(Originally published June 4, 2007).

One year ago, I was snorkelling with sharks and manta rays. I thought I would write a longer-than-normal blog entry to commemorate my unforgettable trip to the Galapagos.

One blustery February morning in 2006, my husband announced that he’d decided to improve his Spanish conversational skills. An intensive course in Ecuador was the answer. I replied that there was no way I wanted to kick around Quito by myself for 10 days while he conjugated Spanish verbs. I would accompany him, but only if I booked myself on a cruise during his study time. After that, we could tour Peru to visit Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca.

And so, my first solo 8-day trip was conceived.

The big day’s arrival found me terrified and quivering. Here was I, a middle-aged woman who had never vacationed alone, setting out from Quito on an adventure to God-knows-where, on an unknown ship, to share a stateroom with a stranger. What if I didn’t hit it off with my cabin mate? What if I didn’t hit it off with the entire tour contingent? What if I hated the trip and couldn’t get off the ship for an ENTIRE WEEK?

I shouldn’t have worried.

To start with, my tour organizer, Jorge, was gorgeous! Drool-worthy! A hunk! Who knew Ecuadorians had blue eyes? This is an auspicious start, I thought, climbing into his jeep and turning around to stare at Ecuadorian muscles bunching under a navy dress shirt as he loaded my luggage into the trunk. This trip might not be so bad after all.  On the way to the airport, Jorge informed me that the original ship, the Diamante, had experienced engine trouble, and I was now booked on the Mary Anne. This, he said, was an upgrade from First Class to Super Deluxe — at no extra charge. I could have my own cabin.

That sounded better than okay. It was an incredible stroke of luck.

At the airport, Jorge whisked me through to security — no line-ups for this Super Deluxe
passenger — and into the waiting area. As soon as I sat down, I overheard a small knot of
concerned tourists discussing a change in ships, so I joined them. Before long, I had
met several of my fellow adventurers, all bound for the Mary Anne.

It was as simple as that. Several other stragglers joined our tight little group, and we had bonded before even boarding the plane headed for Galapagos.

Turned out that the Mary Anne was a beautiful 3-masted brigantine big enough to hold 30 passengers and was only carrying 15 for this off-season trip. Result — all four single women got separate cabins (compact is the polite way to describe them) and we received amazing pampering and attention for eight days. Since we were combining passengers from two boats, we also inherited two fluent, English-speaking guides with multiple degrees in biology, tourism, and more.

The crew was delightful. Many spoke only a smattering of English, but all of them went
out of their way to say ‘Hola’ and smile, ask if we wanted anything. In fact, they all
bent over backwards to see that our every need was met, even to the extent of lending me
a pair of sunglasses when I discovered I had left mine in Quito.

Within minutes of unpacking, the 15 of us were sucking down drinks, munching on
appetizers and bonding. Ours was a cosmopolitan group consisting of:

  • The most gorgeous early 30’s Australian couple I have ever seen: He’s an orthopaedic surgeon; she’s a GP, both friendly, both obnoxiously athletic.
  • A couple on their honeymoon: He’s a 60-ish naturopath from Oregon with a laid-back sense of humor, writing a book about quantum physics; she’s a 34 year old naturopath, half Japanese and half New Zealand extract.
  • A family of four from London, England: The mother (78), very refined and formal; her son (late 40’s, early 50’s), friendly, a big-wig computer type in a Dutch bank; his Malaysian wife, extremely graceful and delightful; their 15 year old son who spoke only ten words the entire trip, even when we tried to draw him out.
  • Another 50-ish couple from Oregon: Retired young, I gather they made a fortune in dot-com stocks, now own horses and travel a lot.
  • A 30-something couple from Germany: He was friendly, outgoing, and involved in something to do with productivity improvement; she didn’t talk much, and got the most terrible sunburn I’ve ever seen, which finally scabbed over and probably left a permanent scar.
  • A 40-something woman from England: A biologist turned lawyer, low-key and friendly.
  • A 30-somethingsingle woman from New York: A medical physicist, very in-your-face, opinionated, dynamic.
  • A 32-year old woman from the Canadian North-West Territories: Incredibly outgoing, enthusiastic like a puppy-dog, manages a family-owned fishing and hunting lodge near the Arctic Circle, originally intended to be my cabin mate. In retrospect, this arrangement would have worked out well.
  • Me: A budding author, not yet published. Everyone was very interested in my book, no glazing over of eyes and polite yawns as used to happen when I told people I was an I.T. consultant.

Each day was packed to the hilt with fun, laughter, and strenuous activities. Generally, the entire group crawled out of bed at 6:00 a.m., helped ourselves to a huge buffet breakfast, and enjoyed a guided hike on one of the islands followed by snorkelling off the panga (Zodiac). Occasionally, I passed on balancing like a mountain goat to totter up lava boulders to the top of a volcanic cinder cone. After a huge lunch followed by a SHORT rest period, we were ready for more of the same. In the evening, we dined at two large tables — great food, enjoyable conversation over drinks, watched the sun set over the horizon, and listened to a briefing about the next day’s activities. Most of us over the age of 40 were in bed by nine or ten o’clock. Only the young, hardy, and foolish stayed up till the wee small hour of 10:30 p.m. working on another bottle of wine.

Thousands of guide books do justice to the Galapagos wildlife better than I could ever hope to. Suffice it to say, spring is the mating season. Every bird was in full regalia, the males doing their mating rituals hoping to attract a lovely lady, the females playing coy (up to a point). Quite a sight — thousands of blue-footed boobies, all flapping their wings and hooting, “Pick me. Pick me. I’m a good provider”. Hundreds of frigate birds perched on rocks and inflated a red balloon thingie under their chins whenever a female flew overhead. What female could ever resist a huge red balloon?

Most birds and animals are so tame they ignore tourists and go about their daily business as if they were alone. If touching the animals was allowed, we could have walked up and tucked a few sea lion pups under our arms. On one island, alerted by a strange honking noise, our guide led us into the jungle to watch two pairs of giant tortoises DOING IT in the wild — a very awkward process, as you might imagine. I never did find out exactly what transpired, as our guide wouldn’t let us get too close.

Snorkelling was equally amazing. Even though the Galapagos Islands straddle the equator, the water was quite cool because of the Humboldt Current. Not unbearably cold yet, but getting colder daily. Some of our group even wore wet suits. We saw reef sharks — the guide books informed us that they do not GENERALLY attack divers unless agitated or there is blood in the water. How comforting is that? Anyway, we got quite blasé about sharks (I guess they must have taken their daily quota of Valium, and none of us was dumb enough to bleed). We also swam with playful sea lions, penguins, marine iguanas, manta rays, turtles, and zillions of the most colourful fish imaginable.

When the magic bubble in time ended, we all promised to keep in touch. Since then, we’ve exchanged only a couple of emails and some photographs. But I will never forget my cruise to the Galapagos, or all the people who made it a memorable trip.