This is my experience on the Yacht Isabella II by Metropolitan Touring. They also run a similar but larger boat, the Santa Cruz. Generally I write this because there is a lack of solid information and I hope you may find it helpful.
Having done a fare amount of research, I determined that the Isabella II had space for the time frame I wanted and was going to some of the islands I was hoping to see.
I was booking somewhat last minute and put out requests directly to Metropolitan Touring, to Happy Gringo (//www.happygringo.com) and a couple other outfits.
Happy Gringo got back to me pretty quickly saying they’d give me a detailed response soon thereafter. It took them about seven days to get back to me although they had more work to do than Metropolitan as are looking at all the options from all the various companies.
Metropolitan Touring (the Company that owns the Isabella and Santa Cruz) got back to me quicker, as expected, and were very helpful/speedy. They offered a price – which they said was highly discounted, from the regular price of $5300, to just under $4000 per person for the expedition*. Their quote included all park fees and the flights from GYE/UIO to the Galapagos and back. Given that you are going direct, you assume you are getting the best price.
*I was inquiring of the 7 day, 6 night, Northern Galapagos Tour on the Isabella. This gets you up to Genovesa, Fernandina and Isabela – all islands I was interested in seeing. Anything less than that timeframe seemed to be a waste of time.
Just before signing the contract, Happy Gringo got back to me with a quote of $3070, bare bones. To that, you add $100+$20 for the Park Fees, etc. and you are at $3190. Depending on what you can get for airfare, this was quite reduced from the $4000 Metropolitan had quoted.
In conclusion, Metropolitan ended up doing it for $3688 all-in. While I believe you can get flights for cheaper than $500RT, given the whole trip, I felt it better to just have the flights included so that if anything went wrong, Metropolitan would have skin in the game. In retrospect, that was probably unnecessary “insurance” and if I did it again, I would’ve just booked the flights myself.
I stayed in GYE a couple days early to check it out. It is a non-touristy town if you stay away from the tourist hotels, and was good for a couple days.
I got to one of the approved hotels and got transport from Metropolitan – thereby beginning the trip. They brought us to the airport, gave us our paperwork and sent us on our way.
The first day is actually a waste of a day, as is the last, so when you see 7 days, 6 nights, it is really more like 5 days of the Galapagos Islands. The first day you show up, go to a lackluster tortoise breeding farm, see a couple tortoises in captivity and go back to the ship. Generally this feel like a busy-body activity while they wait for everyone to show up (in case of delays, etc.) You do have a very short amount of time to check out the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno which is a nice small town where you can get a quick beer, supplies for the ship, gifts, etc. I would have found it nice to be given the option to stay in the town rather than see captive tortoises, but I digress.
The Expedition consisted of three main naturalists. One (“A”) was super friendly, super accommodating, knowledgeable and helpful. Guide A seemed like the leader of the group. One (“B”) was friendly but not overly engaging during walks – but completely fine. The final guide (“C”) was on a continual power-trip, liked to order people around and was abrasive in tone and word. He treated some passengers well and other passengers terribly.
Generally I’d say Guide A is a guide you are lucky to have and this Guide made the whole trip far different than it would have been if this guide had not been there. Guide B was a guide you would typically get – doesn’t go above and beyond – does what is expected but doesn’t add or subtract to the trip. Guide C was a guide that definitely detracts from the trip.
The cook/kitchen on board were very good and I think generally everyone agreed they did a fine job. The waitstaff was solid in their execution, with one waiter in particular, what you might expect in a Michelin restaurant. He had super attention to detail, was friendly, etc. These types definitely add to the experience moreso than one might think.
The bartender definitely could use some bar knowledge. While very friendly, he lacked basic bar know-how. When you are paying this kind of money for a cruise or tour or whatever you want to call it, and you only have one bartender on hand, you should have someone competent. The other thing is, juices and sodas and such were quoted around $5 a glass, a bottle of beer was north of that. Cocktails ran around $15. More is expected and Isabella and Metropolitan came short here. Given this isn’t a drinking cruise, it isn’t the end of the world, but still worth mentioning.
Metropolitan did a rather poor job of communicating what was included and what wasn’t and guests figured things out over time rather than knowing what to expect. For instance, water, coffee and tea were offered on the Isabella II without additional charge. There were also small snacks like cookies offered first-come-first-serve.
In addition, snorkeling equipment was included with the package price noted above and so no additional charge there. However, to the contrary, anyone using wet suits were charged for those by the day. This was never mentioned, or at least I nor the people I ask, heard them mention this. There was never a sign up sheet or anything before getting the wetsuits that noted this either. Essentially passengers were told if they want a wet suit to get one out of the closet, much like being told if you wanted fins, etc to get those from the closet. Some passengers would not have used wetsuits if they had known of this daily charge. As for water temperature, I found the sea in mid-December to be completely suitable without a wet suit but I was in the minority.
This is where Guide A made all the difference. This Guide recognized that some would be interested in photography and customized earlier landings or later island departures. This Guide was very instrumental in making sure everyone was satisfied and did whatever possible in this goal.
The landings were generally long enough to see the island or snorkel spots and get a feel for things. The landing quality depended on what guide you had. If you have Guide A, the landing was far better.
Generally all landings consisted of very easy walks, regardless of warnings. Nothing heavy duty is required and you don’t really even need to be in shape for what you do. The snorkeling was fine, nothing equivalent to the Maldives or some of the other places I’ve been, but there were nice schools of fish, a handful of sharks, some seals, etc. Equipment was in pretty good shape and of good quality.
Given weather, some of the snorkeling spots were canceled and there is nothing that can really be done about that. It is just how nature works. As an alternative, Guide A allowed people to jump from the boat and swim to enjoy the day that way.
In one episode, Guide A told us that we could walk anywhere in a certain area. Guide C stayed behind as I was busy photographing and another passenger was still wandering about. That passenger walked into that area which Guide A said was okay. As I was done photographing, I walked towards her and Guide C yelled at me that I was breaking the rules. I asked to understand as Guide A said it was okay to be there and Guide C had let this other passenger go there without issue. He refused to explain what I had done wrong, refused to explain how I would know I was in the wrong spot, refused to explain why this other passenger was allowed and I was not. This was the kind of spiteful actions that Guide C displayed on numerous occasions and it definitely put a dent in the trip.
The ship was completely sufficient for the journey. There was a small gym on the top deck, a hot tub, an outdoor deck on the top deck of the stern, a bar on the stern on the bottom deck, and cabins along the starboard and port on the middle deck. I believe the bridge had an open policy but it was difficult getting clarification on this. Communication was definitely a weak point with Metropolitan Touring.
One downside was that there was no heat in the cabins. Each cabin has its own climate control, but no one ever explained the heaters do not work. When you turn up the temperature and put out heat, it blows cold. When my friend felt sick, a bunch of cold air blowing as “heat” didn’t help matters much. The AC worked very well.
The bathrooms were totally sufficient.
Housekeeping did a very good job cleaning the rooms and getting everything straightened in quick order. This was another excellent aspect that Metropolitan Touring & the Isabella II can be applauded for.
Overall, I have to say I was disappointed with the experience and would not book with Metropolitan on the Isabella again. It actually put me off to the Galapagos. Perhaps my expectations were too high where I pictured tons of wildlife, impressive scenery and a great trip. There were great scenes and nice wildlife but the great trip left something to be desired.
While the ship, ship crew, kitchen staff, housekeeping staff and Guide A were all excellent, Guide C really negatively impacted the experience more than any one person should. Sometimes there are personal conflicts and that happens – but having multiple passengers doing everything they can to avoid this guide and trying at all costs to get with Guide A is not a good sign.
Communication could definitely be improved after booking happens. Pre-booking, the communication was excellent, but I, and most passengers I talked to were a bit confused at multiple junctures as to what was going on. This might be a language barrier issue – I don’t know. Those who mentioned the wet suit charges at the end when bills were tallied were told they were told and that nothing can be done. Even though none of us heard about these charges, it was tough luck. That kind of attitude is unacceptable to me and in conjunction with Guide C’s numerous nasty sleights and outbursts, can certainly leave a sour taste.
Furthermore, the trip itself didn’t seem to be as mind-blowing as I would thought it would have been. It was geared towards very basic walks and at points it just felt like we were killing time. Perhaps it would have been helpful to split the group up by fitness level and allow those who are a little more fit to explore more rather than be held back. I know running these expeditions can be complex and I do want to give credit for that. At the end of the day, maybe this is geared towards a more sedentary populace.
Where the expedition really shined was Guide A who did a very impressive job to give some of that freedom and flexibility. I really can’t say enough that I am very thankful (and other passengers as well) that Guide A was on this expedition and making decisions on the fly. Guide A definitely made this trip way better than it would’ve been otherwise.
Also, in talking to passengers, I didn’t meet anyone who paid more than $4,000 for the expedition. Further, it seemed most booked a month or so before the voyage (which might explain the pricing). Perhaps the season was a down year for the cruises and prices will shoot up going forward, but it was interesting to note nontheless. Generally I’d say you should not take the first price and see if you can do better cause you probably can. Also, this was in the mid-December to late-December timeframe when things are said to be at their peak.
If I did the Galapagos again, I think I would focus on a smaller ship that was out for a longer duration. I would definitely not book anything larger than the Isabella II, which I think is at the limit size-wise before you have too large of a group.
I am also quite aware that part of the restrictions I experienced are related to Galapagos regulations that can’t be circumvented. This is completely understandable but still is all part of the experience. Personally I’d rather these environments be more protected rather than being over-run by tourists tossing garbage everywhere in an effort to be “more-fun”.
In general, I prefer a little more freedom than the Isabella II itinerary provided which may be an industry-wide thing (or not). I don’t want to suggest the whole trip was a bust because there were definitely nice moments and a lot of things were done well; it just wasn’t a mind blowing experience some of my other trips have been; perhaps I was expecting too much.
If you have any questions about the Galapagos, Yacht Isabella II or anything else, leave it below and I’ll get back to you as best able.