Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Running the Gauntlet


Information is king when you are cruising, but misinformation is also abundant. Maybe it’s not misinformation but simply the fact that cruisers doing similar activities have different experiences and viewpoints.  This was the case with customs/immigrations clearance in the Galapagos Islands. For the last five years I have collected all sorts of information about cruising to different locations from various “cruisers” mail lists. Of all those files, the Galapagos is the thickest, especially when it concerns the entry rules and regulations. On paper it looks very complicated and expensive to visit the Galapagos by private yacht because of all the government regulations. On several occasions we opted to just skip the Galapagos and sail directly to the Marquesas, but friends kept saying it was one of the best places to visit of anywhere they had been.

One of the first choices you have to make is whether you are going to pay the $1305 for an “Autografo,” essentially official permission to visit up to five islands under strict supervision or just show up, pay about $700 for entry fees, and hope they grant you permission to stay for up to 20 days. The kicker is you can only anchor at one island. You are free to take tours to other islands, but someone is supposed to stay on your boat when it is unattended. The problem with the second option is the Port Captain, the all-knowing authority in these cases, can deny you entrance or give you only a day or two to refuel and reprovision and send you on your way. It happens.  We opted for a three-port Autografo through a highly recommended agent, Bolivar Pesantes. The only problem is Bolivar is terrible about answering emails and speaks no English. Oh well.

A lot of guys filling out a lot for forms.
That said, it’s 9:30 am and a water taxi full of official-looking people is headed towards Flying Cloud. As they boarded I wondered where are we going to put them all.  We lucked out and had only four officials plus our agent on board, but they were big boys and did fill the cockpit. We had heard horror stories about officials looking in every compartment on the boat, checking the fridge for prohibited food, looking in the engine compartment, examining your garbage, and wanting to see the holding tanks. They also send a diver down to inspect your bottom while you are dealing with the officials in the cockpit.

We had officials from the Navy, Galapagos National Park, Immigrations, and Agriculture. I had spent lots of time getting a special fumigation certificate from Panama, creating a Blackwater Holding Certificate, Waste Management Plan, and Hull Cleaning Certificate, but the only certificate they asked for was the Fumigation. Every once in awhile our agent would whisper to me in Spanish “Walter, ask them what they’d like to drink.” Out came the fruit juice, beer, and Coca Colas. We then went through two bags of cookies. I suddenly realized these guys probably hadn’t had any breakfast. We also threw a couple of beers to the Commandante who was circling us in his power boat. Just keeping everyone happy.

All in all everything went extremely well. The officials were all very polite and professional and Bolivar anticipated all their needs with the proper forms or paperwork. I signed three or four forms, got our national park passes, Autografo from Bolivar, and other assundery paperwork. The diver popped up and declared our hull clean of barnacles. It all took a little over an hour; my only concern was running out of cookies (by the way, Oreos were their favorite).

I love this photo. These stairs are usually covered with sea lions.
Once they had left Meryl and I breathed a sigh of relief and hailed the water taxi to go into town.  Note about water taxis:  San Cristobal has a huge population of sea lions. If you put your dingy in the water it will quickly become their favorite nap time location. They are also extremely adept at climbing onto anything, so boats like ours with a sugar scoop stern have to place large fenders, ice chests, anything possible to keep them from climbing up. My friend calls it the Maginot Line. It seems, however, that they are more skilled at circumventing these barriers than we are at constructing them. Anyway, everyone leaves their dinghies on board and takes the $1 water taxis into town.

Lots of tourists means lots of t-shirts.
San Cristobal is a nice little tourist town populated mainly with tour operators, souvenir shops, and restaurants. At some point the city had remodeled their waterfront with viewing areas for watching the sea lions, rest rooms, and walkways, so that was very nice. People fly into either Santa Cruz or San Cristobal from the mainland and then transfer to mini cruise ships that anchor out in the harbor. An 8-day cruise of the Galapagos can set you back $8,000 so it’s not a casual vacation choice.  All day long big Zodiacs full of tourists in their Tilley hats, safari shirts, and $5,000 Nikons shuttle back and forth to the cruise ships. The Ecuadorian government is much more orientated to the cruise ship business and makes no effort to cater to the 50 or 60 private yachts that visit the islands, so even the most basic services like water and fuel are difficult to find.

Our first effort ashore was to get a new SIM for my iPhone. We walked to the other end of town to the CNT (government phone company) where a very nice lady helped us, said yes she did have SIM card available for $28/month, but I needed my passport to buy one. Since I’d nearly sliced off my toe in an onboard accident two days before, walking all the way back to the dock, taking a water taxi out and back didn’t appeal to me, but I did it anyway. When I returned (again with no one speaking English) I later found out they’d sold the last SIM an hour earlier and wouldn’t have any for at least two weeks. Double ugh! 

We also struck out trying to find ice, water, and other Internet sources. We finally did find a nice little ice cream store that would give you some WiFi in exchange for buying an ice cream cone so that worked well for me. After an hour of determining that the outside world was still alive and functioning, we packed up and walked the gauntlet  of sleeping sea lions lining the dock and hailed a water taxi.

Back on the boat we both collapsed in a heap after walking around town in the 90-degree heat and decided to take it easy for a couple of days.

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