International Small Islands Studies Association




The crossing from hell

Laurie Brinklow

A friend from Prince Edward Island decided to visit the Galapagos Islands. She knew that I had been there in 2013 (it was a pilgrimage of sorts to the Island Studies "motherland"), so she asked for some travel and accommodation tips. I was happy to oblige... after all, someone had done the same for me. 

This morning she posted a video on Facebook of a snippet of her "crossing from hell" from Santa Cruz to Isabela Island, along with these words:

...journey to Isabella Island on a Galápagos "ferry". The "ferries" are 2 or 2 1/2 hour transfers in open ocean. My San Cristobol to Santa Cruz ride was just beautifully smooth so what were the words of caution all about? I am a wind in your hair kind of gal so no big deal, just another boat ride. In the afternoon onward to Isabella Island........well the video says it all! Thanks to Jeannie and Laurie for the heads up about these ferries......I so should have overnighted in Santa Cruz! Arrived with my lunch intact but my brain was rockin' and rolling all night long. Not looking forward to the sequel but I must return!


Her video took me right back. I so remember that boat ride. The sounds, the smells, how I reeled and staggered after FINALLY being released from what I'm sure was hell. In fact, I wrote about it and included it in an Appendix of my PhD dissertation. Here it is. Thanks, Diane (I think!), for the reminder! 


Trying to figure out how to get between the Galapagos Islands in May 2013, I nearly drive myself crazy. Our plan is to fly into San Cristobal, then make our way to Isabela Island, which friends tell us is their favourite. But nowhere on the Internet can I find reference to a ferry service. Besides chartering a boat, or paying thousands of dollars to be part of a cruise, how in hell do backpackers get from one island to the other?

I now know. You go to a tourist operator’s office along the main street, or you find an agent or boat-owner on the dock. You choose which company you want to entrust your life to by looking at photos of their boats. You pay your $30 each (one-way). Best to make a reservation for your return, too. So $60. You show up an hour before sailing time (6 a.m.). You don’t eat breakfast because you figure you can pick something up on the boat. You join dozens of others with suitcases or boxes or packs sitting or lying on the dock half or fully asleep. When the boat pulls up to the dock, you see that breakfast is not in your future. The boat is a 32-foot, triple-outboard speedboat with a cabin that’s only half-closed-in. You hand your bag to the captain who throws it onto the bunk in the bow. You take the first mate’s hand and haul yourself over the edge of the boat onto the seat. You wonder if you should be in what passes for the cabin, to keep out of the sun, or out in the open, so you don’t get seasick. You choose halfway. You watch everyone else.

There are 14 of us altogether—my partner and I, plus 12 young ‘gap year’ volunteer students from England doing conservation work in the Amazon and Ecuador. They are going to Isabela for a long weekend. Some of us put on life jackets. We cast off. The first mate sits between two of the young women on the bench in the stern. He plugs in his ear buds, holds onto his iPod. Looks like he’s sleeping with his eyes open.

The kids have been up late partying, and so after a while some of them slide down onto the floor, drape themselves around what looks like an anchor that is wrapped in cardboard, using life jackets for pillow. They curl like sardines crammed into a tin. Others stretch out in the space the floor-sleepers vacated.





After about half an hour, the first mate makes his way up to the foam mattress in the bow of the boat, where the luggage is piled. He clears away a spot and promptly falls asleep to the constant bam-bam-bam of the boat’s bow as it heads at top speed—three engines flat out—from island to island. Bumping, jolting, slamming. Watching the small rocky island off San Cristobal’s harbour finally disappear on the horizon at the one-hour mark. Seeing small, uninhabited islands pop up on either side in the distance at the two- and three-hour marks—fleeting floating miracles.

The door to a small compartment that holds a gas can is flapping—the smell of gasoline makes us nauseous. My partner joins the kids on the floor to try to sleep and to keep from getting sick.

Soon it’s only me and one of the young women at the back awake. She’s wearing black flats—the vinyl coating peeling, soles flapping—fur-lined hooded jacket zipped to her chin. Eyes meet, roll … 

The sound of the engine concusses my brain—to entertain myself all I can do is try to identify the minor tones going up and down above the basic roar—the melody a drone. I play a game: can I shape them, force or direct them up or down, or are they happening on their own and it is just my ears catching them, or is it a combination. I think I’ll go insane with the monotony.

This just ‘being’ is sinking to a whole new level. Where can I take my brain under such unpleasant circumstances? I can’t read, I can’t write, I can’t eat or drink, I can’t talk to my fellow captives since shouting in each other’s ear is the only way to communicate. And they’re all asleep. I lie down on the bench. Blessed unconsciousness eludes me.

After about three hours, the captain whistles from above. Somehow the mate hears the piercing sound over the engine’s assault and through his slumber. He drags himself out of the luggage, picks his way over stirring bodies, and clambers up to the captain’s seat above us. The tones change as the boat slows. The captain climbs down, heads to the head. The kids take advantage of the slower boat to use it, too. They come out disgusted, the most awful bathroom they’ve ever been in, water and pee splashing everywhere, no toilet paper …

It isn’t until after it is over, in the water taxi (where the driver circles the boat until everyone pays their buck), that we actually communicate with one another. Still too raw to laugh. The girl in the cheap flats tells us how at one point she was the only person awake. She felt like she was stuck in an alternate universe.

Over the next few days as we bump into the kids at Iguana Point Bar or on the volcano walk, it becomes this shared experience that we laugh about, uneasily, knowing that it was really, really awful. We share other stories, too. Like our first meal on Isabela: Could I have a latte, please? Sorry, no leche. Could I have a chicken sandwich, please? Sorry, no pollos. Could I have a vegetable sandwich? Sorry, no vegetales. Well, what DO you have?

The day before leaving we watch the supply ship drop its anchor in the harbour in front of our casa hospidaele, small boats pushing barges that ferry goods back and forth to the dock.

Leaving day. 5:30 a.m. Psyching ourselves up for our return trip, this time broken in half, with a five-hour layover on Santa Cruz Island. A plan to visit the Charles Darwin Research Centre. Mix-up over our return tickets—have to pay again. They tell us we’ll get a refund back on San Cristobal.

In the pre-sunrise we watch labourers unload onto little white delivery trucks lumber, furniture, whatever that is lashed to the barge. Men and boys jump from boat to dock, nimble, without hesitation, whistling in the half-dark their language. Gas exhaust fumes fill up the air as boats push the barges against the dock while they unload. Then more exhaust as trucks roar away. Nothing elegant about this process. We finally get on our boat. The trip back is just as bad. Try to sleep.


At the airport back on San Cristobal, the gap-year kids are leaving the Galapagos, too. I take a photo of two of the guys. Ask their names. Post it on Facebook. We don’t know one another. We’re generations apart. We’ll never see each other again. But I’m sure they’ll tell the story, too.


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