Kongo just finished a week aboard the Celebrity Cruise ship Xpedition for a trip to the Galapagos. This is a review of that trip and he’s writing it before the memories fade. If the Galapagos is on your bucket list I hope you read the review. Please feel free to ask any questions in the comment section.
The Expedition is the smallest ship in the Celebrity fleet and carries up to 98 passengers. The crew size is 70. The week-long cruise visits several islands and the various itineraries available can be found at the Celebrity website. There are several ships that host expeditions around the Galapagos and they range from smaller boats that carry 8 or more passengers up to the Xpedition, which is presently the largest and arguably the most luxurious. National Geographic offers 10 day cruises but frankly, after seven days you will have seen all the iguanas, boobies, sea turtles, tortoises, and so forth and once you’ve seen one marine iguana you’ve pretty much seen them all. Kongo’s cabin for two on Deck 4 cost just under $10,000 and did not include airfare to and from Quito from the United States (or other point of origin). It did include airfare between the mainland and the islands.
The only way you can go ashore on the Galapagos Islands is to go by ‘panga” a zodiac craft that carries about 16 passengers. No matter what cruise you choose you’re going to the same places ashore and using the same type of transportation to get back and forth to the ship. You also must have a certified guide that accompanies you at all times.
The Celebrity Xpedition has two different itineraries: The inner loop and outer loop. Kongo went on the outer loop and a map of the journey from the Celebrity website is shown below.
Everybody starts out on the island of Baltra which has the only airport on the islands. From there you board your boat and head out. At the end of your cruise you return to Baltra and fly back to the mainland. With Celebrity, you fly to and from Quito, Ecuador.
Aboard the Celebrity Xpedition everything is included and everything includes airfare to and from Quito, hotel stays in Quito and the start and end of the trip, all drinks, all meals, all gratuities, and all shore excursions. Meals in Quito are included as well aa a tour of Quito city. It is nice not to have a bar bill at the end of the cruise or to figure out gratuities for each of the staff that helps you out along the way.
Celebrity does an excellent job taking care of all the little details. You are met when you clear customs at Quito airport, your luggage is collected, and the next time you see it is when it appears at your hotel room at the J.W. Marriott an hour away in downtown Quito.
When you arrive at the hotel your key is waiting for you and it is a very nice hotel. It was great to get high speed internet after a week trekking about Machu Picchu and Cusco. There is a good city tour of Ecuador’s capital, a trip to the equator monument, and a dinner out at a very nice restaurant near the hotel. Breakfast meals at the hotel are included.
When you depart for the island, your bags are collected the night before and you are taken to the airport in the morning, guided through customs, and then board Celebrity’s own airplane operated by AerGalo for a two-hour flight from Quito to Baltra. After clearing customs in the Galapagos, you have a brief welcome drink in the Celebrity lounge at the airport then board a bus for a very short ride to the dock where you board your zodiac for transport to the ship which is anchored in Baltra harbor. You will begin seeing your first sea lions and sea birds on the dock.
Aboard the ship you a warmly welcomed, escorted to your cabin, and your luggage is deposited at your room a few minutes later.
When leaving the ship it’s pretty much the reverse order of this. Celebrity has all the details of moving you and your luggage back and forth seamlessly. When its finally time to leave Ecuador, a bus is waiting to take you back to the airport.
The only real downside in all this is that the new Quito airport is an hour outside the city and the roads and infrastructure aren’t ready to quickly move you back and forth. There’s no getting around it and an hour bus ride if you land late at night (Kongo arrived at midnight) is a long trip. That’s not Celebrity’s fault, of course, it’s just part of the travel you have to endure to get to the islands.
There are at least two shore excursions a day at different spots on the various islands. Snorkeling, both off the beach and in deep water, are frequent options. Kongo didn’t go snorkeling this trip but the ship provides guides, gear, and wet suits for those who wish to go in the water. As with everything on Xpedition, this is included in the price.
Shore excursions are via 16-person zodiacs. You board these from the aft end of the ship and depending upon the location you will either have a “dry” or “wet” landing. A dry landing enables you to step directly from the zodiac to rocks while wet landings require you to jump into the water and wade ashore. In the image below, the zodiac is coming in for a wet landing.
The trips are all led by a certified Galapagos guide. Everyone must stay together and straying from the trail is strictly prohibited. Also, don’t even think about leaving behind any litter. Smoking is not allowed on the excursions.
The excursions vary from easy walks along the beach or rather strenuous treks across lava fields or along trails where you hop from one boulder to another.
Each land excursion is about 2 to 2 1/2 hours long but keep in mind that there are no restroom facilities on any of the trips so plan your meals and liquid intake accordingly. There’s also no kiosks, shopping, water stops, trash cans, or anything else. It’s all exactly as it was thousands of years ago.
The guides on the excursions are excellent. All Xpedition guides are Level 4 certified (the highest level), are university educated, speak excellent English, and are passionate naturalists.
The Xpedition was built in Germany in 2004. It has passenger accommodations for 98 explorers as well as 70 crew. While compact, the ship has plenty of space for eating, drinking, lounging about on deck, or sleeping in your cabin. Kongo’s cabin on Deck 4 was small but adequate with two closets, an ensuite bath with shower, a desk, and small couch. The cabin was configured for two twin beds but this could be rearranged to put the beds together. Large suitcases stow handily under the bunks to allow for more storage area. Kongo’s cabin had a large window but no balcony.
There is a flat screen television in the cabin with a movie channel and information about the Galapagos. There is also a single 120 VAC and 220 VAC outlet so bring a small power strip if you have lots of things to charge.
Meals and Drinks
Kongo rates the meals aboard Xpedition good but not excellent. Breakfasts were outstanding, lunches were hit or miss and dinners were either excellent or just okay. For lunch you have a choice between eating a buffet lunch in the main dining room or going for a burger, grilled fish, or a hot dog on the main deck.
The drinks were good and the bar well stocked. Since this cruise is all inclusive there is no worry about bar tabs so feel free to buy all your new best friends a round!
There had been an outbreak of the norovirus the week before so the crew was especially cautious. Everyone had to get hand sanitizer every time they came back to the ship and before every meal. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style and the crew does the serving. Keep your hands away from the food! The extra precautions worked because nobody got sick on this cruise.
There’s an onboard spa that Mrs. Kongo claims is great. There is also a small gym for those that don’t feel they got enough exercise on the shore excursions. Every evening before dinner there were briefings about the next day’s activities and after dinner there was entertainment that ranged from talent shows to karaoke to a crossing the equator ceremony. Most people were pretty worn out at the end of a full day and were in bed before 10 PM.
The passengers aboard Xpedition were mostly American and Canadian with a dozen or so from the UK. Ages ranged from early 40s to a couple in their mid 80s. Kongo guesses that the average age is between late 50s and mid-60s. This is not a cruise you want to take your young children on. Not only will they be severely challenged by the shore excursions, the other passengers will not appreciate the little darlings running about underfoot. Wait till they’re really old enough to appreciate the experience and can carry their own bags.
The passengers are mostly couples but there are a lot of single women traveling together. If you’re a single male monkey looking for adventure and the possibility of meeting someone this cruise may be for you.
Many passengers were in groups. Kongo’s group, for example, was a loose collection of 40 that use the same travel agent and have often travelled together in the past. This group is not particularly good friends, although there are good friends within the group. it’s just a group of generally compatible folks who love their travel agent, Betty.
Casual is the word of the day in the Galapagos. That means T-shirts, sandals, shorts, light clothing, sunglasses and hats with big brims. This is the equator after all and formal wear isn’t appropriate. Some of the women wore long light tropical wraps in the evening and most men wore long pants and a collared shirt to dinner but just about anything except a wet bathing suit is fine in the dining room after the sun goes down.
Even though this is a cruise, forget about dressing up for Captain’s table dinners and elegant cocktail parties under the sunset.
Most people pack too much. Not Mrs. Kongo, however. She claims that she wore each of the five different pair of shoes she brought along as well as the ever changing fashionable combinations of tops, capris, slacks, and so forth. There is a laundry aboard the ship and prices are cheap.
Women probably don’t need all the usual tonnage of hair and cosmetic products they often lug along on overseas journeys. After all, as good friend Carol who lives in Myrtle Beach once said, “Men don’t see so good up close after 50.”
You do need at least two pairs of shoes. One for the dry landings and one for the wet. dry landing shoes should be sturdy hikers that provide plenty of ankle support for traversing rocks and lava beds. Wet landing shoes should be something that dries quickly and is still easy to walk in. Water shoes (Kongo wore a pair made by Aviva) with socks to keep the sand and rocks out are good. Keen brand sandals are a good choice.
What else to bring
Be sure to pack plenty of sunblock and insect repellant. If your back is prone to aching after carrying about backpacks and scampering in and out of zodiacs then an extra bottle of your favorite pain killer is a wise choice. Kongo never leaves home without a supply of anti-diaherral medicine. Aloe based body lotions are good for slathering on after a day in the sun.
The Galapagos is a photography paradise. You will regret not having your best camera with you but think twice about carrying your entire lens package. Kongo brought his Canon 7D, a 24-105 EF-L lens for wider angle shots, and a 70-200 EF-L lens for getting closer to the action. Mostly he used the 70-200 ashore and the 25-105 aboard the ship.
Kongo brought a tripod but never used it. When you’re moving with your group ashore you simply do not have time to set up and adjust a tripod and here’s a news flash for you: ships move so a tripod on the deck of a ship is not going to work for that awesome sunrise photo you want to take home with you.
Morning excursions are often going to be in harsh sunlight so bring along polarizing filter and think carefully about your settings. Kongo shot a lot in Av mode and set his exposure about 2/3 of a stop below ideal to avoid washing out everything. Afternoon excursions that end up about 5:30 or 6 usually have plenty of great light.
Kongo shot over 1000 images a day on most days. That seems like an awful lot but you can’t just take one picture of a nesting albatross up close. He also shot a lot in high speed mode, especially when trying to capture birds in flight or when trying to anticipate exactly when that green sea turtle was going to poke his head above water. Needless to say, this means you need some hefty memory cards (Kongo used 64GB CF cards and always shoots in RAW mode), particularly if you’re shooting video as well as stills. Kongo took along at least two batteries all the time and kept them charged up every night.
Be sure to pack some great big plastic bags in your backpack along with a rain poncho in case you get caught by the frequent showers that move across the islands.
Should you go?
If the Galapagos is on your bucket list go sooner rather than later. It’s not cheap but go when you still have the health and the mobility to get around and appreciate it. Several passengers simply were not up to going ashore every day and making the walks and had to content themselves with watching the islands from ashore. While this is nice, it is nothing compared to getting up close to the animals.
If you’re in reasonable health, can walk two or three miles on a moderately difficult trail, and can stay in the sun for a few hours at a time with a floppy hat and sunblock you should be able to handle the islands.
While you don’t need to be an acrobat to transition to and from the zodiacs, you do need to have reasonable balance and dexterity. You will get a lot of help on and off from the guides but a sense of balance is pretty important here.
See a lot more of Kongo’s favorite Galapagos photos here.
Travel safe. Have fun.