Author: Alyssa D’Alconzo, Ed.D. GED’04, GRD’11
It’s been two months since Penn Alumni Travel returned from the Galapagos Islands, but few days go by without someone asking a question about our magical trip. Below are my answers to our Galapagos FAQs. Do you have questions or want to join us for Machu Picchu to the Galapagos in December 2015? Click Here or e-mail PATravel@pobox.upenn.edu!
- Where are the Galapagos Islands?
For many people on our trip, traveling to the Galapagos was a bucket list item and, for all of us, it was a trip of a lifetime. But other people I’ve spoken with aren’t quite sure where the Galapagos Islands are located.
This archipelago of volcanic islands is located in the Pacific Ocean, about 600 miles west of Ecuador. Part of the country of Ecuador, the islands are distributed on either side of the equator. To reach them, we flew from the United States to Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador.
Next, we took a small plane to the Galapagos (Baltra Island, to be specific).
Once on Baltra, we received a warm welcome from our naturalist guides and boarded zodiacs to the National Geographic Endeavour.
- How were the ship accommodations?
The National Geographic Endeavour is an expedition ship and while that means it lacks some of the traditional luxury items associated with a traditional cruise ship (multiple restaurants, televisions in cabins, room service, etc.), it certainly doesn’t mean it’s lacking in safety or comfort. The small, stabilized ship, holding only 96 guests in 56 outside cabins, is fully air conditioned with a small pool, fitness center, cozy library, and lounge with a full-service bar. It’s kept immaculately clean and there’s even a spa — if you can find time to take advantage of it! (See FAQ #3)
To explore the Galapagos, being on an expedition ship is a great advantage. It carries snorkeling gear, kayaks, underwater cameras, a fleet of zodiacs, and a glass-bottom boat.
With so many toys and so much to see, you’re not likely to miss the Lido! Besides, you’ll never find a traditional cruise ship with an “Open Bridge” policy like the one they have on the Endeavour.
An open bridge means the captain and officers welcome guests any time of day or night and are happy to show you how the equipment works and answer questions about sailing and navigation.
It’s truly fascinating to experience and I loved being in the bridge when we crossed the equator for the second time.
- How physically active was the trip?
Visiting the Galapagos on an expedition ship does require physical mobility, as you’re accessing each island via zodiac and the terrain on each island is different. That said, there were plenty of options for people of all physical ability levels. For example, while there was hiking each day, there was always an option for shorter walks or longer hikes. If you didn’t want to snorkel, you could ride the glass bottom boat. Not up for kayaking? Go on a zodiac ride!
Your activity level over the course of the week will depend on your ability and interests, but you will not be without lots of options! For example, one of my favorite days was when I completed what I called the “Galapagos Triathlon” – kayaking, snorkeling, and hiking all in the same afternoon! Yet while I was rushing on and off the ship with all kinds of gear, other passengers were enjoying a relaxing afternoon in a lounge chair on the deck or participating in only one or two of the activities.
- Could you touch the animals?
The absence of predatory mammals in the Galapagos means that you are nearly always within arm’s reach of endemic species unlike those you’ve probably ever seen before. Sea lions, blue and red footed boobies, finches, tortoises, marine and land iguanas, flightless cormorants, sea turtles, sharks, and many others fill the days and camera memory cards, but physically touching them is against Galapagos National Park rules. The guides ensure that all passengers follow these rules, so that the islands remain preserved for future visitors.
- How were your guides?
Our guides were phenomenal. We had a group of naturalist guides who seemed to know everything about the flora and fauna of the islands and were incredible leaders on our hikes, zodiac rides, and snorkeling and kayaking adventures.
The work of the naturalist guides was complemented by undersea specialists who shared fascinating video of what was happening beneath the surface of the water. Add in our Faculty Host, Michael Weisberg, who gave engaging lectures about Darwin, evolution, adaptation and speciation, and it was an incredible learning experience!
- How many Penn alumni were on the tour?
There were 14 alumni on this tour departure, and we had a great time experiencing and learning about the Galapagos together! We were all proud to see the Penn flag flying high above the National Geographic Endeavour all week
and even enjoyed some exclusive chances to catch up and get to know one another, apart from the larger group.
- What kind of camera did you use?
I probably get this question more than any other! I brought a DSLR, a point and shoot, and my iPhone. They all took great pictures, but that’s probably because every Endeavour trip has a Photo Specialist on-board and many of the guides are photo-certified, as well. They’re all very accessible and always looking out for passengers to ensure they get the best possible photos. On multiple occasions guides would make recommendations for my camera settings or photo angles. Their advice proved to be invaluable and I’ve even noticed I take better pictures with my new knowledge (get eye level with the subject!) now that I’m home.
- Would you go back to the Galapagos?
Without a doubt! It truly was a magical trip. In fact, Penn Alumni Travel will be going to the Galapagos again in December 2015. I also can’t say enough good things about our wonderful faculty host, Michael Weisberg, and our tour operator, Lindblad Expeditions. I eagerly welcome the opportunity to travel with both of them again and we’re making plans for 2016 now. Stay tuned for our full 2016 schedule to see when Michael Weisberg will be hosting and where we’ll be sailing with Lindblad. I hope to see you on our next departure!