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Arrive in Quito, Ecuador, where you are greeted at the airport for a transfer to the Hotel Sebastian, a delightful hotel with shops and restaurants (and yes, internet cafes) in easy walking distance.
Step out on your balcony to look down at the busy city. Several of you will be eating on the plane this evening; those arriving in Quito early can gather for dinner at our hotel if they wish.
We know you’ll enjoy the fascinating market at Otavalo. About two hours north through the city, the market in its mountain setting is ablaze with color. Brightly colored sisal ropes lay in piles like twisting rainbows. People load goats and sheep atop buses; aromas from food vendors’ stalls fill the air. In the handicraft section, brightly-colored hammocks and fabrics drape the stalls and hand-knit sweaters abound. After the market, enjoy lunch at a local hacienda and some nearby birding at a picturesque mountain lake.
Our Ecuadorian guide interprets the geography and culture throughout the day. We return to Quito for dinner, a briefing for our voyage and some time to pack and get organized for Galapagos the following day! (B,L,D)
We depart early for our flight to the Galapagos Islands, about a two-hour trip as the Galapagos sit some 600 miles off the coast. As we approach, we see the islands below; arid brown jewels rimmed with turquoise reefs in quiet water coves.
We land on Baltra, the main airport for Galapagos. Here we pay our Visitor Fees, they inspect our carry-on baggage for foreign plants or seeds that might be a threat, and we walk out through an open-air patio to meet our local guides. Often we see Galapagos Doves and our first Darwin’s Finches feeding on crumbs by the small café. From the airport, it’s just a short drive to the port where we have time to get situated as the boat refuels and takes on water for the journey. In the picturesque harbor we should see Galapagos Sea Lion, Blue-footed Boobies, and often Brown Noddies, Brown Pelicans and other species.
As the boat leaves the harbor to start our grand journey, we circumnavigate the striking island of Daphne Major, where for over twenty years intensive studies of Darwin’s Finches have been conducted by scientists Peter and Rosemary Grant of Princeton University. This oval-shaped volcanic island rises abruptly from the sea, and has nesting seabirds as well as finches. Enjoy dinner aboard our ship, and as this is the dry season in Galapagos, evenings are great to sit out on deck with fellow travelers to enjoy conversation and the stars. (B,L,D)
Today we anchor in the calm waters of Darwin Bay within the caldera of intriguing 14 square-mile Tower Island. Being close to deep ocean waters, Tower is an ideal nesting area for Red-footed Boobies (both light and dark color phases), Great Frigatebirds, Masked Boobies, Swallow-tailed Gulls and several species of storm petrel. You will be very close to these animals; those with cameras will be particularly intrigued.
We may also encounter Lava Gulls, Yellow-crowned Night-herons, Galapagos Doves, four species of Darwin’s Finches and possibly Short-eared Owls. Tower has a remote, wild and unspoiled character and lies one degree north of the Equator. Vegetation is sparse here; dry Palo Santo forest occurs with mangroves at the ocean edge. We will have land excursions in the morning and afternoon, with mid-day reserved for relaxation or snorkeling; on previous voyages, we have even seen Hammerhead Sharks here.
The whole crew aboard ship is helpful – practice your Spanish so you can converse as they drive our small boats (dinghies), serve us our delicious dinners, and watch for us to enjoy every moment of our voyage. (B,L,D)
This morning we stop at the northwest coast of Santa Cruz Island to visit Cerro Dragon, a dry location with a fascinating shallow saline lagoon where we hope to find Greater Flamingoes, Yellow-billed Pintails, migrant shorebirds and elegant Black-necked Stilts. Walking an uphill trail through ghostly Palo Santo trees, we get great views of the bay and surrounding islands. We hope to find colorful Land Iguanas and to get good looks at the feeding Common Cactus Finch.
In the afternoon we visit a small island that from a distance looks just like a Chinese hat. Situated off the southeastern tip of James (Santiago) Island, cold currents create an upwelling affect, and fish are numerous. Here, the snorkeling is fantastic, and we might see our first Galapagos Penguins. White-tipped Reef Sharks, Spotted Eagle Rays and dozens of colorful fish await those who wish to snorkel.
This island has some spectacular lavas radiating out from its cone. In the later afternoon we head west towards the remote and spectacular islands of the West. We watch for whales (possibly Humpback, Sperm, Sei, or Minke) dolphin and Orcas en route. (B,L,D)
Punta Vicente Roca, a rock islet off the northwest corner of Isabela Island, is a site known for excellent snorkeling. From our boat mooring we admire views of Volcán Ecuador, one of five visible high volcanic peaks of Isabela. This is the premier location in the islands to spot large marine mammals such as whales and Orca, for the cold waters of the west to east moving Cromwell Current bring the area nutrient-rich waters.
Enjoy a zodiac cruise along Punta Vicente Roca, where we should see one or more species of rays, Green Sea Turtles near the water surface, Marine Iguanas feeding on algae or sunning on dark volcanic rock, and possibly Galapagos Penguins. One year we witnessed a pod of Orca surrounding a huge, very odd-shaped Ocean Sunfish, which was almost the same size as its predators. After the zodiac cruise, grab your snorkeling gear if you wish to float among a grand array of fish, and possibly Green Sea Turtles.
During lunch, we reposition to the nearby western outlying island of Fernandina. This is the youngest of the islands – in 1988, 1991, 1995 and 2005 visitors witnessed spectacular volcanic eruptions here. Due to ongoing volcanic activity, this large volcanic shield island is sparsely vegetated, despite being quite high in elevation.
Fernandina is by far the most pristine of the islands – no exotic animal has been introduced here to date. The beautiful mangrove-lined cove at Punta Espinosa is home to Galapagos Penguins, which are likely to swim around our boat like ducks. On the rocks, striking red and yellow colored Sally Lightfoot Crabs walk between the drabber Marine Iguana. Indeed, Marine Iguanas are numerous; watch them spitting salt as you lay on your belly for a close up shot. Galapagos Sea Lions often appear at our landing, while Galapagos Hawks call and signal each other in flight overhead. A unique animal we view here is the Flightless Cormorant, which nests on Fernandina. It is rare throughout the archipelago except for this location. The visit to Fernandina is one of the highlights of our voyage – celebrate with some night-sky viewing from the deck after dinner.
This morning we wake in the harbor of Tagus Cove, our next Visitor Site to explore. Named for the British naval vessel that moored here in 1814, Tagus Cove was used historically as an anchorage for pirates and whalers. Anchored on the west side of Isabela, the largest island of the Galapagos archipelago, we have grand views of Wolf and Cerro Azul Volcanoes which reach over 5500 ft. high. Stretch your legs as we walk up a trail with stairs built to protect the island from erosion as groups visit Darwin Lake, an inland crater lagoon. Geologic spatter cones are quite prominent here, and views from the highpoint are impressive. We also take a zodiac ride along the cliffs of Tagus Cove to get a different perspective and to see the Brown Noddy at close range. In the rich waters, Blue-footed Boobies feed like bullets, going into plunging dives in pursuit of prey.
By afternoon we are moored on the southeast side of Isabela under the shadow of Alcedo Volcano. We disembark on a striking white sand beach. Here, our walk is aimed to let us view the fascinating geology , looking up to lava flows that radiate around the volcanic slope, now decorated by dry-season leafless Palo Santo trees. Urbina Bay was uplifted over 35 ft. from the sea floor during an eruption of Volcan Alcedo in 1954. This is the best example of this type of uplift phenomena observed throughout the islands. Indeed, observations of such uplift were recorded by Charles Darwin during his historic visit, and proved to be quite influential in development of his thinking.
Also exciting is the possible presence of Giant Tortoise at Urbina Bay, as this is an important egg-laying site for the subpopulation on Volcan Alcedo. Young tortoises hatch between December and April. (B,L,D)
Exploring further down Isabela`s west shore, we visit the sheltered waters and mangrove-lined coves of Elizabeth Bay. This is a great site for observing and photographing birds and marine life from our zodiacs. Here, and on small islets at the mouth of the bay, we find nesting Galapagos Penguins, Flightless Cormorants, Galapagos Sea Lions in abundance, several Darwin’s Finches and their agile predator, the Galapagos Hawk.
With luck we may also see the beautiful Golden Ray, along with Spotted Eagle or Manta Rays in the calm, shallow waters. In the afternoon we continue on to Punta Moreno, known for its colorful, artistic lava formations. We explore a bit by zodiac, then land to walk a path that winds through the jagged black rock.
Migrant shorebirds like to feed in tide pools formed by the lava, as do both the Great Blue and more local Lava Herons. Brown Pelicans can be nesting in the polished leaves of Red Mangroves growing around the pools. It’s a magical time amid life of many forms; watch your feet so you don’t step on Marine Iguanas and very young Galapagos Sea Lions! (B,L,D)
The island of Isabela is home to more wild tortoises than all the other islands, and the city of Villamil, on the southern tip of Isabela, is home to an important Giant Tortoise Rearing Center, similar to the one at the Darwin Station on Santa Cruz Island. Several different sub-species of tortoise remain isolated on Isabela’s different volcanic peaks, unable to cross lava beds that link the peaks today. Wild tortoises occur in the calderas of Alcedo, Wolf, Cerro Azul, Darwin and Sierra Negra volcanoes. They move up and down in elevation according to the season and presence of fresh water, in which they like to wallow.
Giant Tortoises are the signature species of Galapagos. The very name Galapagos is derived from the Spanish word meaning saddle, a description of the shape of several of the subspecies’ large carapaces. Tortoises live to be 150 years old, and grow very large in size, weighing some 500 lbs. Pirates, whalers and early island residents all depended on tortoises for food, often exploiting and in some cases eliminating populations. Four of fourteen subspecies are extinct, and populations remaining are at risk from loss of habitat, and competition for food and habitat degradation by exotic animals. Learn more about conserving the Giant Tortoise and about their fascinating life history with local guides today.
Enjoy time after our station visit to walk the white sand beach and the village of Villamil and to view a saline lagoon with many Greater Flamingos. This port city is home to just over 2000 people and it is a popular stop for private yachts making their way to other Pacific Islands. Fishing is still the main industry here; tourism is increasing in importance. There are a few shops here, a Post Office and clinic.
As we leave we will motor to a small group of islets offshore called Las Tintoreras. Here we hope to see a good number of White-tipped Reef Sharks which rest in a prominent lava canal. There are also good numbers of sea lions and Marine Iguanas, and it is one of the most beautiful Visitor Sites in Galapagos, a fitting end to our grand exploration of Isabela. Retrieved from "Bachas Beach is our afternoon destination, and our focus here is on finding beautiful Galapagos Flamingos, as well as enjoying swimming and time to relax. We should find abundant Marine Iguana, and perhaps the tracks of nesting sea turtles. Return for a farewell dinner, hosted by our captain and crew. (B,L,D)
From our trail on North Seymour this morning, we get excellent views of Daphne Major and Daphne Minor islands, a landmark from our first day of the voyage and home to many Magnificent Frigatebirds, nesting Blue-footed Boobies, Swallow-tailed Gulls and very bold Galapagos Mockingbirds.
Currently a project of the Darwin Research Station is underway to reintroduce the endemic form of Land Iguana once found here. This is one of the most popular visitor sites in the Galapagos, so we won’t have the harbor to ourselves, but close-up views of many species and the chance to see Land Iguanas make the visit worthwhile. Geology of this island, created by uplift rather than the accumulation of lava, is quite different from many of the islands we visit.
From here, we bid adieu to our delightful yacht and transfer by bus to the airport where we meet a local bus to travel over the highlands to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island is the home of the Charles Darwin Research Station and headquarters for Galapagos National Park. A surprise for many visitors, Puerto Ayora has a population of over 10,000 people, so there are plenty of shops to tempt you along the charming main street during our walk to the Darwin Station. It still has the feel of a small rural town, and the chance to overnight there is a great addition this year to our Galapagos journey.
At the research station, established in 1961, we find several varieties of the Giant Tortoise at the captive breeding facility. Larger trees and shrubs surround the tortoise pens, attracting several species of Darwin’s Finches. There are exhibits about current research and conservation measures here which you’ll find to be very informative.
On our drive between the airport on Baltra to our accommodations on Santa Cruz we visit the highlands (3000-5000 ft. zone), traveling through distinct zones of vegetation. Enjoy a walk near “Los Gemalos” or Twin Craters, where we may find probing Woodpecker Finches and bright-colored Vermilion Flycatchers. This is the realm of the guara, or seasonal mist, which cloaks the forest, producing lush vegetation. We hope to stop at a local farm to walk trails where Giant Tortoises can be seen in the wild, grazing on the lush pastures. The very rare Galapagos Rail is sometimes spotted here. Our accommodations in Puerto Ayora are close to the picturesque harbor and in the late afternoon, you are free to enjoy a walk around town, visit an internet café, or just relax. (B,L,D)
This morning we travel back across the highlands to return to the airport and our flight to Quito.
Depending on when we return we can sample a bit of the city, and then settle in at our hotel before enjoying our farewell dinner.
Please note, if you are on a schedule and need to depart for the U.S. tonight (many flights leave between 10:00PM and midnight) this can be arranged. (B,LD)
You may depart Quito at a time convenient for you.
Arrive in Quito, Ecuador today at the time you select. You will be met at the airport (even late flights) and taken to our hotel.
As many may eat dinner on the airplane, we have no formal plans for dinner for those arriving earlier in the day, but you may wish to rendezvous with others at the restaurant in our hotel at 7:00 PM.
Accommodations at the Hotel Sebastian, Quito
An incredible experience awaits us at the now renowned Napo Wildlife Center, an 82-acre private reserve run by an indigenous community within the Yasuni National Park in the Amazonas Region. Over a decade ago the community of Añangu decided to support tourism over logging development. To date the project is a great success and a favorite of some of the world’s leading tropical biologists. Each day of our stay there benefits the local community and helps to preserve both the park as a whole and the reserve in particular.
We take an early plane ride over the Andes to the town of Coca on the Napo River. Have your camera ready: if it’s clear you can get stunning shots from the plane of the vast forest on the east side of this rugged cordillera. Our guides will be waiting for us in Coca to lead us to our covered, motorized canoe for a 2 ½ - 3-hour journey down-river. We have lunch en route as we begin to absorb the thrill of this remote area and its abundant wildlife. Parrots, ibis, herons, and possibly macaws fly overhead. We may encounter all five species of kingfisher, and possibly the secretive Zig-Zag Heron, Hoatzin or Agami Heron in lush vegetation. We’ll also watch for Red Howler Monkeys.
No motorized boats are allowed on the pristine lake outside our lodge, so we will transfer to small, hand-paddled dugout canoes for the final leg of the trip to our lodgings. Giant Otter may bark at us as we cross the lake to our new and spacious cabins at the state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly lodge. This lakefront setting is spectacular, and many species of wildlife is truly just outside your door.
One of our field trips, taken in dugout canoes, is to a riverside parrot lick. No where is there a more accessible parrot lick, a place where several species of parrots, parakeets, and macaws may gather at the same time to take in kaolin and other minerals needed to neutralize the toxins of the often unripe nuts and seeds they eat. The sights and sounds of this gathering are absolutely incredible – worth the whole trip!
During our four days in the wildlife center we will also have time to hike local trails, venture out in small boats, and discover a dazzling array of colorful birds – the lodge lists 562 species in the vicinity! We also look for mammals, reptiles, fish, and butterflies, and take a stab at learning some of the showier plants that comprise this intricate forest. Return to delicious meals and a fully stocked bar each evening before venturing off to find some of the local secretive mammals, owls, or pootoos! Accommodations at Napo Wildlife Center, all nights. (B,L,D)
We travel back to Coca on the same series of dugout canoe rides to catch a plane back over the Andes. After landing in Quito, we transfer to our comfortable hotel, where you’ll have time to rest up or do some shopping and exploring before meeting our group for the main tour.
Enjoy dinner together at one of our favorite restaurants, and plan on a short introductory meeting to help you plan for our visit to the Galapagos the following day.