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 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. We enjoy a welcome dinner this evening with our Photography Expedition Leader.
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. We enjoy a short hike to take in the dramatic views of Otavalo's volcanoes and also 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 one where we can witness handicrafts in the making and learn about the residents' traditional lifestyles.
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, landing at San Cristobal where our Galapagos photography adventure begins. Here we'll meet our Galapagos Expedition Leaders, who will accompany us to the pier where our ship awaits. The M/Y Letty
is our home for the next week, providing comfortable cabins and 360° views from the topside observation deck. After getting settled into our cabins, our guides provide an orientation to the ship and the photography opportunities that lie ahead. Following lunch aboard and an initial safety drill, we set off for our first landing at Punta Carola and an easy hike to the top of Frigatebird Hill. We're rewarded with spectacular panoramas of the coast, Kicker Rock, and the rooftops of the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Sea birds soar overhead, and we may have a chance to capture photos of the namesake frigatebirds with their distinctive red chests. Soon it's time to head back to the ship for dinner, and as we cruise off into the sunset, 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 one 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. The birds are nonchalant about human presence, making exciting close-up photography very easy. After lunch we'll have the option to do some kayaking, followed by a landing late this afternoon at a coral beach to swim and snorkel.
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. Continue this afternoon to Cerro Dragon ("Dragon Hill"), one of the best places in the islands to photograph 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 be able to photograph 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), photographing large numbers of blue-footed and Nazca boobies that nest on the sheer cliffs, while flightless cormorants are visible along the shoreline. Then we'll snorkel in one of the protected coves, laced with water-filled subterranean passages. Marine life is abundant, and we're sure to see green sea turtles swimming gracefully below the surface (bring your underwater camera!).
At Urbina Bay this afternoon, we step ashore on a black 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 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 as we cruise across the Bolivar Channel back to Isabela, keep your camera at the ready in case we spy whales and dolphins. Anchoring 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 snorkeling opportunity awaits, perhaps with a chance to frolic again with young sea lions.
Day 8: Rabida / Santa Cruz / Natural Habitat's 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. A short trail leads to the lagoon where we may be able to photograph boobies, brown pelicans nesting in the bushes, and all 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 most central island in the Galapagos chain. Those who choose to participate in our unique camping opportunity will disembark and transfer to the highlands of Santa Cruz to spend the night at Natural Habitat's exclusive Tortoise Camp. 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 9: Santa Cruz / Darwin Station or Tortuga Bay
Our exploration of Santa Cruz begins with a visit to a tortoise reserve at El Manzanillo, where we'll have a chance for close-up photography encounters with the numerous wild giant tortoises that freely roam these lush environs year-round. This afternoon we return to the coast and the town of Puerto Ayora, where you may choose between two activities: 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 Darwin Station, which operates in tandem with 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, photograph 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 visiting the station, there's still some time to walk around town. Those opting to visit Tortuga Bay will make an easy 3-mile walk (one way) 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 a full afternoon of free time in town to browse the shops and galleries and photograph harborfront scenes before heading back to the Letty
to sail this evening.
Day 10: San Cristobal / Quito / Depart
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 conclude our photographic odyssey in the Enchanted Isles as we fly back to Quito's new international airport to meet departing flights, or continue onward for those extending their travels to the Amazon rain forest or Machu Picchu.