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Classic Galapagos: The Natural Habitat Experience

Our Exclusive Small-Group Nature Immersion Led by the Islands' Best Guides
M/C Athala II  Itinerary
Please note: This special itinerary was prepared on an exclusive basis by Natural Habitat Adventures. Should you choose to travel on an independent departure, your itinerary will be slightly different.

Day 1: Quito, Ecuador / Otavalo
Upon arrival at the Quito airport, you're met by our local representative who accompanies you on the scenic drive to the town of Otavalo, just over an hour away in the Andean Highlands. We check in to our colonial hacienda, a warm and hospitable setting from which to sample the history, nature and culture of this mountain region. Depending on which departure you have selected, you’ll stay either at Hacienda Zuleta or Hacienda Cusin. This evening enjoy a welcome dinner with one of our Expedition Leaders.

One of the top inns in Ecuador, award-winning Hacienda Zuleta is the heart of a 4,000-acre working farm founded over four centuries ago. Guest rooms feature period furniture, authentic family photos, hand-embroidered linens, heavy timbers and wood-burning fireplaces. The farm's 300 Holstein-Friesian cows are the source for artisan dairy products including fresh cheese, yogurt and cream. Preserving the native flora and fauna is a priority for Zuleta's multi-generation family owners, who have established a foundation dedicated to conservation. The estate's extensive wild land has become an important sanctuary for Andean wildlife including rare spectacled bears, pumas, condors and various owls.

Guests staying at Hacienda Cusin will enjoy gracious hospitality in a historic estate built in 1602 as the centerpiece of a sprawling colonial sheep farm. Today the restored property is surrounded by five acres of lushly landscaped gardens, ponds and cobblestone courtyards. Each guest room is each is individually furnished with antiques and regional Andean arts and crafts, and many have wood-burning fireplaces.

Day 2: Exploring the Andean Highlands 
Our Ecuador adventure begins with an immersion in the striking landscape and cultural heritage of the Andean Highlands. Guests on Zuleta departures will visit the cheese factory to taste and learn about Zuleta's semi-aged handmade Ecuadorian cheeses. Passing ancient truncated ramp pyramids and burial mounds dating to 700 AD, we make our way to the Condor Huasi project, a few miles from the hacienda in a native forest valley. Here we'll see rescued Andean condors in the aviary, learn about the foundation’s efforts to return rehabilitated condors to the wild, and perhaps witness a wild condor flying overhead on the thermals. During our walk, we search the dense vegetation on the slopes of the valley for a glimpse of a rare Andean spectacled bear. After a hearty lunch, there's time this afternoon for a choice of activities that may include birdwatching on the hacienda grounds, touring the organic gardens that source many of the fresh vegetables used in the hacienda's fine cuisine, relaxing in the library, or enjoying coffee with a local.

Guests on Hacienda Cusin departures will explore the region around Otavalo today. The town, best known for its 400-year-old market that is the longest continuously operating site of commerce in South America, lies at the hub of this region of lakes and volcanic peaks. Enjoy a short hike to take in the dramatic views of Otavalo's volcanoes and learn about the local flora and fauna. Artisans from local villages produce the region's famed textiles, and we'll have a chance to visit a studio where we can witness handicrafts in the making and learn about the residents' traditional lifestyles.

Day 3: Quito / Baltra, Galapagos Islands
Depart early this morning for the return drive to the Quito airport and our flight to the islands, landing on the island of Baltra where our second Expedition Leader is waiting to greet us. We transfer to the dock and board our floating home for the next week, the elegant M/C Athala II. Once we get settled into our cabins, we have an introductory briefing and safety drill, then enjoy lunch aboard as our Galapagos adventure tour begins, voyaging through the fascinating archipelago that Herman Melville dubbed the "Enchanted Isles." This afternoon we take our first panga ride, boarding motorized rafts for a landing on Mosquera Island, a tiny islet that's home to a huge population of sea lions as well as many shorebirds. Keep an eye out for dolphins and orcas, often seen in this area. Back on board we relax with a welcome cocktail before dinner.

Day 4: Santiago / Bartolome
Awake this morning to the orange light of sunrise glowing on the volcanic craters of Bartolome and Santiago islands. Our first excursion is a panga ride to Sullivan Bay on the east coast of Santiago, known for its spectacular volcanic formations, relatively recent lava flows and unique geological scenery. The lava here is the pahoehoe type, which resembles smooth ropes. Few plants have been able to take root on the barren rock, and we admire the hardy pioneers that have, like the lava cactus. We'll also have a chance to snorkel here. This afternoon we visit little Bartolome, where we snorkel with penguins around Pinnacle Rock. We'll also climb to the highest point of this ancient volcano for 360-degree views, passing fascinating lava formations such as spatter cones, tuff cones and lava tubes. Those who don't wish to hike can take a panga ride along the shoreline of the island, watching for rays and reef sharks just below the surface.

Day 5: Isabela
We reach Isabela today, the largest of the Galapagos islands. Landing at Urbina Bay, we witness one of the best examples of geological uplift in the Galapagos, a phenomenon that occurs when molten rock beneath the surface suddenly shifts. In 1954 the shoreline was uplifted nearly 15 feet, exposing coral and stranding marine organisms on what is now shore. Urbina is home to nesting sea turtles and a colony of some of the largest land iguanas in the islands, the iconic Galapagos tortoise, penguins, flightless cormorants and a variety of Darwin's finches. After a walk we can snorkel right from the beach, hoping to see grazing sea turtles and Galapagos penguins. At Tagus Cove, we find penguins, pelicans and graffiti dating to the 1800s when the names of ships were carved into the rock above a historic anchorage for pirates and whalers. Kayaking or snorkeling are our first afternoon activity options. Then, choose between a hike among the volcanic tuff cones for a closer look at the island's geological history, with views of Darwin's Lagoon, or a panga ride, where we're sure to see blue-footed boobies perched on the cliff ledges, as well as brown pelicans, brown noddies, flightless cormorants and Galapagos penguins. This evening we cruise through the Bolivar Channel en route to Fernandina, keeping an eye out for whales and dolphins.

Day 6: Fernandina / Isabela
The youngest and most active volcano in the Galapagos, Fernandina is also one of the most dynamic ecosystems on the planet, last erupting in 2009 and sending a flow of lava all the way to the sea. We land at Punta Espinoza, where the rippling lava provides us a stark backdrop for the surprising variety of life that flourishes here: flightless cormorants nest on the rocks, Galapagos hawks soar overhead, sea lions sprawl on the beach, and huge colonies of marine iguanas bask in the sun. Bright orange Sally Lightfoot crabs pepper the black rocks at water's edge, a vivid color counterpoint to the turquoise sea. A snorkeling excursion offers a good chance to see sea turtles and submerged marine iguanas feeding on algae. After lunch aboard, we return to Isabela to explore Punta Vicente Roca, with a choice of snorkeling (where we're practically guaranteed to swim with plenty of sea turtles) or a panga ride along the shoreline brimming with wildlife, with good chances to see Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants, blue-footed boobies, brown noddies and Galapagos fur seals.

Day 7: Santiago / Santa Cruz / Natural Habitat's Tortoise Camp
At Puerto Egas on Santiago, we make an early-morning landing on a black beach with eroded rock formations. The trail crosses the dry interior where the remains of a salt mining enterprise are still visible and continues along the coast. Tide pools are home to a variety of marine life, including sea urchins, octopus, sponges and sea stars. Birdlife abounds, with great blue herons, lava herons, oystercatchers, yellow-crowned night herons and seasonal shorebirds. In the lava grottos we find a colony of Galapagos fur seals, one of the only places in the islands these endemic animals can be seen from land. After our walk there's time to swim or snorkel off the beach with the resident sea lions. We may also see turtles, rays and reef sharks.

Set sail this afternoon to the island of Santa Cruz, the most central in the chain. For those who choose to participate in our unique private camping opportunity, we disembark at Puerto Ayora and drive into the misty highlands to our exclusive Tortoise Camp for a memorable overnight stay. Our private campsite, with distant views of the ocean, is tucked among lush vegetation that attracts giant tortoises (most commonly seen from July through February). A bus returns us the next day to rejoin our boat. Please note: At times, the camp may be closed due to poor weather conditions.

Day 8: Santa Cruz
Our exploration of Santa Cruz begins with a visit to the tortoise reserve at El Manzanillo, whose lush environs harbor numerous wild giant tortoises that roam freely year-round. Returning to the coast, we reach the town of Puerto Ayora, where you may choose between two activity options: a visit to the world-famous Charles Darwin Research Station with free time in town, or a walk to a pristine beach at Tortuga Bay for swimming and relaxing.

At the Darwin Research Station, operated by Galapagos National Park, learn about the efforts of scientists, guides, rangers and park managers to preserve the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the Galapagos. At the tortoise-rearing facility, see tiny babies bred to help increase the depleted tortoise population, a central part of the station’s conservation mission. To date, more than 10,000 tortoises have been returned to the wild in Galapagos through the program. After visit the station, there's still some time to walk around town. Those opting to visit Tortuga Bay will make an easy 3-mile walk (about an hour and 15 minutes one way, plus return) to a large, wild beach that is a sanctuary for the many iguanas, crabs and birds that dot the lava rocks. Or, for those who wish, enjoy free time in town to browse the shops and galleries before heading back to the boat to sail northward this evening.

Day 9: Genovesa
Genovesa, or Tower Island, is a collapsed shield volcano that attracts literally millions of seabirds that come here to breed and nest. Inside the flooded crater we are surrounded by red-footed boobies, lava gulls, storm petrels and yellow-crowned night herons that rend the air with a cacophony of squawks. Surrounded by vertical cliffs of the collapsed caldera, Darwin Bay is an ideal breeding site for the birds that congregate on Genovesa. Our first landing is at El Barranco, also known as Prince Phillip's Steps, a steep path with stairs carved into the rock that leads to a plateau full of birdlife within a Palo Santo forest. We walk among colonies of great frigatebirds and Nazca boobies to a lava field where storm petrels nest in underground lava tubes. We may also see Galapagos doves, mockingbirds and perhaps an endemic short-eared lava owl. Following our walk, there's an option to snorkel, kayak or take a panga ride. After lunch aboard we continue to Darwin Bay Beach, following a trail into lush mangroves where red-footed boobies nest. After the easy walk, we snorkel from the beach, where sightings of rays and sea turtles are common, and there are plenty of local sea lions basking in the sun. Back on board the Athala II, we share farewell cocktails and a last dinner together as the sun sets.

Day 10: North Seymour / Disembark / Quito
An optional pre-dawn wake-up call rouses those who wish to enjoy one final landing at sunrise on North Seymour Island. Ashore, we find ourselves surrounded by sea lions, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, magnificent frigatebirds and more, for a final rendezvous with the magical wildlife of the Galapagos. Returning to our boat, we enjoy breakfast on board as we cruise back to Baltra for our transfer to the airport. At last it's time to bid farewell to the Enchanted Isles and fly back to the Quito airport, where we meet departing flights or continue onward for those extending their travels to the Amazon rain forest or Machu Picchu.

Physical Rating: Easy to Moderate

+ Interested in adding a few days to your trip? Click here to view our Extension Options.

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