Galapagos – The Ugly Side

This is a tale of two halves. The Ugly Side and The Sublime. It’s a tale of tour companies abandoning their clients, of boats leaking, of tour guides giving you wrong information, of injuries and hospital visits. It’s about meeting new animals and been privy to amazing spectacles. It’s about learning new skills and meeting some amazing people. It’s about arriving in paradise and smiling.  It’s also a long tale. a very, very long tale.

This is the first half, explaining why the tour was a complete disaster and why I was in tears at one point. So, grab a cup of tea, settle back into your favourite easy chair and let me tell you about my horrible fortnight in the Galapagos.

And so it begins…

When I started my RTW trip I had no intentions of heading to the Galapagos as the costs were too high for my budget, but after deciding to abandon the Japanese Grand Prix (and possibly Japan altogether) and hearing all the wonderful stories of travellers who had come from the islands I decided to rejig finances and make the trip. Travelling north through Bolivia and Peru my plan was to simply arrive in Guayaquil and investigate the options. I no idea how to get to the Galapagos, where the boats went, what the different types of boat were or even what the Galapagos actually were (other than a group of unique islands that Charles Darwin visited to form the theory of Evolution). The plan did work as I arrived in Guayaquil in the evening and was sitting on a boat in the Galapagos two days later. It wasn’t a complete success, indeed, I could easily suggest it was a bit of a disaster but with hindsight and some rose tinted glasses my opinion has softened somewhat. Thus, I’m going to get the bad bit over and done with and then describe just why the Galapagos islands are possibly the most wonderful place I’ve ever visited.

Getting on a tour – the stress of last minute deals

Originally I had intended to travel out to the islands and try and organise a tour from there but taking peoples advice decided to book through an agency instead. I had a couple of recommendations from people and settled on DreamKapture as it had a hostel attached. After a sweaty nights sleep (Guayaquil is a horrible place with a horrible climate) I sat down with one of the owners, Christopher, to speak at length about the Galapagos islands. It was a brilliant, informative presentation and introduced the boats, the itineraries, the islands, the animals… After the hour or so it took to take me through the options I settled on the boat “Amigo” which was leaving the following day. It sounded perfect as not only did it fit in with my plans and timing but I’d already met a couple of people on the boat.  It wasn’t quite that easy though as first I had to get a flight – there are three airlines and two were fully reserved. At the end of the day the planes were still unavailable but I found that LAN had space (DreamKapture don’t work with LAN) so I booked my flight with them. What followed was a stressful dash booking tickets, withdrawing cash from various machines around the town, travelling in a dangerous city with $1500 (in $20’s) in my wallet, finding the hostel staff carried guns since it was so dangerous… I got it sorted though and went for meal with Julia – my room mate to be on the boat.

I arrived in plenty of time for my flight and ran into Lori, someone else taking a tour at the same time (albeit on a different boat) – we chatted for a bit before she disappeared on her flight and I waited for mine. The flight ended up getting delayed due to some berk refusing to open his bag for a customs check which was frustrating – I needed to get to islands and then the dock as soon as possible as the boat was waiting for me. As soon as the plane landed I was up and pushing my way out angering quite a few people on the way (understandably – everyone wanted off the plane so me pushing past wasn’t appreciated). I was the first person to collect their luggage and then tried to get to the docks. I begged with the truck and bus drivers, searched for a car… everyone just said “no”. The only option I could find was the bus and that was going to leave in one hour – in the end I begged enough that the bus driver agreed to take me for $20. I later found out that the bus was free and that I could have walked/ran to the docks quicker than an hour, but I made it to the boat and was away. Job done!

At this stage, I’d heartily recommend anyone against last minute deals – it’s stressful and you have no real idea what you’ve let yourself in for…

edit:: Learning more lessons, go to the islands and get a deal from there. It’s much easier than I as led to believe and you can get amazing deals!

The boat trip begins… – …to go wrong

I got on board to immediately be told I was late from the Guide, Steffany Combs, and that everyone was waiting for me – I straight away apologised to the passengers, but they had no idea they were waiting for someone! Maybe I should have spotted that the guide was useless from the first lie but I just thought it odd! There was no safety talk for me, no information about the boat, what the plans were, where we were going… It was simply “your room is number 8, down there and your lunch is ready” – I thought the animosity was because I’d arrived late, but the others had had the same treatment too so we were very much on our own from the get-go. When I popped down to the cabin it was musty smelling and the bedding was damp to the touch – not ideal by any means!

The weather wasn’t great with lots of clouds and it was rather chilly so I was feeling quite daft for only bringing t-shirts with me, but never mind, it wasn’t that cold, I’d have just preferred a jumper and trousers for the evenings.

After a short boat trip, we climbed aboard the panga (the small boat they use for transporting people on and off the main boat) for a trip into the mangroves. We started to put on life jackets but were told not too as there were fifteen of us and we couldn’t fit in the boat as it was never mind if we were bulked up by wearing life jackets. After floating about for a bit we found out the Guide was terrible – she didn’t speak loud enough for people to hear and when she did speak it was to just something she’d made up (the males are bigger than the female was the explanation for everything). When she did point an animal out, we weren’t able to see it as no-one could turn around in the boat as it was way too cramped. The pilot wasn’t that great and kept crashing the boat into the mangroves… It became tiresome, boring and my heart sank – if this was what we could expect from the Galapagos I’d just wasted an awful lot of money!

We did get a briefing from the guide just before tea as to what to expect the following day, but as it turned out we might as well not bothered as it was all wrong!

Continuation – hikes, short walks and snorkelling

I woke on the second day with a hideous cough. The dampness of the cabin had got to me badly and I felt terrible. After some fresh air I felt much better but I was coughing so badly I was retching in the morning! All of my clothes were damp, even those inside my rucksack – the cabin really was that wet. Julia speaks fluent Spanish so talked to the waitress who directed us to the Captain – he promised to speak to the tour company and no, we couldn’t borrow his mobile as it was his own personal one. Suffice to say, the captain did nothing and did not speak to the tour agency.

We were taken snorkelling and I wasn’t that confident about it as I’m not the strongest of swimmers in a pool never mind in the sea. Unfortunately whilst as the guide was swimming with the others, everyone, unintentionally, abandoned me. I was left using a broken snorkel and mask trying to swim against the current as the Panga driver told me too. I couldn’t see anyone so didn’t know anything different and started to get more scared as the water poured into my mask, my nose full of water, my eyes stinging and every so often my mouth filling with salt water. For all the effort I was putting in I was only moving forward slowly if at all. Eventually I got new directions (the opposite to what I was told before) and caught the others up fairly quickly before having to climb back on board the panga – this was much easier said than done. With no ladders, high sides, lack of experience and skill it proved impossible for me to get on board myself. I got dragged on board with the help of the other gents who’d already got in but ended up ripping my leg open on a bolt.

In the afternoon the Guide then told us about the thirty minute hike we’d be doing in the afternoon – it turned out to be a five minute stroll across a lava flow with little information about what we seeing and then more snorkelling off the beach. We were told that this was the Guide’s 200th tour and that she’d been working for two years – both Julia and I called bull on this one! Steffany Combs may be the granddaughter and of the first successful settler on the islands but she knows nothing about them!

Was the first day not representative?

Optimism went out of the window when it just continued in the same vein the following day. We had a short walk in the morning and the Guide continued to give us false information (for example the island we were walking on was formed in 1987), people were leaving the track and interfering with animals (I’ll admit to doing something silly as well as I didn’t think it through / knew no better), we had no real idea what we were looking at… After the walk along the beach we got back on the Amigo and lots of people were sea-sick in the rougher seas, so it was suggested we hit land for the afternoon’s activity before lunch. The afternoons activity was a “fifteen minute stroll” which turned into a nintey minute hike in the blistering midday sun without water or sun-cream as the Guide got lost, took us on a huge loop of the island, missed many of the animals we were meant to be seeing… The pleasant walk to look at the native animals turned out to be a episode of endurance as we walked in the mid-day sun burning, hungry and desperately thirsty.

Just when the things were going wrong, it gets worse – the boat runs out of fresh water. The change “due to sea-sickness” was actually due to lack of water and having to spend the entire afternoon motoring to Santa Cruz to refill the tanks. The water was indeed refilled but shortly afterwards the boat breaks down and all electricity is lost. People are all-over the boat and have to find there way to the back deck in the pitch black as there was no emergency lights, no boat crew checking we were all accounted for – there was nothing, just us. It took the crew one hour before the Guide came along and lied as to the problem – “there was a problem with the engine” she said – the reality was they had flooded the electrics when refilling the fresh water tank and shorted it out. Another hour and we had food at nine PM rather than seven as per her schedule.

The Captain moved the boat further out to sea for the night and parked it across the harbour so that the boat rocked side-to-side rather then front to back, it meant meant people felt sea-sick. The “break-down” and repair had also damaged the exhaust pipe so that the cabins in the bottom of the boat (where we were) stunk of fumes.

After a trip to the mainland to have a beer, we came back on board and found that the cabin had leaked and Julia’s bed was soaking wet. Literally soaked right through. The crew solution was to use an iron on the top to dry it out before I pointed out the futility of doing this. After a bit of arguing and fighting with the crew in our tired states, I dragged Julia’s bed out of the cabin and had clean sheets put on my bed. Julia then took my bed and I slept up top. I honestly didn’t mind this as I was comfortably warm and enjoyed sleeping in the fresh air but for some unfathomable reason the Guide decided, at four AM to give me a Chinese burn (twisting my forearm viciously so that the skin burns from the pain), shouted at me in Spanish and then ran off.

The climax and resolution.

The Chinese burn was the final straw. I woke in a filthy mood and had a sore arm. I was livid and woke in immediate rage. Not the slow wake up I usually have, it was an immediate eyes open and fury like I’ve never felt before. We managed to get hold of a mobile from one of the crew members and got in touch with DreamKapture to try and resolve something as Julia and I were now sick of the whole ordeal and wanted out. The Guide was truly terrible, the boat was even worse, the crew were unpleasant for the most part, the information we were getting was made up… We wanted off. Our patience had been tested to the extreme and we were both so frustrated we were both almost in tears that morning.

The events of the night before meant we were able to beg a mobile off a crew member in order to contact DreamKapture. DreamKapture tried to be helpful I guess. Christopher took our complaints and his wife, Maria called back to get more details. We hadn’t heard back when it came time for the morning’s activity (the natural sanctuary for tortoises) so Julia and I left the boat expecting to have some news when we returned. Nope. DreamKapture hadn’t called. We ran them back to find they had more bull for us – Julia was leaving the boat so there wasn’t anything to be done. The cabins weren’t wet as we said. But the best one was, that we hadn’t got in touch early enough…

Hadn’t got in touch early enough? HADN’T GOT IN TOUCH EARLY ENOUGH? The captain and crew refused to help us. They ignored us and actively refused to help. Got in touch earlier? What a bloody insult!

My anger got worse. Julia and I were now getting insulted  Still, I forced myself to remain calm as I appreciated shouting wasn’t about to help anyone. We couldn’t change rooms as other guests had booked them some months earlier (we suspected this to a lie at the time, but it turned out to be true). We couldn’t change the beds as there weren’t any spare, they couldn’t dry our cabin as it was too wet, we could leave the boat but we’d only get $100 refund (due to “not contacting the tour agency early enough”)…. The was nothing the crew would do and DreamKapture kept offering excuses – the Guide woke me because she thought I was in danger (Bull), we couldn’t get a phone as there was no signal (bull)…

Then, things started to go better. A new guide, Lolly (in the picture of the panga at the top), arrived on board and came across to say hello. She was immediately more likeable, approachable and gave more information in five minutes that the previous Guide had in three days. More importantly though she commanded respected from crew and captain and after we had explained our plight and she literally chased the captain around the boat trying to help us. The guy was that unhelpful that even the Guide needed to chase him around!

By noon nothing more had happened, we felt that DreamKapture had abandoned us, the crew and boat owner didn’t care and Julia and I were facing losing $500 or staying on the boat. We had to call DreamKapture to find this out as yet again they hadn’t called us. Reluctantly we agreed to stay on board – neither of us could face losing money and the new Guide had perked our spirits a little. The beds then came out of the rooms and were placed on the roof to dry out (remember this was now early afternoon, not the morning when we first started shouting)…

The next four days

A weird thing then happened on the boat. The people on the boat for the full eight days started to have a better friendship and talked a lot more, it was almost as if there was the commadrady of suffering together. The cabin wasn’t dry, but it was drier. The Guide was significantly better giving us more correct information than we could take in. We had our “welcome cocktail”. We were given rules to follow on the boat. We had a full itinerary for the following day and times which were followed. The crew would pick us up from the island when they were meant to instead of simply ignoring us and shrugging their shoulders when we complained. The meal times were more regimented and service became professional. The Panga was no longer crammed full but took two trips rather than one. We were told to wear life jackets when in port (presumably as they need to follow rules when people can see them). The crew were introduced and became much more friendly and reacted to what the Guide told them to do… On the last day, the boat even had a ladder for the Panga (we didn’t get to use it though)

I’m not pretending that the last four days were perfect, far from it (the boat broke down again, food ran out…) it’s fair to say that Julia and I were extremely glad that we stayed! The funniest thing though was that the food we were served was way worse than what the crew got and many of the fruits, meats etc that were destined for us went to the crew or even other little fishing boats! The crew also started to complain about their work load, wages, how tired they were… It felt very much like they were trying to wangle tips from us as they had “helped”. It made it for an entirely unpleasant experience for us.

As I say, both Julia and I are glad we stayed and in hindsight even more so, but it was a horrible experience at the time.

The Galapagos Tour Boat Amigo

Avoid it at all costs. That is all I really need to say about it.

It’s a terrible, terrible boat. The crew are replaced regularly so you have no idea if you’ll get good or bad experience. It stinks. It leaks. It damp all the time. It comes with a terrible Panga. There is no sun-deck or sensible place to relax. The cabins are tiny (although in fairness, most boats have small cabins). The owners suck. People pay crazily different prices for the same trip… Just avoid it. You’re spending a small fortune on a Galapagos trip why ruin it by choosing a terrible boat when there are better available for a few hundred dollars more?

The only thing in the Amigo’s favour? The itinerary and the islands it visits (the South) is actually quite good – use it as the basis for finding a good boat!

On the Guayaquil Tour Agency DreamKapture

This is slightly harder to evaluate as it’s neither good nor bad report. On one hand I want to say that they were extremely helpful, offered great advice at the start, had various solutions for paying them (Ecuador has huge taxes for paying by card so it’s best pay with cash) and when we called on them to help they did what they could – I certainly got more help than I expected from a South American tour agency.

On the other hand, they didn’t tell me about the three airlines at the start and thus I nearly missed the boat I really wanted to go on. They talk about how they are independent and have all the boats available on their books but it seemed strange that pretty much everyone on the Amigo had booked through them. Those are little niggles though, the worst part for me was how the handled themselves when we needed help – they baulked. I know they did try and appreciate it’ll be a difficult country to work in, but we never felt they tried hard enough for us. Maria talked at length to the crew members but effectively achieved nothing. Something would be offered and then not completed and DreamKapture were believing the false information the crew spouted. We never felt as if were a priority whilst sitting on the boat as we were always the ones chasing for help and information.

When we returned to DreamKapture for a night, I found out the reason why they didn’t seem to be that helpful from our end – the staff there simply didn’t believe us preferring to listen to the boat crew instead. It was something Christopher said as a throw away comment whilst talking to us over breakfast that made me realise – “after speaking to you, I’m more inclined to believe you now”. Thanks for believing us at the time!

My opinion of DreamKapture changed that day and not for the better. I’d still say look them up and book through them as the staff there are friendly, very helpful and went out of their way to help me before going on my tour (even giving me a lift to the mall to buy new power cables), but don’t book a trip last minute relying on them. Do your own research into the boats first and then see what they can do booking wise!

It’s not all bad.

Make sure you read Galapagos – The Sublime! My trip in the Galapagos wasn’t all bad!

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