“ A visit to the Galapagos Islands, a quintessential natural history destination, refreshes your sense of awe. Each year, Ecoventura carries thousands of nature enthusiasts to this extraordinary archipelago scattered across the western-equatorial Pacific Ocean where species of plants, birds, reptiles, and marine organisms thrive; many of them live nowhere else on Earth. „
Choosing a boat for my dream Galapagos Islands holiday was a little daunting at first, however as this was a place on my list for about eight years I decided that there would be no skimping on the budget and narrowed it down to the higher end of first class or luxury boats. Ecoventura popped up on a google search and caught my attention with their effective marketing boasting of three identical first class boats and experienced naturalists and crew.
I contacted Ecoventura by email and promptly received a reply from somebody based in Miami with information I requested and a booking form. To secure our places I had to fax the form back with our details and credit card authorisation for a $600 deposit. Shortly afterwards we received more information in the post including a DVD, which had been sent after my initial contact but had understandably taken longer to reach me than it had for me to decide to proceed anyway. In any case the DVD was excellent and certainly whetted my husbands appetite for the trip immensely.
We reserved the cabin we wanted six months in advance and were required to pay in full 60 days before departure. My dealings with the company were all with one person and I thought communication was very good, all my emails were dealt with by return more or less and additionally I was sent some comprehensive pre-departure information.
The cost of the week long cruise, for two people was $7,000 (approx GBP3,500 at the moment). This included $100 park entry fees and flights from Ecuadors capital, Quito to the islands and back.
Joining the tour~~~~
We planned three nights in Quito ahead of the tour. When we checked in we found we had been left a message telling us what time to get to the airport and who we should look for as we had to obtain our tickets from this person. We got there 30 minutes before the Ecoventura representative turned up so this was slightly annoying and I would rather they had left the tickets at the hotel for us. Nevertheless we were soon checked in and had been told which of the three boats we would be on (M/Y Eric) and had been given stickers to wear so we could be readily identified at the other end. We were also given a waiver to read and sign.
On the plane was another Ecoventura representative, I am not entirely sure what her purpose was, she did not hand out landing cards like other reps we saw which led to some confusion upon arrival in the Galapagos, her role appeared to be to collect the signed waiver agreements which we had been handed just before the flight.
The waiver appeared to waive every conceivable legal right or future recourse to the company and eliminate them from just about every passenger responsibility as far as I could tell. One clause that caught our attention was about the company being able to change cabins even if a particular one had been booked. We were concerned about this as we had booked (and paid for) an upper cabin and this was confirmed in the info we received in the post but in the same info sent by email we appeared to have been relegated to a lower cabin. We assume had we been put in a lower cabin we would have been refunded the difference, but the point was we wanted an upper cabin and had booked six months in advance to ensure we got it. So we told the rep that we had a query on the waiver and would like to discuss it first.
I was not at all surprised at the concept of a waiver, although I had never seen one quite like this one before, but what I and other passengers objected to was being handed the waiver for the first time at the airport and at this point being told you sign away all your legal rights or you dont get on our boats. No refunds. I thought this should have been provided at the point of booking, that it was unethical not to do so and this seemed at odds with the image Ecoventra tries to portray of being ecological. During the first evening, this was a significant talking point amongst guests all of whom seemed taken aback and even a US lawyer on the boat expressed her concerns about it and said that if need be, she would recommend arguing that it was signed under duress. Nobody ever came back to us about our query and we got away without signing it at all, but we were the only ones.
Anyway back to the arrival, at the airport we were quickly identified by Ecoventura crew by our Eric stickers, our luggage was taken from us and transported to the boat whilst we waited for the rest of the passengers. All present and accounted for and we too were on our way to the boat.
Our boat had twenty passengers of whom seven were children or teenagers. The middle deck of the boat contained the lounge and dining area, both were pleasant and kept clean and tidy, although they occasionally got stuffy and I think if there had been twenty adults it would have been rather overcrowded. There were two cabins on this level, four downstairs and four more upstairs. On the very top level was the partially shaded sun deck, which most people enjoyed.
We did get the upper cabin that we reserved in the end, however it was a disappointment. I had selected Ecoventura expecting a high degree of comfort, well the cabin was no more than 8 foot by 7 foot, with a bathroom just about large enough for the loo, sink and shower. It was virtually impossible for two people to even be in the cabin at the same time other than at night in bed and even then we got ready and got up one at a time. We had no room for luggage, we pulled out some clothes and put them in drawer under the bed and then we took all the coat hangers out of the tiny wardrobe so we could try to cram our half empty bags in there, otherwise they would have taken up all the available floor space. We could not shut the door of the wardrobe with the bags in though and generally left a rucksack propped up against it to stop it from banging. The beds were incredibly uncomfortable, it was like sleeping on a slab of concrete. Neither of us could sleep on our sides as it was simply too painful, I felt like I was crushing my ribs and bringing on a collapsed lung when I tried to do so. The last couple of days my gallant husband gave me his pillow to sleep on lengthwise as I was suffering from so little sleep. I would say that at least the cabin was kept clean, beds made and fresh linen provided daily.
Organisation and excursions~~~~
The days were planned out very well and clearly. Each evening everybody would gather in the lounge to be briefed on the following days visits, where we would be visiting, what time, what wildlife we could expect, what to wear and what to bring. There were two land excursions each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon and in-between we would have lunch and sail to the next site. Most days we had time for snorkelling as well, all the snorkelling gear was provided and there was more than enough for us all. There were also wetsuits available and again enough for everyone that wanted one although some of the children had trouble finding one small enough (our youngest on board was about nine years old).
Each boat in the Galapagos has to submit an itinerary proposal but the final decision is made the by the national park authorities, they plan where all the boats should be and when to avoid too many people in one place at any one time. We did not think to find out what our itinerary would be in advance, but in the event we were entirely satisfied by the places we visited and we went to all of the places mentioned in our Lonely Planets highlights.
The Eric was too large to go to shore for the visits so we were taken in on one of the two pangas (dinghys) and would then explore in these two smaller groups of about ten, each group led by one of the naturalists on board. I will not go into details of what we saw as that would be more appropriate for my Galapagos Islands review and this is about Ecoventura.
Of course all the excursions are optional and occasionally people would skip one. One of the group missed a few as he could not cope with the heat and he made the point to me that there was not much by way of alternative activities on offer and that one day a few people missed an excursion but asked to be taken on a quick panga ride as they spotted some sea lions playing however the request was refused. Another asked to use the kayaks outside designated kayaking time but was also refused even though the boat was anchored and the kayaks were sitting there. There were only two kayaks for twenty people and as there were only two designated kayaking times during the whole week, it meant most people did not get a turn. So to conclude there could have been a bit more flexibility.
Food and drink~~~~
Three meals a day were served in the dining room at set times and this was a very enjoyable time and a good opportunity to get to know the other passengers. We were encouraged on the first day to try to sit with different people each time (tables were for four) and even the families of four would split up so this was effective and there was a very nice and friendly atmosphere on board.
Breakfast was buffet style and was a very comprehensive breakfast, cereal, eggs, bacon, ham and cheese, fruit, toast, juice and tea or coffee. Lunch was also buffet style, typically comprising salad and pasta or chicken or something. Dinner was three course, table service and usually we had two choices of main course. I thought that we got off to a very good start and was impressed with the quantity and variety of food on offer. Unfortunately I could not help but notice that standards dropped off significantly towards the end of the week, despite there being a land visit to a populated area in the last few days, hence opportunity to stock up. I felt we were being rationed, dinner became buffet service, fresh bread ran out and strange combinations of food were on offer. One evening I ate potatoes and tomatoes only as the prawns looked like they were making their third outing to the table and the beef looked like shoe leather. Other passengers made similar comments. I think when paying the best part of £2000 for a week, one is entitled to expect to be fed properly for the full seven days.
All soft drinks on board were included in the price, alcohol could be bought and a beer was $3 and a glass of wine $4.50.
Service and crew~~~~
There was a crew of eleven on board, we interacted most with the two naturalists, I thought they did a satisfactory job but dont feel like I came away with many real insights. The next person I saw most of was the bar tender, who not only tended bar but also worked the dining room each meal time and after the excursions would meet us with canapés and cold drinks, a nice and very welcome touch. He did not speak English so we did not get to know him very well, however he appeared to thoroughly loathe his job and the passengers and one morning was extremely cross with me for taking the lid of the eggs at breakfast at 7.28am. Breakfast not until 7.30am you see.
There were a few men working the pangas, and would help us on and off the boats as well and would be close by when we were swimming or snorkelling to pick anyone up. These guys were generally cheerful and paid good attention to safety. Overall I would have nothing to grumble about or rave about in terms of service.
On the last night many people in the group were niggled by some comments made to us about tipping. We were firstly told that $175 per person, and this meant children too, was a good guideline. We were then lectured on the very low wages the crew receive and how important our tips were. We did not really appreciate the lecture. Considering Ecoventura grossed almost $80,000 for the week from twenty passengers, if they really cared about the crews low salaries then perhaps there is a solution other than lecturing passengers on tipping policy. Apart from this we thought a $350 tip a bit excessive and the families certainly thought $700 was over the top.
Despite some of the comments in the above, we thoroughly enjoyed our holiday and there was nothing that could really distract from the enjoyment of the Galapagos Islands. I have done several cruises on similar size boats, including the Red Sea, the Nile, the Yangtze and the Mekong and Ecoventura does not compare unfavourably with any of them, in fact it is definitely in the top two or three. But the crucial difference is that none of the others claimed to be or charged top end.
If I had to make some recommendations to Ecoventura to really live up to their claims then the first would be to upgrade the boats and definitely to one with slightly bigger cabins! Other more easily implemented suggestions would be (a) invest in softer mattresses, plenty of people on my boat complained of discomfort, (b) send your legal waiver with the booking form and not provide it on the plane, most people on my boat felt aggrieved at the manner in which this was dealt with, (c) stock enough food for the whole week and finally (d) revisit the pricing, the Galapagos is an expensive place but nevertheless I still feel this particular trip was 25 30% overpriced.
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