The Galapagos Islands—600 miles off the Ecuador coast—grow a little coffee, a few bananas and avocadoes. But it’s not a place you’d expect to dine like royalty, especially if you have a special diet like me.
However, on a recent cruise on the Letty, a ship owned by Ecoventura, the kitchen staff wowed me with meal after meal of fresh salads, artistically arranged entrees of eggplant and soy meat, and special vegan aprés-snorkel snacks.
According to chef Xavier Mancayo and assistant chef Roberto Urgiles, guests with special diets board the ship almost every week. The kitchen duo is trained to cook vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, and meals for diabetics. This takes a lot of planning, as the ship stocks up for a week at a time. All the food arrives by plane or boat.
Our group included a vegan, a vegetarian, and somebody who was eating vegan to keep kosher, as kosher is not a diet the ship accommodates. We all had plenty of great food to eat, as did the other 15 passengers, who followed a more standard diet.
The Ecoventura owns four tourist ships. Three of them house 20 passengers, the fourth, 16. A chief chef on the mainland sets the menu each week, which is the same for each ship.
The meals worked seamlessly with our sightseeing itinerary. We’d wake at 7:00 a.m., and breakfast was ready at 7:30. In addition to cereal, toast, fruit, pancakes, and other standard Western choices, the chefs made hot cheese-filled yucca cakes, a local specialty. For the vegans, they made a non-dairy variety, or cooked special potato patties with green onions.
After our morning shore visit and snorkel, we discussed blue-footed boobies and other wonders over a large buffet lunch. Even if the chef hadn’t made me special dishes, with all the salads and platters of fresh fruit, I would have had plenty to eat. Pineapple and bananas are especially good in Ecuador.
Mancayo and Urgiles are both young men in their 20’s. They work long days, getting up at five to start breakfast preparations, making mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks as well as lunch and dinner. They didn’t finish their kitchen duties until at least 9:00 p.m. The duo shares a cabin with six other crew members, working eight weeks straight, seven days a week, before getting four weeks off. Part of each vacation, Urgiles said, is spent at the Escuela de la Chef in Guayaquil, the culinary school where they got their original training. They’re constantly learning new techniques, including dishes for special-diet passengers.
Both Mancayo and Urgiles specialize in decorative food. They surprised our group one day with a huge display of carved fruits and squash and a model of the Letty made from bread. They stood proudly before a table covered with their ephemeral creations as we oohed, aahhed and snapped photos. My favorites were a portrait of Charles Darwin and a shark carved from a watermelon.
Sit Down, Barefoot Dinners
Dinners were sit-down affairs rather than buffets, although we hardly dressed for dinner. In fact, barefoot dining was perfectly acceptable. Dinner included several courses, with the entrees always being absolutely beautiful. Some of my vegan favorites were polenta with cabbage rolls and tomato stuffed with cubes of eggplant.
The chef was careful not to leave anybody out. He even made a vegan version of ceviche, Ecuador’s popular seafood soup. Dessert is, alas, where I am most likely to slip from my vegan diet. I coveted many a sumptuous cake and pudding while eating my special plate of grapes and bananas.
As people with special diets know, travel can present a lot of obstacles. Since I didn’t have to worry about food at all and could instead enjoy the wildlife and swimming, traveling with Ecoventura was relaxing.
I got used to life on the boat very quickly. After a week, I returned to the mainland, where I spent a night in the elegant Oro Verde Hotel. I was walking out the door of my hotel room to meet friends for dinner when I realized, with more annoyance than I want to admit, that my barefoot state was no longer acceptable dinner dress. Sighing, I turned back to look for my shoes. – story and photos by Teresa Bergen, RFT Contributor
Want to learn more about the Galapagos? Check out Teresa’s story “Cruising the Galapagos: Paradise for Animal Lovers.”