkholes called Los Gemelos swarm with exotic birds (free). Or for $30 for two, hike five hours to the Media Luna volcanic cone.

The sea also teems with life. At Tortuga Bay, a 45-minute walk from town, pelicans scoop dinner from a placid inlet (free; bring your mask and fins). Or for about $3, take a water taxi to the islet of Caama o for the thrill of swimming with sea lions. Hire a kayak from Manglar Adventure (the east end of Darwin, $8 to $20) and paddle the canyons of Las Grietas with white-tipped sharks and marine iguanas. Manglar also rents surfboards ($10); the Gal pagos have some of the planet's best surfing, and juvenile sea lions often shred waves alongside humans.

If, after all that, you'd still like a traditional multiday cruise, here's a tip: boat itineraries usually include a day at the Research Station. Since you've already seen it, negotiate yourself out of that day. You'll save another 25 to 35 percent.

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