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Classic Galapagos: The Natural Habitat Experience

Nemo III 10-Day Western Itinerary

Itinerary Map
Day 1: Quito, Ecuador
Upon arrival at the airport in Quito, you are met by our local representative and transferred to the historic Old Town about an hour away. Settle into your luxury boutique hotel in the heart of the colonial quarter and enjoy dinner at your pleasure this evening at one of Quito’s many fine restaurants.

Day 2: Exploring Quito
After breakfast, embark upon a full day of discovery in Ecuador’s historic capital. Heralded as Latin America’s most beautifully preserved colonial city, Quito’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with cobblestone lanes, elegant plazas and monuments, and ornate gilded churches and monasteries. Our options are many today. Take in a sweeping view of the city and surrounding volcanic peaks from the overlook Panecillo Hill, then visit the 16th-century Church and Convent of San Francisco, and saunter through San Francisco Square. Make a brief exploration of the Casa del Alabado Museum, a private archaeological collection of pre-Columbian artifacts dating back to Ecuador's oldest indigenous cultures. Marvel at the baroque splendor of La Compañia Church with its gleaming gold-leaf interior, or visit Independence Plaza, the original center of Quito from which we view the Archbishop’s Palace, Cathedral and Presidential Palace. Along our way, we'll stop for a leisurely lunch of Ecuadorian food served with a contemporary twist. The afternoon can be spent at leisure in the city, or visiting traditional workshops along La Ronda, one of Quito’s oldest streets, where the artisans making everything from hats to wooden toys to chocolate partake in their crafts. As the sun sets over Quito, enjoy a welcome dinner with one of our Expedition Leaders.

Day 3: Baltra, Galapagos Islands / Santa Cruz—Las Bachas

We rise early to make the return transfer to the Quito airport, where we board our flight to the Galapagos this morning. Our second Expedition Leader meets us as we land on the island of Baltra, then we transfer to the jetty to board to the Nemo III. This first-class sailing catamaran will be our home base for the next week as we explore among the islands. We soon set off for 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. Back aboard the Nemo III, our Expedition Leaders offer a briefing about tomorrow's activities, followed by cocktails and dinner.

Day 4: Genovesa
Genovesa, or Tower Island, is a collapsed shield volcano that attracts literally millions of seabirds that come here to breed and nest. Paddling our kayaks 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, including two species of sea swallows that nest in holes in the lava walls.

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.

After lunch aboard we continue to Darwin Bay Beach following a trail into lush mangroves where red-footed boobies nest. We may also see nesting colonies of common frigatebird, Nazca booby and huge numbers of breeding swallow-tailed seagulls. After the walk, we snorkel from the beach, where plenty of local sea lions loll in the sun, and sightings of rays and sea turtles are common below the water’s surface.

Day 5: Sombrero Chino / Santa Cruz—NHA’S Tortoise Camp
A special panga opportunity awaits this morning as we circle the island called Sombrero Chino, or "Chinese Hat." It really does look like a traditional Chinese hat, and we enjoy varied vantage points on it as we paddle through the Bainbridge Rocks, shaped like a string of floating mushroom tops, while more fascinating Galapagos marine life is revealed at eye level.

This afternoon we set sail for Santa Cruz. Here, we leave our boat behind temporarily to ascend into the misty highlands. Soon, we arrive at NHA's exclusive Tortoise Camp to spend the night. Our private camp, which offers accommodations in safari-style tents and treehouses with distant views of the ocean, is tucked among lush vegetation that attracts wild giant tortoises. We have a chance to view these ancient, amiable creatures in their natural setting, and they often amble right into camp (seen most commonly from July through February). Nearby, we can also explore a network of subterranean lava tubes and caverns. Please note: At times, the Tortoise Camp may be closed due to poor weather conditions, in which case we will remain aboard the Nemo III for the night, though all sightseeing inclusions will remain the same.

Day 6: Santa Cruz Highlands / Darwin Station

Spend the morning exploring the highlands, with a stop at either El Manzanillo or El Chato tortoise reserve to view more tortoises in the wild. Continue to Puerto Ayora, the main town on Santa Cruz, where we visit the world-famous giant tortoise rearing center at Charles Darwin Research Station. Here, international scientists conduct studies dedicated to conserving the unique habitats and species of the Galapagos. At the facility we visit the protection pens where hatchlings are bred to help increase the depleted tortoise population, a central part of the missions for both the research station and Galapagos National Park. You'll also have a bit of free time on your own in town, where you’ll find a nice selection of shops, cafes and seaside bars.

Day 7: Isabela—Punta Moreno / Urbina Bay

This morning we land at Punta Moreno on Isabela, the largest island in the Galapagos. 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 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 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.

At Urbina Bay this afternoon, step onto 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 home to a colony of some of the largest land iguanas in the islands and the iconic Galapagos tortoise, and we may also see bright yellow Darwin’s cotton flowers here, unique to the archipelago.

Day 8: Fernandina—Punta Espinoza / Isabela—Tagus Cove

This morning we awake at Fernandina, the youngest and most active volcano in the Galapagos, erupting most recently in 2018. 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 aquamarine sea. A snorkeling excursion offers a good chance to see sea turtles and submerged marine iguanas feeding on algae. Fernandina is home to a number of rare and unique Galapagos species such as the flightless cormorant, Galapagos penguin, Galapagos sparrow hawk and Galapagos snake, among others. We’ll also see fascinating lava cactus, which grows on young lava flows with virtually no water.

As we cross the Bolivar Channel to reach Isabela this afternoon, keep watch for whales and dolphins. Anchoring at Tagus Cove, we set out in search of 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. Inside the submerged volcanic cone we find saltwater Darwin Lake.

Day 9: Santiago—Puerto Egas / Playa Espumilla
At Puerto Egas on Santiago, one of the most volcanically active islands in the Galapagos, we make a morning landing on a black sand beach with eroded rock formations. The trail crosses the dry interior where 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, land doves, finches, mockingbirds and seasonal shorebirds. In the lava grottos we find a colony of Galapagos fur seals, one of the only places in the islands where these endemic animals are on view from land. After our walk, there may be time to swim or snorkel off the beach with the resident sea lions, and we may also see turtles, rays and reef sharks.

This afternoon, sea conditions permitting, we stop at Playa Espumilla, located on James Bay. It’s an exciting site for snorkeling, with an interesting array of marine life on display. Look for moray eels, marine iguanas, sharks, octopi and rays hiding on the sandy sea bottom. Orange Sally Lightfoot crabs speckle the rocks, attracting herons. Out on the water, watch for sea turtles cresting the water’s surface as we paddle.

If we are unable to land at Playa Espumilla, we visit Buccaneer’s Cove instead. Formerly a safe haven for pirates, whalers and sailors in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is a scenic site with impressive tuff cliffs and a dark reddish-purple sand beach. We have a chance to possibly do some deep-water snorkeling here, too.

Day 10: Daphne Major / Baltra / Depart
Just off Santa Cruz, we stop to circumnavigate Daphne Major. One of two small volcanic islands (along with Daphne Minor) that are a haven for multiple bird species, Daphne Major is formed of a tuff crater. It’s a noted location for bird research, especially on boobies. A pair of Princeton University scientists have been conducting longitudinal studies over more than three decades and have been able to watch subtle evolutionary processes at work. Blue-footed boobies nest in the interior of the crater, while masked boobies nest on the sides of the cone and along the crater's edge. Too soon, our time in the Enchanted Isles comes to a close as we say goodbye to the Nemo III, her crew and our Expedition Leaders. Transferring to Baltra, we board our flight back to the mainland. Upon arrival at the Quito airport, travelers departing on overnight flights have the opportunity to transfer to a hotel located just minutes away during the layover, providing time to refresh and relax in a comfortable day room. A complimentary shuttle will take you back to the airport in time for your evening flight.

Learn more about the seasonal variations of Galapagos weather and wildlife viewing.
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