Upon arrival at the airport in Quito, you are met by our local guide and transferred to the city's historic center, about an hour away. Our boutique hotel is located in the heart of the well-preserved colonial quarter, with abundant photography opportunities right out the door. Enjoy dinner on your own this evening.
Day 2: Photographing Historic Quito
After breakfast, embark on a full day of photography in Ecuador’s capital. Heralded as Latin America's best-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. On a guided city tour, photograph a panorama of the city and surrounding volcanic peaks from Panecillo Hill, capture the baroque splendor of La Compañia Church with its gleaming gold-leaf interior, and survey Independence Plaza, the original center of Quito from which we view the Archbishop's Palace, Cathedral and Presidential Palace. Quito’s markets offer a colorful collage of subjects, with fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, herbs and flowers, religious icons, and traditional Andean arts, crafts and textiles on display. A parade of faces files past, with women in classic hats and shawls the primary shoppers, some with children strapped to their backs.
Following lunch, the afternoon is yours to explore further on your own. You may wish to visit the traditional workshops along Calle La Ronda, one of Quito's oldest streets, where artisans craft everything from jewelry to guitars to wooden toys and handmade chocolates. This evening, we gather for a welcome dinner, joined by one of our two naturalist Expedition Leaders (we’ll meet the other in the Galapagos) and our Photography Expedition Leader.
Day 3: Quito / Baltra, Galapagos Islands—Board M/C Petrel / North Seymour
Depart early this morning for the Quito airport and our flight to the Galapagos Islands. Landing on Baltra, we meet our third Expedition Leader, who accompanies us to the pier where the Petrel awaits. Settle into your cabin, then join our guides for a safety briefing and orientation to the nature photography adventures ahead. After lunch on board, we set sail for a fortnight of adventures in Galapagos National Park. Our first landing is at North Seymour, a small geological uplift where we follow a trail among swallow-tailed gulls, common noddies, blue-footed boobies and endemic land iguanas, with more than 2,500 of the latter found on the island. North Seymour is also home to the Galapagos’ largest colony of magnificent frigatebirds. As we stroll along the beach, we find marine iguanas and sea lions bodysurfing the northerly swells—you may want to shoot some video!
Today, our Expedition Leaders will tell you about the photography workshops planned during our trip—intensive opportunities to work on best practices, discuss the ethics of wildlife photography, get coaching on underwater photography, and review and edit your images alongside our team of pros. They will also examine your camera equipment and become familiar with your set-up, in order to offer the best personalized guidance and assistance.
Day 4: Isabela—Punta Vicente Roca / Fernandina—Punta Espinoza
Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos Islands, is our destination today. Shaped like a seahorse, it was formed when six volcanoes flowed together. Beginning at Punta Vicente Roca, take a panga ride along a shoreline brimming with wildlife. Time permitting, we’ll snorkel at a spot where we frequently see sea turtles. Chances are good to photograph Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants, blue-footed boobies, brown noddies and Galapagos fur seals. After lunch, Petrel crosses the Bolivar Channel en route to Fernandina, the youngest of the Galapagos islands. From the deck, keep an eye out for whales and dolphins, often on view in the passage.
Fernandina has one of the most dynamic and pristine ecosystems on Earth, displaying vivid evidence of recent volcanic activity. Eruptions in 2018 sent lava flowing all the way to the sea, providing a stark black backdrop for wildlife photos. We land at Punta Espinoza, where a surprising variety of life flourishes on the rope-like pahoehoe lava: flightless cormorants nest on the rocks and huge colonies of marine iguanas bask in the sun, while Galapagos hawks soar overhead. Bright orange Sally Lightfoot crabs pepper the dark rocks at water's edge, contrasting with the turquoise sea. When conditions permit, a snorkeling excursion offers a 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 flightless cormorants on the shoreline and Galapagos penguins below the surface as we snorkel. Take a panga ride to photograph 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. Urbina is home to nesting sea turtles and a colony of some of the islands' largest land iguanas. We also look for Galapagos tortoises and a variety of Darwin's finches, the birds that first sparked Darwin’s theory of evolution, when he witnessed subtle differences in them from island to island.
Day 6: Isabela—Elizabeth Bay & Punta Moreno
On the southern side of Isabela, Petrel enters Elizabeth Bay to explore a sprinkling of islets, a lagoon frequented by sea turtles, and surrounding red and black mangroves. On a panga ride, look for chances to photograph resting and feeding sea turtles along with lava herons, Galapagos penguins, rays and flightless cormorants. Sailing west to Punta Moreno, we observe 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 hard black surface is dotted with numerous shallow lagoons that harbor a wide variety of birdlife. Commonly seen species include flamingos, paint-billed crakes and white-cheeked pintails. We 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: Isabela—Puerto Vilamil & Sierra Negra Volcano
Isabela, the largest island in the Galapagos archipelago, is also one of the youngest, and a marvelous world within itself. The laid-back island town of Puerto Villamil is our base for a choice of engaging activity options today. Wander trails through the wetlands located just outside town—a mosaic of lagoons, swamps and mangroves home to a variety of bird species such as common stilts, whimbrels, white-cheeked pintail ducks, gallinules and other shorebirds. For a more adventurous option, take a guided hike up Sierra Negra, a large shield volcano that is one of the most active in the Galapagos. From the rim, peer into the black expanse of the vast caldera, with the crater floor lying a thousand feet below. At six miles across, it’s the second largest in the world. Along the trail, keep an eye out for Darwin's finches, flycatchers and mockingbirds, and if we're lucky, we might capture photos of a Galapagos hawk soaring on high.
Day 8: Santa Cruz—Tortoise Breeding Center / Nat Hab’s Private Tortoise Camp
Arrive on Santa Cruz where our day begins in Puerto Ayora, the island's main town. Here, we visit the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center, the world-famous tortoise-rearing site, managed in a partnership between Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Research Station. Learn about efforts by international scientists, guides, rangers and park managers to research and conserve the unique habitats and species of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the Galapagos. At the tortoise-rearing facility, photograph the protection pens where tiny hatchlings are bred to increase the depleted tortoise population, a central focus of the station's conservation mission. To date, more than 5,000 tortoises bred at the center have been released into the wild.
After time to explore this laid-back town, followed by lunch on board the Petrel, we travel by van into the misty highlands of Santa Cruz, ascending through the different vegetation zones until reach the Scalesia forest, one of the most important forms of endemic flora in the islands. The climate here is very different from other parts of the island, with steady moisture creating a favorable environment for bromeliads, orchids, mosses, lichens and many birds. Here, we find the famous vermillion flycatcher, eight different species of Darwin finch, and occasionally, short-eared owls. Soon, we arrive at Nat Hab's private Tortoise Camp. This exclusive setting offers a rare opportunity to spend a night in wild tortoise habitat, and these ancient, gentle reptiles that are the Galapagos’ 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—with matchless proximity for photographing wild tortoises in their natural habitat. Attracted to the area's lush vegetation, tortoises 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.
Please note: At times, Tortoise Camp may be closed due to poor weather conditions.
Day 9: Santa Cruz Highlands / Santa Fe
Adjacent to Tortoise Camp are Los Gemelos—"twin craters"—which are sink holes created when the volcanic roof of empty magma chambers collapsed from tectonic shifts and erosion over time. We spend the morning exploring this network of subterranean lava tubes and caverns; one lava tunnel is large enough for our whole group to assemble inside. Returning to the Petrel, we have lunch aboard as we sail for Santa Fe. Surrounded by a turquoise lagoon, this oldest of the Galapagos islands, dating back 4.5 million years, has one of the largest varieties of endemic species in the archipelago. It is the only place in the Galapagos where we find the opuntia cactus, as well as the Santa Fe land iguana, unique in the world. When we land on the beach, look for Galapagos hawks overhead. Then, on a short hike through a forest of giant prickly pear cacti, seek out the land iguanas that wait patiently underneath for fruit to drop. We explore a small islet surrounded by great reef diversity, then set out for a cruise along Santa Fe’s north coast. Along this expanse, large cliffs and sea caves are used by many seabird species for nesting and roosting, as well as by basking green sea turtles and sea lions.
Day 10: Isla Lobos / San Cristobal
Land at Isla Lobos this morning, where we take a short panga ride along the shore to photograph a frigatebird colony and walk inland to capture shots of the resident sea lion colony and hopefully blue-footed boobies, which nest here seasonally. Isla Lobos is also home to lots of sea lions and marine iguanas. In the distance, we have a perfect view of Kicker Rock. Continue to San Cristobal, where Charles Darwin landed in 1835, and where the first permanent settlements in the Galapagos were established. We disembark and drive 15 minutes to La Loberia Beach in search of sea lions, Sally Lightfoot crabs and sea turtles. On this long stretch of sand, there’s plenty of space to get your large lenses set up and just hang out, taking your time to wait for the best shots. Returning to the Petrel after our extended beach time, sit down to a relaxing dinner as we cruise off into the sunset.
Day 11: Española—Gardner Bay / Punta Suarez
The island of Española is one of the most prolific wildlife sites in the Galapagos, and our landing at Gardner Bay is sure to be a highlight. Its long stretch of white sandy beach is home to a large sea lion colony—we can swim with them right from the beach! You’re also likely to get photos of the curious Galapagos mockingbirds that like to peck at our sandals. Cruising around to the other side of the island, we go ashore at Punta Suarez, where we find the greatest number of endemic species in the entire archipelago. Have your tripod ready to photograph some of the many of birds found only in the Galapagos, and some only on Espanola, like the huge waved albatross, noted for its raucous mating ritual. Colonies of blue-footed boobies show off for potential mates while red-billed tropicbirds take shelter on the cliff walls. We also find Darwin's finches, Galapagos doves, Galapagos hawks, and a unique subspecies of red and green marine iguana endemic to this island, sometimes called the “Christmas” iguana because of its coloring.
Day 12: Floreana—Punta Cormorant / Devil's Crown / Post Office Bay
This morning we land at Punta Cormorant on Floreana, one of the two populated islands in the Galapagos. Following a trail through a Palo Santo forest to a brackish lagoon, we find pintail ducks, common stilts and bright pink flamingos. As we wind our way past a rich variety of plants, we reach a beach of fine sand where sea turtles lay eggs in the dunes and rays swim in the shallow water. Later, we snorkel at Devil’s Crown, an eroded volcanic cone that is a roosting site for boobies, pelicans and frigatebirds. Put your underwater photography skills to practice as we drift-snorkel with the current above the sunken craters colonized by a brilliant array of corals and colorful fish. Rays, sea turtles and reef sharks are also frequent visitors. Floreana's rich human history is filled with intrigue, including tales of pirates who once hid out here. At Post Office Bay, we learn about a relic of this colorful past, the "Post Office Barrel." Established by British whalers in 1793, it's still a means for travelers to leave mail for personal delivery.
Day 13: Rabida / Sombrero Chino
Rabida is known for its red sand beaches, due to the erosion of lava there that is rich in iron. We take a mellow walk among Palo Santo trees and picturesque opuntia, or prickly pear, cactus, looking for lava lizards, Darwin's finches and mockingbirds. The clear water invites snorkeling, and we might even be joined by fur seals. Kayaking is also an option from Rabida. We then cruise on to Sombrero Chino, which really does look like a Chinese hat! Explore the Bainbridge Rocks, shaped like a string of floating mushroom tops, where more of the Galapagos' fascinating marine life is revealed. We find plenty of it below the surface, where we can snorkel with abundant tropical fish and possibly members of the resident penguin colony, in the transparent waters of the channel. A short walk over sand and lava rocks reveals more of the island's beautiful landscape, plus a chance to get photos of sea lions, lava lizards and Sally lightfoot crabs. We may also explore the shoreline of nearby Santiago Island by panga, offering a chance to see more wildlife and to examine young lava flows, no more than 250 years old.
Day 14: Santiago—Bahia Sullivan / Bartolome
Explore Santiago's Sullivan Bay, where we get a close-up look at a huge field of pahoehoe lava, a geologically very young flow from 1897. This is the "ropy" form of lava, which solidifies in a smooth, wavy pattern. While the magma flow was flat, the movement of underground lava, rapid cooling and subsequent eruptions led to breaks in many places, and today, we find a surface of corrugated expanses marked by cracks and breaks.
Petrel then sails on to tiny Bartolome this afternoon, where 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 huge schools of fish permanently under attack by Galapagos penguins, which we commonly find along with gentle white-tipped reef sharks, sea turtles and stingrays. A climb to the island’s highest point offers 360-degree views as we pass intriguing geological formations such as spatter cones, tuff cones and lava tubes along the trail. From the summit, a panorama unfolds of the surrounding islands and Pinnacle Rock, famously shown in the 2003 film Master and Commander. Those who prefer not to hike can take a panga ride along the shoreline, watching for rays and reef sharks just below the surface.
Day 15: Genovesa—Darwin Bay / Prince Philip’s Steps
Genovesa Island, also called Tower, is a collapsed shield volcano whose flooded caldera attracts vast numbers of pelagic seabirds that gather here to breed and nest. Inside the submerged crater, thousands of great frigatebirds, red-footed boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, Galapagos storm petrels and yellow-crowned night herons create a cacophony of squawks. We anchor at Darwin Bay, formed thousands of years ago after the collapse of the volcano's roof. Surrounded by vertical cliffs, the bay is an ideal breeding site for more than a million birds that congregate on Genovesa. Our second landing is at El Barranco, also known as Prince Philip's Steps. This steep path with stairs carved into the rock 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 owl.
Day 16: Santiago—Puerto Egas / Buccaneer Cove
Returning to Santiago, we make an early-morning landing at Puerto Egas to explore a black sand beach with eroded rock formations. Following a trail across the dry interior, observe the remains of a salt mining enterprise before continuing along the coast. Birdlife abounds, with great blue herons, lava herons, oystercatchers, yellow-crowned night herons and seasonal shorebirds on display. In the lava grottos we find a colony of Galapagos fur seals, one of the only places in the Galapagos where we see these endemic animals from land. Afterward, there's time to swim or snorkel from the beach with the resident sea lions. Snorkeling at Buccaneer Cove, which was once a refuge for British pirates, offers a glimpse of underwater rock formations, sea turtles, rays and reef sharks.
Day 17: Santa Cruz—Black Turtle Cove / Baltra—Disembark / Quito / Depart
Returning to Santa Cruz this morning, we visit Black Turtle Cove, a sheltered lagoon on the north coast of the island. Take a panga ride to explore the shimmering turquoise water, hoping to see white-tipped reef sharks, rays and sea turtles. Then, continue to nearby Baltra where must say farewell to the Petrel’s captain and crew, as it’s time to disembark and head to the airport for our flight back to the mainland. Upon arrival at the Quito airport, we transfer to our nearby hotel, just minutes away, where an overnight stay is included. A complimentary shuttle will return you to the airport for your homeward flight, or for onward travel on our extensions to the Amazon or Machu Picchu.
Learn more about the seasonal variations of Galapagos weather and wildlife viewing.