Spectacular, isolated and home to the famed Galapagos giant tortoise, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands really do feel like another world. Inquisitive sea lions and spiky marine iguanas breach and bask between island and shore, while friendly hammerhead sharks patrol the depths and blue-footed boobies cut through the sky. Nowadays, the islands host a steady stream of modern-day explorers. And for good reason - as far as face-to-face wildlife encounters go, the Galapagos wildlife experience rivals even the likes of Africa.
Spend 12 days discovering the Galapagos Islands from the base of a luxury hotel
Enjoy four unique yacht excursions to some of the archipelago's most iconic sites, including North Seymour, South Plaza, and Santa Fe Islands
Fully explore Santa Cruz Island, taking your time as you encounter the world's largest tortoises and many strange seabirds
Walk across the bizarre volcanic lava flows of Bartolome, the surreal landscape seeming to come from another world
Snorkel into a mysterious underwater world teeming with pelagic giants and strange tropical fish
Start your tour of Ecuador and Galapagos in Quito, which became the world's first ever World Heritage site in 1978
Wander through the cloud forest of Mindo, taking in eclectic hummingbirds and a huge abundance of butterflies
(Day 1): Quito – Regal Welcomes to the Old City
(Day 2): Quito – Walking the Streets of History
(Day 3): Mindo – Hike, and Zipline Through the Thick Cloud Forest
(Day 4): Mindo – Butterflies, Hummingbirds, and Orchid Gardens
(Day 5): Galapagos – Phenomenal BirdLife as you Check Into the Hotel
(Day 6): Galapagos – Giant Tortoises in the Highlands
(Day 7): Galapagos – Sea Lions and Strange Iguanas on Santa Fe
(Day 8): Galapagos – Relaxed Day Exploring Santa Cruz
(Day 9): Galapagos – Snorkeling and Bird Sites at South Plaza
(Day 10): Galapagos – Volcanic Beauty on Bartolome Island
(Day 11): Galapagos – Underwater Worlds at Tortuga Bay
(Day 12): Galapagos to Quito – Departure from the Unique Galapagos World
Quito, San Francisco Square, La Compania, Presidential Palace, Plaza de la Independencia, Pichincha Volcano, Mindo, Mariposas de Mindo, Galapagos Islands, Santa Cruz Island, North Seymour Island, Manzanillo, Cascajo, Santa Fe Island, Divine Bay, South Plaza Island, Bartolome Island, Tortuga Bay, Charles Darwin Research Station, Pit Craters
Quito's central streets savor the atmosphere of history. They stand mostly unchanged and unspoiled, a network of courtyards and plazas reminiscing about the 16th century and a time of conquistadores. There have been some changes. Bishop's palaces have been elegantly converted into spaces for shops and restaurants while the central monument to independence reflects that the city remembers but also moves forward. You'll be greeted at the airport and transferred to a boutique hotel in the heart of the old city, one that's built into a remodeled 16th-century building. The day is at leisure; these calm streets are perfect for lazy exploration and quietly soaking up the appeal of both city and country.
Start the day up on high, marveling at the view of Quito from the lower slopes of Pichincha Volcano. A stunning cable car journey brings you up here, and as the morning mist clears from the valley, you should have views of three other volcanoes that tower over the city. Snow glistens on their distant crater peaks while lush green valleys tumble down from the slopes beneath your feet. Descend into the city where you're guided around the integral central sights. Explore a cathedral that marries Moorish facade with the neoclassical design. Cross the courtyard of the Presidential Palace, five centuries of history etched into its curves and domes. Enter La Compania and you're blinded by gold, every square inch glistening with gold leaf in the seminal church of South America. If you've visited other colonial South American cities you might start noticing some similarities – it was Quito's school of religious art that influenced the whole continent. This is a two to three-hour city walking tour that culminates in lunch on San Francisco Square. The afternoon is at your leisure.
Today you descend from the city, snaking along dramatic roads to the thick green awnings of Mindo. Tropical birds call from beneath the forest canopy while peculiar creeping plants cling to 30-meter trunks. Enter the cloud forest and there's an air of mystery, the footpath flanked by strange trees and the flutter of hummingbirds. Reach a platform and you soar above the canopy on a zip-line, before walking on remote paths through the cloud forest. Another two zip-lines connect additional hiking routes. The pace is slow, allowing you to soak up the endemic beauty of the landscape and search for large colorful birds that hide in the treetops. You walk to a quiet lodge in the cloud forest where you enjoy lunch surrounded by the antics of hummingbirds. Some 40 species are found here, and there's a great view of them from your balcony. The afternoon is at your leisure.
An Andean cock-of-the-rock dances along the forest branches, its flamboyant feathers fluttering in an attempt to lure a rather dull gray female. Another male is also fluffing his wings, hopping on the branches in a show of increased vibrancy. Every dawn, this extremely unique spectacle can be witnessed from close to the lodge, and it's more than worth waking up early for. Return to the lodge for breakfast before heading into Mindo to see more shocks of color. Visit a butterfly farm and hold outpatient fingers for some of the hundreds of butterflies to land on. Then wander through a garden of over 100 flowering orchids, both endemic and international species cultivated in a unique garden. After lunch with a staggering view over the cloud forest, you return to the lodge where the afternoon is at leisure. Choose to hike in the forest or sit bewitched by the hummingbirds.
Fly to Galapagos and you immediately sense the otherworldly feel, the airport runway flanked by peculiar cactus trees. You're greeted by the lodge's naturalist guide and head straight to the luxury yacht. Sail the short distance to North Seymour Island, enjoying lunch on board as volcanic cliffs pass by. This is perhaps the archipelago's most impressive island for experiencing the mating and breeding of iconic seabirds. Male magnificent frigates puff up their scarlet throat sacks, expanding them into dazzling appeals for a mate. Thousands of blue-footed boobies guard white eggs just meters from the trail. Marine iguanas cover the shore while giant land iguanas sit patiently on the higher slopes. Then there's the mass dive-bombing of pelicans and the courtship dances of two booby species. It's hard to imagine a more memorable introduction to the Galapagos. After exploring the island you sail across the Itabaca Channel, then drive across Santa Cruz Island by road to the hotel.
Staying in a hotel and enjoying a land-based itinerary is ideal for those who want more privacy and freedom on a tour. Guided daily excursions unveil the wildlife sites yet there are also some stunning places that can be visited locally without a guide. A short walk from the hotel brings wonderful snorkeling, sea lions, and the antics of many seabirds. Like today, some excursions are by yacht, but the distance traveled in water is limited to aid those without the best of sea legs. Check into the hotel, enjoy the wonderful coastal views, and savor a languid first evening on the Galapagos Islands.
Ascend into the lavish highlands and admire how raw volcanic cliffs blur into thick carpets of grass and peculiar trees. These higher slopes are a haven for giant tortoises, the century-old individuals grazing through the green at their indelible pace. Some wallow in the mud while others sip from a red-colored pond. Mockingbirds and flycatchers can also be seen in this area, twittering away as the hundreds of tortoises meander around. Watch closely and you admire their interaction. Two large males fight for the best feeding ground, biting each others' shells in a slow drawn-out duel. You spend the whole morning here before the afternoon is at your leisure. It's an excellent time to head down to the beach by the hotel and enjoy some snorkeling.
Sea lions bask on the white beach of Santa Fe Island, the curious individuals waddling across the beach and craning their necks to say hello. This is a large harem, guarded and dominated by a single male. But competition is fierce, and the male spends most of his day fighting away challengers, including cheeky smaller males masquerading as females. Take a walk through the rocky terrain to find the Santa Fe iguana, a large prehistoric-looking reptile that's endemic to the island. Hawks often circle overhead while the world's only cactus trees rise like sentinels across the old volcanic lava. After the day exploration, you can rest on the beach before enjoying some excellent snorkeling from the boat in a calm bay that dances with the colors of the tropics. Hundreds of inimitable fish species joined by the odd fishing sea lion and graceful sea turtle. You'll enjoy lunch on the yacht before sailing back to the hotel.
A Santa Cruz hotel base is ideal for exploring the rich diversity of Galapagos wildlife. Within a relatively close proximity, you'll find eclectic sites that are home to the archipelago's unusual specialists. Today is spent completely on land, and there are some remarkable scenes to discover. Thousands of herons perch in the trees of Divine Bay, gazing down on brown pelicans and blue-footed boobies on the cliffs. Sea turtles and young reef sharks swarm around the reefs beneath the cliffs, and you can choose to explore either in a small dinghy or a tandem kayak. There's also a chance to snorkel before you land at a deserted beach to witness the nesting sites of marine iguanas. On most days, you'll also be able to spot white-tipped reef sharks swimming through the lava crevices beneath the cliffs. Return to the hotel and the rest of the day is at leisure. It's a good chance to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station and its remarkable giant tortoise breeding program.
The Galapagos charms are different on land and in water. Today you'll visit two very different sites; South Plaza for its peculiar collection of wildlife on land and Punta Carrion for snorkeling with reef sharks, rays, and sea lions. Along the windswept cliffs of South Plaza, you're greeted by bright red sally lightfoot crabs and the squawking of swallow-tailed gulls. Wander past red-billed tropic birds and masked boobies, then watch your step because yellow land iguanas blend perfectly into the ground. It's common to find them lounging around in the middle of the walking trail. Bachelor sea lions continue today's revelation of bizarre scenes, the males barging and grunting as they test their attempts at superiority. Following the walk, you can immerse yourself underwater and snorkel from the shore at Punta Carrion. Rather than iguanas, you must look closely for the camouflage of small rays, the stealthy characters hidden on the sandy bottom. It's another easy snorkel that allows you to encounter marine life that would normally only be seen when diving.
Summit Bartolome Island and you have the Galapagos most famous photograph, the spearheaded Pinnacle Rock dividing two bright coralline-sand beaches. In the foreground, tumbling down from the dormant volcanoes summit is a landscape of deep red. In most places it feels like you're walking on Mars, rogue lava tubes and tunnels spilling out across the island. Of all the 13 islands, Bartolome is the one that truly reveals the volcanic undercurrent that created the archipelago. You find Galapagos penguins jumping on the red rock, tiny little characters that waddle along precarious cliffs that dive past snorkelers in the water. One second they're beside you, the next second they've darted away at a phenomenal speed. While this is the most distant of sites to the hotel, you'll first cross Santa Cruz by land to minimize the distance traveled in the yacht. Return by sea and land for another relaxed evening at the hotel.
Your final full day in the Galapagos is as relaxed as they come. Wake late for breakfast and watch the diving seabirds as you sip on your coffee. Take an easy walking trail past the songs and chirps of tropical birds, your guide pointing out the endemic species that call the deciduous forest home. Lounge on the crystal-white sand of Tortuga Bay, probably Ecuador's most beautiful beach, and wait for the marine iguanas to wander past your beach towel. You can head out for a snorkel to see large pelagic characters swimming close to shore. Tandem kayaking is also an option and a great opportunity to see sea turtles and sea lions from proximity. Return to the lodge and the rest of the day winds down at your leisure. As always, snorkeling equipment and sea kayaks are available to take to the beach, and there's a swimming pool for those wishing to slumber beneath the sun.
A final morning, a final coastal view, and the last chance to marvel at the endemic birds that flutter around the hotel. After breakfast, you're transferred from the hotel to the north of Santa Cruz, stopping on route to photograph the Pit Craters, two strange circular depressions that look a little like the makings of a miniature volcano. From Santa Cruz, it's a five-minute boat ride to Baltra and the airport. After landing back in Quito, you transfer to your international departure.
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