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Ultimate Galapagos Explorer

The Most Comprehensive Yacht-Based Exploration of the World's Most Intriguing Archipelago!
Day 1: Quito, Ecuador / Otavalo
Upon arrival in Quito, our local representative meets you at the airport and accompanies you on the scenic drive to the mountain town of Otavalo, just over an hour away in the Andean Highlands. We check in to the Hacienda Cusin, built in 1602 as the centerpiece of a sprawling colonial sheep farm and estate. Today the restored colonial hacienda is one of Ecuador's loveliest inns, 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. Dinner is on your own this evening in the hacienda's dining room.

Day 2: Otavalo / Andean Villages
Our Ecuador adventure begins with an immersion in the striking landscape and indigenous culture of the Andean Highlands. Otavalo, 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. Artisans from local villages produce the region's famed textiles, and we'll have a chance to visit a place or two where we can witness handicrafts in the making and learn about the residents' traditional lifestyles. This evening, we gather for an orientation and welcome dinner as we prepare to depart for the Galapagos in the morning.

Day 3: Otavalo / Quito / San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands
Depart early this morning for the return drive to the Quito airport and our flight to the islands. We land at San Cristobal where our Galapagos cruise begins. Here we'll meet our Expedition Leaders, who accompany us on the transfer to the pier where the M/Y Letty awaits. After getting settled into our cabins, our guides provide an orientation to the ship and we enjoy lunch on board. Next, we set off on an excursion to the beach at Punta Carola for our first chance to snorkel with sea turtles and a lively colony of sea lions. Soon it's time to head to the marina to our yacht, where we'll have dinner aboard. The sleek Letty will be our home at sea, providing comfortable cabins and 360° views from the topside observation deck. It's a great spot to enjoy our first Galapagos sunset as magnificent frigatebirds soar overhead. Already, we can see why Herman Melville called these 'The Enchanted Isles'!

Day 4: Genovesa
Genovesa Island, also called Tower, is a collapsed shield volcano whose flooded caldera attracts vast numbers of pelagic seabirds that come here to breed and nest. Inside the submerged crater we are surrounded by thousands of great frigatebirds, red-footed boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, Galapagos storm petrels and yellow-crowned night herons that rend the air with a cacophony of squawks. We anchor at Darwin Bay, formed thousands of years ago after the collapse of the volcano's roof to form a huge caldera. Surrounded by vertical cliffs, the bay is an ideal breeding site for the more than two million land and sea birds that congregate on Genovesa. Following the trail up Prince Philip's Steps, we walk among colonies of great frigatebirds and red-footed and Nazca boobies to a lava field where storm petrels nest in underground chambers and lava tubes. Late this afternoon we land at a coral beach to swim and snorkel with sea lions. There will also be a chance for those who wish to try sea kayaking.

Day 5: Bachas Beach / Cerro Dragon
This morning we land at Las Bachas, a beautiful white sand beach on Santa Cruz. Snorkeling in the azure water reveals a kaleidoscope of fish, while the powdered coral sand is a favorite nesting site for green sea turtles, and pink flamingos often dot the saltwater lagoons. We continue this afternoon to Cerro Dragon ('Dragon Hill'), one of the best places in the islands to see large land iguanas. Scientists have been working diligently to protect Santa Cruz's native land iguana population from invasive species, and it's not uncommon for travelers and researchers to cross paths on trails among the cacti and Palo Santo forest in the area. Great views are available from atop the small hill, where visitors may also see a variety of birds.

Day 6: Isabela
Isabela is the largest of the Galapagos islands, created where six volcanoes flowed together. This morning we explore Punta Vicente Roca, a small promontory on the island's northern side with two coves that lie on either side of the eroded remains of a tuff cone made of volcanic ash. We'll cruise around the point by panga (motorized raft), observing blue-footed and Nazca boobies that nest on the sheer cliffs, while flightless cormorants and Galapagos penguins are often seen along the shoreline. Sea turtles are also abundant here, and we frequently see them swimming gracefully in the clear waters below. Then, we'll snorkel in one of the protected coves where marine life is on vivid display, with friendly sea lions often approaching us to play beneath the waves.

At Urbina Bay this afternoon, we step ashore on a white sand beach to 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, exposing 1.6 square miles of shoreline. The coastline was driven three-quarters of a mile farther out to sea, exposing coral and stranding marine organisms on what is now shore. Urbina is also home to a colony of some of the largest land iguanas in the islands and the iconic Galapagos tortoise.

Day 7: Fernandina / Isabela
Just opposite Isabela, Fernandina is the youngest and most active volcano in the Galapagos. The rippling pahoehoe lava at Punta Espinoza is 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. This afternoon we cruise across the Bolivar Channel back to Isabela, keep watch for whales and dolphins. Landing at Tagus Cove, we explore by panga, finding 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. Another opportunity for kayaking and snorkeling awaits, perhaps with a chance to frolic again with young sea lions.

Day 8: Rabida / Santa Cruz – Natural Habitat's Wild Tortoise Camp
Rabida is one of the most volcanically varied islands in the chain. The beaches here are deep maroon and the rock multicolored, products of lava eruptions from the multitude of spatter cones that pock the island. Marine iguanas and sea lions are often seen resting in the shade of caves, and Rabida’s saltwater lagoon is home to abundant birdlife, including occasional glimpses of pink flamingos and the rare vermilion flycatcher. A short trail leads to the lagoon where we may see boobies, brown pelicans nesting in the bushes, and nine species of Darwin’s finches. Excellent snorkeling opportunities also await over the reefs that fringe the island.

This afternoon we continue to Santa Cruz, the highest island in the Galapagos chain. Here, those who wish to participate in our unique camping opportunity will disembark and transfer to the remote highlands to spend the night at Natural Habitat's exclusive Wild Tortoise Camp. The scenery gradually changes as we wind our way up through all seven vegetation zones found in the Galapagos. Our private campsite, with distant views of the ocean, is tucked among lush vegetation that attracts giant tortoises. 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 9: Exploring the Santa Cruz Highlands
This morning we visit the Lava Java coffee farm, where we'll tour the plantation, learn about small-scale ecological farming methods and sample a few of the excellent brews. After lunch at a local restaurant, we stop to explore Los Gemelos – 'The Twins' – two deep pit craters in the scalesia forest that hold a variety of birdlife. Later this afternoon we'll enjoy close-up encounters with resident giant tortoises in their misty natural habitat as we visit a tortoise reserve on a private highland farm. These enormous, docile creatures, the namesake of the Galapagos Islands, may grow to 600 pounds and live for 150 years or more. Subterranean lava tubes lace the ground nearby, and we may have a chance to investigate the caverns before we drive back to sea level to meet the Letty again, in time for dinner aboard.

Day 10: San Cristobal – Cerro Tijeretas / Kicker Rock
This morning the Letty arrives once more at San Cristobal. We disembark at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, where we’ll board a bus to travel to Cerro Tijeretas or 'Frigatebird Hill,' just outside town. A short hike to the top reveals spectacular views of the coast and rooftops of the town below. We're likely to see some of the namesake birds circling overhead, and we may spot nesting colonies of both species of frigatebirds (great and magnificent). A trail leads to Punta Carola beach, the site of our first snorkeling excursion in the Galapagos. We return to our yacht to depart this afternoon for a cruise around Kicker Rock, a vertical tuff cone formation that rises 330 feet out of the ocean. On the cliffs, we’ll see blue-footed boobies, Nazca boobies and magnificent frigatebirds.

Day 11: San Cristobal – Cerro Brujo
We arrive at Cerro Brujo, a breathtaking white coral beach, considered one of the most spectacular in Galapagos and perfect for a peaceful walk with expansive views and good birdwatching. We have an opportunity to snorkel with sea lions, kayak off the Letty, and well enjoy a panga ride along the shoreline. During lunch, we cruise toward the northeastern tip of San Cristobal to Punta Pitt, a tuff formation that serves as one of the Galapagos' top nesting sites for seabirds including all three types of boobies: blue-footed, Nazca and red-footed boobies, both frigate species, swallow-tailed gulls and storm petrels. We also find a colony of sea lions here.

Day 12: Espanola – Punta Suarez / Gardner Bay
Reaching Espanola, we step ashore at Punta Suarez, where we witness the highest rate of endemic species in Galapagos. Sea lions noisily greet us as we land on their beach. Curious Hood mockingbirds peck at our shoelaces. From April to December, the waved albatross, found only on Espanola, performs its wild mating ritual. Colonies of blue-footed boobies show off for potential mates while red-billed tropicbirds take shelter under the cliffs. We also find Darwin's finches, Galapagos doves and Galapagos hawks, and a unique species of red and green marine iguana. After lunch we land at Gardner Bay, its endless stretch of white sandy beach home to a large colony of sea lions. Swim with them right from the beach, explore the bay by kayak, or just relax on the powdery sand. There's an excellent snorkeling site off Gardner Islet with a colorful diversity of sea life near Tortuga Rock, and caves to explore by panga.

Day 13: Floreana – Punta Cormorant / Post Office Bay
Today we land at Punta Cormorant on Floreana, one of the few populated islands in the Galapagos. Floreana's rich cultural history is filled with intrigue, including tales of pirates who once hid out here. We follow a trail to a brackish lagoon to find pintail ducks, common stilts and the most vividly pink flamingos in the world. Winding our way past a rich variety of plants, we reach a beach of fine sand where sea turtles lay eggs in the dunes and rays swim in the shallow water. After our walk we have a chance to snorkel at Devil's Crown or Champion, a shallow sunken crater colonized by a brilliant array of colorful fish and coral. This afternoon we call at Post Office Bay, one of the most famous sites in the Galapagos. Here, a post barrel was erected by English whalers in the late 18th century, and visitors yet today may leave a post card for hand delivery, and pick up one to deliver to your home area.

Day 14: Santa Cruz – Charles Darwin Research Station

Today we return to Santa Cruz, landing at the main town of Puerto Ayora. This morning there's an option to take a guided 4-mile round-trip hike to secluded Tortuga Bay for swimming and relaxing. The largely flat trail leads to a long, pristine white-sand beach that is a sanctuary for many birds, iguanas and crabs that dot the lava rocks. Swimming is permitted in a separate cove nearby where it is common to view schools of white-tipped reef sharks, sea turtles and colorful fish. Those who prefer may stay behind to explore the lively town of Puerto Ayora, the largest town on Santa Cruz and the social heart of the islands.

This afternoon, we visit the world-famous Charles Darwin Research Station, where scientists from around the globe conduct studies dedicated to conserving the unique habitats and species of the Galapagos. Here we'll have a chance to see the tortoise-rearing facility, where tiny hatchlings are reared to help increase the depleted tortoise population, a central part of the station's conservation mission. To date, more than 5,000 tortoises have been returned to the wild in Galapagos through the program. This evening the option exists to return to our yacht for a buffet dinner or to remain in town and have dinner on your own at one of Puerto Ayora's many seaside restaurants. (Zodiac transportation will be provided.)

Day 15: Bartolome / Sombrero Chino
Disembarking at Bartolome, it feels like we are walking on the moon. This small, young island, mostly a stark black lava landscape, is still inhospitable to most plants and animals. A 30-minute climb up wooden stairs leading to the summit of a once-active volcano reveals amazing views and fascinating geological sights as we pause to marvel at lava bombs, spatter cones and cinder cones. From the top, we have a panoramic view of the island and Pinnacle Rock, an eroded tuff cone famously featured in the film Pirates of the Caribbean.

Descending back to the beach, snorkel with schools of tropical fish and Galapagos penguins or choose a panga ride. After lunch, we visit Las Bachas, with its long stretch of soft white sand beach and interior lagoons where we may find flamingos. Then it’s off to Sombrero Chino – 'Chinese Hat' – an island that's shaped like its namesake. Sea lions greet us on landing, and we follow a trail into a primeval landscape of volcanic rubble including lava tubes, observing marine iguanas and pairs of oystercatchers en route. There's a chance to snorkel at a site often frequented by Galapagos penguins. Tonight we'll anchor in a calm, protected area nearby.

Day 16: South Plaza / North Seymour
South Plaza Island is a small geological uplift with tall cliffs offering spectacular views. After a dry landing, the trail leads us through cactus and succulents including prickly pear, opuntia and sesuvium, where we often find the Galapagos land iguana feeding on the plants. Continuing onward, we typically encounter a colony of bachelor sea lions, with the dominant bulls in various stages of recovery from battles lost over prime beach territory. We also find swallow-tailed gulls, shearwaters and red-billed tropicbirds that build their nests along the cliffs. After lunch, we land at North Seymour, a small geological uplift where we'll follow a trail that leads us to swallow-tailed gulls, blue-footed boobies and the endemic land iguanas. We'll also visit the largest colony of magnificent frigatebirds found in Galapagos. As we stroll along the beach, we find marine iguanas and sea lions bodysurfing the northerly swells. Back aboard the Letty, we gather for the captain’s farewell dinner this evening.

Day 17: San Cristobal / Quito
This morning we return to San Cristobal, one of the oldest islands in the archipelago, and drop anchor at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of the province of Galapagos. Here we'll disembark the Letty, then visit the National Park Interpretation Center for a concluding overview of the natural and human history of the islands. At last it's time to bid farewell to the Enchanted Isles and fly back to the mainland. Our epic Galapagos adventure concludes on arrival at the airport in Quito, 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

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