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Pikaia Lodge

Pikaia Lodge, Galapagos
Room type: Balcony Room
Duration: 18th > 22nd December, 2018

Pikaia Lodge is a wonderful property.  What a shame it had to be in the Galapagos – the most boring place in the world.  A place built on the discovery of science, and sold as tourism.  Give it 100 years and we’ll all be visiting London, not to look at it as a post-apocalyptic wasteland of Brexit, but to admire the origins of penicillin.  It’ll be just as fun.

Normally I would throw out some travel credentials to show my appreciation of the world.  No one wants to be that person who finds Anne Frank’s diary boring.  Fortunately, I am no one.  I will not be bullied into the mentality that has allowed Galapagos to get away with this crime for so long.  If you don’t like the Galapagos, you’re some vacuous oaf with a repressed Oedipus complex who collects dolls heads for employment.  Not anymore.  I am stepping forward with the bravery the world deserves.  I am taking a stand.  I am standing up for you, for us, the little people; the hard trodden who can afford to spend $12,000 for 4 nights in Pikaia Lodge.  Being in the 1% is ever so lonely – who else can we turn to?  

See? There’s nobody!

So let me explain it to you: the Galapagos is as natural and unspoilt as Sharon Osbourne’s face.  The entire island has a history of being shat on by humans, right up until the point someone realised money was better than human shat.  That’s when the government took ownership of 97% of the land and turned it into a national park – a place where all 85 million daily tourists get the opportunity to do the same, heavily regulated activities.  So if your idea of fun is seeing an iguana for 3 days, whilst spending 90% of your time traveling to said reptile, likely with large crowds, you are in for a treat.

It doesn’t matter if you show up with Roy Schneider in seaQuest, you will still find yourself patiently starring at that lizard, like any moment it’s about to deliver a punchline.  Surname Gates or Bezos?  You’ve still gotta get all your permits and wait in line with everyone else.  So don’t expect special privileges to any unique areas.  And don’t expect anything special.  Finally, empirical evidence that money can’t make you happy.  This is not to say that those with money are better than us, simply that it really doesn’t matter which tour company you end up with – it’s all the same.

The Galapagos is only interesting to geologists, divers or people that like monotony, like train spotters or those charity workers that chase me down the high street, no matter how much dog shit I pick up and throw at them.  Darwin has a lot to answer for.  But he managed to endure 5 weeks in the Galapagos, so he has already sacrificed too much to be questioned.

We’ve had a hard time in England lately, so I think I speak on behalf of everyone when I say that Charles was the last decent person our once great nation produced.  Suffice to say, we hold him in high regard.  Yet it’s because of him that this country is so over hyped.  Sure, his research disproved god and thus allowed the Queen to rule forever – or something like that – but it swindled millions of tourists out of enjoyment.  I half-way converted to creationism out of pure spite.    

If Darwin discovered evolution whilst starring at badgers next to Wendy’s on the M25, you can bet that we’d all hang around there, waiting to see those ugly, useless bastards to this day.  All badgers would be considered national treasures and killing one would be punishable by becoming the new Brexit Secretary.  Suffice to say, the Galapagos is the most overhyped place I’ve ever seen.  It’s so shit that I’ve even lost a smidge of respect for David Attenborough for his attempts to make it look half interesting.  If he just caveated his Galapagos documentary with “save yourself a journey and watch this instead”, the man would go down a legend.  Not anymore.  Now we’ll have to bury him next to one of the useless royals, like Princess Margaret.  At least all the tour guides seemed to benefit from Mr. Attenborough’s work, as their knowledge went as far as repeating it ad nauseam.

That’s now two British legends ruined by this place.  Darwin, why couldn’t you have discovered evolution in the Seychelles?  There’s even giant tortoises on North Island, so half the job was done for you.  All I kept hearing from the guides was how this was like Jurassic Park.  Well, if that’s the case, then it must have been the unreleased PETA version – the one that had no animals and dinosaurs.  Suddenly the infamous goat and T-rex being replaced by a stick of broccoli and a human isn’t quite so riveting.

Everything about this island is a money pit designed to remove all your sense of value.  $20 for a tourist visa, $100 to go into a park, $21 with a business class ticket to get into an airport lounge, a departure lounge where you have to pay for water.  You’re not allowed to bring anything here, but try leaving without them selling you some worthless dross that says “Galapagos” on it for $60 that some 6 year old in China was paid a dollar to make.

Made in China

If you’re still convinced to visit, then I should explain how to get here.  After they’ve searched all your belongings at Guayaquil and done a full rectal exam, you will have a seamless arrival experience: into a private arrival lounge, where food, drink and multiple staff await you to buy the necessary national park permit for your stay and take you through to the car.  A car journey to the dock, a short boat ride over, followed by another car journey on the other side, and within around 90 minutes you’ll be in Pikaia.

Sat atop a hill, with vast views into every direction, Pikaia Lodge far exceeded my expectations.  For a property with only 14 rooms, it packed a punch in terms of facilities; from their Homo Sapiens Explorers Lounge (essentially a library with a 92″ TV), to their spa, with two treatment rooms, a sauna, jacuzzi and gym (albeit with only 3 pieces of equipment in it).  A bar, restaurant and swimming pool all sit just outside the reception area, which contained significant seating areas – most of which were taken up by guests desperately trying to get Internet connectivity, as anywhere else it was unusable.

The spa was the biggest surprise.  An eco lodge with a real, pumping hot jacuzzi isn’t normal, but I’ll gladly take it over the survival of a species.  The amount of chlorine used surely isn’t a good thing, particularly if you don’t like smelling of odour d’swimming pool for the rest of the day.  Sadly the sauna was out of action for our entire stay, but that just gave Lucie an opportunity to have more treatments, which she spent so long gushing over that I was expecting her to leave me and stay behind here.

When you have views this good, who needs iguanas?

I got to find out too, after being told suncream lotion would be at reception on our first day, only to arrive and be told it was on the boat, only to arrive on the boat and not have any.  So that was my pasty white skin vs the sun on the equator.  I don’t think I won this round.  On return they offered a complimentary sunburn massage.  This is where I love marketing departments for spas, when they can describe it as:

This wrap is applied with special attention paid to sunburnt areas. This treatment will lower body temperature, moisturise and encourage new cell growth

Translation: a middle aged woman will rub aloe vera into your skin for 20 minutes, because we accidentally gave you a vitamin D overdose.  Soz.

The stay list was almost, almost, perfection.  I was somewhat bemused by them pointing out that they’re in a National Park, so some of my requests were borderline insane, only to then find they went overboard and managed to do absolutely everything, with the exception of toothpaste.  I’m not sure why brushing your teeth is so frowned upon here – maybe that glisten scares the animals off.

At Pikaia, the rooms are good enough, the food is good, but the service is exceptional.  It was easily the best service throughout our South American trip, but would have been impressive anywhere in the world.  With 90% of staff locals, it’s fair to say that the GM has done a wonderful job here.  It was suspiciously good.  Did they mistake me for someone important?  Fools!

All the small details were taken care of, such as knowing I don’t drink so not even offering it; proactivity with staff frequently checkin in and asking if we want anything, even down to being in the jacuzzi and offered drinks and snacks.  On the first day, the restaurant manager came and delivered me a plate of sweets, which kept getting restocked and following me around the rest of the stay.  I could barely look around during dinner before someone came over and offered me something; laundry was coming back the same day, and was very reasonably priced.  Everywhere you turned was a fresh towel, a snack, a drink, someone, anyone, just wanting to look after you.

When they did mess up, as they really did with the sunscreen, we never even had to say anything –  on arrival back at Pikaia they were already meeting us to apologise.

Our room was filled up with high glass windows, and even higher ceilings that echoed your thoughts around them.  Whilst basic, it offered everything that was needed, in particular when you rarely spend any time there other than to sleep.  An entrance gave way to a strangely positioned and unused living area, which then gave way to the main bedroom and those sumptuous views – either from the balcony or the bed.    The only issue was noise: either being able to hear our phone alarm whilst on our way back to the room, meaning our neighbours easily would have, or from how much noise passed around the room.  If you so much as breathe at night, it echoes throughout the room. Moving in bed sounds like you’re under attack by thousands of mice, whereas a fart would (probably) be the perfect advert for Dolby – like a lion screaming in your ear.

Food was great, but somewhat limited.  Dinner changes every two nights, with 4 starters and 4 mains as options.  Lunch never changed, but offered a good variety of sandwiches, main courses and starters; breakfast is a la carte only.  I enjoyed every meal at Pikaia, but on the last night we decided to have the lunch menu again as nothing from dinner appealed, so choice is definitely the primary concern here.  You will also be eating breakfast and lunch on the boat, depending on your activity schedule, but once again they did a solid job.  The only critique was that my food preferences were not passed on, so things suddenly came lurking where they shouldn’t have.

But really, all of this is almost irrelevant.  Pikaia Lodge is the only 5 star luxury hotel within the Galapagos.  If you don’t want to be on a boat, it’s the only option.  And it is a good option.  But then we come onto why you would even want to be here and what there is to do.  I can gladly go to a hotel, just for the hotel, and not care about nearby activities.  Doing that in the Galapagos, as on a safari or other nature based activities, would be insane.

On the day of arrival, concierge sit down to present your entire itinerary for your stay.  Ours was 2 days on water, 1 on land, all being day trips so limited in travel opportunities.  The land tour offered an afternoon to visit the nearby town, resident to 15,000 people, and go shopping.  Tis the season to be jolly, but coming to the Galapagos to go shopping wasn’t exactly something I had on my bucket list.  But this was, seemingly, the best of many bad opportunities.  With Pikaia completely held back by what the parks service allowed, their only control is based on the guides they have at their disposal.  In Africa, your guide makes the entire trip.  A good one can turn impala watching into a heroic adventure; a bad one and you’ll never forget those stupid impalas ruining your holiday.  Having done our fair share of safaris, we knew what to expect.

Perhaps they are the creme de la creme, but there was little to be excited about, and even less excitement from our guide.  The guide may as well have worn a T-shirt that said “Any questions? Watch the documentary”.  Even if Deadpool was our guide, it’d have been a snore.  There’s only so many cultural references a man can take, especially for that period of time and especially when it comes to rocks.      

For the water activities, we’d get up around 5am, grab a drink and be in the cars sometime between 6 and 6:30.  An hour later we’re on the boat, and a further 2 hours later we’re near to the first activity.  The boats was actually impressive, with day cabins containing 2 single beds, a shower and toilet.  On the middle deck, a jacuzzi awaits, whilst the bottom deck you have the dining area and on top the lounge.

Our first excursion saw 1 seal and 1 penguin; we left at 6am, returned at 6pm, and had barely 2 hours of actual activities due to the long distances between each island.  During the one event where it may have been interesting, the Galapagos Boring Police stepped in to ensure order.  Previously you could swim near seals, but at some point some sharks started eating them, so that was off the menu.  Instead you could now swim nearby and look at some rocks, that if you squint looked like seals.

With the activities group based, there was little time to keeping everyone happy.  I was trying to photograph the one and only penguin around, yet just as we got into position we were already speeding off somewhere else.  If they let tourists take photos, everyone may see what a bore it is and not come.  The Boring Police strike again.

On land, we were given the opportunity to see tortoises in a private enclosure.  The tortoises can go anywhere they want, but the owners of private land ensure they don’t by giving them beautiful land to live on.  And lots of cocaine.  Probably.  Now maybe this would have been exciting, had we not actually got to feed them and even stroke them on North Island and Fregate.  Instead here just making eye contact with them is a crime, and touching them is the equivalent of running up to a strangers child and pulling their trousers down.  So you just stare at them as they sit around doing nothing.  That gets dull after a few minutes too.

For the final day, we were back on the boat within group of 11 – 2 families, both wonderful, which made me feel terrible when they were asking us whether we enjoyed the previous trips.  I had to stare a Canadian dead in the eye and lie to their polite face.  This is the monster Pikaia turned me into.  I thought the fact that we were carrying our iPads, laptops, headphones, 65″ TV, PlayStation and Virtual Reality headset with us may have given away our thoughts of previous trips.

Different people; same shit.  One iguana after another, after another.  The islands you visit will depend on your luck of the draw – they have to link the itineraries with other guests, so you may get the most boring tour ever, or get lucky and only end up with the second most tedious.  There was little to learn from our guide too.  Maybe because we’re in a group and he’s telling the others, but we were not receiving any real information, except that if we take a rock we’re off to get bummed in jail.

When back at the lodge, outside of the Explorers Lounge and watching a documentary or movie, there’s really not much to do.  Departure came as a relief, except to say goodbye to all the wonderful staff – which was all of them.  On our final night, with most of the staff not being around in the morning, most came to say goodbye to us during dinner.  Those sweet, sweet souls.

Worth Knowing

It is the only time I wished I was on a cruise.  And I hate boats.  I’d rather devote 24 hours on a budget airliner during severe turbulence whilst acclaimed voice actor Tom Kenny from SpongeBob SquarePants reads 50 Shades of Grey to me, then be on a cruise.  Yet here it was tempting.  When it’s an hour’s drive from the lodge to the dock, followed by a further 2 hours to some wasteland that’s meant to fascinate me by its diversity of iguana’s, I totally get why a cruise makes sense.  

Pikaia I

The Good

  • Great facilities

The Bad

  • It’s in the Galapagos
  • Poor Internet connectivity
  • There is a difference between rustic and just not well maintained, and there are too many areas where things are just dirty

The Luxurious

  • Superb service

Conclusion

The Galapagos is as boring as re-runs of The Big Bang Theory, muted with German subtitles.  It may even be the biggest fraud in history.  Bernie Madoff must have looked at it and thought “hell, I can do better than that”, but $65 billion later he failed miserably. Yet if you must go, then Pikaia is a great option.  Probably the only one.  Maybe it’s the sunstroke; maybe the years taken off my life from the burns are forcing me into kindness, but maybe, just maybe, Pikaia Lodge is a wonderful property.  I only wish the Galapagos had evolved – into something interesting.

The only way these islands could be considered untouched by human hands, is if Jared Fogel was their spokesman and kept telling you he never laid hands on it.  Humans have already ruined this place. Be done with it; stick a Disney World on it and at least make it memorable.

Maybe now I’ve exposed them for what they are, there is hope.  The murmurs of discontent were quietly growing as we left.  Other guests were too polite to mention their dissatisfaction, but fortunately I was there to act as agony uncle.  This was not an evolution, but suddenly a revolution.  Viva la resistance.

The Galapagos crushing spirits

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 26th Dec '18

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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