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 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 our Photography Expedition Leader.
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. Landing on Baltra, we meet our Galapagos Expedition Leaders who accompany us to the pier where the Ocean Spray awaits. After getting settled into our staterooms, our guides provide an orientation to the ship and the photography opportunities that lie ahead. Following lunch, we make our first landing at Sombrero Chino, a small island is located just off the southeastern tip of Santiago. Its Spanish name references the island's unique shape—like a traditional Chinese hat—formed by volcanic activity ages ago. The island is home to a colony of sea lions that lolls on the white coral sand beach, opening opportunities for charismatic and breathtaking photography alike. Our first snorkeling opportunity reveals some of the Galapagos' fascinating marine life—which may include a resident penguin family that frequently joins 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 at Punta Vicente Roca, we'll snorkel at a spot where we're practically guaranteed to swim with sea turtles, and if time allows we'll take a panga ride along a shoreline brimming with wildlife. Keep your lens ready, as chances are good for sightings of Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants, blue-footed boobies, brown noddies and Galapagos fur seals. After lunch, the Ocean Spray crosses the Bolivar Channel en route to Fernandina, the youngest of the islands. Prepare for action shots on the horizon, as we may spy whales and dolphins in the passage.
Fernandina has one of the most dynamic and pristine ecosystems on the planet, with vivid evidence of recent volcanic activity. Eruptions in 2018 sent lava flowing all the way to the sea, providing a stark backdrop for wildlife viewing. We land at Punta Espinoza, where a surprising variety of life flourishes on the rippling hardened lava: flightless cormorants nest on the rocks and huge colonies of marine iguanas bask in the sun, while Galapagos hawks soar overhead. The birds are nonchalant about human presence, making exciting close-up photography very easy. 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 on Isabela, spend the morning in Tagus Cove, where we find graffiti dating to the 1800s, when pirates and whalers carved their ship names into the rock above a historic anchorage. Look for Galapagos penguins and pelicans as we snorkel. Then, choose between a hike among the volcanic tuff cones for a closer look at the island's geological history and views of Darwin's Lagoon, or a panga ride, where we're sure to be photographing blue-footed boobies perched on the cliff ledges, as well as brown pelicans, brown noddies and flightless cormorants.
At Urbina Bay this afternoon, witness one of the best examples of geological uplift in the archipelago, a phenomenon that occurs when molten rock beneath the surface suddenly shifts. In 1954, the shoreline was heaved upward nearly 15 feet, exposing coral and stranding marine organisms above the water on what is now the shore. A prime opportunity for eclectic wildlife photography, Urbina is home to nesting sea turtles and a colony of some of the islands’ largest land iguanas. We also look for Galapagos tortoise and a variety of Darwin's finches.
Day 6: Isabela—Elizabeth Bay / Punta Moreno
On the southern side of Isabela, we enter Elizabeth Bay to explore a sprinkling of islets, a lagoon frequented by sea turtles, and surrounding red and black mangroves. On a panga ride, search for resting and feeding sea turtles along with lava herons, Galapagos penguins, rays and flightless cormorants. In the afternoon, we sail farther west to Punta Moreno, home to several endemic species on the 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 ropy and sometimes sharp black surface is dotted with numerous shallow lagoons harboring a wide variety of birdlife. Commonly seen species include flamingos, paint-billed crakes and white-cheeked pintails. We’ll also see endemic Galapagos flora taking root on this young, barren lava flow, including giant candelabra cactus, Palo Santo trees, carob trees and lichens. The protected waters of Moreno Bay are surrounded by mangroves—ideal habitat for sea turtles, which we may spy as we snorkel.
Day 7: Santa Cruz—Darwin Station / Natural Habitat's Tortoise Camp
On Santa Cruz this morning, visit the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center, run in tandem by Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Research Station. Here, we learn about the efforts by scientists, guides, rangers and park managers to conserve 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 focus of the station's conservation mission. To date, the program has returned more than 5,000 tortoises to the 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). While our accommodations are rustic, the proximity they offer to wild tortoises is second to none. 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
Our exploration of Santa Cruz continues with time to further roam the grounds of Tortoise Camp this morning, or a visit to a nearby tortoise reserve, depending on where we are likely to find more of these ancient island denizens—their location varies seasonally. 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, or prickly pear, cactus. On a short hike through a cacti forest, look for endemic land iguanas that wait patiently underneath for fruit to drop. We then take a 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 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 4 million years old, Española is far enough away from the other islands that it is home to the greatest number of endemic species in the Galapagos, as well as dramatic landscapes sculpted by millions of years of erosion. At Punta Suarez, we hike on the headlands in search of abundant birdlife, hoping to see Española 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, and a rare chance to zoom in to photograph the big birds in action.
Returning to our catamaran, lunch is served aboard as we sail to Gardner Bay, famed for its long white-sand beach that is home to dozens of sea lions. Paddle or ride a panga along the island’s north shore to photograph a cliff formed by eroded cinder cones and layers of old basalt, prime habitat for giant cacti and many different bird species. Then, snorkel around Osborn Islet, just one of the many little islands offshore that invite underwater exploration. Look for Pacific green sea turtles, which also frequent the rocky part of the shoreline edging Gardner Bay. Or just laze with the sea lions (always willing models to pose for your camera!) on the idyllic beach as we spend a relaxing afternoon on the bay. Back on board, it's time for farewell cocktails and a final celebratory dinner.
Day 10: San Cristobal / Quito / Depart
On our final morning in the Galapagos, we arrive at San Cristobal, the island where Darwin first landed in 1835 and where the Galapagos’ first permanent settlements were established. After disembarking the Ocean Spray, we visit an interpretation center for a concluding overview of Galapagos history, ecosystems, geology and wildlife. At last it's time to conclude our photographic odyssey in the Enchanted Isles as we transfer to the airport for our flight back to the mainland. Upon arrival at the Quito airport, travelers leaving on overnight flights have the opportunity to transfer to a hotel located just minutes away, offering a chance to refresh and relax in a comfortable day room before departure. A complimentary shuttle will return you to the airport in time for your evening flight.
Physical Rating: Easy to Moderate
Learn more about the seasonal variations of Galapagos weather and wildlife viewing.