Day 1: Quito, Ecuador
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 colonial quarter. Enjoy dinner on your own this evening at one of Quito’s many fine restaurants.
Day 2: Exploring Historic Quito
After breakfast, embark on a full day of discovery 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, take in a panorama of the city and surrounding volcanic peaks from Panecillo Hill, visit the 16th-century Church and Convent of San Francisco, and wander through San Francisco Square. Marvel at 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.
We also visit an artisanal chocolate shop featuring products handmade from Ecuador's finest aromatic cacao. Ethically cultivated by a women's cooperative using traditional organic techniques, this rare cacao is prized by the great chocolatiers of the world for its heady aroma and unique flavor. We'll do a chocolate tasting, pairing different varieties with craft beer also made of cacao. Following lunch, the afternoon is at leisure to explore the city further on your own or visit the traditional workshops along La Ronda, one of Quito's oldest streets, where artisans craft everything from hats to wooden toys. This evening, we gather for a welcome dinner with one of our expedition leaders.
Day 3: Quito/Baltra, Galapagos Islands—Board M/C Petrel/North Seymour
We depart early this morning for the Quito airport and our flight to the Galápagos Islands. Landing on Baltra, we meet our second expedition leader, who accompanies us to the pier where the Petrel awaits. After settling in, we join our guides for a safety briefing and orientation to the adventures that lie ahead. After lunch aboard, we make our first landing at North Seymour, a small geological uplift, where we follow a trail among swallow-tailed gulls, blue-footed boobies, and endemic land iguanas. North Seymour is also home to the Galápagos’ largest colony of magnificent frigatebirds. As we stroll along the beach, we find marine iguanas and sea lions bodysurfing the northerly swells.
Day 4: Isabela—Punta Vicente Roca/Fernandina—Punta Espinoza
Isabela is our destination today, the largest of the Galápagos Islands. Shaped like a seahorse, it was created when six volcanoes flowed together. Beginning at Punta Vicente Roca, take a panga ride along a shoreline brimming with wildlife; and time permitting, we’ll snorkel at a spot where we frequently see sea turtles. Chances are good to spot Galápagos penguins, flightless cormorants, blue-footed boobies, brown noddies and Galápagos fur seals. After lunch, Petrel crosses the Bolivar Channel en route to Fernandina, the youngest of the Galápagos 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 backdrop for wildlife viewing. 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 Galápagos hawks soar overhead. Bright orange Sally Lightfoot crabs pepper the black rocks at water's edge, contrasting with 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 flightless cormorants on the shoreline and Galápagos penguins below the surface as we snorkel. Then, choose between two activities: 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 to look for 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 Galápagos tortoises and a variety of Darwin's finches.
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, we search for resting and feeding sea turtles along with lava herons, Galápagos 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’ll also see endemic Galápagos 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—Sierra Negra/Puerto Villamil
Isabela, the archipelago’s largest island, formed by five volcanoes, is also one of the youngest—and a marvelous world within itself. The laid-back island town of Puerto Villamil is our home base for a variety of engaging activity options today. We can wander along trails through the wetlands located just outside town, comprised of lagoons, swamps, and mangroves that are home to a variety of bird species such as common stilts, whimbrels, white-cheeked pintail ducks, gallinules and other shore birds. We may also visit the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center or the Wall of Tears, a penal colony that existed on Isabela between 1945 and 1959. For a more adventurous option, take an excursion to Sierra Negra volcano and peer from the rim into the vast caldera—one of the largest in the world, at four miles across.
Day 8: Santa Cruz—Darwin Station/Natural Habitat's Tortoise Camp
We arrive at Santa Cruz, where our day begins with a visit to Puerto Ayora, the island’s main town, to visit the world-famous tortoise-rearing center at the Charles Darwin Research Station. Here, international scientists conduct research dedicated to conserving the unique habitats and species of the Galápagos. At the facility, visit the protection pens where hatchlings are bred to help increase depleted tortoise populations—a central mission for both the research station and Galápagos National Park. To date, more than 5,000 tortoises bred at the station have been released into native habitats.
After time to explore town, followed by lunch back on board, we ascend into the misty highlands of Santa Cruz to reach 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 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 real treat of a stay here is our proximity to wild tortoises, which are attracted to the area's 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. Please note: At times, Tortoise Camp may be closed due to poor weather conditions.
Day 9: Santa Cruz Highlands/Santa Fe
We spend the morning exploring a network of subterranean lava tubes and caverns adjacent to Tortoise Camp. Returning to Petrel, we'll have lunch aboard and sail for Santa Fe. On a short hike through a forest of prickly pear cactuses, look for the endemic 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: San Cristobal—Disembark/Quito/Depart
This morning we make a landing at Isla Lobos, where we take a short panga ride along the shore to observe a frigatebird colony and walk inland to greet the resident sea lion colony. We'll also hope to see blue-footed and Nazca boobies. Once we reach San Cristobal, where we disembark, it’s time to bid farewell to the Galápagos Islands and fly back to the mainland, landing at the airport in Quito. On arrival, travelers booked on overnight flights home may transfer to a hotel just minutes away, to refresh and relax in a comfortable day room before nighttime departures. A complimentary shuttle will return you to the airport in time for your evening flight.