Sailing Ship: Lammer Law
Date of Cruise: March 2001
Cruise Destination: Galapagos Islands
Guest Contributor: Stewart B. Nelson, Ph.D.
Through the centuries, many words have been used to describe the uniqueness of the Galapagos Islands, from "bewitched" and "enchanted" to Charles Darwin’s "living laboratory." Birthed by underwater volcanic eruptions more than 6 million years ago, they remained an uninhabited outpost of nature until stumbled upon by the Spanish in the 16th century. Since that accidental discovery, the islands have been trod by pirates, whalers, adventurers, scientists, military servicemen, fishermen and, now, about 18,000 permanent residents and 70,000 tourists a year. In 1968 the Ecuadorian government acknowledged the immense ecological significance of this oceanic archipelago and, with limited exceptions, declared it a national park. A visit to the Galapagos Islands, to see its amazing fauna and flora and geology and to learn its fascinating history, is a magical experience and one which we treasure and enjoy sharing.
First, let’s deal with some common misconceptions. Cruise ships are not allowed in the Galapagos Islands. Only licensed Ecuadorian boats are permitted and the Galapagos National Park Service controls the number. While most boats carry less than 50 guests there are a handful that accommodate up to 90 passengers. The Galapagos Islands are 600 miles from the Ecuadorian mainland and visitor’s travel from either Quito or Guayaquil on Boeing 727’s operated by Ecuador’s TAME Airline. Yes, there is an airport in the Galapagos Islands, in fact two of them, on the islands of Baltra and San Cristobal.
There are 13 major islands, 6 smaller ones and scores of islets but only three of the islands are allowed permanent settlements. The landscape and wildlife vary among the islands so to see it all requires at least five, but preferably seven, days. Since the Galapagos Islands are principally a national park, all boats must carry certified guides and, because the guide-tourist ratio is controlled, the bigger the boat the more guides. Finally, there is the matter of the oil spill that occurred in January 2001 when the fuel tanker Jessica ran aground in San Cristobal harbor. This incident made worldwide news but most of the refined fuel oil was quickly recovered and much of the rest was carried seaward by the winds, where it soon evaporated. Granted, luck was a significant factor but the spill served as a stark reminder of the fragility of the Galapagos Islands, one of our world’s few remaining ecological jewels.
The Galapagos Islands, a World Heritage Site, straddles the Equator so a visit can be planned for almost anytime of the year. There are many tour companies operating in the islands but our choice, based on a seven-day excursion, was Quasar Expeditions USA. Besides owning and operating their own boats, it is recognized both for the upscale quality of their vessels and the outstanding service on board. The Quasar Expeditions fleet consists of eight boats ranging from 8 to 48 passengers. We debated among one of the smaller vessels and the 48-passenger ECLIPSE, but finally decided on the 16-passenger LAMMER LAW. Underscoring the popularity of these boats, we were fortunate to get the last available cabin, and that was making a reservation four months before our planned March sailing.
From Miami International Airport it is a four-hour, non-stop flight to Quito, Ecuador’s capital. Rich in Inca and Spanish history, Quito is a United Nations World Heritage Site and we had scheduled two days at the end of our Galapagos adventure to do some sightseeing. Those two days would later be extended to a full seven days as we discovered the wondrous diversity and easy accessibility of the Ecuadorian mainland, but that’s another story. One great convenience was the fact that Ecuador recently adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency so there was no bother with money exchange or conversion rates. Quito offers several deluxe hotels, the newest being the three-year old Marriott, which is where we stayed. An excellent steak dinner at the hotel cost was $8.00 – the U.S. dollar buys a lot in Ecuador!
The next morning we again met our Quasar Expeditions escort who accompanied us to the airport for our flight to the Galapagos Islands with an intermediate stop at Guayaquil, Ecuador’s biggest city. From Quito to Guayaquil was less than 45-minute flying time and from Guayaquil to Baltra less than two hours. The airfield on the small island of Baltra was built by the United States Navy at the beginning of World War II to meet any Japanese attack on the Panama Canal. At the end of the war it was given over to Ecuador. At the Baltra airport you pay your Galapagos National Park entrance fee, $100 and it’s a cash only system.
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