Cruising the Galapagos
These Pacific isles lure wildlife watchers
nearly 200 years after Charles Darwin's historic voyage
By Kathryn E. Worrall
Emily Supernavage/Natural Habitat Adventures
Set some 600 miles off mainland Ecuador's coast, this archipelago is home to shield volcanoes and white-sand beaches wrapped by azure sea. A lost Panamanian bishop came across the islands in 1535 and wrote of their giant galapagos (his name for the tortoises, whose shells reminded him of a popular type of saddle). Throughout the years, pirates, seal hunters and Spanish voyagers also descended upon the unclaimed paradise.
Then broader attention came, thanks to a 26-year-old Charles Darwin and his 1835 visit aboard the HMS Beagle. The naturalist studied endemic mockingbirds and finches, deemed the land "frying hot" and even brought a few small tortoises aboard the Beagle. The unusual habitat and its residents inspired his theories of natural selection in the groundbreaking 1859 book "On the Origin of Species."
Today, the Galapagos and their surrounding marine reserve are protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as Ecuador's first national park. Some 275,000 people traveled here in 2018 to see a place nearly as untouched as when Darwin visited, and many chose to do so through an expedition cruise.
Passengers wake each morning in a new port and prepare for a full day of exploring. The majority of cruises run six to 30 days and often board in Ecuador's capital city, Quito. Some tack on mainland attractions in South America like Peru's Machu Picchu or the Amazon rainforest. Since park regulations cap the number of passengers at 100, small-scale ships efficiently transfer guests as they navigate remote areas. And with a range of activities, animals and islands to encounter, itineraries also vary, with some narrowing their focus to a theme like wilderness hiking or photography.
Here is your beginner's guide to the Galapagos with tips on must-see wildlife, popular ports and a few of the escorted tour and cruise companies that can make this dream trip a reality. When you're ready to book, contact the expedition cruise experts at Vacations To Go through the links provided.
Due to a lack of major predators, wildlife flourishes in the Galapagos. There is a creature sure to delight each visitor, and the animals aren't easily spooked by the click of a camera. Birders find flamingos, flightless cormorants and 13 species of Darwin's finches. There are red-footed, blue-footed and Nazca boobies, the rare waved albatross and the Galapagos penguin, the only kind naturally living north of the equator.
Because of a bounty of food, Galapagos tortoises evolved into the gentle giants found today, with some reaching nearly 900 pounds. Spiky marine iguanas can dive more than 65 feet underwater in search of algae before resurfacing to sun on lava rocks. (A tip: Go in December to watch dominating males fight by butting heads, or consider May to see hatching newborns.) On land, there also are yellow and pink iguanas.
Under the sea, a kaleidoscope of colors awaits thanks to yellowfin surgeonfish, parrotfish and orange-and-blue angelfish. Galapagos green sea turtles are spotted around the islands, and females lay their eggs along the shores from December to March. A number of shark species reside in these waters, from harmless reef sharks to hammerheads and even whale sharks. Bryde's whales travel the channel between Isabel and Fernandina islands, and visitors also might glimpse octopuses, dolphins, sea lions and 15 types of rays.
The largest island, Isabela, has six volcanoes, including active Sierra Negra, which erupted as recently as 2018. Still popular with hikers, it has the world's second-largest caldera. Albemarle Point hosts a large colony of marine iguanas, Flamingos Lake has plenty of its namesake and Tagus Cove was a pirate's hideaway, with signatures carved into the surrounding cliffs dating to 1836. Snorkelers sometimes encounter seahorses at Punta Vicente Roca, and orcas occasionally are seen in the area. In charming Puerto Villamil, the Arnaldo Tupiza Breeding Center nurtures two types of tortoises and produces around 250 young per year. The harrowing Wall of Tears remains from an Ecuadorian penal colony here in the mid-1900s.
Started in 1965, the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center on Santa Cruz has been instrumental in the rebound of the giant tortoise population. According to the Galapagos National Park Directorate, numbers have risen from just 15 to 2,000 thanks to the now concluded program. One famed alumnus, 100-year-old Diego, is credited with single-handedly saving the population thanks to his estimated 800 offspring; he'll be released on the isle of Espanola along with the other breeding adults in March. There's also the Charles Darwin Research Station, which provides insight into the climate, geography and evolution of the island.
Elsewhere, explore lava tunnels, beaches dotted with nesting turtles and a salt lagoon popular for flamingos. Whale Bay, a former hunting camp, boasts green-tinted sand due to the presence of olivine crystals, and Las Bachas is a prime swimming spot with bachas (the locals' mispronunciation of "barges") left behind by World War II.
From November to April, surfers seek San Cristobal's world-class waves, many located just a short jaunt from the Galapagos Province's capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. The Cerro Colorado Tortoise Reserve showcases tortoise hatchlings and young adults. Barking sea lions and blue-footed boobies welcome guests to nearby Isla Lobos. Kayakers can paddle out to striking Kicker Rock, keeping an eye peeled for sharks and floating turtles.
Birds flock to Espanola, a lush isle popular for blue-footed boobies and mockingbirds. The world's entire waved albatross population -- somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 birds -- breeds on Espanola from April to December. A walk along Suarez Point ends up at "Albatross Runway," where the birds regularly toddle to the cliff's edge and launch themselves into the wind for flight.
Fernandina, the youngest and most volcanically active of the islands, hosts high counts of iguanas, sea lions and flightless cormorants. Inquisitive penguins might steal a dip alongside swimmers at Punta Mangle. In summer, scan Canal Bolivar for breaching whales.
Off the coast of Santiago, protected Chinese Hat harbors marine life like manta rays and white-tipped reef sharks. Santiago also has pirate haunts, a variety of lava formations and Egas Port, where one might observe a rare Galapagos fur seal. Other stops include "The Bird Island" of Genovesa, maroon-colored Rabida and boulder-strewn North Seymour, host of some 2,500 land iguanas.
Silversea Cruises' all-suite ships deliver first-rate passage to remote reaches like the Galapagos. This summer, Silversea will unveil its first destination-specific ship, the 100-passenger Silver Origin. The vessel has expert Ecuadorian guides and the region's lowest crew-to-guest ratio.
A spa, fitness center and two restaurants featuring local cuisine elevate time on board, and public areas like the Observation and Explorer lounges are furnished with floor-to-ceiling windows. Snag a balcony suite on July 16's inaugural sailing for $10,530, or explore other nine-night options through September 2021 priced from $8,570.
The 100-passenger Silver Galapagos also boasts two restaurants, a spa and a fitness center. As with the Origin, a butler, select wines and spirits and tips are included in the cost of your fare. This award-winning vessel will sail its namesake region through September on itineraries priced from $7,200.
With its white-glove service, top-notch cuisine and expert guidance on 10- to 16-night sailings, Celebrity Cruises proves you don't have to sacrifice comfort on an expedition cruise.
Deemed a "luxury mega yacht," the 100-passenger Celebrity Flora debuted in June 2019 and claims the largest accommodations in the Galapagos thanks to two 1,288-square-foot penthouse suites. You also might consider glamping one evening in two top-deck cabanas; one serves as the setting for dinner, cocktails and a stargazing session, while the other transforms into a double bed for a peaceful night under the stars. The Flora's marina accommodates three Zodiacs at a time for faster land transfers, and the custom-built tenders ease wet landings with a hydraulic ramp. Prices begin at $10,049 for a 10-night odyssey on Aug. 28.
While on board the 48-passenger Celebrity Xpedition, guests enjoy nightly talks from Galapagos National Park naturalists, live music in the Discovery Lounge and breakfast in bed thanks to complimentary room service. They also can expect personal attendants, chocolates at turndown and a welcome bottle of bubbly. Darwin's Restaurant offers organic fruits and vegetables and responsibly sourced seafood. A 10-night outing starting on Aug. 27 is priced from $4,574.
The catamaran Celebrity Xploration only holds 16 passengers, granting an exclusive getaway for families or small groups. Eight suites come equipped with binoculars, custom-stocked refrigerators and perks like a pillow menu. Above deck, passengers soak in a hot tub or relax on loungers, only roused by the happy announcement of a whale sighting. The Xploration's small size guarantees privacy, personalized service and access to uncommon sites like the Daphne Islands, a pair of volcanic cones. Check out offerings that start at $4,912 for July 2's 10-night sailing.
There are no inside cabins aboard the 48-passenger National Geographic Islander, allowing passengers more opportunities to enjoy their surroundings. On-deck hammocks let idlers sway in the breeze, and this versatile ship provides snorkeling gear, wetsuits, kayaks and a photo kiosk with iMacs for sharing your snaps. Natural Habitat Adventures uses the Islander on select trips, including the seven-day "Family Galapagos Adventure" and guests are offered daily snorkeling excursions, a hike with onboard naturalists, a stand-up paddleboard outing through a serene bay and special programming for kids. Departing in July and August, this voyage starts at $5,800.
For an active, budget-friendly option, consider an expedition cruise with G Adventures. Trips range from seven to 27 days and often add stops in Peru or the Amazon. G Adventures utilizes several 16-passenger vessels like Estrella del Mar, outfitted with bunk beds, or Xavier III, with twin beds and private bathrooms. These smaller vessels have the ability to call on overlooked locales like uninhabited Genovesa or Santa Fe, a cactus-covered isle with a picturesque bay. The weeklong "Galapagos Land and Sea" aboard the Estrella starts at $2,079.
The Galapagos are stretched over 23,000 square miles of ocean, so Intrepid Travel zeroes in on one section at a time by splitting its seven-day itineraries into three categories: northern, central and southern islands. Northern treks visit Santiago and the red-sand beaches of Rabida. Tours of the central section hit arid North Seymour and the sea lion-saturated Mosquera islet. Southern sojourns, meanwhile, stop by South Plaza, a modest island punctuated with cliffs and vibrant flora. South Plaza is popular with iguanas, and sometimes a hybrid of a marine and land iguana can be found. "Galapagos Adventure - Northern Islands" begins at $3,585.
Tauck will offer four BBC Earth Journey trips through the Galapagos and surrounding areas this year. The eight-day "Galapagos: Wildlife Wonderland" caters to families, and adjoining cabins are available on a new ship, the Santa Cruz II. "Cruising the Galapagos Islands" affords plenty of hiking during its nine days, and 15- and 16-day offerings include Peru's Cusco, Machu Picchu and the capital city of Lima. The 16-day sojourn sails aboard the Silver Galapagos. Prices start at $6,290 for "Wildlife Wonderland" departing July 14.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Spring 2020. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.