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Beware of Sarvaltours and the Merak tour of the Galapagos Islands

The details below concern the Merak
tour that I took of the Galapagos Islands, last January.
I am posting this complaint only after trying for many months in vain to get an
adequate response from Sarvaltours (in Quito, Ecuador), the tour operator that sold
me the package.

You know that you're on a nightmare tour when you're just counting the minutes
until you're finished, rather than savoring every moment of your vacation.

To sum up my complaints in a single sentence: the Merak cruise
and boat materially failed to provide a safe, clean, professional, informative,
and enjoyable experience and, while selling me the tour, Sarvaltours made
several misrepresentations regarding the quality of the boat, the crew, the
guide, and the actual time to be spent physically on the Galapagos Islands.

To the extent that the failures below relate to safety and/or basic cleanliness
and ship hygiene, there may have very well been violations of law, although I
am not familiar with the applicable Ecuadorian or Galapagan laws.

Here are the details about what was easily one of the worst vacations of my
life. Note that I changed the names of the other passengers, to protect their
privacy.

1) When I arrived at the airport, I had to search for about twenty minutes
before finding someone from Sarvaltours. There was no sign for the company or
anyone to greet me upon arrival. I finally asked a guide from another company
to help me and he brought me to Cesar, who berated me for not responding when
he called out my name (rather than
simply apologizing for not coming prepared with a sign for Sarvaltours and/or
with my name written on it). Cesar apparently doesn´t realize that his elderly
voice is very soft and his short stature does not at all stand out in a crowd,
and that there are hundreds of people at the airport with lots of noise and
other commotion and that the way to find a total stranger is not to call out
the person´s name every five minutes in the hope that he or she happens to
hear. The best way to pick up a total stranger at the airport is to hold up a
sign with the person´s name at the point where passengers leave the main
arrival area (the way the Galapagos guides from other tour operators did at the
airport arrival area). I have traveled to about 60 countries, and nobody has
ever tried to meet me at the airport by calling out my name at random
intervals, hoping that I would hear.

2) After I arrived on the Merak boat for the first time,
I assumed that I (and the rest of the passengers) would be given some very
basic information about the boat -- including important safety features of the
boat, where the life-vests are located, how the unique bathrooms features
worked, who was in charge of what on the boat (in case of any
problems), etc. But there was no explanation of anything offered by Cesar or
any crew member. This lack of communication and information would result in
various problems and inconveniences throughout the cruise (for example, no one
ever instructed us to keep the cabin window closed at night because water can
come splashing through into one´s bed from outside).

3) There were never any proper introductions of the crew, captain, etc. and
from the moment I arrived the crew seemed to keep to itself. The tone that was
set from the beginning was that we should communicate with the crew as little
as possible because any questions or requests were a bother to them.

4) Because one of the passengers was going to arrive late on my first day of
the tour, Cesar took us to a nearby beach and told us to bring our snorkeling
equipment. It turned out that there would be no tour or explanation of anything
on that beach (which is the only thing that we got to see during the first day
of the cruise). Thinking that it was better to leave my camera away from the
water (and assuming that I could return for it later if needed), I left my
camera on the boat. The two Germans on the tour with me (Hans and Kristina) did
the same thing under the same assumptions. We snorkeled for a while in waters
that weren´t very interesting (Cesar himself said that this snorkeling
was more to test our equipment than to see anything special) so we stopped
after about an hour of testing our equipment and seeing nothing of interest.
But when we walked around the beach afterwards we did see many animals and
other things that we wanted to photograph during the hour that we had left on
the beach. So I went up to the
captain (Luis), and asked him if he could take us back to the Merak
boat (in the dinghy) so that we could all retrieve our cameras. His reply was:
¨No, there´s only one hour left. We don´t have time for that. Just keep
snorkeling.¨ I tried to explain to him that I was finished snorkeling and that
it would take only five minutes to go back to the boat in the dinghy so that Hans,
Kristina, and I could photograph some of the things on that beach. ¨Don´t
worry, tomorrow you´ll see many more beautiful things that you can photograph,¨
he said. ¨We can´t go back now.¨ And that was it. His attitude and reasoning
was totally absurd and unhelpful -- as if he was too lazy to drive the dinghy
for five minutes so that three of his tour customers could take some pictures
of what they had paid so much to see. And, as it turns out, there were a few
animals and scenes from that beach that
we didn´t encounter again during the rest of the tour (contrary to the
assertions made by Luis).

5) Later that afternoon, back on the boat, I wanted to rinse off the seawater
in a shower, but there was no water. I asked Luis about the situation and he
said ¨We´re waiting for the water to come.¨ That was all the information he
would offer. He didn´t say what might have happened to the shower, how long he
expected the problem to last, or
even how long such problems have lasted in the past. About two hours later, I
asked for an update and he snapped at me rather aggressively: ¨I already told
you that the water is coming. You don´t need to ask me any more,¨ he said, as
if I was wrong for wanting a more precise update as to when I could take a
shower and change out of my bathing
suit and into some clean clothes.

6) On our second day of the tour, after riding for about 4-5 hours on the boat
(to Santa Fe) Cesar told us that we should rest on the boat for another 45
minutes, so that we don´t go snorkeling immediately after lunch. Hans requested
that we spend this 45 minute rest time on land because we had been on the boat
for such a long time. I fully
agreed with him and saw no reason why the 45 minute rest that we were supposed
to have after lunch couldn´t be spent off of the boat. So I tried to facilitate
as an interpreter because I speak both German and Spanish. Luis then blasted
the radio, just as we were trying to have a discussion with Cesar about all of
this (an act that was both
obnoxiously inconsiderate and totally counter-productive). Cesar stubbornly
refused Hans´ request, without providing any good reason. He said only that if
we get off the boat immediately and walk around, then we would end up
snorkeling later when there would be less light out. This, of course, made no
sense. Whether we waited 45
minutes on the boat or 45 minutes on land before snorkeling made no difference
at all to the amount of light outside. But when I tried to explain this to
Cesar, he became even more irritated and then Luis started attacking me for
acting as a translator with respect to a request that he considered
inappropriate. ¨As the captain of this
cruise, I have to make sure that the guide is obeyed,¨ Luis warned, in an
attempt to ¨pull rank¨ and cut off all further discussion. What the customers
wanted seemed not to matter to anyone. Then suddenly Cesar angrily declared
that we would completely break the program and do it the way Hans wanted, even
though this would ruin the snorkeling for everyone. Rather than listen or give
any reasonable response, Cesar tried to turn a simple and sensible request into
some test of wills between him and one of his passengers. In the end, to try to
¨keep the peace,¨ we just submitted to Cesar´s obstinately unreasonable wishes
and needlessly stayed on the boat for another 45 minutes, but the incident was
really bizarre, unpleasant, and irrational.

7) On the night of January 14th, when we were sailing to Floreana, it was
raining very hard, the sea was very wild and rocky, and the passengers seemed a
bit nervous about the boat´s safety. The tour passengers were either in bed,
trying to somehow sleep through or forget about the rocky ride, or sitting
around the cabin, securing themselves by holding onto something and looking
into the distance with heavy stares (as if they were wondering whether we would
survive the trip). Nobody was talking. Everyone was alone in his thoughts about
the worst that might happen on the tempestuous waters. I myself had never been
on a boat ride in which -- for hour after hour -- the entire boat sways from
one side to the other (almost to the point that the top deck of the boat
touches the water), while cruising fast into big waves and choppy waters and
heavy rain. It was difficult to walk around without being thrown around the
cabin by the force of the ship´s rough and powerful movements. This rough ride
went on for hours and there was never any reassurance from any crew members, no
safety instructions, or anything else that might make the passengers feel
safer. So the passengers just sat silently or lay in their beds while bracing
themselves for the worst.

When I finally asked for a life vest, I was derided by Maurio, Cesar, and Luis,
for about twenty minutes, until -- when I stood my ground and insisted on
getting a life vest -- Maurio became hostile and threatening, as if he was
about to start a physical altercation with me, just as the ship was about to
capsize. After about twenty minutes of this psychological torture, Luis finally
went up to the deck and got me a life vest.

Ironically enough, when we went to Puerto Ayora, on the fourth night of my
trip, all of the tour passengers were required to wear a life-vest during the
dinghy ride to the port so that the crew wouldn´t be fined by the local
authorities. Before that night we had already made about a dozen dinghy rides
from the Merak boat to the shore (or from the shore back
to the Merak) -- sometimes in deeper and/or more
dangerous waters -- but this was the first time that we were ever given
life-vests as a group (and we were told that this was just to avoid a fine in
the busy port area, where I am assuming that the Merak´s
safety practices are easier to monitor than in the remote and isolated areas
where we before). But during long stretches of travel in the open sea, and
during stormy weather and dangerously rough seas, we were given nothing (except
for me, after my lengthy negotiations and countless requests in the middle of a
tempest). Apparently the only thing that mattered to the crew was avoiding a
fine from the local authorities rather than
ensuring that their passengers actually felt safe and had adequate protections.

What I listed above are specific incidents that come to mind and which I
detailed in roughly chronological order. Now here are some more general
observations about the problems with the boat, the staff, and the tour in
general.

A) The guide, Cesar, seemed tired and utterly disinterested in his work. At one
point during the trip he told me that he just wanted to retire already so that
he could stay home and watch football, and I wasn´t at all surprised to hear
this. I´m sure he has worked hard all of his life and is entitled to retire,
but if he is still taking money to give tours, then he should still provide the
the attitude and the service for which the people on the tour paid good money.

Whatever services and explanations Cesar provided during the tour were usually
offered begrudgingly and lazily. Often times it seemed like if we didn´t ask
him for the information, he wasn´t going to give it to us. On many occasions he
simply avoided a follow up question (apparently either because he didn´t know
the answer or didn´t feel
like replying). He usually gave his explanations to the one or two people who
happened to be standing next to him, rather than first getting the group´s
attention before starting his talk. I ended up having to do most of the
translation for him, either because he forgot to translate into English for
some of the passengers, or because he
just didn´t bother and people got tired of asking him for the translation and
just started looking to me for the translation.

B) The captain, Luis, was very arrogant and lazy. Talking to him felt like he
was doing me a favor by listening. He sometimes acted as if he were the
customer and the tourists were working for him. He handled each small request
from a passenger begrudgingly, as if we were pests that were ruining his
relaxing boat cruise.

C) The cook, Maurio, as detailed above, was extremely hostile and menacing, and
created an atmosphere of severe tension on the boat. He was also very
inconsiderate on multiple occasions:
---One time, when Cesar was trying to address the group after a meal, Maurio
turned on the radio and someone had to tell him to turn it off so that the
group could hear Cesar.
---On at least two occasions, Maurio defecated in the bathroom and walked out
without cleaning the toilet. Not only is this just plain disgusting and
unpleasant for the next person using the bathroom, but it also raises questions
about how sanitary the handling of the food was (after all, if the cook doesn´t
do even minimal cleaning after
using the bathroom, who knows how he handles the food or how clean his hands
are when he is preparing meals?).

D) The second captain, Lenin, was the only member of the ship´s crew who did
his job professionally and seriously, and who treated the passengers with
respect and consideration. I´m sure that the serious safety infraction during
the stormy night (when I had to repeatedly request a life-vest) would have been
prevented by him had he not been
busy up on the deck navigating the ship through the storm. Lenin is an
excellent service provider who should be commended for his good work, and it is
thanks to him that the experience was at all tolerable.

E) Sarvaltours gave me the impression that the boat would run with the sail
much of the time (which is a much more pleasant experience than the loud and
smelly gas motor running all the time), but in the end, we used the sail only
once and we did so with the loud and smelly gas motor running. In other words,
for about four days the loud and smelly gas motor on the boat was running
almost non-stop. Also, I was unable to sleep one night when the Argentine
couple ran the air conditioning in their room all night. Of course, they have
the right to have cooler air (even though no other rooms on the boat have
air-conditioning), but if the motor from their private air-conditioner is so
loud that it
keeps other passengers awake the entire night, then this is a defect in the
boat.

F) For at least my first night the toilet seat in one bathroom was broken.

G) For the entire trip, the faucet in the other bathroom was barely functional,
so that only small drops came out.

H) In the bathroom with the broken faucet, the shower head spewed out water
that often smelled a little bit strange and rotten (like sewer water).

I) The sheets and towels were never changed or cleaned, even though one´s towel
and sheet become quite dirty after four nights on a ship with lots of dirt from
the sea/beach and from a small space divided among eight tourists (plus a crew
of four people) in very cramped quarters. Isn´t there some regulation that
requires more sanitary practices?

J) In general, we spent far too much time on the boat, and only a few hours
each day on any island. When I spoke with tourists who had gone on other
cruises, they told me that they did most of their traveling during the night
and were able to spend most of their days on land. We traveled by night only
once. Sarvaltours should have made it clear
that there would actually be on the land only a few hours each day because I
would not have bought the cruise had I known this (since it doesn´t make sense
to spend so much of one´s waking hours on a boat when the whole point is to see
the islands).

H) Sarvaltours failed to provide any real information about what passengers
should take with them for the trip. For example, they said that I could rent
snorkeling equipment but didn´t say that I would need to bring my own wetsuit
(and the water was quite cold at times). As another example, they never
mentioned the fact that the program included a hike deep into an unlit volcanic
cave that would require a flashlight (which I didn´t have with me because I
didn´t know it would be needed).

F) The crew was not always available to help passengers to go from the dinghy
back on to the boat, and on a few occasions it was I who was giving people a
hand to make sure they didn´t slip on their way over back to the main vessel.
This may be yet another safety violation, although I don´t know what the exact
regulations are.

G) The tour was advertised as ¨Four nights and five days¨ but in reality the
fifth day is only one hour in the Charles Darwin center. Sarvaltours claims
that this is how all tour packages are marketed but if that´s the case then all
of these tour operators are marketing with misleading information. They should
instead say ¨4 nights and 4.04 days¨ or just ¨4 nights and 4 days¨ because one
hour in the Charles Darwin center is hardly a whole day.

Charles

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