TRAVEL / The voyage of the Wahoo: Sue Nelson sailed in Darwin's wake through the Galapagos. The boat was dirt-cheap, the wildlife extraordinary

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The Independent Culture
THE MORNING after the night before often causes problems. So a cruise which began on a national holiday was asking for trouble. For a start, two of the four crew members were missing. 'They are too drunk,' the captain said apologetically. More important, one of the missing drunkards was our guide - a requirement of all organised trips to the Galapagos, as 90 per cent of the islands belongs to a national park. The captain, fortunately, was also a qualified guide; but he spoke little English.

Finally a Spanish-speaking passenger offered to translate and Yofred the cook agreed to double as deck hand between meals. The two-man crew and six tourists then boarded the dinghy-style panga and headed towards the Wahoo - the smallest boat in Puerto Ayora, on the Galapagos island of Santa Cruz.

Three hours later I was resting on a white beach at Santa Fe. Vermilion crabs scuttled across bubbled lava rock and rows of contented sea lions sunbathed by the lapping tide. Blue-footed boobies, living up to their ludicrous name, perched on distant rocks.

The Galapagos archipelago may be volcanic but each island has a distinctive landscape. Seymour Island, for example, is covered by a ghostly white forest of palo santo trees, where the only colour is a sun-bleached cactus or the inflated red mating pouch of a frigate bird. Santiago, in contrast, is an endless slag heap of wrinkled and twisted lava.

Each island also offers different sights. Some harbour colonies of flamingos, fur seals, penguins or boobies. Others have iguanas, turtles and albatrosses. Frigate birds, sea lions and lava lizards are commonplace.

Island landings are either wet, where you wade ashore, or dry. Occasionally there are jetties, but usually the panga bobbed alongside volcanic rock while people scrambled on to land carrying binoculars and cameras.

In the water, we went snorkelling. Sea lions spiralled beneath me, the fish dazzled with kaleidoscopic variety while, at lower depths, a manta ray rippled languorously. Scrambling back into the panga I narrowly missed the spikes of a sea-urchin. Later Yofred split it open, scooped out the eggs and added lemon and raw onion. A Swedish passenger braved the first mouthful. 'Delicious,' Hannes declared. 'Like caviar.' The captain said, 'The French call it an aphrodisiac.' He swallowed a large spoonful and took my hand.

Meals, considering the size of the galley, were impressive. Conversations became natural history discussions revolving around mating habits of the reptiles, birds or mammals we had seen. Turtles, the captain informed us, can mate for six hours.

Eight people shared a vessel built for two. The crew slept in a tent on deck while the two couples shared the hold. I slept on a bench the other side of the dining table from Charles, an American fellow passenger. Privacy was nonexistent, but none of this mattered when each day was so spectacularly different.

At Bartolome, the captain said we were going to the moon. A steep path of volcanic ash crunched like powdery snow and led to a red rocky terrain - more Martian than lunar.

Up higher and we surveyed Pinnacle Rock, a gathering place for silver-breasted penguins. From the marked paths we were also able to see the familiar fluted trails made by the flippers of turtles as they dragged themselves inland to lay their eggs in the deep warm sand.

No wonder the Galapagos is considered by many to be a once-in-a-lifetime holiday: it's one of the few places where reality exceeds expectations. But its exclusivity is also, of course, guaranteed - by the cost. Ecuador may be one of the cheapest countries in South America but it has realised the value of the Galapagos. There's an dollars 80 (pounds 52) park fee for visitors, and although residents pay around dollars 45 for a return trip to Quito (Ecuador's capital and the nearest international airport), tourists must pay dollars 374 to fly from Quito to the islands.

From outside Ecuador, pre-booked cruises are extremely expensive, but there are cost-cutting alternatives. Travel agencies in Quito and Guayaquil often block-book inclusive flights and tours. Unsold places are usually available and occasionally sold at a discount. Galasam (Economic Galapagos Tours) will often sell flights-only seats if this is the case.

Once there, the cheapest way to see the Galapagos is to stay in Puerto Ayora, get together with other independent travellers and then charter a boat, crew and guide. This is easier than it sounds if you are prepared to wait two or three days, or longer during the high season. An American I met on the plane found a number of possible contacts on hotel noticeboards within hours of his arrival.

I decided to use a recommendation in the Lonely Planet guidebook as another way to save money. A room at Quito's Hotel Gran Casino costs no more than a London Tube fare. Basic backpacker accommodation, it's a place to arrange cheap Galapagos tours.

If there's such a thing as an Ecuadorian spiv, then the manager of the Hotel Gran Casino, Cesar Gavela, fits the bill. Wearing a cheap ill-fitting suit, he talked alternately into a telephone and a two-wayradio before selling me a last-minute tour place at a greatly reduced price. Not quite cruises off the back of a lorry - but almost.

The eight-day cruise on the Wahoo was dollars 495, inclusive of meals, and cost half the amount paid by most passengers who used travel agents at home. There were continual mechanical problems, and a bucket of sea water had to be used as a shower or a toilet flush. When moored at visitor sites, everyone gazed enviously at the spacious luxury cruisers, which dwarfed our own. But I got exactly what I'd paid for: a first-class experience - in a bargain-basement boat.

Breakdowns aboard the Wahoo became a daily joke, but I knew we were in serious trouble when Yofred radioed for help. We all had a plane to catch, and eventually a rescue boat arrived to ferry us to the airport. Before I boarded, Yofred pulled me to one side. 'Eh Susanita,' he whispered, 'what about you and the capitano?'

Return flights to Quito by Viasa, valid for three months, are available from Trailfinders (071-938 3366) at pounds 534, or pounds 491 each for two people. Cox & Kings, 45 Buckingham Gate, London SW1E 6AF (071-834 7472) offers an eight-day Galapagos cruise for pounds 1,465 per person, including flight from Quito to the islands; or a 14-day holiday, including an eight-day cruise plus some time in Quito and all flights, for pounds 2,595. Journey Latin America, 14-16 Devonshire Road, London W4 2HD (081-747 8315) has seven-night cruises,

including flight from Quito, for pounds 841 to pounds 1,685.

(Photograph omitted)