Our Exclusive Small-Group Nature Immersion Led by the Islands' Most Experienced Guides
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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
was previously named the Athala II
. The itinerary, activities
and inclusions are unchanged between the two vessels.
Day 1: Quito, Ecuador / Otavalo
Upon arrival at the Quito airport, you're met by our local representative who accompanies you on the scenic drive to Otavalo, just over an hour away in the Andean Highlands. We check in to our accommodations, a warm and hospitable setting from which to sample the history, nature
and culture of this mountain region. Depending on which departure you have selected, you’ll stay either at Hacienda Zuleta or Hacienda Cusin, colonial estates with a rich historical past, or Sacha Ji, a luxury wellness resort that is a pacesetter in sustainability. This evening, enjoy a welcome dinner with one of our Expedition Leaders.
Day 2: Exploring the Andean Highlands
Our Ecuador adventure begins with an immersion in the natural history and cultural heritage of the Andean Highlands, a region defined by high volcanic peaks and deep-blue lakes. Specific activities will depend on the departure you have chosen and the location of your Otavalo accommodations. For details, please click here for Hacienda Zuleta, click here for Hacienda Cusin, or click here for Sachi Ji.
Day 3: Quito / Baltra, Galapagos Islands
Depart early this morning for the return drive to the Quito airport and our flight to the islands. We land on Baltra, where our second Expedition Leader is waiting to greet us. A transfer to the dock brings us to the Xploration
, our floating home for the next week. After settling in to our cabins, there's an introductory briefing and safety drill followed by lunch aboard. Our Galapagos adventure tour is soon underway as we begin our voyage through the fascinating archipelago that Herman Melville dubbed the "Enchanted Isles." This afternoon, board motorized rafts for our first panga ride to Mosquera Island, a tiny islet that's home to a huge population of sea lions as well as many shorebirds. Back aboard the Xploration,
there's time to refresh and relax with a welcome cocktail before dinner.
Day 4: Santiago / Bartolome
Awake this morning to the orange light of sunrise glowing on the volcanic craters of Bartolome and Santiago islands. Our first excursion is a panga ride to Sullivan Bay on the east coast of Santiago, known for its spectacular volcanic formations, relatively recent lava flows and unique geological scenery. The lava here is the pahoehoe
type, which resembles smooth ropes. Few plants have been able to take root on the barren rock, and we admire the hardy pioneers that have, like the lava cactus. There's also a chance to snorkel here. This afternoon, visit little Bartolome, where an opportunity awaits to snorkel with penguins around Pinnacle Rock. As we climb to the highest point of this ancient volcano for 360-degree views, we pass unusual lava formations such as spatter cones, tuff cones and lava tubes. Those who don't wish to hike to the summit may take a panga ride along the shoreline of the island, watching for rays and reef sharks just below the surface.
Day 5: Isabela
Isabela is our destination today, the largest of the Galapagos islands. Landing at Urbina Bay, we 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 raised nearly 15 feet, exposing coral and stranding marine organisms on what is now the shore. Urbina is home to nesting sea turtles and a colony of some of the largest land iguanas in the islands, the iconic Galapagos tortoise, penguins, flightless cormorants and a variety of Darwin's finches.
After a walk among the wildlife, we snorkel right from the beach, hoping to see grazing sea turtles and Galapagos penguins. At Tagus Cove, spot graffiti dating to the 1800s when the names of ships were carved into the rock above a historic anchorage for pirates and whalers. Kayaking or snorkeling are our first afternoon
activity options. Then, choose between a hike among the volcanic tuff cones for a closer look at the island's geological history, with views of Darwin's Lagoon, or a panga ride, where we're sure to see blue-footed boobies perched on the cliff ledges, as well as brown pelicans, brown noddies, flightless cormorants and Galapagos penguins. This evening, we cruise through the Bolivar Channel en route to Fernandina, keeping an eye out for whales and dolphins.
Day 6: Fernandina / Isabela
The youngest and most active volcano in the Galapagos, Fernandina is also one of the most dynamic ecosystems on the planet, last erupting in 2009 and sending a flow of lava all the way to the sea. We land at Punta Espinoza, where the rippling lava provides us 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. After lunch aboard, return to Isabela to explore Punta Vicente Roca, with a choice of snorkeling (where we're practically guaranteed to swim with sea turtles) or a panga ride along the shoreline brimming with wildlife, with good chances to see Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants, blue-footed boobies, brown noddies and Galapagos fur seals.
Day 7: Santiago / Santa Cruz / Natural Habitat's Tortoise Camp
At Puerto Egas on Santiago, we make an early-morning landing on a black beach with eroded rock formations. The trail crosses the dry interior where the 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 and seasonal shorebirds. In the lava grottos we find a colony of Galapagos fur seals, one of the only places in the islands that we see these endemic animals from land. After our walk there's time to swim or snorkel off the beach with the resident sea lions. Turtles, rays and reef sharks are frequently in view below the surface, too.
Set sail this afternoon to the island of Santa Cruz, centrally located in the chain. For those who choose to participate in our private overnight camping opportunity, we disembark at Puerto Ayora and drive into the highlands to reach our exclusive Tortoise Camp. The campsite has distant views of the ocean and is set among lush vegetation that attracts giant tortoises (most commonly seen from July through February). Our accommodations are in raised safari-style tents and treehouses, each with private bathroom facilities. While rustic, they offer rare proximity to wild Galapagos tortoises, which often amble right into camp! A sheltered dining room and lounge with fireplace offer a cozy, convivial place to gather. Return by bus the next day to rejoin the Xploration. Please note: At times, the camp may be closed due to poor weather conditions.
Day 8: Santa Cruz—Darwin Station or Tortuga Bay
Depending on the season, our exploration of Santa Cruz continues with walks around Tortoise Camp in search of these ancient, amiable reptiles (which can grow to 600 pounds!), or a visit to the tortoise reserve at El Manzanillo, where lush environs harbor numerous wild giant tortoises that roam freely year-round. Returning to the coast, we reach the town of Puerto Ayora, where you may choose between two activity options: 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, operated 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, see 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 (about an hour and 15 minutes one way, plus return) 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 free time in town to browse the shops and galleries before returning in time to sail this evening.
Day 9: Genovesa
Genovesa, or Tower Island, is a collapsed shield volcano that attracts millions of seabirds that come here to breed and nest. 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. 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. 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. Following our walk, there's an option to snorkel, kayak or take a panga ride.
After lunch aboard, continue to Darwin Bay Beach, following a trail into lush mangroves where red-footed boobies nest. After the easy walk, we snorkel from the beach, where sightings of rays and sea turtles are common, and there are plenty of local sea lions basking in the sun. Back on board,
we share farewell cocktails and a last dinner together as the sun sets.
Day 10: North Seymour / Quito / Depart
An optional pre-dawn wake-up call rouses those who wish to enjoy one final landing at sunrise on North Seymour Island. Ashore, we're surrounded by sea lions, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, magnificent frigatebirds and more, for a final rendezvous with the magical wildlife of the Galapagos. Returning to the Xploration
, have breakfast aboard as we cruise back to Baltra to disembark and transfer to the airport for our flight to the mainland. Upon arrival at the Quito airport, travelers departing on overnight flights have the option to transfer to a hotel located just minutes away, for a chance to refresh and relax in a comfortable day room. A complimentary shuttle will return to the airport in time for your evening flight.