Who: Travel Deals Editor Caroline Costello, 28, and partner, 30
Where I Went: Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
When: July 2012
High Points: When setting foot on an island in the Galapagos, one of the first things your guide will tell you is to stay two meters from all wildlife. On Fernandina, one of the first places we visited, our group stepped carefully around spiky iguanas and kept well clear of nesting birds. But one mammal in particular decided we weren't getting close enough. With the urgency of a dog chasing a ball, a sea lion pup wiggled his way full tilt toward a woman in our group, a mother traveling with her two college-age children. Running backward away from him, the woman yelled, "What should I do? What should I do?"
"Just keep moving," said our grinning guide.
The woman jogged down the beach, the sea lion barking at her heels, her kids laughing and snapping photos. A member of our group remarked, "He knows a good mom when he sees one."
There are few places on Earth that have remained largely untouched by humans over the course of time. The Galapagos does have a human history—and a fascinating one at that—but factors like the islands' geographical isolation and the scarcity of fresh water have kept a large part of humanity at bay. One of the upshots of this isolation is the fearless behavior of endemic fauna. Most of the animals act totally indifferent to the presence of humans. I watched a pair of blue-footed boobies strut and kick their feet in the air in an elaborate mating dance, observed graceful sea turtles winging their way through the water, saw a swallow-tailed gull warm its just-hatched baby—all while positioned inches from the creatures. I was also nearly hit in the head while snorkeling by a tiny, aerodynamic penguin plunging into the ocean after a fish. Birds flew low over hairlines, even landing on shoes or hats. And sea lions had no anxieties about approaching our group of photo-snapping, sunscreen-slathered invaders, whether we were blundering over molten land or paddling in the ocean.
RELATED SLIDESHOW: To see for yourself, view this slideshow of Caroline's Galapagos experience.
Where I Stayed: I booked a seven-night cruise on Metropolitan Touring's La Pinta, a 48-passenger yacht. Pretty much everything was included, from meals to daily snorkeling excursions and guided naturalist hikes, plus transportation to and from the airport. Each day, I enjoyed at least one land-based tour on an island, as well as a snorkeling excursion (these were my favorite). For those reluctant to swim, glass-bottom boat rides were available.
For an expedition ship, the yacht had enormous cabins: Ours was 189 square feet with a big floor-to-ceiling window. (There aren't any balcony cabins on La Pinta; only a few ships touring the Galapagos actually offer them.)
To read more about La Pinta, read the ship review on our sister site, Cruise Critic.
Low Points: As a vegetarian, I had a hard time finding food that I liked on this trip. There was a flesh-free option at every meal onboard La Pinta. But Ecuadorian cuisine is largely centered on meat, and most of the plant-based dishes served on our ship, like heavy cream pooled over a mound of rice and once-frozen vegetables ("risotto") didn't exactly hit the spot. By the end of the cruise, I had lost five pounds.
Don't call me a food snob. I didn't expect to find panko-crusted tempeh on a ship more than 600 miles from the closest continent. And I didn't travel to the Galapagos for the food. Though I suspect that the crewmembers who spotted me filling mugs with cookies in the coffee room or collecting overflowing bowls of the popcorn served at lunch might have thought I was strange. If I could do it all over again, I would have added a few cans of Pringles to my suitcase and carbo-loaded in the privacy of my cabin.
Note that many other passengers told me they enjoyed the food. I think they were omnivores.
Savings Strategy: At roughly $5,600 per person (prices vary based on cabin and seasonality), a yacht cruise on La Pinta is in the luxury-vacation price range; a budget-friendly trip this was not. Galapagos sailings in general tend to cost at least several thousand dollars per person for a full week. I think it's worth the splurge—cruising is an excellent way to see the islands. Plus, there are deals to be found if you do some searching. Metropolitan Touring, for example, is currently offering 20 percent off select sailings departing through December.
To stretch those dollars even further in the archipelago, consider a land-based tour. Read more here.
If You Go: Beware the breakers. I'm not at all prone to seasickness, but I nonetheless felt my head and stomach careening after hours of constant pitching. When the sea was particularly rough, the picture on the wall of our cabin swung askew and then went back into position every few seconds, and the water pooling at the bottom of the shower rolled away from the drain as the ship toggled.
Fortunately, the cruise featured several land tours per day, so there was always a chance to debark and enjoy some solid ground for a while. If you tend to get seasick, bring plenty of medicine (some fellow passengers said they swear by this prescription patch), and consider traveling during the North American winter. The seas are generally rougher in the Galapagos from June through November.
Have a question for Caroline about her trip to the Galapagos? Planning a trip yourself and need advice? Want to share your own Galapagos experiences? Leave a comment below!