By Jim Ferri
Travelers love the Galapagos Islands. Located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the islands are home to exotic species such as giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas and other exotic creatures, many of which are believed by travelers to exist nowhere else in the world.
The Galapagos are beautiful but they’re also costly: an upscale Galapagos cruise on a comfortable, medium-size 90-100 passenger ship, the best way to see the islands, can range from $5,000 to more than $10,000 per person. (At the time of this writing the least expensive cabin for a one-week Galapagos cruise on Celebrity Cruises is $5,299, on Silversea $5,850 and National Geographic $6,290, all per person).
And the islands can also be a bit difficult to reach since you have to fly to Ecuador, and then usually overnight before taking another flight the following day.
When you combine the price of airfare, hotel, the cruise and various other incidentals, the cost can quickly escalate out of the budget-range of many travelers.
A Less-Costly Alternative
There is a less costly alternative, however, much closer to home: Un-Cruise Adventure’s Cousteau’s Aquarium of the World cruise in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez — the sea that Jacques Cousteau named “The aquarium of the world” – or its Baja’s Bounty! Whale Sharks, Whales & Mobulas cruise. Both follow nearly identical itineraries, the only difference being the wildlife you see, which is dependent on the time of year you travel.
They’re upscale cruises that depart from Cabo San Lucas on the southern tip of the Baja peninsula, about a two-hour flight from Los Angeles, a bit under three from Dallas/Ft. Worth.
Like the Galapagos, much of the Sea of Cortez is also a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site and is still relatively untouched by mass tourism. And it’s a place where you can also see blue-footed boobies and frigate birds, cavort with sea lions and have encounters with whales and whale sharks (depending on the season).
Better yet, the cost of an all-inclusive Un-Cruise aboard the 232-foot, 84-passenger Safari Endeavor, including gourmet meals, good wines and beer, and top-shelf liquors, ranges from $2995 to $4,695 pp, depending upon the stateroom chosen. Each stateroom contains an iPod docking station, a DVD player and a flat screen TV, plus a bathrobe, hairdryer, etc.
Since you don’t have any television reception as you cruise the Sea of Cortez, the TVs are only used to provide information about the ship and your itinerary or allow you to see a DVD borrowed from the ship’s library.
Un-Cruise Adventures is an alternative to mainstream cruising. You’re not going to find midnight buffets, rock-climbing walls or pools (although there were two popular hot tubs on board) and you don’t make port stops to visit tourist shops. In fact, the only towns we visited were the pretty historic town of Loreto and the little village of Puerto Adolfo Lopez where we stopped for a seafood lunch after we had gone whale watching.
I sailed aboard Un-Cruise Adventures’ Safari Endeavor two weeks ago and found that the company’s motto – “unrushed, uncrowded and unbelievable” – pretty well summed up the overall experience. There were no set ports of call and while we did have an itinerary mapped out, it remained flexible and dependent upon the weather and wildlife sightings.
My fellow passengers, while predominately American, also included Canadians, British, Swiss, Germans, a couple from Wales and an Australian. Several of them had cruised with Un-Cruise before, mostly on their Alaskan Itineraries, for which they are probably best known.
We had free run of the ship, including an open-bridge policy, and all of the crew were exceptionally accessible and friendly. Most knew every passenger by name from the very first day and we could chat with them anytime about anything in their areas of expertise.
Off-ship we were accompanied by knowledgeable guide/naturalists, much the same as I had experienced on a Galapagos cruise a few years ago. Every evening after dinner one would give a short talk about things we’d be seeing the following day.
Un-Cruises are more about wildlife than nightlife, and its small ships allow quite a bit of flexibility. We could, for example, change our itinerary and drop anchor at a different island if weather conditions made it a better choice for water activities (which we once did).
All of us could snorkel, kayak or paddle board (and be taught how if we were inexperienced), relax on a pristine beach lapped by turquoise water and devoid of any other people or stay aboard ship. There was also a burro ride out into the desert and several opportunities to join skiff tours to look at bird-life (including blue-footed booby’s, herons, egrets, magnificent frigate birds, ospreys and many others) and have geologic formations explained to us, both which I unexpectedly found quite interesting.
Isla Espiritu Santo
We also had the opportunity to take guided walks on the islands, which like the entire Baja, are deserts where often mountains tumble down to the sea. The desert had never really interested me but our short walks with our naturalist-guides gave me a new understanding of the immensity of life on them. It was all quite fascinating.
On a walk on Isla Espiritu Santo (Island of the Holy Ghost), for example, as we weaved through the sparse vegetation and bushes we stopped every few minutes to listen to our guide tell us about the vegetation, or show us animal tracks and scat, explaining what was living in the area.
It was a hike of only an hour and when we returned to the beach he asked us if we’d like to go over and see the tidal pools that had formed from the receding tide. It turned to be an adventure that provided an unexpected dividend.
Looking in the little tidal pools we found a baby octopus on one of the rocks. It was about as large as a thumbnail and J.P., our guide, allowed us only to put our fingers down alongside it so it would attach its suckers to us, but not disturb it in any way.
After a few minutes, however, it moved around to the other side of the rock and squirted its black ink for several yards through the water. A few days later on another island he pointed out a red diamondback rattlesnake to us.
Up-Close with Whales
Many of us had booked the cruise since we were interested in whale watching and wanted the opportunity to see up-close the great Gray Whales, thought to be extinct just 60 years ago. The Grays remain one of the great mysteries of our planet: why they annually travel 13,000 miles from the Bering Sea to Mexico’s Magdalena Bay to give birth to their young in this shallow bay off the Pacific coast.
After docking in Puerto Escondido we took a 2½-hour ride in mini-vans across the peninsula to the bay where we boarded several pangas, small sturdy boats used by fishermen, for the trip about the bay.
Since we were early in the season we only encountered five female whales, four accompanied by their 15-foot long, one-ton calves. In mid-February there are usually hundreds of them giving birth in the shallow bay and some are apt to stick their heads out of the water close to a boat for peek or head-scratch.
But at this time they were more protective of their newborn and we kept our distance. Nevertheless, we could follow alongside the great mammoths, watching as they broke water and spouted, sometimes as close as 20 yards away, with their calves doing the same thing right next to mama. It was a phenomenal sight, especially when one breached not far away.
A Fascinating Week
Un-Cruise Adventures is really designed for the adventurous traveler who wants to be pampered a bit and enjoy exceptional experiences. Although it’s not wheelchair accessible, those who have mobility issues (such as having had a hip replacement, as one of our fellow travelers had), won’t have any trouble moving about the ship, and embarking and disembarking.
My experience was that Un-Cruise delivers quality over quantity and the cruise combined comfort and soft-adventure, with the opportunity to experience things I had not in the past.
My only regret being was that we missed the opportunity to snorkel among sea lions since the crew deemed it too unsafe due to rough seas that day.
That will remain another adventure for another day.
If you go:
In addition to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, Un-Cruise Adventures currently offers a variety of cruises in Alaska, the Hawaiian Islands, along Coastal Washington and British Columbia and on the Columbia, Snake and Willamette Rivers (Washington, Oregon and Idaho). In 2016 they will also launch cruises in the Galapagos, Panama and Costa Rica.