jaw-dropping beauty that travelers witness every day
We had just touched down at San Cristobal airport 30 minutes ago.
Now, we're already at the harbor, covered in sunshine and toting our luggage and backpacks down a gangway to load into Zodiacs while watching blue-footed boobies "plunge fishing" in the waters of the marina. Dozens of sea lions cast uninterested glances at the newest batch of visitors to their home. Actually, most of them are too busy sleeping -- on the rocks and the dock -- to even notice our presence.
Our journey with Silversea is underway, and we realize right away that this expedition cruise in the Galapagos is going to be a fast-paced, action-filled week.
We're off and running right at the start. That's OK with us.
I can't explain how excited the four us were for this long-awaited trip. I was traveling with Colleen and her brother Ryan and his wife Kelly.
The family has traveled together on several fun trips, including many cruise vacations (our Norway Northern Lights cruise with Viking stands out), but the Galapagos had been a top travel wish for all of us, and now, four years after starting the planning process, we were here.
This cruise was supposed to happen in May 2020, but travel shut down right at the start of the COVID pandemic just as we were getting down to the wire. Of course, we were incredibly disappointed.
The wait, though, made these moments even sweeter. We met Jason Heilmann, an American and a Silversea naturalist who has been living and working on the islands for more than 30 years after marrying his wife from Ecuador.
He told us all about the exciting wildlife we already were witnessing and explained that this was just a glimpse of what we would see during the week. Jason had our Zodiac driver bring us through the marina and past an abandoned fishing vessel that has been taken over by young male sea lions who now run their "Animal House" in the boat-filled bay.
Next, we zipped over to the coast to see more boobies up close. Blue foots are the iconic birds of the Galapagos, and we were all giddy to be seeing them right away.
Usually, I hope for a fantastic overall journey that gradually builds throughout the trip to create a memorable experience.
The Galapagos Islands deliver something altogether different.
We still hadn't even arrived to our ship, the 100-passenger Silver Origin, and I realized something. You don't ease into this place. It slaps you right in the face with its vibrancy.
The Galapagos is a destination unlike anywhere else on the planet. We all know this, right?
However, it's only when you've visited that you can get the real feel and understanding for why this is the case. Throughout our expedition, our expert naturalists gave us details about the animals and environment that help explain how this place stands alone.
The archipelago of volcanic islands (some active volcanoes) straddles the equator, and the animal life here is influenced by the merging of three major ocean currents that collide to create especially nutrient-dense conditions around the coasts of the islands, giving a habitat for albatrosses, whales, sea lions, penguins and so many more creatures.
Each island we visited featured a new species of bird or marine iguana or a sea lion colony that had developed its own sets of behaviors and adaptations for living exactly in that space or niche of the world.
As we approached the Silver Origin in the early afternoon, it was anchored off the shore of San Cristobal Island, near the spot where Charles Darwin and his crew on the HMS Beagle first arrived, giving the English naturalist and biologist his first look at the Galapagos Islands. His observations here led him to develop his theory of natural selection.
Yes, you hear a bit about Darwin and the theories of evolution and natural selection when traveling around the islands.
Our Zodiac pulled up to the marina at the aft of the ship, and we offloaded to start our cruise, greeted by smiles and glasses of Champagne from many of the friendly Ecuadorian crew and naturalists who we would come to think of as family and friends during our expedition.
The first afternoon gave us time to unpack in our suite, meet our butler (yes, indeed!) and learn the layout of the ship.
In this article, I will give you all the highlights of the week, a look at the luxury cruise ship Silver Origin, review the food options and offer a list of the animals you will see and let you know what to pack for your Galapagos expedition cruise with Silversea.
Silver Origin is probably the most luxurious and intimately stylish ship that you can sail on in the Galapagos. Dozens of ships operate in the islands, and most are older ferry-style vessels that are fairly austere in their amenities and facilities, carrying 16 to 32 passengers on these expeditions.
Regulations say the maximum cruise ship size can be no more than 100 passengers in the Galapagos, and we sailed with only 80 on our trip. This meant we had 95 crew taking great care of our group of excited travelers, the overwhelming number making their first visit, just like us. All crew onboard are Ecuadorian, and they displayed wonderful knowledge and pride in the Galapagos, as well as great energy for their jobs in hospitality.
This area leads out past the coffee and water bottle filling stations to the outdoor area marina where cruisers gather and prepare to load into the Zodiacs to go ashore or off on snorkeling or kayaking adventures.
The marina area was where we put on and took off our wet suits. These suits hang on racks nearby organized by suite number. There are lockers with towels and robes provided, too. It seems as if every consideration has been made to ensure passengers depart and return to the ship as efficiently and comfortably as possible.
Deck 4 features The Restaurant, the main dining room that offers open seating in a big bright space with plenty of sunlight through large windows. This venue serves buffets for breakfast and lunch and a rotating menu for dinners. Also on Deck 4 is the Explorer Lounge, the main social space on the ship, where passengers gather for cocktail hours, enrichment chats and trivia contests. The ship has a resident pianist, and Billy played tunes here in the evenings as well as up on Deck 7 during lunches at The Grill restaurant up there.
Beyond the lounge, doors open to a terrace that overlooks the marina below. This lovely space is well decorated with art and has numerous seats. It was a fantastic spot to come out to watch the sunsets and to sit and watch the stars each night. There is also an inviting "fire pit" to gather around to keep warm and sip a cocktail in the evening.
We also would borrow the yoga mats to take up to Deck 7 for early morning self-directed stretch and yoga sessions. It was an amazing way to start the day as the sun was rising over a new island on our itinerary.
Deck 7 is another main passenger area, with the open sun decks, fabulous massive loungers and a hot tub at the aft of the ship. You also will enjoy the covered space with couches and pillows that makes for a nice spot to relax with a good book or conversation with new friends.
We loved slipping into the hot tub for sunsets before heading back inside to get ready for dinner.
Silver Origin offers two restaurants (you can also order room service 24 hours, by the way). The main dining room is The Restaurant, and The Grill is a magnificent al fresco eatery on Deck 7. Cruisers can enjoy lunch and dinner here.
We had our lunch at The Grill every day on this voyage, sitting in the sunshine and taking in the views of the islands.
Dining on Silver Origin is a special part of your Galapagos cruise. A wonderful culinary program is a staple for Silversea cruises in general. The line has a fine reputation for delivering excellent cuisine on voyages all over the world. Our meals on Silver Origin were extra special because it was our first exposure to traditional Ecuadorian fare, and we loved the bold creations that utilize fresh seafood.
The Restaurant always had an omelet station, fresh fruit, baked breads and mueslis for breakfasts at the buffet. But we fell in love with the humitas, which had minced corn with eggs, chicken an olive and raisin wrapped in a husk.
Executive Chef Andrea Cruz even offered a well-attended cooking class to show how to make your own delicious ceviches back home.
Cruisers also will enjoy the fresh-made salads, steaks, seafood selections like octopus, red snapper, langostino and Galapagos scorpion fish, as well as some traditional comfort foods like burgers, pizza and pasta that are always available by request.
Desserts include a nice variety of cakes, tarts and creative mousses.
We started and ended in San Cristobal, after flying through Guayaquil on the mainland. Silversea puts you up for a night at the Oro Verde Hotel in Guayaquil before and after your Galapagos cruise, and this is a premium hotel with restaurants, a bar, deli, big gym, pool and spa right on the property.
You also are in the heart of the city, about a 30-minute walk to nice parks and the Malecon 2000 along the river.
After the tender ride to the ship in San Cristobal to start the journey, we visited a number of fascinating sites throughout the archipelago.
This was our route.
Sunday: Silver Origin took us to Genovesa Island, where we went to El Barranco in the morning and Darwin Bay in the afternoon.
Monday: North Seymour Island in the a.m., and Sullivan Bay, Santiago in the p.m.
Tuesday: Punta Mangle, Fernandina Island a.m., and Punta Moreno, Isabela Island p.m.
Wednesday: Santa Cruz Island a.m., and Santa Fe Island p.m.
Thursday: Gardner Bay, Espanola Island a.m., and Punta Suarez, Espanola Island p.m.
Friday: San Cristobal Highlands a.m., and Cerro Brujo Beach p.m.
You're going to want to do it all! You can sleep when you go back home, and if you come all the way to the beautiful remote destination, make sure you take advantage of all the great excursions and enrichment talks onboard from the passionate and knowledgeable naturalists.
Snorkeling was offered every day but one. We have snorkeled all over the world, and these outings were unlike anything we have ever experienced. We were up close to so many sea lions, sea turtles and large tropical fish I could hardly believe it.
The days unfolded for us in a certain rhythm. It was busy, and we got tired.
But it also was quite exhilarating.
We got up early for sunrise and a workout at the gym or a yoga session or the sun deck before a nice breakfast to get fueled up for the day. We enjoyed breakfast a couple times in our suite but usually in the main dining room.
We could often snag a quick nap after our lunch at The Grill. The combo of the fresh air, active mornings and a full belly made it almost impossible for me not to have a snooze.
The days would wrap up with enrichment talks from our guides, cocktail hours and chats about the next day's activities that would be available and then delicious dinners. There was a photo contest that was judged at the end of the journey, awarding a prize to the cruisers who took the best photo during the voyage (two categories: for young photographers and adults).
There also was a trivia contest. Generally, the ship was quiet after dinner because more people were wiped out and needed to retire early to get rested up for the non-stop action that the next day always promised.
The Animals in the Galapagos
The resident creatures are the stars of the show, and the Galapagos features a "Big 15" list of animals that travelers aim to see during their visit.
We saw 13 of them . . .
We also saw a land iguana, Galapagos penguins and Galapagos hawks. The two creatures on the list that we didn't get to see during our week: American flamingos and Santa Fe land iguanas.
I always pack carry-on only, so knowing the absolute essentials for a Galapagos cruise with Silversea and making sure that I don't bring any unneeded items is crucial.
What you need: This is an expedition cruise, so you will be very active and going ashore for a lot of hiking, walks and beach time (swimming or strolls) or in the water for snorkeling and kayaking.
Bring a couple bathing suits, of course. Even if you don't snorkel, you might want to enjoy beach time and the hot tub on Silver Origin. Bring two so that you have a dry suit while the other one dries.
A rash guard shirt (or two). These special swim shirts are often long-sleeved and feature UV protection to keep your skin safe from the powerful sun at the equator.
Hats with visors to offer more sun protection.
Neck gaiters. These are simple but versatile scarf-like tubes of fabric that are great to cover your head, neck and face when hiking or snorkeling. They offer sun protection and can be used to shield from windy conditions on Zodiac rides and dipped in the water to serve as a cooling rag.
While we're talking about sun protection, it should be noted that you won't need to bring sunscreen. Silversea provides bottles of reef-safe sunscreen. This is in lotion form. If you prefer a roll-on stick style, you would have to bring that.
Also, bring good polarized sunglasses.
Footwear. You can keep this pretty simple. We only needed nice hiking sandals. Ours are Keens, which are waterproof, with great tread and are breathable. This was the preferred style for most of our fellow cruisers. We also took flip-flops for wearing around our room, on our balcony and on the outer decks around the ship. A nice pair of comfy shoes for dinner completes your footwear needs. If you like to jog or work out, you can add sneakers to use in the gym on Silver Origin.
Clothes can be resort casual for the most part. Nothing too dressy is needed in the dining room or elsewhere around the ship. I brought long-sleeve active-wear shirts (like Columbia brand) and shorts for shore excursions. Then, you just need some nice slacks and shirts for onboard. No shorts or jeans in the main dining room. We didn't see many fancy dresses and no coats and ties to speak of.
Think about layers because it is hot during the day but can be cool on the ship at night when you are cruising and enjoying the outdoor decks.
A good insect repellent would have come in handy for a couple of our excursions. We forgot to bring some, and we encountered mosquitos and pesky flies on a couple hikes.
Consider bringing games to play with your family or friends. You can bring a pack of cards or your favorite travel games to play in the lounges. These are not available on the ship. Also, you will want a reliable camera and cell phone that takes good pictures. If you plan to snorkel a lot, look for a waterproof action camera like a GoPro. This was invaluable for the video I was able to get of our up-close encounters with sea lions and sea turtles!
You won't really need to go with a big camera lens like you would need on a safari in Africa. The animals in the Galapagos are so close that you can get tons of great images with your regular camera or just a cell phone.
What you will want to do is bring a hard drive or laptop that you can offload your images each day so you don't risk losing your footage if the SD card corrupts. If you take pictures with a cell phone, consider using a good cloud service that automatically uploads and saves your pictures.
(The Wi-Fi on the ship was fairly reliable. It cost us $120 per person for high speed during our cruise.) This is a good general rule for when you travel in case something happens to your phone.
What you don't need to pack:
Silversea has thought of a lot to make your load a little lighter.
The ship has water bottle filling stations in your cabin and at the marina, and each passenger gets a nice Silversea-branded water bottle to use and keep. You also get a quality backpack to use for shore excursions. Hiking poles are also provided for those who need them.
Rain ponchos and umbrellas are placed in each stateroom, as well.
Videos and Photos Highlighting Our Galapagos Expedition