2020 Central Itinerary (8 Days)
Arrive in Ecuador's capital city, where our local host meets you at the airport and joins you on the drive to Quito's historic Old Town, about an hour away. Settle into your boutique hotel in the heart of the colonial quarter and enjoy dinner on your own at one of Quito's many fine restaurants.
Day 2: Exploring Historic Quito
After breakfast, set out on a full-day discovery of Ecuador's historic capital with your Expedition Leader and a local guide. Heralded as Latin America's most well-preserved colonial city, Quito's Old Town is filled with cobblestone lanes, stately plazas and monuments, and ornate churches. Our tour of the old quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, may include the 16th-century Church and Convent of San Francisco and the baroque splendor of La Compañia Church with its gleaming gold-leaf interior. Along the way, we'll stop for a leisurely lunch of traditional Ecuadorian food in a classic local restaurant. Visit Independence Plaza, the original center of Quito from which we view the Archbishop's Palace, Cathedral and Presidential Palace. And take in a sweeping view of the city and surrounding volcanic peaks from the overlook at Itchimbia or Panecillo Hill. This evening, enjoy a welcome dinner to celebrate the start of our adventure.
Day 3: Baltra, Galapagos Islands / Itabaca Canal / Nat Hab's Tortoise Camp
Rise early for the transfer back to Quito airport to board our flight to the Galapagos. Our second Expedition Leader meets us once we land on the island of Baltra later this morning. After lunch, we have our first chance to kayak in the Galapagos as we paddle in Itabaca Canal, located between Baltra and Santa Cruz. The channel offers excellent conditions for an introduction to Galapagos kayaking, with calm waters and very little wind. Paddle past mangroves where pelicans and herons perch and rocky cliffs where we'll see blue-footed boobies, brown noddies, gulls and shearwaters. We sometimes see sea lions along the shoreline, and in shallow areas, look for white-tipped reef sharks.
Then it's off to Santa Cruz Island, winding up into the misty highlands to Los Gemelos—"the twins" — a pair of rugged volcanic craters surrounded by lush scalesia forest. Our ultimate destination is Nat Hab's private Tortoise Camp, providing a rare opportunity to spend a night in wild tortoise habitat. These ancient, amiable reptiles that are the archipelago's namesake often wander right through camp. Accommodations are in safari-style raised platform tents and treehouses with views of the ocean. While rustic, they offer comfortable amenities, including real beds and private en suite facilities. But the true treat of our stay is the proximity to wild tortoises, which are attracted to the area by the lush vegetation. They are most commonly seen in camp from July through February. From March to June, we make an excursion to a nearby tortoise reserve for closer views, as they migrate seasonally to a lower elevation. Nearby, we can also explore a network of subterranean lava tubes and caverns.
Day 4: Garrapatero Beach / Cerro Crocker Hike
We head back to sea level from camp to begin our day with a short hike to the open, sandy expanse of Garrapatero Beach. The diverse flora is fascinating: cactus taller than 20 feet line the path, while near the beach we find poison apple trees and mangroves. A variety of wildlife resides here, including marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, frigatebirds, pelicans, flamingos and many more bird species. Marine life is equally vibrant, and snorkeling in the protected bay may reveal reef and pelagic fish, sea turtles and rays.
This afternoon, we head back to the heights with a hike up 2,800-foot Cerro Crocker. From the summit, survey extinct volcanoes and dense vegetation from scalesia and miconia to fern-sedge zones, and look for birds like the vermilion flycatcher, paint-billed crake and elusive Galapagos rail. Return to Tortoise Camp for a second night, savoring a hearty dinner, warming up by the fire in the grate and enjoying a bright canopy of stars if the skies are clear.
Day 5: Tortuga Bay / Puerto Ayora—Embark Nemo III
Descending to sea level again, we head to secluded Tortuga Bay for a paddling idyll. The pristine white sand beach is a sanctuary for many birds, iguanas and bright orange Sally Lightfoot crabs that dot the black lava rocks. In a nearby cove, we frequently see schools of white-tipped reef sharks, sea turtles and colorful fish in the transparent aqua waters. A paddle among mangrove lagoons on the bay's edge offers a chance to see sea turtles, commonly found here.
After our morning outing, we return to Puerto Ayora, the main town on Santa Cruz, to embark the Nemo III. This deluxe motor sailing catamaran will be our base for the next three nights as we kayak and hike in the islands. After lunch aboard, we step ashore to visit the world-famous giant tortoise-rearing center at the Charles Darwin Research Station. Here, international scientists conduct research dedicated to conserving the unique habitats and species of the Galapagos. At the facility, we visit the protection pens where hatchlings are bred to increase depleted tortoise populations, a central mission for both the research station and Galapagos National Park. To date, more than 5,000 tortoises bred at the station have been released into the wild.
Day 6: South Plaza / Santa Fe
On South Plaza, we follow a rocky trail that circumnavigates the small island, displaying a combination of dry and coastal vegetation zones. South Plaza has one of the largest populations of land iguanas in the Galapagos, and we find them everywhere as we walk. Large yellow-brown land Iguanas feed on the fruit and pads of the prickly pear cactus, patiently waiting beneath for the fruit to drop. We also find marine Iguanas along the shoreline, and an unusual hybrid iguana, the fathers of which are marine Iguanas, and the mothers are land iguanas. Continuing along the sea cliffs, look for swallow-tailed gulls, frigatebirds, Audubon shearwaters, red-billed tropicbirds, brown pelicans, and blue-footed and masked boobies, as well as a colony of noisy bachelor sea lions on the rocks below.
This afternoon we land at Santa Fe. On a short hike through a forest of prickly pear cacti, look for the endemic land iguanas that wait patiently underneath for fruit to drop. Returning to our catamaran, we explore a small islet surrounded by great reef diversity, then set out for a paddle along the north coast. Along this expanse, large cliffs and sea caves are used by many species of marine birds for nesting and roosting—as well as basking green sea turtles and sea lions.
Day 7: Bartolome / Sombrero Chino
Sailing on to Bartolome, some of the best snorkeling in the Galapagos awaits around the base of this ancient submerged volcano. It's an underwater playground that's home to enormous schools of fish permanently under attack by Galapagos penguins. Sleeping white-tipped reef sharks, sea turtles and stingrays are also common sightings. We then make a dry landing to climb to the island's highest point for 360-degree views, passing intriguing geological formations including spatter cones, tuff cones and lava tubes. From the summit, a panorama unfolds of the surrounding islands and Pinnacle Rock, famously shown in the 2003 film Master and Commander. Over lunch, cruise to nearby Sombrero Chino, which really does look like a Chinese hat! A 2-hour paddle through the Bainbridge Rocks, shaped like a string of floating mushroom tops, reveals more of the Galapagos' fascinating marine life. During a final snorkel in the channel, we hope the resident penguin family will join us. Back on board, it's time for cocktails and a convivial farewell dinner.
Day 8: Puerto Ayora / Baltra / Quito / Depart
The Nemo III returns to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz this morning, where we disembark. From here, we ferry over to Baltra where we board our flight back to the mainland. Upon arrival at the Quito airport, travelers departing on overnight flights may choose to transfer to a hotel located just minutes away, for a relaxed layover in a comfortable day room. A complimentary shuttle will return you to the airport in time for your evening flight.