Monday, May 8, 2017

Celebrity Xperience In The Galapagos- Part II (Getting There, Pre-Cruise, Baltra & Black Turtle Cove, Santa Cruz Island

My trip the Galapagos Islands was a last minute invitation by Celebrity Cruises to experience its newly acquired and refurbished Celebrity Xperience, a 48 guest expedition ship.  It wound up that my cruise is effectively its first cruise as part of the Celebrity brand, so some things are a work in progress. My observations and comments will most certainly take that into account. That said, my first 24 hours onboard have been quite good...and the second (discussed in the next article) were incredible.

Celebrity Xperience in the Galapagos Island
But, first things first.  I know many people have heard of the Galapagos Islands.  But I am surprised how many people actually have no idea where they are.  They are located approximately 600 miles west of Ecuador.  “Where is Ecuador?” you may ask.  It is, noy so ironically, located on the Equator on the west coast of South America.  Peru lies to its south and east and Columbia to its north. As such, getting here is relatively easy from the U.S.

But while getting to Ecuador is not really an issue, there are a number of requirements that make it somewhat confusing, if not more difficult, if you do not have the cruise line take care of the logistics for you.  So, my suggestion would be:  Get yourself to Quito (either independently - especially if you want to you a mileage award - or through the cruise line) and then let the cruise line take care of it from there with a pre-cruise package.  Yes, this is me talking!

So with that, I arrived in Quito on United Airlines connecting through Houston, after being served some sort of pressed chicken with unidentifiable “stuff” underneath.  Cleary Immigration was a breeze (no visas are required) and then to what is normally a perfunctory waive through Customs.  But Nooooooo, not for Eric!  With my one bag and one carryon (the flight to Baltra, Galapagos limits you to one 44 pounds piece of luggage, a small carryon of no more than 17 pounds and a personal item such as a backpack) I was sent to secondary screening and then, for reasons I cannot understand, to “The Room”. 

I befuddled, but unconcerned, walked over to see a team of security personnel rifling through every single item in bag after bag of Ecuadoran passengers who were clearly bringing in many thousands of dollars in undeclared goods.  After standing there saying to myself, “This is literally going to take hours” I found someone who spoke English how had me speak to another person who then had me speak to another person who decided to take me out of turn and go through my bags just long enough to make a mess of everything and see I had absolutely nothing of interest.  I asked her what it was all about.  She said, “There was a concern you might be bringing in tools.”  Can’t make this stuff up!  (But you have to smile…and keep smiling...as it happens.  If I didn’t I fear I might still be in The Room.)

I finally cleared Customs and saw a Celebrity Cruise sign…and then my driver came over.  On this day there were people arriving for the Celebrity Xperience, Celebrity Xploration, Silversea Galapagos and more, so finding someone to assist was not very difficult.  My private transfer for the 40 minute drive was very pleasant and informative.  I was escorted to the check-in desk at the JW Marriott and noticed that Silversea uses the same pre-cruise hotel for some of its guests.  Not bad!

Now being very late, I went to bed knowing that my included City Tour of Quito, Ecuador would start at 9:00 a.m. per the itinerary left for me,which reiterated what my driver had already told me.  Not really changing time zones was somewhat unique for me and pretty nice.

Be aware that Quito is located at approximately 9,000 feet of elevation in the Andes Mountains.  Some people definitely felt a bit of altitude sickness, but nothing disabling.  Because of the elevation most also found it a bit chilly, so be sure you bring a (waterproof) jacket.

After the included full breakfast our small group met in the lobby where we met Ana, our guide.  Because of the small market, Ana may be working of Celebrity this day, Silversea next and some land operator the day after that.  So don’t think that the quality of your guide is necesarilty cruise line dependent.  However, what sites are included in your tour may vary.  Also, I have come to understand that the dining venues that, for example, Celebrity and Silversea, are probably going to be the same or very similar.  If the city tour is important to you, then this is worthy of investigation before booking your trip…because as I said, the logistics of getting to the Galapagos by yourself can be confusing.


So with that, as we drove to our first site, Ana explained that Celebrity has taken care of everything.  The mandatory Tourist Card, which costs US$20, that is used to track everyone that comes onto and off of the islands, had already been secured and the proper flight to Baltra had been booked.  All we needed to do was show up for the tour, dinner and the airport transfer, and give them our checked luggage before 10PM so it could go through agricultural inspection (Note:  All sprays, liquids, batteries, electronics go in your carryon. Yes, that’s right. So you will need to do some repacking after you arrive in Quito.)

To be honest (am I never?), the city tour wasn’t my favorite.  I didn’t feel like I got a sense of the city, but rather a tour of churches (again) and a very touristic Equator Experience – though some of our group really seemed to enjoy it.  The lunch, however, at the Hotel Plaza Grande’s La Belle Epoque was outstanding. There was a nice mix of somewhat Ecuadoran and American cuisine.  I went with the Ceviches Trilogy and Pork Tenderloin.  For dessert, I didn’t do it but for a bit of flare order the ice cream. I know. I know.  Trust me:  Do it.

After the city tour was over, which was due to traffic ran late, we were picked up again for a dinner at La Gloria Restaurant, claimed to be one of the best in Quito.  Frankly, it was just OK.  I did, however, ask about local wines and it did have a nice selection…not that Ecuador is a hotbed of winemaking; noting it has exactly the wrong climates.  But I really wanted a taste of the local.  So I went with a red blend to pair with my veal shank and then an Argentinian late harvest Sauvignon Blanc from Mendoza to pair with our assorted dessert presentation.

It was then back to the hotel for a 7:00 am departure from the domestic airport.

Although the Galapagos is remote, there is regularly scheduled
jet service to Baltra
After breakfast we boarded the bus with only our carryons, were given our Tourist Cards and upon arrival at the airport waited for a few minutes and were then given our boarding passes and luggage receipts; never touching our luggage…which we wouldn’t touch until onboard the Xperience; a seamless experience.


 We then flew by jet via Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city – located on the coast – staying on the plane and then continuing on to Baltra, Galapagos.  On board you are given a form to disclose any agricultural products or exposure. Upon arriving your Tourist Card is scanned and then your carryon is physically searched.  Once through you are directed to the VIP lounge where you wait – with light sandwiches, snacks and fruit juices provided – until everyone has been cleared.  You can board a local bus for a 5 minute drive down a dirt road to the port.

After a brief safety briefing, you don a life jacket, hop into a Celebrity zodiac (locally called a panga) and are brought to the Celebrity Xperience.  We passed the Celebrity Xploration, the Silversea Galapagos and three other smaller vessels, plus one superyacht, so as remote as the Galapagos Islands are, it let me know right away that you will not be totally alone during the experience.

After a safety briefing, lunch and a little bit of free time, it was time for our first expedition; a zodiac ride through the mangroves of Black Turtle Cove on Santa Cruz Island.  (Seriously?  Did you think I would let you read this whole article without showing you some of the wildlife?)

Sea Turtle in mangroves of Black Turtle Cove
After spending some of the late afternoon light watching brown pelicans, Noddy Browns and Sally Lightfoot crabs,

Brown Pelican
Sally Lightfoot Crab

Noddy tern trying to steal the pelican's dinner
we cruised over to an area where the water flowed a bit faster through the mangroves creating a virtual highway for baby hammerhead sharks, surgeon fish, sea turtles, white tip sharks, eagle rays and more.

And, of course, birds!  Darwin’s finches (I won’t bore you with which), herons and others.

Striated Heron

One species of Darwin's Finches
Upon our return it was time to wind down our hectic day.  After cleaning up, it was time for the Daily Briefing, dinner and an early night.

Tomorrow truly begins the bigggest chapters in an incredible experience!