Tuesday 23 August 2016

Travel review: Galapagos Islands & Finch Bay Eco Hotel, Santa Cruz Part 1

Part 1 of the Caroline Makes review of the Finch Bay Eco hotel in the Galapagos islands

It was on another holiday that my husband and I chose the destination for our honeymoon. He’d proposed just before we went to America and we were in Chicago at the Fields Museum – which I highly recommend – and had bought entry tickets that allowed us to watch the 3D movie as well. It was a David Attenborough-narrated film of the Galapagos – which would be amazing in 2D but in 3D it was just breath-taking. We’d already put the Galapagos on the list of potential destinations – the other big idea was a safari in Africa – and I think we walked out of that film having made the decision.
It took a while to research and plan – I started off speaking to some luxury travel companies that would put together a bespoke itinerary, but the cost was astronomical. There are websites where you can compare cruise ships – from amenities and ratings to the islands they visit – but obviously this takes time. I normally spend quite a bit of time researching and planning holidays but we had the wedding to plan as well, so I knew I wouldn’t have as much time as usual to sort out the honeymoon – and I wanted to book as far in advance as possible to make sure we got the best options for flights and accommodation.
The advice I’d read most often was to choose one of the smaller, 16-berth cruise ships. The number of visitors to uninhabited Galapagos islands is restricted and on the larger cruise ships, half the guests have to stay on board while the other half visit the island and vice versa. And yes, you can see more of the islands by travelling around, but cruise ships are limited to visiting most islands to pre-10am and after 3pm, with the time in between given over to tourists on day trips. That sounded a bit odd to me and I wasn’t sure what we would do with the time in between aside from sunbathe on deck – but I wouldn’t expect there to be enough sun loungers for everyone.
You don’t get a lot of space in a cabin on a boat, are limited to eating whatever they provide (I’m sure the food is good but my husband is a fussy eater), and I’ve never been on a cruise so was worried about getting sea sick (which has happened before on boats). If I did feel ill there would be no way of getting off and while I really wanted to go to the Galapagos, I just didn’t really want to spend my honeymoon on a boat.
One travel agent had mentioned the Finch Bay Eco Hotel, so I looked it up and found it was the #1 rated hotel in the Galapagos and the more I looked into it, the more it seemed the ideal place to stay.

As well as strong ecological credentials – the hotel has recently won “South America’s leading green hotel” for instance – the hotel has its own luxury yacht, so you are able to do day trips to different islands and return to the hotel for dinner and sleeping in a comfortable bed.
The hotel does packages where you get trips and meals included, but they all started on certain days of the week which didn’t work for us – we wanted to do the longest package as that was the only one where you get to see penguins, but it only started on a Monday. We wanted to spend a few days in Miami beforehand (you can’t fly direct to Ecuador from the UK and Miami seemed a great place to stop) but couldn’t afford (in terms of money or time off work) to stay there long enough to start our Galapagos trip on a Monday. Instead, we decided to build our own itinerary, booking the room only option (which gave more choice with the food, as the package was a set menu each night whereas we had a la carte) and then choosing which excursions we wanted to do on which days. The price did add up a fair bit but I think it was still cheaper and in my opinion definitely preferable to a cruise.
I thought very highly of the hotel, even though my first thought was that our room was described as a suite, but it was basically just a large double room and about a third of the size of the suite we’d had in Miami – but the same price! Obviously the exclusivity is something you have to pay more for – Finch Bay is the only beachfront hotel in Puerto Ayora with its own yacht, the service is of a very high standard and it is a really comfortable hotel.
We had an ocean view but actually we could only just see the ocean beyond the gardens – there was a big tree right in front of our window – but you can see the cruise ships out on the bay. I’m not sure it’s worth paying extra for the view though.
There’s a small swimming pool that seems to be home to a family of ducks, a lovely poolside bar with happy hour cocktails every night, and a large dining room with a good menu – they allowed us to choose from the bar menu as well as the a la carte in the evenings which meant we were able to have a burger if we wanted. The a la carte food is quite expensive and quite posh but the hotel has something of a captive audience – to eat somewhere else, you have to get the water taxi into Puerto Ayora.


It only takes a few minutes to hop across, and to start with we were a bit nervous about doing it at night, but it’s actually quite easy to walk down the steps and get onto the boat (even though we did need to use an iPhone torch on the path back to the hotel!). You can see small (harmless) sharks swimming around the docks of the water taxi at night which is really cool – they are really nothing to worry about!

The staff were brilliant – really friendly and one guy in particular learnt our names right away and greeted us by name every time we returned to the hotel from a day trip.
Our airport arrival was interesting as we had booked a private transfer through the hotel; I don’t know if they explained to us what would happen but I don’t remember seeing anything. As we left Baltra airport we saw a man holding a sign with our name on it, and we expected him to take us to a car, but he put our suitcases in the hold of a bus and motioned to us to get on. The bus was absolutely packed and we got the very last two seats, squeezed in the back row between a family who wanted the window seats. The bus immediately departed and we had no idea where we were going, how long it would take (it was pretty uncomfortable) or where the man had gone who met us at the airport. After what was probably only 15 minutes but felt a lot longer, the bus stopped and everyone got off – we saw we were at a jetty and they were all getting onto a boat.
Totally confused, we looked for our suitcases and couldn’t find them, then saw the man who had met us at the airport waving from the boat where he had already taken our luggage. We got on the boat, again with no idea where it was going or how long it would take – it was a pretty short trip. A man came around collecting money and we were about to hand over a dollar each when our porter came over to say he’d paid for us. When the boat stopped, he took us to a waiting car, put our suitcases in the back and told us it was a 40 minute drive to the hotel – this was our private transfer, as most other people were getting on another bus. We figured out that this was the Itabaca Channel, which separates Santa Cruz and Baltra, and the only way to get anywhere from the airport is a bus to the channel then crossing it on a boat. Private transfers won’t be able to take their car to the airport as it’s only a foot passenger ferry. Hopefully this description will be useful to other people and stop others being as confused as we were!
We had lunch by the pool when we arrived – I had a tuna sandwich with fries and my husband had homemade chicken nuggets and fries.
Every time we sat at the pool bar for a drink we were given a bowl of crisps and popcorn, and every time some very bold finches sat on our table watching and occasionally stealing a bit!
For dinner that evening – all we’d done that afternoon was sit by the pool and relax – he had beef medallions and I had spaghetti with pieces of chicken in a light curry sauce which was a bit unusual but quite nice.

For dessert my husband wanted the ‘chocolate volcano’ which at $12.50 I thought would be pretty special but it was just an ordinary chocolate fondant with ice cream; it did taste good but you have to wait 20-25 minutes for them to make it. Still, we didn’t have anywhere else to go!
I knew our hotel room had no television but I hadn't realised there was so little to do - as you are on the equator it gets dark early (about 6.30) and after dinner we would walk past the bar to see if anyone was around (you get to know people on the boat trips) but it was usually empty, so we ended up going back to our room and getting an early night. You could get the water taxi to Puerto Ayora where there are bars but we were actually quite tired in the evenings - the day trips are exhausting from the early starts (most leave at 7.45am) and walking round islands in hot sun, swimming (which is tiring if you are not used to it) and the sea air when you're on the boat. I'd also take this moment to say I really don't think the Galapagos islands are somewhere for young children - there were none staying in our hotel that we saw or on any of our day trips, but on arrival at the airport we did see several young kids.
Getting on and off each island isn't that hard but you have to clamber over the side of the dingy onto rocks which I'd be nervous about a child doing, plus you couldn't go snorkelling with a small child the way that we did (off the side of the boat in deep water where you all swim along the coast in the same direction and have to keep up). I really do wonder how the families with young children fared and why they didn't wait until their kids were a bit older.

The Finch Bay's boat, the Sea Lion, was great. Most days we walked to the hotel jetty, took the water taxi to Puerto Ayora, and got on a coach for 40 minutes to reach the Itabaca channel. We then got in the dingy that took us to where the Sea Lion was moored.
It’s a really nice boat with friendly crew; there are seats inside, on top and out front, and toilets and a changing area where you can change into wetsuits (the hotel rents them out for $16 per week and goes up to size XXXL; we brought them with us every day and changed into them on the boat. Remember a carrier bag to take the wet wetsuit back in!). While we were off on the island each day the crew would prepare lunch and we’d come back to nicely laid tables and hot food.
North Seymour Island and Bachas beach
Our first day trip was to North Seymour Island and Bachas beach. We had breakfast first – a really nice buffet that had different hot options every day – and then met our guide at reception at 7.45.

We were expecting to visit them in that order but were told that we were doing Bachas first, then picking up some people from the airport and they were going straight to North Seymour with us while their luggage went to the hotel – this was one reason I wasn’t keen on the 5-day itinerary as days 1 and 5 include your travel into and out of the islands! So Bachas was our first experience of the Galapagos, and we saw American oyster catcher birds, flamingos in a freshwater lagoon (though only three flamingos quite far away, and to be honest flamingos weren’t what we came here to see!) – then our first marine iguanas, followed by some vivid red crabs.
We then went snorkelling off the beach. I’d never been snorkelling before so had gone along to a local scuba group for a lesson in a swimming pool. I was glad I did, or I would have been very disconcerted by how to breathe through the mask as it felt totally unnatural to me to be breathing underwater. It was good that we were snorkelling off a beach as it meant I could walk in the water to a depth I was comfortable and get used to it – I only saw a few small fish and my husband saw a bit more, but this isn’t somewhere you’d expect to see amazing sea life like around some of the other islands. But I was really glad we did this one first as it was the only time we snorkelled from the beach – every other time, we plunged into deep water off the side of the boat (though that was also OK even to a beginner like me). I enjoyed it so much I was quite disappointed when it was time to stop!
Landing at North Seymour involved clambering off the panga onto rocks that looked a bit slippery but it wasn’t as hard as I was expecting. A sea lion laid on a rock just next to the steps that we climbed up, as if to greet us. We took a circular route around the island in blazing hot sun – I wasn’t expecting it to be so hot. One nugget of advice: we were told to take water bottles so I’d spent £12 on two collapsible ones back home, but the Finch Bay Eco hotel gives you a metal water bottle each as a gift, and the boat provides bottled water you can take onto the islands with you, so we never used our own water bottles.


We saw several of the famous blue-footed boobies and witnessed them do their mating dance –where they lift one foot in turn as if to say ‘look how blue my feet are!’. We saw several chicks and some boobies nesting on eggs, then we came across the magnificent frigate birds which have red pouches under their chins that are huge when inflated. There were land iguanas – a different colour to the marine iguanas we saw yesterday – but really this island is a bird watcher’s paradise.

The food had been described as a buffet and my husband, who is very fussy, told me not to worry about giving the hotel dietary requirements as he would find something in the buffet. In actual fact, the food is self service but there’s one hot option, some tiny pieces of bread and a couple of salad items – so not a buffet at all. Luckily I’d decided that while I wasn’t giving the hotel a long list of food preferences, I did tell them that my husband doesn’t eat fish – so on the first day on the boat when we saw the hot meal was tuna steak and rice (very nice) I got a bit worried until the crew brought out a piece of chicken in a tomato sauce they’d done especially for him.
The food was good though I think my appreciation was partly how hungry we’d gotten after walking around an island and sometimes snorkelling as well – you do build up quite an appetite! It was definitely better quality than I’d been expecting on a boat though I gather some of the really high end cruise companies offer gourmet meals.
The tour leaders were extremely good – only officially accredited guides are allowed to operate in the national park of the Galapagos, and it takes several years at university to qualify. Every guide we had was very knowledgeable and experienced, and they take care of you all day long – helping you on and off the boats, giving support to the more inexperienced snorkelers, and making sure you are always safe and enjoying yourself.

Back at the hotel that evening, we felt exhausted and both opted for a burger in our hotel restaurant, followed by the chocolate fondant (again) which we shared.
Punta Carrion and South Plaza Island
Our second day trip was to Punta Carrion and South Plaza Island. The sign in reception the night before had said a 7.45 start but this morning when we went to breakfast it said 8.15, so we had a bit of time to kill. As yesterday, we did the water taxi – bus to the Itabaca channel – panga to the Sea Lion, and had a very short 15 minute sail to Punta Carrion for snorkelling. This time we were going off the side of the panga, which I was very nervous about, but determined to do it even though a few older people remained in the boat. I lowered myself in off the panga rather than plunging in head first as some did, and it took me a while to get my confidence to put my face under the water knowing that unlike last time I was in deep water where I couldn’t touch the bottom!

I eventually got comfortable doing it as we all swam along a rocky shoreline, but I found the mask had gradually started filling with water – the problem with using a different one each time (they hand them out on the boat) is that they don’t always fit perfectly. I cleared the mask and carried on but it happened again, and I had to go back to the panga to take it off. The guide gave me a different mask to try but somehow that was worse, and it filled with water straight away (I think some of my long hair was inside the mask, meaning there was no vacuum seal), making my eyes sting. In the end I had to give up and sit in the panga while the others continued snorkelling, which was really disappointing.

South Plaza was our next stop and as we disembarked the panga we saw sea lions playing in the water and sitting along the rocks very close by. South Plaza is very colourful with lots of red vegetation and tall cacti; very different to North Seymour where we went the day before.
We saw several different coloured iguanas and even witnessed one spitting out salt – which we’d watched in the David Attenborough documentary – from about two feet away which was pretty cool. We walked up to the top of the cliff where there were a lot of birds flying around protecting their nests, a solitary blue-footed booby and a huge male sea lion sleeping on top of the rock – I was amazed he’d been able to climb that far up.
Then it was back to the boat for lunch – chicken in a curry sauce with spaghetti – then the guide said we would be sailing all the way back to Puerto Ayora via a different route; in other words we wouldn’t be going back to the Itabaca channel and the 40 minute bus ride. So it was two hours of sailing and it got a bit choppy – unfortunately I was sea sick! From then on I was taking extra-strong seasickness tablets I’d gotten from the doctor just in case which meant I couldn’t drink alcohol for the rest of my honeymoon – but I wasn’t sick again at least!

I felt much better that evening when we were back in our hotel; I had giant prawns with rice for dinner (delicious) while my husband had the beef medallions again as he liked it so much. We were back in our room by 8.30 and fell asleep pretty soon after another exhausting day.

Read more in Part 2, coming soon.


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