Our Exclusive Small-Group Nature Immersion Led by the Islands' Most Experienced Guides
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This 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 in Quito, our local representative meets you at the airport to accompany you on the scenic drive to the Otavalo region, just over an hour away in the Andean Highlands. In the highlands, we'll have a chance to sample the history, nature and culture of Ecuador’s mountain region. Depending on which departure you have selected, you'll stay either at Hacienda Zuleta, a colonial estate with a colorful past, or Sacha Ji, a sustainable luxury wellness resort. This evening, enjoy a welcome dinner with one of our Expedition Leaders.
Day 2: Exploring the Andean Highlands
Our adventure begins with an immersion in the Andean Highlands’ striking landscape and cultural heritage. Specific activities will depend on the departure you have chosen and the location of your Otavalo accommodations. For details, please click here
for Hacienda Zuleta, or click here
for Sacha Ji.
Day 3: Quito / Baltra, Galapagos Islands / Sombrero Chino
Depart early this morning for the return drive to the Quito airport and our flight to the Galapagos islands. We land on Baltra where we meet our second Expedition Leader who will accompany us to the pier where our Galapagos adventure on the Ocean Spray
begins. After getting settled into our cabins, we join our guides for an orientation about the ship and adventures that lie ahead. Following lunch, we set off for our first landing at Sombrero Chino. This small island is located just of the southeastern tip of Santiago and is named after its unique cone shape formed by volcanic activity many years ago. The islet is home to a colony of sea lions that live on the white coral sand beach. A short hike takes us to rare, well-preserved remnants of fragile volcanic rock. Snorkeling reveals some of the Galapagos' fascinating marine life—including a possibility that a resident penguin family will join us for a swim.
Day 4: Isabela—Punta Vicente Roca / Fernandina—Punta Espinoza
We reach Isabela today, the largest of the Galapagos islands. Shaped like a sea horse, it was created when six volcanoes flowed together. Beginning with an exploration of Punta Vicente Roca, choose to snorkel (where we're practically guaranteed to swim with plenty of sea turtles) or take a panga ride along a shoreline brimming with wildlife. Chances are good that we’ll see Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants, blue-footed boobies, brown noddies and Galapagos fur seals. After lunch, we cross the Bolivar Channel as we head for Fernandina, the youngest of the islands. Keep your camera at the ready in case we spy whales and dolphins in the passage. Fernandina has one of the most dynamic pristine ecosystems on the planet. A volcanic eruption in 2009 sent a lava flow all the way to the sea. We land at Punta Espinoza, where the rippling hardened lava landscape provides a stark backdrop for a surprising variety of life that flourishes on the black rock: 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 counterpoint to the turquoise sea. A snorkeling excursion offers a good chance to see sea turtles and submerged marine iguanas feeding on algae.
Day 5: Isabela—Tagus Cove / Urbina Bay
Back at Isabela, we spend the morning in Tagus Cove, where we may find penguins and pelicans along with graffiti dating to the 1800s, when pirates and whalers carved their ship names into the rock above a historic anchorage. Spend the morning in the water, kayaking or snorkeling. 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. Landing this afternoon 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 above the water on what is now the shore. Urbina is home to nesting sea turtles and a colony of some of the islands’ largest land iguanas, 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.
Day 6: Isabela—Elizabeth Bay / Punta Moreno
On the southern reaches of Isabela, we venture into Elizabeth Bay to explore a sprinkling of islets, a lagoon frequented by sea turtles and surrounding red and black mangroves filled with birdlife. On a panga ride we’ll search for resting and feeding sea turtles along with lava herons, Galapagos penguins, rays and flightless cormorants. In the afternoon, we head farther west to Punta Moreno, home to several endemic species known only to the area’s seemingly barren lava flows. The point is located between two volcanoes, Sierra Negra and Cerro Azul, and we step ashore to walk atop the hardened lava. At first glance, the corrugated rock landscape appears lifeless. However, the smooth, ropy black surface is dotted with numerous coastal lagoons harboring a wide variety of birdlife. Commonly seen species include flamingos, paint-billed crakes, white-cheeked pintails, herons and cormorants. We’ll also see endemic Galapagos flora taking root on this young, barren lava flow, including giant opuntia cactus, Palo Santo trees, carob trees and lichens. The protected waters of Moreno Bay are surrounded by mangroves, creating perfect habitat for sea turtles, which we may spot from the pangas or as we snorkel.
Day 7: Santa Cruz—Darwin Station / Natural Habitat's Tortoise Camp
On Santa Cruz this morning, we visit the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center, which operates in tandem with Galapagos National Park, to learn about the efforts by scientists, guides, rangers and park managers to preserve Galapagos as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 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, the program has returned more than 10,000 tortoises to the Galapagos wild. Late this afternoon we ascend into the misty highlands of Santa Cruz to arrive at NHA's exclusive Tortoise Camp, where we’ll spend the night. Our private camp, which offers safari-style tents and treehouses with distant views of the ocean, is tucked among lush vegetation that attracts giant tortoises (most commonly seen from July through February). We'll have a chance to view these ancient, amiable creatures in their natural setting—and they often amble right into camp. Nearby, we can also explore a network of subterranean lava tubes and caverns. Please note: At times, the camp may be closed due to poor weather conditions.
Day 8: Santa Cruz Highlands / Santa Fe
We continue our exploration of Santa Cruz with a visit to a tortoise reserve in the highlands or more time spent at our own Tortoise Camp, depending on where we might find more of these ancient creatures. Returning to the Ocean Spray
, we have lunch aboard, then sail for Santa Fe, home to a large population of sea lions, lava lizards, the unique Santa Fe land iguana and the Opuntia cactus. On a short hike through a cacti forest, look for the endemic land iguanas that wait patiently underneath for fruit to drop. Returning to our catamaran, we go deep-water snorkeling around a small islet, a natural aquarium with great reef diversity, followed by a paddle or panga ride along the island’s northern coast, where large cliffs and sea caves are used for nesting and roosting by many species of marine birds—as well as basking green sea turtles and sea lions.
Day 9: Española—Punta Suarez / Gardner Bay / Osborn Islet
Española is one of the most prolific wildlife sites in the Galapagos. Estimated to be about four million years old, Española is far enough away from the other islands that it is home to the most endemic species along with awesome landscapes created by millions of years of erosion. During the morning at Punta Suarez, we hike on the headlands in search of abundant birdlife, hoping to see Hood mockingbirds, blue-footed boobies, nesting swallow-tailed gulls and Galapagos hawks. Española is also the world's main nesting site for the huge waved albatross. Returning to the quiet bay where our catamaran awaits, lunch is served aboard as we sail to the white sand beach of Gardner Bay and tiny Osborn Inlet. Paddle or ride a panga along the island’s north shore to see a cliff formed by eroded cinder cones and layers of old basalt, prime habitat for giant cacti and many different bird species. Osborn Islet is just one of the many stunning little islands offshore that are ripe for underwater exploration. Ashore, an idyllic white sand beach awaits, where sea lions laze by the dozens and Pacific green sea turtles frequent the rocky part of the shoreline. Back on board, it's time for farewell cocktails and a final celebratory dinner.
Day 10: San Cristobal / Depart
Back on the island where Darwin first landed back in 1835 and where the Galapagos’ first permanent settlements were founded, we visit an interpretation center for a concluding overview of Galapagos history, ecosystems, geology and wildlife. Giant tortoises are also bred here and roam the grounds in a semi-natural habitat. At last it’s time to bid farewell to the islands and fly back to the mainland to meet departing flights, or continue onward for those extending their travels.
Note: See our Eastern Itinerary here.