Arrive in either Quito or Guayaquil, Ecuador, where you will be met and transferred to your local hotel*. Quito is located in a huge valley of the Andes Mountains at an altitude of 9,455 feet; it’s a great place to extend your stay to explore the city or the surrounding volcanic mountain range. Guayaquil is Ecuador’s largest city, and with its low elevation and more coastal location, it is an ideal point from which to fly to Galapagos. Stay at a local inn in Quito or Guayaquil for two nights. (*Hotel/city tour package is not included in cruise rate.)
Say hello to vibrant, waterfront Guayaquil
Day 2 Quito or Guayaquil
Quito city tour: Stroll down cobble stone streets and through flowering plazas; visit the old colonial center of Independence Square, the elegant cathedrals of San Francisco, La Compañía and San Agustín, Quito’s oldest monastery; drive through the residential section and past the Legislative Palace (Congress); Panecillo Hill overlooks the city and snow-capped mountains. The rest of the afternoon is at your leisure to explore or relax. Guayaquil city tour: Your first stop is Malecon 2000, an 80-million-dollar riverside complex built along a two-mile stretch of the Guayas River. The waterfront boardwalk features a myriad of restaurants, cafes and shops, and museums with art exhibitions as well as free weekend jazz and classical music concerts. Drive through the colorful streets of Guayaquil, one of Ecuador’s most important port cities. Visit the Public Market, the waterfront and the docks, and Simon Bolivar Park, which is famous for its tree iguanas; admire the watchtower, La Rotonda, Old Santa Ana Fort, and Las Penas, a charming colonial section of town that is occupied by artists. The rest of the afternoon is at your leisure to explore or relax.
Tour the stairstep hilltop community of Las Penas
Day 3 Baltra Island/Sombrero Chino
Today you will fly from Quito via Guayaquil to San Baltra Island (2.5 hours from Quito, or about 1.5 hours from Guayaquil). Upon arrival at Baltra airport, you will pass through an inspection point to ensure that no foreign plants or animals are introduced to the islands, then your guide will meet you and escort you on the short bus ride to the harbor. Motorized rafts called pangas will transport you to the yacht, where your crew will welcome you aboard. After a briefing and a light lunch, you will tour Sombrero Chino Islet, which means "Chinese Hat" in Spanish, a miniature volcanic cone. This site has a beautiful landscape and a spectacular white coral sand beach where visitors can see colonies of sea lions. It is a great place to observe lava formations such as spatter cones ("hornitos") and small lava tubes. The swimming and snorkeling are also excellent in this visitor site and penguins are frequently sighted.
Get your first glimpse of the Galapagos on your descent
Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
Day 4 Santa Fe/South Plaza Islands
Santa Fe offers one of the more beautiful and sheltered coves in the islands. Its turquoise lagoon is protected by a peninsula of tiny islets forming an ideal anchorage. The island lies southeast of Santa Cruz within sight of Puerto Ayora. Geologically, it is one of the oldest islands in the archipelago and for many years was thought to be a product of an uplift event. Through satellite imagery, it has been possible to determine that the island has volcanic origins. A wet landing on a sandy white beach brings us into contact with one of many sea lion colonies. Bulls contend for the right of being the beach master, while smaller males mask as females to make stealthy mating moves. Galapagos hawks are often easily approached, perched atop salt bushes, and an ascending trail leads toward the cliffs, where a dense thicket stands on the inland side. The cliff side provides an expansive view of the ocean. The giant prickly pear cactus found here certainly live up to their name, with tree-sized trunks.
Our goal is to spot one of the large species of land iguana endemic to Santa Fe. Beige to chocolate brown in color with dragon-like spines, these big iguanas truly resemble dinosaurs. Lucky hikers may spot harmless Galapagos snakes. After the hike, there is nothing more inviting than a swim in the calm waters of the bay.
South Plaza is is the southern partner of two small crescent-shaped islands that lie just a few hundred meters off the east coast of Santa Cruz. The northern island is used for scientific purposes only. South Plaza is one of the smallest, yet richest islands in the archipelago. Only 130 meters wide (426 feet), it was formed from uplifted seabed, giving it a tilted tabletop quality. Our landing is in the channel between North and South Plaza, where the island tilts toward the water.
The approach makes for a lavishly colorful sight. The turquoise waters of the channel contrast brilliantly with the black lava of the shoreline. The rocks have grown thick with green seaweed in places, speckled with bright orange Sally lightfoot crabs. Further up the shore a carpet of scarlet ice plant (sesuvium) serves as ground cover for a grove of luminescent green prickly-pear cactus. Yellow-gray land iguanas sit beneath, waiting patiently for pears to drop.
The trail gradually follows the tilt of the island to the cliffs that overlook the ocean to the south, where swallow-tailed gulls nest. Red-billed tropic birds and Nazca and blue-footed boobies ride the windy currents. The overlook is a great place for spotting large marine life, including manta rays. Surf pounds an inlet at the western corner of the island, where a colony of male sea lions makes their home at what is referred to as a bachelor's site. The oils from their fur leave the surrounding rocks looking polished and shiny.
Prickly pear cactus and other fauna are abundant on South Plaza
Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
Day 5 Tower/Prince Philip's Steps/Darwin Bay
Genovesa could serve as a film set for a secret submarine base with its ocean-filled caldera ringed by the outer edges of a sizeable and mostly submerged volcano. The island sits to the northeast, somewhat removed from the Galapagos archipelago. It is also known as "Bird Island," a name it lives up to in a spectacular way. Landing on the white coral sands of Darwin Bay and walking up the beach, you will be surrounded by the bustling activity of great frigatebirds. Puffball-chicks with their proud papas, who sport their bulging scarlet throat-sacks, crowd the surrounding branches, while both yellow-crowned and lava herons feed by the shore. Farther along, you will discover a stunning series of sheltered pools set into a rocky outcrop. A trail beside the pools leads up to a cliff overlooking the caldera, where pairs of swallow-tailed gulls, the only nocturnal gulls in the world, can be seen nesting at the cliff’s edge. Lava gulls and pintail ducks ride the sea breezes nearby.
Later, a brief panga ride brings us to the base of those same cliffs to reveal the full variety of species sheltering in the ledges and crevices created by the weathered basalt. Among them, red–billed tropic birds enter and leave their nests trailing exotic long tails known as streamers. This is also an intriguing place to go deep-water snorkeling, where the truly fortunate swimmer can spot one of the giant manta rays that frequent the inner bay along the cliff walls.
Across the bay is Prince Philip's Steps, named for a visit by the British Monarch in 1964. The 25- meter (81-foot) stairway leads to a narrow stretch of land that opens out onto the plateau surrounding Darwin Bay, and extends to form the north side of the island. Red-footed boobies wrap their webbed feet around branches to perch in the bushes, and, in contrast, their Nazca booby cousins dot the surface of the scrublands beyond. Crossing through the sparse vegetation, you will come to a broad lava field that extends towards the sea, forming the north shore. Storm petrels flutter out over the ocean in swarms, then return to nest in the cracks and tunnels of the lava field, where their predator, the short-eared owl, is a frequent visitor.
Nazca boobies are among Genovesa's (Tower Island's) abdundant bird life
Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
Day 6 Fernandina/Punta Espinosa/Isabela/Urbina
Fernandina is the youngest and westernmost island in the Galapagos. It sits across the Bolivar Channel opposite to Isabela Island. Our destination is Punta Espinosa, a narrow spit of land in the northeast corner of the island, where a number of unique Galapagos species can be seen in close proximity. As our panga driver skillfully navigates the reef, it's not unusual to see penguins swimming nearby the dinghy. Red and turquoise-blue Sally lightfoot crabs forage across the lava shoreline, while herons and egrets fish among the mangrove roots. The landing is a dry one, set in a quiet inlet beneath the branches of a small mangrove forest. A short walk through the vegetation leads to a large colony of marine iguanas, a schoolyard of Godzilla’s children, resting atop one another in friendly heaps along the rocky shoreline, sneezing out saline water to clear their bodies of salt. Nearby, sea lions frolic on the sheltered coast. This is one of the few places you can glimpse iguanas grazing on seaweed underwater and above.
Dominating this landscape high overhead looms Las Cumbres volcano, 1495 meters (4,858 feet), one of the most active volcanoes in the world, reporting seven eruptions from its six-kilometer-wide caldera (mouth) since 1968. Along the coast line, the world's only species of flightless cormorants has established a colony near an inviting inlet also frequented by sea turtles. Because these birds evolved without land predators -- it was easier to feed on the octopuses, eels, and fish found in the ocean -- the cormorants progressively took to the sea. They developed heavier, more powerful legs and feet for kicking, serpent-like necks, and wet, fur-like plumage. Their wings are now mere vestiges. Back toward the landing and farther inland, the island’s black lava flows become more evident, forming a quiet, inner lagoon. Galapagos hawks survey the seascape from overhead.
Urbina Bay is directly west of Isabela's Alcedo Volcano, where we will make a reasonably easy wet landing (a hop into a few inches of water except when the shore line is rough) onto a gently sloping inorganic beach. In 1954, a Disney film crew caught sight of this gleaming white strip, and found, to their astonishment, three miles (5 km) of the marine reef that had been uplifted by as much as 13 feet (4 meters) in places. Now visitors can walk among the dried coral heads, mollusks, and other organisms that used to form the ocean floor. A highlight of this excursion is tracking down the very large land iguanas that live in the area, whose vivid and gaudy yellow skin suggests that dinosaurs may have been very colorful indeed. Giant tortoises inhabit this coastal plain during the wet season before migrating to the highlands when the lowlands turn dry. Our landing beach also provides opportunities to snorkel among marine creatures or just relax on the beach. Here we must take care not to step on the sea turtle nests, which are dug carefully into the sand.
Walk the pahoehoe lava landscape of Fernandina
Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
Day 7 Isabela/Tagus Cove/Punta Vicente Roca
On the way south to Tagus Cove, our boat will sail through the Bolivar Channel, the coldest, most productive waters in the Galapagos, the upwelling of the rich Cromwell current affording frequent sightings of dolphins and whales in the area. Tagus Cove, named for a British naval vessel that moored here in 1814, was used historically as an anchorage for pirates and whalers. One can still find the names of their ships carved into the rock above our landing, a practice now prohibited. The cove's quiet waters make for an ideal dinghy ride beneath its sheltered cliffs, where blue-footed boobies, brown noddies, and pelicans nests. Flightless cormorants and penguins inhabit the lava ledges near the ocean.
From our landing, a wooden stairway rises to the trail entrance for a view of Darwin Lake, a perfectly round saltwater crater, barely separated from the ocean but above sea level. The trail continues around the lake through a dry vegetation zone and then climbs inland to a promontory formed by spatter cones. The site provides spectacular views back toward our anchorage in the bay, as well as Darwin Volcano and Wolf Volcano farther to the north.
Located in the south of the northwestern most point of Isabela Island is Punta Vicente Roca. On the map, this place looks like the head of a seahorse. Here the remnants of an ancient volcano form a cove with a bay well protected from the ocean swells. The spot is a popular anchorage from which to take dinghy rides along the cliff where a partially sunken cave beckons explorers. Nazca and blue-footed boobies as well as brown noddy terns perched along the point and the sheer cliffs, while flightless cormorants inhabit the shoreline. The upwelling of cold water currents in this part of the Galapagos produces an abundance of marine life which, in combination with the protection of the coves, makes Punta Vicente Roca one of the archipelago's most interesting dive spots. This place is good to practice some kayaking. The entire area of Punta Vicente Roca lies on the towering flank of 2,600 foot Volcano Ecuador. This is the island's sixth largest volcano. Half of Volcano Ecuador slid into the ocean, leaving a spectacular cutaway view of its caldera.
Study mariners' ancient graffiti at Tagus Cove
Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
Day 8 Santiago/Espumilla/Bucanero/James Bay
On the northwestern side of Santiago Island is James Bay, which offers access to three unique sites, Puerto Egas, Salt Mine, and Espumilla Beach. The first landing, Puerto Egas, is the most visited area and begins with a wet landing on a black beach. With intriguing eroded rock formations inland, the trail crosses the dry interior eastward and continues along the shore line where two different types of lavas merge into unreal scenery. There we find the so called fur seal grottos, the only place during your visit that allows you to see these beautiful marine mammals (actually a type of sea lion) during a land excursion. Darwin described his visit to James Bay in his journal in "Voyage of the Beagle." From the black beach, it's possible to experience one of the most exuberant snorkeling sessions during your visit.
Look for Galapagos fur seal on Santiago (actually a type of sea lion, as there are no seals in the Galapagos)
Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
Day 9 Santa Cruz/Darwin Station/Highlands
Santa Cruz is the second largest island in the Galapagos and something of a hub for the archipelago. Puerto Ayora, located in the southeast corner of this large, round volcanic island, is the economic center of the islands. It has the largest population among the four inhabited islands (approx. 18,000), which economically relies mostly on tourism, including refurbishing and resupplying yachts, along with fishing and boat-building.
Puerto Ayora is home to both the Galapagos National Park Service Headquarters and Charles Darwin Research Station, the center of the great restorative efforts taking place in the park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here we go ashore to visit the Giant Tortoise Breeding and Rearing Program run by the research station, which began by rescuing the remaining 14 tortoises on the island of Espanola in 1970. This program has restored the population of animals there to over 1,000 today. You will see many of these animals, with their sweet ET-like necks and faces; from hatchlings to juveniles to large, distinguished individuals. The local color of this port makes for an attractive stop-off, with restaurants, souvenir shops, and internet cafes.
A highlight of any trip is a visit to the Highlands, where the dry coastal vegetation transitions to lush wet fields and forests overgrown with mosses and lichen. Our destination is the Tortoise Reserve, where we will have chances to track and view these friendly and ancient creatures in their natural settings. This extends to the adjacent pasturelands, where farmers allow visitors into their farms. The best times to see tortoises here is during the cool or dry season from June through December. Another nearby attraction are the highlands' lava tubes. Some of tubes offer easy access by the means of wooden stairways that descend to the mouth of their arched cave entrances. From there, one can make one's way into the tubes underground along the cool, dimly-lit naturally formed passages with their fascinating rock formations. The tubes make for a fairly easy and interesting hike, but bring along non-slip footwear and perhaps a flashlight.
Learn about conservation efforts at Darwin Station
Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
Day 10 San Cristobal/Quito or Guayaquil
Darwin reported encountering a pair of giant tortoises feeding on cactus during his first landing on San Cristobal in 1835. Today the airport of this easternmost island in the chain is increasingly used as the arrival point for flights into and out of the Galapagos. The administrative capital for the province is Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on the southwestern shore, and in 1998, the Galapagos National Park Interpretation Centre opened for the benefit of islanders and travelers alike, presenting a comprehensive exhibit of the islands' natural history, human interaction, ecosystems, flora, and fauna. It is also the place where cultural activities take place, including theater, exhibitions and workshops. From the Interpretation Center, a three-kilometer loop trail arrives at Frigate Bird Hill, where both magnificent frigatebirds and great frigatebirds can be seen in the same colony -- ideal for learning to distinguish the two bird species. A 45-minute bus ride from town takes you to "El Junco," one of the few permanent fresh water lagoons in the islands. Its location in the highlands of San Cristobal (2,300 feet or 700 meters) ensures our passage through a variety of vegetation zones. The lagoon offers a panoramic setting for exceptional bird watching including frigatebirds that, in spite of being sea birds, go there to rinse the accumulated salt from their feathers. After this visit, head to the airport for your flight back to the Ecuadorian mainland. Transfer to your hotel in Quito or Guayaquil for your overnight.
Leave the M/Y Grace, your home for the week, and head for the mainland
Day 11 Departure
Transfer to the international airport for your flight home.
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