The flight took about 4 hours, with a meal and movie being offered. Upon arrival in Guayaquil, we waited to clear customs, picked up our luggage, cleared another secure area and exited to a waiting area full of locals waiting for their loved ones. There were several Nat Geo reps waiting to direct us to a bus. Our checked luggage was put on a truck and we rode the bus for about 5 minutes to the Hilton Colon. We were given info on how things would work etc. As we entered the hotel (it was also 11:30 pm) we were greeted with cold minted scented towels, and a free drink. We had an express check-in and I headed right to my room. A few minutes later, my luggage was delivered.
The next morning's wake up call @ 5:45 was late, but I couldn't sleep. Our bags had to be outside by 6 and then I headed to a buffet breakfast (the chocolate banana bread is really good). We were then taken to the airport and given our boarding passes. We got our luggage, cleared security and headed to the gate. There was a VIP waiting area, but it was small and we were only there for 30 minutes. The 1.5 hour flight to San Cristobal was pleasant, with a nice breakfast and a touchscreen entertainment center in the seat. Upon arrival in San Cristobal we cleared the park "security" and boarded a bus for another short ride to the dock. Our luggage was taken care of and later delivered to our cabins. At the dock we were greeted by lazy sea lions and a light rain. We were given a life jacket and rode a panga out to the ship. Before boarding we got a crash course on how to get in and out of the pangas. Once on board, we were led to our cabins. Snacks (fruit, etc) were served in the lounge (as they were each morning and evening) and we were given a briefing by the hotel mgr and expedition leader (Willy & Jason). Lunch was served and a lifeboat drill followed. Next came a snorkel/kayak briefing and then we went to get our snorkeling gear. We were given a mask, fins, snorkel, shortie (I brought my own full wet suit),
inflateable vest (if you wanted), and a bag to carry it all. From there we took a panga ride around the coast, then has some time on the beach at Cerro Brujo. At 7 there was a cocktail party, recap of the day, briefing for tomorrow, then followed by dinner. Most went to bed after dinner.
The food was plentiful and wonderful-how I lost weight I don't know (other than eating lots of fish and fruit, plus all the activity). I had brought some protein bars in case there wasn't anything available before a pre-breakfast hike. The lounge has 24 hr soda, water, beer (the latter on an honor system). There are snacks and drinks in the library as well. You are given a stainless steel water bottle to use during the trip. There are water/ice filling stations on the ship to fill them up, and the pitcher in your room. You can drink the tap water, but think rusty pipes. Breakfast and lunch are buffet, with dinners being full service (minus the first night). One night we had a bbq on deck that was wonderful! Each morning you sign up for either a meat, fish or veggie meal at dinner (you can always change your mind). There is a full service bar, but some people bought stuff at the duty free shop in Miami to use. Everything is charged to you room (alcoholic drinks, shopping in the gift shop which was nice, and spa services). There is a small gym on board, small salt water pool, and a
dryer. Laundry service is also available.
For this trip, we made stops at San Cristobal, Espanola (wonderful beach in the am, and the hardest hike of all in the pm-1.75 miles but took us 3 hours. Lots of small boulders and rocks to walk over, but an amazing hike if you do the long version), Floreana, Santa Cruz (spent all day ashore-Darwin Research Center, shopping, lunch at Altairs, Highlands, farm and more time in town), Daphne Major, Bartolome (another tough climb up 376 steps, but you can stop and rest. The view is soooo worth it), Sombrero Chino, Genovesa, and disembarking in Baltra.
You really have very little down time. This is not a relaxing cruise vacation, unless you stay on board (why would you want to). We had about 8 kids (10-18 yrs) and I never saw one with a video game. The staff even rounded them up for some activities like coloring and learning to drive the pangas. There are optional early morning hikes starting around 6 (wake-up calls anywhere from 5:15 on came over the pa by Jason's soothing voice. Someone make a recording and email it to me please! You can mute them). Generally the mornings we had from 6-12 on the island, then we moved to another spot where we could stay until 6. You weren't on the islands the entire time though. I highly recommend getting up for the early morning activites as one, it is cooler, and 2 the light for photography is no where near as harsh as it is later in the day. Some animals come out then to start warming themselves up. If you are doing this trip, you are doing it for the sights, not to sleep in! Do it all and you will be rewarded! We had a 95 year old man on board and he did pretty well (on the really easy hikes). There are options such as shorter hikes, beach trips, deep or beach snorkeling (do the deep as the beach can be murky), sea kayaking, panga rides, exercise/stretching classes, massages on a glass bottom boat, etc. You will be given info the night before about what to expect, what to bring, best shoes (I brought a pair of Tevas and Merrill hiking shoes. Next time I will add flip flops for the ship, though I and others often went barefoot.). As for clothes, I brought a hat with a drape down the back for my neck, swim suit, 2 pairs of sunglasses in case one broke, wicking tees and several Columbia fishing type long sleeve shirts. They provided sun protection, were cool to wear, and washed in the sink easily. I also brought a pair of zip of Columbia pants and shorts. For on board, I had a sweatshirt, a few tees and capris-nothing fancy, though some were dressed "smart casual".
There are two US plugs in the room, along with a decent hairdryer (the Hilton in Guayaquil also had US plugs and a hairdryer). I was in a single cabin and it was just fine for the amount of time I spent in there. I had a closet with some drawers, coat rack, on the wall, a night stand, one porthole, and a desk/mirror/chair unit. I stored my rolling duffel bag under the bed. There are no locks on the door (except when you are inside you can lock it), but the desk drawer locks with a key. I never had any problems with stuff disappearing. There is a satellite (corded and cordless) available, but it was very $$$$ (like $8 a minute). There is also internet service, but it is really slow and $$$$ ($50 for an hour I think). Some said you spend the majority of the time just signing on, so maybe write your emails, or address them before signing on and sending them. There is an ethernet cable in the cabin should you want to use it.
The crew was wonderful! The maids are in your room 3x a day (turn down service at night with yummy chocolate. Eat them as they melt very easily!). The maids also double as wait staff. The naturalists are very knowledgeable and friendly. They will often join you during meals. I did most of my outings with Jan and Walter, but they are all very good. You don't have a choice as they are randomly assigned as you board pangas. They will be with you ashore at all times. Each night they write a recap of the day which is posted to the internet. I didn't know this, but you can sign up to have it delievered to you family/friends back home. It is on their website (DER or daily expedition reports). There are lectures after lunch (serious snooze time for many-you can listen to it in your cabin over the pa) about the islands. Walter gave an astronomy lesson on the bow one night. There was also a band and local dancers (their dresses are beautiful) that perfomed one night. A videographer will be out taking videos which you can purchase at the end of the trip ($50 for 1st, $25 for additional-I paired up with another solo traveler and split the cost). We also submitted 3 photos for a slide show at the end, but this was a photo trip so it might not be an option. We also had 3 professional photographers on board to offer instruction, guidance on some of the hikes, and some hands on training. Don't worry though, some of the naturalists are are certified photo instructors as well. Do be sure to bring extra batteries, some way to store/backup your photos and lots of memory cards as they can fail. Also consider some sort of dry bag to protect your camera on the panga rides. A few lost their cameras to salt water spray!
The last day, we were up at 6:15 with bags out by 6:30. We had breakfast then waited in the lounge until 7:15 ish when we said our goodbyes. A quick panga ride and short bus ride took us to the Baltra airport. The naturalists escorted us and we waited a while to get through check-in to the gate. Then we waited at the gate (there is a bar-Coke is free, but nothing else). It was hot too. There are little shops outside-do that before checking in. You can get a stamp in your passport at one shop. We then boarded the plane and headed back to Guayaquil (some to Quito). Once there, we checked into the Hilton. A bus tour was put together (had to have enough people). 4 of us got a cab from the hotel and headed to the Malecon (riverwalk area) and Las Penas (444 stairs to the top of a hill for an awesome view). Our cab driver waited for us-be sure the hotel gets your cab and have the driver wait for you for safety reasons. Leave the big cameras in the hotel along with other obvious valuables. Several people chose to hang out at the hotel pool and casino. For dinner, several of us walked across the street to a steakhouse (El Mato)-lots of food and dirt cheap! Many said our goodbyes after that as our group was split into an early morning and late morning flight to Miami (or elsewhere). Same procedure-bags out, eat breakfast, get the bus to the airport really early-after waiting in the check-out line for almost an hour I now understand! Don't be alarmed if you are paged-they do random searches of your checked luggage, and everyone's hand luggage is screened at security, then hand checked just before boarding. There are some nice duty free shops past security for last minute items.
As for size of the ship-I am glad I went for the larger one. We had 97 out of 99 possible passengers and it was nice to get a chance to meet people from all over. I became good friends with a few of them too. Everyone was super nice. Nat Geo is no longer allowed to collect and hand out people's email addresses and other info, so you might consider bringing some business cards to give to the person in charge of collecting emails (that was my job, and I couldn't read some people's handwriting).
The experience was A-one all the way. This was the first trip where I did not want to return home (even though my kids were waiting for me)! We almost had our wish when the anchor got stuck! No words can fully describe what you will see and do. It is that amazing. I had 10 days with no stress, and had so much fun I felt young again. I am already planning to go back in a few years with my kids, once they are old enough to appreciate it (and behave). Please feel free to ask me questions. There is so much to cover that I could spend days writing!