Journey to Galapagos with Lindblad Expeditions

National Geographic Endeavour II in the Galapagos. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

San Cristobal, Galapagos; Saturday, March 10, 2018
It occurred to me as I walked across the tarmac at San Cristobal Airport in the Galapagos Islands that my current journey could very well be a double dose of perfection. Nobody who has ever been to the Galapagos speaks poorly of it; phrases like “bucket-list” and “life-changing” are typically repeated.
Likewise, few people speak ill of Lindblad Expeditons-National Geographic , which will act as my guide for the next week as I sail through the islands aboard the sleek National Geographic Endeavour II. The line acquired her in 2016, and she officially entered service last year, replacing the older (but much-loved) National Geographic Endeavour.

The proud National Geographic Endeavour plows through the ocean. The venerable vessel was retired in late 2016. Photo courtesy of Lindblad Expeditions

This is my second journey to the Galapagos, following my first expedition cruise in the region aboard Silversea’s Silver Galapagos back in the fall of 2014. It is an unimaginable region filled with the world’s most astonishing natural wonders. It is a place that has remained virtually unchanged since Charles Darwin and his famous voyage of the Beagle in 1835, which inspired him to write his famous work, On the Origin of Species.
Today, the Galapagos is one of the few parts of the world where human development has been kept to a minimum. Tourism here – particularly the cruise industry – is strictly regulated. Ships must be flagged in Ecuador, crewed with Ecuadorians, serve Ecuadorian food and beverages, and operate with Ecuadorian guides licensed by the Galapagos National Park service. You won’t find a cruise that just casually stops in the Galapagos on its way up the Pacific coast of South America. Instead, you’ll find tour operators here that are in it for the long-haul, committed to ensuring sustainable and responsible tourism.

The proud National Geographic Endeavour II, formerly the Via Australis, is a worthy successor to the National Geographic Endeavour. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Lindblad-National Geographic has two ships in the Galapagos: the 48-guest, 164-foot catamaran National Geographic Islander; and the 96-guest, 236-foot National Geographic Endeavour II. Both operate year-round in Galapagos, and Lindblad was the first voluntary adopter of new rules introduced in 2011 that limit vessels to calling on any particular site no more than once in a two-week period. Both vessels depart on different days (Saturdays for Islander and Fridays for Endeavour II; both use different pre-cruise hotels in Guayaquil, and both feature optional post-cruise extensions to Quito; Machu Picchu; and the Upper Amazon.
And in both cases, you’re going to need some patience to get here.

Getting Here

Getting to the Galapagos is going to require a lot of flying. Here, our Avianca A320 is at the gate at Guayaquil Airport, ready to depart for San Cristobal on the Galapagos Islands. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Lindblad recommends that guests take the group flight from Miami to Guayaquil, Ecuador. American Airline 933 departs Miami at 3:50pm, and lands in Guayaquil around 8:15pm.
At Miami International Airport, I was impressed to see a Lindblad representative at our gate, ticking names off a list to ensure everyone had gotten onboard. That was a new one for me, and another little piece of reassurance for nervous travellers that the company will ensure you’re well taken care of at every step of the way.
Being an international flight, our Boeing 737-800 service to Guayaquil included one free checked bag and a light lunch. It also included some complimentary snarky attitude from the American Airlines flight attendants, who generally barked and demanded their way through what constituted the in-flight ‘service.’

Guayaquil International Airport’s domestic departures lounge. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

However, to American’s credit, we landed on time. On the ground in Guayaquil, it is a simple process to clear Ecuadorian customs and immigration (no landing cards are needed), and claim luggage, which may or may not have to be re-scanned as you exit. I got the green light, so I was able just walk out into the unsecured arrivals area.
Immediately upon exiting, three Lindblad representatives holding logo-embossed clipboards saw my luggage tags and directed me to the right area. After a short wait, most of our group had arrived and we boarded a dedicated motorcoach for the quick ride to the Hilton Colon Guayaquil.
As a bonus, Lindblad provides guests with complimentary WiFi internet access, breakfast, and one free cocktail at the bar during their stay at the Hilton, and the bar has some fantastic live music each evening.

Inside Avianca’s A320 service to the Galapagos. Free in-seat video-on-demand is a nice touch on the 1 hour and 45 minute journey. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Although six in the morning came too early for my liking, the actual flight from Guayaquil to San Cristobal Island was fantastic. Operated by Star Alliance partner Avianca, our Airbus A320 featured in-seat video-on-demand, a light sandwich and a drink, and friendly service. Flying time is about an hour and 45 minutes, and soon I found myself baking in the sun on the tarmac at San Cristobal’s new airport terminal, which wasn’t there back in 2014. It was a shed then. Progress, even in the Galapagos, marches on. I kind of missed the slapdash shed, until I felt the cool relief from the terminal’s air conditioning system wash over me.

Disembarking the Avianca A320…Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

…at San Cristobal Airport in the Galapagos. The airport wasn’t here the last time I visited! Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

After exiting immigration controls for the Galapagos (you’ll need to fill out a new form on the plane and will be provided with your transit control cards at the hotel) and claiming luggage, I was on another bus for the quick ride to the pier in the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.
Ten minutes later, I saw the pretty National Geographic Endeavour II sitting out on the bay.

The National Geographic Endeavour II

First Glimpse: the National Geographic Endeavour II. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

There are no piers in the Galapagos capable of handling a ship the size of the National Geographic Endeavour II, which means you get your first Zodiac raft encounter right at the start! Luggage is sent to the ship separately, so all you have to do is don a lifejacket and walk down the pier. Watch the sea lions as you do; they’re everywhere, and they get a bit cranky when you hone in on their territory. Clapping your hands rapidly seemed to help shuttle them out of our way, but minutes later, they’re back again, basking in the sun on the floating concrete pontoons.
I was welcomed onto a zodiac along with my fellow guests and in five minutes, I was stepping aboard the National Geographic Endeavour II for the first time.

Lindblad’s newest ship in the Galapagos was acquired in 2016 from Cruceros Australis as the Via Australis. Lindblad put her through a total remake to the tune of $10-million dollars before pressing her into service, performing technical and cosmetic upgrades to the 2005-built vessel that used to call the area around Cape Horn home.

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