Ecuador offers its own rich heritage, and of course The Equator, but the reason I traveled to this country was for one main reason.
The Galapagos Islands.
The pinnacle destination for a nature and animal lover. Visiting the Galapagos requires advance planning. There are many cruise operators available, but access to this archipelago is highly restricted (thank god) so make sure you get a reputable company. The two best options are Celebrity Cruises and National Geographic, but they come with a price. I’m a believer that smaller can be better and know several people who have done this trip on less budget, but to come this far you don’t want to sacrifice anything so save up if you can and do it right.
Either way, I can’t imagine that you would have anything less than the magical experience that I had. One of the few places in the world where the wildlife are so protected that they don’t have a need to fear humans so one can experience and interact with them as if you were just a another part of their natural habitat.
A trip of a lifetime for sure.
The following overview is of my trip to Galapagos in April/May 2017. It includes visiting the ancient city of Quito and The Equator.
You’ll want to do your research and reserve a spot well in advance as Ecuador limits the number of visitors each year and also regulates the cruise lines that serve it.
Each cruise ship offers multiple itineraries depending on time of year, and also because they can only do each itinerary once every few weeks. This ensures that the ports are not crowded with boats and that islands are not overwhelmed with people every day.
From there it is really a decision of budget. The more you spend, the better the boat and acommodations and likely also the quality of the naturalist guides on board.
As with any naturalist vacation, guides are everything. Otherwise you might as well just go to the zoo. National Geographic would be the top choice. I sailed with Celebrity because the boat had the best ratings for stability which was important to me as well as top rated guides. I was unsure of how rough seas would be and didn’t want that to be a factor.
Research is also important depending on what you want to see. My goal was the blue footed booby, ideally during mating season so I could see the infamous courting dance. I selected my time of year and itinerary so that I could maximize my chances of catching this.
NOTE: I had considered doing this trip as my honeymoon. The galapagos is a very active vacation. You are paying top dollar for this experience so there isn’t much downtime if you want to take advantage of all the available excursions. You’ll be getting up at sunrise most days and you’ll be exhausted after dinner. I think honeymoons are made for lazy days on beaches in the Caribbean more than Galapagos.
For those who are not seaworthy, like myself, you can do this trip. You will fly to the Galapagos and then board your boat so you skip the wide-open seas between Ecuador’s mainland and the archipelago. Once on board, you are moving in a fairly compact space between islands. I adjusted well with my usual 1/2 a Meclizine (Antivert) every morning. There will be times when you rock and roll a bit, but you are also off the boat a lot on the excursions. When you’re on the boat its usually moving to the next destination which tends to be smoother. It did not impact my trip at all.
To get ready for this trip, here are a few ideas:
Read The Beak of the Finch. This Pulitzer Prize winner overviews the research and findings of Peter and Rosemary Grant who have spent over 20 years proving Darwin’s theories of evolution and who have the best documentation of the various finch species in Galapagos. (very “sciencey” but interesting)
Not into the science but want to get the essence of what it is like on the remoteness of this place? Read My Father’s Island by Johanna Angermeyer, a true story of a German family that decided to flee WWII and set up home in the Galapagos. Great story! A different kind of Robinson Crusoe, more like Swiss Family Robinson.
Optional – On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin’s bible on evolution. Extremely sciencey and written in the overly fancy English style that I don’t enjoy, but so fascinating. I recommend it as an audio book as it would be somewhat tedious reading.
The Voyage of the Beagle – Also very tedious so best as an audiobook. Experience Galapagos first through the eyes of 22-year old Charles Darwin who spent 5 years studying and observing wildlife around South America and eventually landing in Galapagos. The research center in Galapagos is named after him.
Arrival in Ecuador
You will arrive 2 nights prior to your departure to the islands. Why? Flights from the U.S. only land later in the day and most tour operators give you a full day in either Quito or Guayaquil, partly to acclimate and partly because if your flight from your home country gets delayed you would miss your flight to Galapagos entirely and then have to figure out how to get their and meet your boat already underway. That means a 7-day cruise is a 10-day trip – 2 days on the front end and one on the back (again, you’ll arrive too late back from the islands to depart the country on the same day or you’d cut it very close).
The city of arrival is dictated by your tour since it is included. Celebrity chooses Quito, National Geographic departs from Guayaquil. If you choose a smaller outfitter, you may have to book your own flight to the islands. If so I would recommend doing that at least a day in advance of cruise departure. There are some very cute towns on the main islands to explore.
Quito – Days 1 & 2
Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, is quite a ways from the airport, way up in the foothills of the Andes mountains. Urban sprawl amongst some interesting historic sites, churches and convents. Your tour operator likely offers a city tour which I would recommend to see the key places. This did not look like a city I would navigate by myself – mazes of streets criss-crossing every which way and unmarked roads, some narrow and only one-way at points.
I was lucky to have a beautiful day to explore and did enjoy it. Also visited a super-touristy market on my final day after the cruise and got an incredible deal on the best hammock I’ve ever owned.
The city tour was all day and I’m amazed, looking back, at how much we saw. My favorite highlights were the animal gargoyles on the exterior of the Basilica del Voto Nacional (legend has it that this church is under constant construction because it is believed the world will end if it is ever completed). You can also climb up to a heart-shaped viewing tower in this church to see the Virgin of Quito statue perfectly framed in the distance. I enjoyed visiting the Virgin Statue itself, as much for the lovely grounds and perfect panorama view as the statue but there were also quaint souvenir shops there. The Iglesia y Convento de St. Francis was absolutely stunning inside and out. The tour was interesting and informative.
Day 3 – The Equator
As if going to the Galapagos wasn’t going to be cool enough, how about the fact that you get to visit the actual Equator as a side trip?
My tour went to the Equator before heading to the airport for the flight to the islands. It was really cool and more than just a line 🙂 Be aware there are two tourist sites calling themselves “the” equator. Mitad del Mundo is a large monument with a yellow line in Quito where most tourists take their pictures. This is not the actual equator (its actually 14 miles north of Quito and you can take a bus to see it).
Close enough to the real thing and more fun than a monument is the Museo de Sitio Intinan. They have interactive displayes, information about Ecuadorian culture, totem pole replicas and a shrunken head exhibit. Get a shrunken head ornament in the gift shop.
Keep your eyes open – I saw some great birds here and got one of my best-ever shots of a couple of juvenile hummingbirds hanging out waiting for mom which turned out to be endangered black-breasted pufflegs.
Did I mention the chocolate? They have an educational hut talking about the production of chocolate where you get a tasting and can then purchase some really awesome chocolate bars. These were a great little treat on the boat!
Day 3 continued – All Aboard!
Just to put into perspective how far out you are, it takes 3.5 hours to fly from Quito to Galapagos. That’s far!
Finally you arrive and it’s time to board and get the safety drills out of the way. The Celebrity Xpedition is a 90-passenger expedition vessel (way smaller than a typical cruise ship) but has everything you need to be safe and comfortable.
SPLURGE ALERT: I reserved the Royal Suite on this ship. It was worth every extra penny. Not only was it way more space to spread out, it had its own private veranda facing the front of the ship where you can sunbathe in privacy 😉 while watching the eagle rays jumping the waves ahead of the ship and toast with your cocktails at sunset. There is a Penthouse suite which is even bigger and it has a hot tub on a front-facing deck if you really want to spoil yourself. They have regular and junior suites as well.
Time to settle in, get to know your shipmates and have a grand first meal in the dining room.
Day 3 cont. – Daphne Island and Baltra
Baltra is where your airplane arrives. This island was a U.S. airforce base at one point, but the U.S. government turned it back over to Ecuador and the Ecuadorian government gave each of the buildings remaining to a head of household of a Galapagos family. Most carefully deconstructed the military buildings and recycled the materials to build their own homes on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal.
Daphne Major and Minor Islands are a sail-by but a good way to get your binoculars warmed up.
Day 4 – Santiago Island (Egas Port/James Bay
At last – the first opportunity to go on land and interact!
Santiago was the 2nd island that Darwin visited. The Beagle landed here in 1835. It was a salt mine then and essentially uninhabited. Settlers tried to live here, and introduced pigs and goats who promptly destroyed all the plant life. Today, conservation efforts focus around the regrowth of what was lost.
Egas Port is on the northwest side of the island and has a distinctive layered rock outcropping at the beach. Snorkeled-up a pelican catching his breakfast, started the photo parade of the many Galapagos finches and a plethera of other birds, watched the Galapagos sea lions play and got some great footage of huge Galapagos marine iguanas. Explored the beaches, volcanic rock and grasslands. Met the Galapagos fur seal.
Most importantly, the first blue footed booby sighting!
Santiago was such a “warm up” for what was to come, but who knew that day? It, like each island, had its own unique habitats and provided a host of rich experiences.
Day 4 – Rabida Island
A mostly volcanic island with tall cactus budding with yellow flowers, and stunning vistas in every direction. Keep an eye out for cactus finches and see how they nest inside cactus plants.
Day 5 – Isabela
This perfect day started with a zodiac ride into a marshy area. First Galapagos penguin sighting (so small!) along with flightless cormorants and sea turtles.
Day 5 – Tagus Cove Hike
Tagus Cove is a protected spot in a narrow straight between Isabela and Fernandina Islands. We anchored here and landed on Isabela island, went up a steep flight of stairs and began a hike up Darwin and Wolf mountains. Nice walk, lots of birds along the way and one gorgeous iguana who walked with us. A sweet little fur seal, a blue heron and a blue footed booby were waiting for us back at the dock. Then, as the zodiac was leaving the island, we got a sighting of a Galapagos penguin on the rocks.
Day 6 – Santiago & Bartolome
We are now at the southeast side of Santiago at Sullivan Bay. First a little snorkeling between Santiago and Bartolome. The video of me following the penguin is one of my favorite memories of the trip.
Bartolome is a volcanic island made of Pinnacle Rock, formed when a volcano explodes from under the sea and spews its molten lava above. Bartolome is a spill of hardened lava weaving through a prairie-like landscape.
It was like walking on the moon, full of craters and mountains of solidified lava. An interesting excursion, really beautiful as the picture below will show.
The Bartolome stop also included a hike to the summit of the island for a magnificent view. It requires 380 stairs but was not bad at all. Take your time and enjoy it.
Day 7 – Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz has long been inhabited by humans – some of the first were Americans who fled here to get away from WWI and WWII.
Morning beach walk to admire the bright red crabs and a visit to a little pond on the island to see flamingos and water birds, then a drift snorkel which was a little more active than the other snorkels up to this point.
Day 7 – North Seymour Island
This is it. The stop you’ve been waiting for. The reason you came all this way, the pinnacle moment. You arrive at a small dock and scramble up a few steps to a plateau…the you just stand there amazed. Maybe you cry, like I did. I’ll let the pictures and videos tell the story because there were no words.
Day 8 – San Cristobal
San Crisotbal is the most inhabited of the Galapagos Islands and the government center.
The first part of the day was free time to explore the little village, charming, some souvenir shops and quaint restaurants.
In the afternoon we took our final uninhabited island hike and it was spectacular – a scramble up into the cliffs to see both blue and red footed boobies and lots of baby boobies.
Day 9 – Last Day-Santa Cruz
The final day is a trip to a turtle center on Santa Cruz. These aren’t just any turtles, they are Galapagos tortoises. We had a great lunch with entertainment from a local dance group and then planted a tree on a reforestation project.
And so our journey ends. You have one more night back in Quito, so I suggest returning to Basilica del Voto Nacional and paying thanks to God for a safe journey, for all you’ve seen and for creating such a wondrous and diverse world.
Can’t get enough of the blue footed booby?
Click the image below to see my Booby Gallery.