Chart a course through the Galápagos Islands as you spend time in Ecuador’s most impressive volcanic archipelago with its fascinating mix of plants and animals. The wildlife here is vitally intriguing and almost-shockingly docile (and many species cannot be found anywhere else on Earth) — it's not unusual to have to walk carefully over a Blue-footed Booby, or wait patiently for a young Sea Lion to awake from the comforts of your daypack that you left on the beach.
In February we choose the northern route, visiting prime islands as seabirds are nesting. Visit Genovesa (Tower), Isabela, and Fernandina, three of the top must-see islands for birders. The northwest ocean waters are richly-productive and in addition to Galápagos Penguin and Flightless Cormorant, our time here often brings sightings of whales, sunfish, and dolphins.
Our Galápagos cruise is planned to leave a light footprint, and we support conservation throughout the voyage. There is simply no place like the Galápagos.
- Relax aboard the M/Y Letty, a pleasant, stately boat
- Observe and photograph plentiful seabirds as they court, nest, feed, and care for young
- Can you identify the famous Darwin’s finches?
- Seek out special & endemic species: Galápagos Dove, Galápagos Penguin, Flightless Cormorant, Galápagos Hawk, and the Galápagos form of Short-eared Owl
- Spot animals like Sally Lightfoot Crab, Marine and Land Iguanas, and the massive Galápagos Tortoise
- Enjoy snorkeling in quiet coves among active and colorful fish, and possibly dolphins and turtles
- Wonder at the islands’ volcanic geology—compare “old” and “new” islands
- Discover mangrove lagoons by small boat for an even more intimate experience
- Explore the Charles Darwin Research Station and learn about conservation efforts, including the control of introduced species like goats, rats, pigs, and cats
Sun., Feb. 6: Flight to Galápagos | Arrival in San Cristóbal
Welcome to Ecuador! Our group has assembled over the past few days and today we set out for the Galápagos Islands. A two-hour flight from Quito takes us to one of the larger islands, San Cristóbal, situated on the eastern side of the archipelago. The plane departs Quito, stops in Guayaquil, then continues on to the islands, 600 miles off the mainland coast of Ecuador. We land on San Cristóbal, the fifth-largest island and the first island Charles Darwin visited in 1835. Our crew awaits us at the airport, where we pass through an inspection station to make sure you are not bringing in seeds or other harmful items; you may be asked to disinfect your shoes. Then, we’re off to discover this amazing and treasured archipelago.
After the welcome briefing, buffet lunch, and safety drill on our boat, we travel by bus to the interior of the island to visit La Galapaguera Cerro Colorado, where the National Park has established a tortoise breeding program and a visitor information center. Along the trail, we find the San Cristóbal (Chatham) Mockingbird and Calandrinia plant, both endemic to this island. Here, we see these terrestrial tortoises in their natural habitat and learn about their origin, evolution, and threats from introduced animals.
We then venture to the southeast end of the island to walk through dry forest habitat at Red Hill, an important Galápagos Tortoise breeding facility. Here we learn about the tortoises’ history and conservation; this is also a great place to photograph them in the wild. There are hatchlings at the breeding facility of varying ages. Along the trail we may find the Chatham Mockingbird, Galápagos Flycatcher, and the familiar Yellow Warbler.
We board our ship at the harbor in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, capital of the Galápagos Province. Watch for Galápagos Sea Lion, possibly snoozing in fishermen’s pangas. Out to sea, the boobies and frigatebirds soar! We enjoy our first Galápagos sunset from the observation deck and a welcome dinner. The motion of the boat rocks us to sleep as we cruise to Genovesa, one of the longer crossings of our journey. Our plan is to arrive by dawn. Be sure to be on deck?you don’t want to miss entering this spectacular bay!
Mon., Feb. 7: Darwin Bay of Genovesa | Prince Philip’s Steps
We spend the entire day on Tower (Genovesa), considered one of the most spectacular Islands in the Galápagos for geology and for close-up views of nesting seabirds. The entry into the caldera is spectacular at first light. We anchor in the calm waters of Darwin Bay, the ocean-filled center of a now dormant volcano.
Tower is small (14-square miles) but one of the most intriguing islands due to its remote location. One of the outer islands, it lies close to deep ocean waters to the north, where upwelling currents produce abundant squid and other fish that feed the island’s seabirds. Tower is an ideal nesting area for Red-footed Booby (both light and dark phases), Great Frigatebird, Swallow-tailed Gull, and several species of storm-petrel. The Galápagos form of Short-eared Owl feeds on the abundant storm-petrels. We get very close to these animals today, so bring plenty of memory space and ample battery if you are a photographer!
Genovesa remains remote and unspoiled, lying one degree north of the Equator. Vegetation is sparse: dry Palo Santo forest occurs with mangroves at the ocean’s edge. One side of the caldera houses lush mangroves, which host Lava Gull and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.
Our activities today include walks, a panga ride, and snorkeling (optional). This is a great place to take out the sea kayaks for a quiet paddle. We have a wet-landing on Darwin Bay, a coral sand beach where Swallow-tailed and Lava Gulls gather near the tide pools. Enter a forest of Optuntia cactus and mangroves where colonies of Great Frigatebird nest. The males inflate their red-throated pouches to attract females as they fly overhead. The trail leads through a rich intertidal zone where we find a wide diversity of wildlife.
Mid-day choose to relax or snorkel?there is easy snorkeling with a lot of fish from the beach, or more advanced snorkeling along the caldera wall where, on previous voyages, we have even seen Hammerhead Shark! Sea Lions join you as they frolic by the beach.
In the afternoon we take a more extensive walk at the Prince Philip’s Steps visitor site. Naturalist Journeys’ owner, Peg Abbott, calls this “a walk through wonderland.” Ascending a cleft in the rock wall that rims the caldera (on a trail), we emerge to the greeting of Galápagos Dove, up to four species of Darwin’s finches, numerous Red-footed Booby nesting in small shrubs at close range, Nazca Booby that we have to almost step over, swarms of swirling storm-petrels, and Short-eared Owl. We can only wish for more hours in the day!
After the walk, simply relax on deck and take it all in or kayak along the shoreline. Look for the beautiful Red-billed Tropicbird in crevices or flying overhead in search of fish. Tonight we motor to Santa Cruz Island.
Tues., Feb. 8: Las Bachas or Black Turtle Cove | Cerro Dragon Santa Cruz
Wake to the sound of Sea Lions and water lapping against the sides of the boat. Enjoy coffee on deck and a view of a stunning white sand beach that beckons us to explore. There is gentle snorkeling from the beach, and a chance to walk, observing brightly colored Sally Lightfoot Crab as we go.
Las Bachas, Spanish for “barges,” offers a long stretch of soft, white sand beach and interior lagoons where we find Greater Flamingo. After lunch on the Letty, our afternoon begins with a stop to visit Cerro Dragon, a fascinating dry site. We enjoy a shore excursion hoping to find Galápagos Land Iguana, Common Cactus Finch, and?in shallow saline lagoons?Greater Flamingo and Black-necked Stilt.
Our gracious hosts welcome us back aboard for dinner and a pleasant evening. The sun sets over the islands as we cruise to our next location?on to the remote western reaches of the archipelago!
Wed., Feb. 9: Punta Vincente Roca of Isabela | Urbina Bay, Isabela (Albemarle) or Punta Vicente Roca
In the afternoon, we cross over to neighboring Isabela Island, the largest in the archipelago. Isabela is actually a composite of six individual islands (one of which is submerged), formed by shield volcanoes and united by lava flows. One of the southern volcanoes erupted magnificently in October of 2005, so the island continues to grow. Scenery is astounding: the Wolf and Cerro Azul Volcanoes reach 5,100 feet high.
We disembark at Urbina Bay at the base of Alcedo Volcano (a wet landing), where we find four miles of coastal seabed, with marine life exposed due to a dramatic uplift in 1954 when the volcano erupted. The marine remnants of coral skeleton are impressive?some are waist-high. Brown Pelican and Flightless Cormorant nest here, and very large Marine Iguana abound.
Thurs., Feb. 10: Punta Espinoza of Fernandina (Narborough) | Tagus Cove of Isabela
This morning we arrive at the westernmost island of Fernandina, the youngest of the islands. We have a semi-wet landing, followed by the adventure of navigating around Sea Lion harems with resident bulls carefully guarding their territory and Galápagos Hawk calling overhead. Recent volcanic eruptions occurred here; as a result, the island is sparsely vegetated. Lava flows stretch their way around the coast. This is the most pristine of the islands?no exotic animal has ever been introduced here. The mangrove-lined Punta Espinoza cove is home to Galápagos Penguin, which swim around like ducks. We search for sea turtles, a variety of large rays, and on the rocks, striking red and yellow Sally Lightfoot Crab. Watch Marine Iguana spit salt as you lay on your belly for a close-up. The Flightless Cormorant, an unusual species, nests here.
For many, this morning’s walk is a highlight of the journey with so many species to behold. We also explore here by panga boat, looking for sea turtles, eagle-rays, Galápagos Penguin, and other creatures at the margin of island and sea.
This afternoon, we have a dry landing at Tagus Cove, located on the western island of Isabela. Darwin also visited Tagus Cove in 1835. During the walk, we discover a salt-water lagoon, a scenic overlook with a spectacular view of the ocean, lava fields, and volcanic formations. Graffiti dating back to the 1800s is written on the rocky cliffs. Explore the coves by Zodiac or kayak to find Galápagos Penguin, boobies, pelicans, and other seabirds. An excellent snorkeling opportunity is offered here after the walk.
After dinner, a sky full of stars beckons us on deck to observe the galaxy.
Fri., Feb. 11: Rabida Island (Jervis) | Black Turtle Cove
This morning, we disembark on Rabida Island (Jervis), located close to, but offshore from Santiago (James) Island. Rabida sports the most diversified volcanic rocks of all the islands and is considered the geographic center of the Galápagos. The dark red sand beach originated from the erosion of volcanic stones. Follow a trail that leads to a salt water lagoon and observe Greater Flamingo as they feed. Brown Pelican nest in the mangroves at the far side of the lagoon. After our walk, there is time for snorkeling before motoring to Santa Cruz.
In the afternoon we venture out on a Zodiac ride at Caleta Tortuga Negra (Black Turtle Cove), passing through a series of coves and inlets surrounded by mangroves. View pairs of mating sea turtles (active on our visit in February), White-tipped Reef Shark and Golden Cow-nosed Ray. Brown Pelican and both species of boobies are active in the lush mangroves.
We return to the Letty for the Captain’s hosted cocktail party and dinner, as well as a special presentation by your guides and a chance to tally up all of our sightings to date.
Sat., Feb. 12: Highlands of Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) | Darwin Station of Santa Cruz
Today we have the full day on Santa Cruz, accessed from the main port city of the islands, Puerto Ayora. It is a lively atmosphere and you can see homes of the early residents, including the family featured in the wonderful novel, My Father’s Island by Johanna Angermeyer.
We visit the highlands for a very different natural history excursion, one in lush forests. Witness vegetation changes as we drive through an elevation range of 2,700–4,500 feet. We travel by bus and then enjoy a walk near “Los Gemalos,” the Twin Craters, and Media Luna, where we search for Woodpecker Finch and Vermilion Flycatcher. At this elevation, the Miconia Zone, a seasonal mist called the “guara” cloaks the forest, producing lush vegetation. We also visit a private farm where Giant Tortoise can be seen in the wild, grazing on lush pastures.
Finding a town at all is a surprise to most, and Puerto Ayora has doubled in size since we began Naturalist Journeys’ trips to the islands in 1998. It is home to over 24,000 residents, as well as the famous Darwin Research Station and Galápagos National Park Headquarters. We walk to the research station from the docks, past plenty of tempting shops. The station, established in 1961, includes a captive breeding facility for several varieties of Giant Tortoise and exhibits on various projects and conservation. Larger trees and shrubs surround the tortoise pens, attracting several species of Darwin’s finches.
Sun., Feb. 13: Interpretation Center, San Cristóbal | Departures
As we approach San Cristóbal, we pass by Kicker Rock, one of the most stunning vistas of the voyage.
This morning, we visit the Interpretation Center on San Cristóbal Island, opened in 1999. Here we gain a more complete understanding of the natural and human history of the islands. Afterwards, we spend some time in port before heading to the airport for our flight back to the mainland, departing noon time. Our voyage comes to an end, but Galápagos will remain in your hearts forevermore!
Antisana Ecological Reserve Pre-Tour Extension
Fri., Feb. 4: Arrival in Quito
Winter weather, flight delays, and “adventures” en route can all wreak havoc on your travel times. And unlike most of our other trips, it is very costly, and often impossible, to arrange a transfer to “catch up” in the Galápagos. The important take away: Don’t miss the boat!
In keeping with this message, we suggest that all assemble in Quito, and to encourage this we offer a trip to Antisana National Park ahead of the voyage. These days are encouraged, not only for the experience, but also to ensure that you don’t miss the boat (literally).
You are met on arrival in Quito for a short drive to the San José Garden hotel in nearby Puembo. This hotel is large enough to host our group and has a lovely swimming pool, gardens, and a restaurant and bar. Those wanting to arrive early may wish to go into the city of Quito and return on this date, or we can refer you to Puembo Birding Garden, a cozy B & B in Puembo that would be nice to use for a few days ahead of the group tour. Many have dinner on the plane tonight, but if you arrive earlier in the day, you can easily dine in our hotel at your leisure.
Accommodations at the San José Garden Hotel or similar
Sat., Feb. 5: Andean Condor at Ecological Reserve & Reserve
Today we get an early start to explore one of Ecuador’s most impressive national parks. We take a winding mountain road that passes through various habitats, ending up in the high paramo—tundra-like terrain with the stunning and snow-capped Antisana Volcano in view. Vistas here are on a grand scale, and several large lakes and ponds attract a variety of species. Our eyes are peeled for Andean Condor, very much at home here. We also look for Black-faced Ibis, Andean Lapwing, and a high-elevation hummingbird, the Andean Hillstar. Black-chested Buzzard Eagle and Carunculated Caracara are two birds of prey we can study, and we also note plant life that exhibits adaptations required to survive in these high elevation grasslands. With luck, we have splendid views of one of the most beautiful peaks in the Andes. Our November 2018 group was extremely lucky … they managed to see a Spectacled Bear on this outing! Lunch is provided on our field trip today.
We return to our lodge where hospitality and a nice dinner await.
Accommodations at San José Garden Hotel or similar (B,L,D)
Sun., Feb. 6: Flight to Galápagos | Galápagos Cruise Begins!
Plan on an early morning as we transfer to the airport for flights to the Galápagos Islands. These are commercial flights that our cruise company has blocked seats on and booked for us. They depart at approximately 9:30 AM.
Mindo Post-Tour Extension
Sun., Feb. 13: Overnight in Quito
Following the journey, we are often asked, “Since we’re in Ecuador, what can we do after the cruise for some great birding?”. We have the answer! We offer (and highly recommend) a four-night extension to the Mindo area of Ecuador. This is a guided tour with options for birding and natural history. There is a great variety of habitat here, including cloud forest, montane forest, and drier forest, where we discover species of the Chocó region. We also visit the farm of Angel Paz, where Giant Antpitta, Andean Cock-of-the-rock, and numerous hummingbirds are a delight. We have run this short extension for many years and find it the best route to see an amazing mix of species and habitats in a short period of time. If you prefer time to see the city or go to a market area for a full day or overnight, we can make recommendations.
Our amazing Galápagos voyage has come to an end, and tonight those continuing on the extension return to Quito to rest ahead of the morning departure for Mindo. Tonights stay will either be at the San José Garden hotel where we started, or the nearby Puembo Birding Garden, depending on the size of our group.
Mon., Feb. 14: Transfer to the Mindo Area
We start early this morning from Quito, birding our way to the western branch of the Andes, west of the city.
Mindo is one of the most popular areas in all of Ecuador for nature enthusiasts. It’s a mountain town, and our lodge offers great bird and butterfly watching, as well as wonderful meals, and a cozy fireplace to gather around in the evenings. It is nestled in the valley of the Rio Mindo, a remarkable locale, home to over 360 species of birds. The ridges, slopes, and steep ravines to the north, west, and east of the village are cloaked in pre-montane cloud forest with a dense understory that includes Guadua bamboo. Much of the land around the village has been cleared for pasture, but small patches of secondary growth remain.
We arrive in time to settle in and look for Violet-tailed Sylph, Empress Brilliant, Tawny-bellied Hermit, Green-fronted Lancebill, Purple-throated Woodstar, White-bellied Woodstar, Green-crowned Woodnymph, Brown and White-collared Incas, Western Emerald, and more at feeders surrounding the dining area.
A hint to be most comfortable here: Bring easy-to-slip-off shoes, as you go in and out of the lodge in search of birds. (Ecuadorian custom is to remove shoes to protect their beautiful wooden floors!)
Accommodations at Sachatamia Lodge (B,L,D)
Tues., Feb. 15: Birding at the Farm of Angel Paz | Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve
Early this morning we visit the farm of Angel Paz, famous for great views of two often difficult-to-see species: Giant Antpitta and Andean Cock-of-the-rock. Meet the family, walk the trails, and learn the story of how they started in conservation and make close acquaintances with these species?a highlight of the tour.
After an amazing morning and brunch, we leave the farm and drive up to Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve, a private 1,000-acre nature reserve that encompasses a mix of primary and secondary forest. The botanical wonder here is something to behold! One of the top birding locations in Ecuador, the reserve is known for its diverse hummingbird species (at feeders for close-ups), as well as a colorful array of toucans and tanagers. At 5,000–7,000 feet we encounter spectacular cloud forest on the steep slopes above us. Here we may find a number of bird species with limited range, including the Tanager Finch.
The forest and gardens are draped with orchids and bromeliads, and butterflies abound. Some of the most beautiful birds of the forest include the Plate-billed Mountain Toucan, Toucan Barbet, Golden Tanager, and Flame-faced Tanager. Lunch and the choice of hiking or birding fill our afternoon at Bella Vista.
Accommodations at Sachatamia Lodge (B,L,D)
Wed., Feb. 16: Milpe—A Taste of the Chocó Bioregion
We depart early to visit the lower elevation reserves at Milpe Reserve, where we hope to find a number of Chocó Region endemic birds. Some of these display fascinating social behavior. We hope to see White-bearded and Club-winged Manakins on their leks, while other species include Maroon-tailed Parakeet, Tri-colored Brush Finch, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, and others.
On past trips we’ve had great luck finding mixed flocks of tanagers that include Glistening-green, Rufous-throated, Golden-hooded, Moss-backed, and Ochre-breasted members of this colorful clan. The organization and behavior of members of the mixed flock has attracted a great deal of research in the Neotropics, which we discuss.
Accommodations at Sachatamia Lodge (B,L,D)
Thurs., Feb. 17: Yanacocha Reserve: Cloud Forest & Hummingbirds | Evening Departures
If you wish, rise early this morning to bird close to the lodge, where a light brings in a great variety of species, eager to feed on large insects that have gathered during the night.
Then it’s back to Quito, again birding en route, with a visit to Yanacocha, known for its remarkable hummingbirds.
Yanacocha Reserve is located on the Pichincha Volcano west of Quito. Here we walk a trail through lush Polylepis forest to experience this Andean habitat and its unique plant life. We search for species like the colorful Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager, Glossy Flowerpiercer, and Rufous-naped Brush Finch. Hummingbirds are the star attraction, with opportunities to see some high-elevation birds, including the amazing Sword-billed Hummingbird, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Great Sapphirewing, Sapphire-vented Puffleg, Tyrian Metaltail, and others. Feeding stations along the trail make for easy viewing. This is an important conservation reserve, managed for several rare species that find breeding range here. It is located on the old Nono-Mindo Road, a famous birding route.
We also plan a stop at Mitad del Mundo, a tourist facility on the Equator that has a good, small museum on native culture, interpretation of measurements of the Equator, and yes, a photo opportunity. There is a good handicrafts market here, too.
Our four-night Mindo extension ends back at the airport in time for a number of flights that go out right around midnight. You can plan for flights out after 8:00 PM (several are available on major airlines), or if needed, book an extra night hotel (not included in extension price, but reasonably priced) for departures the following day. (B,L)
Cost of the Journey
The cost of the cruise is $5300 – $6250 per person based on double occupancy and cabin type. There are a limited number of singles and triples available, with pricing upon request. Inquire promptly if a single or triple is of interest. Cost includes 7 nights aboard the Letty, all meals during the voyage, airport assistance in Quito or Guayaquil, all excursions with professional Galápagos guides, and miscellaneous program expenses. Pricing is for the cruise portion of your journey only.
Not included in the cost of the cruise is the round-trip flight to the Galápagos, the park fee ($100), and tourist card fee ($10 – $20), however all of these will be taken care of and added to your invoice, to smooth the arrival procedure. The flight from Quito to the Galápagos is $500 per person and is required to be booked by the cruise operator who blocks space for our group.
Cost does not include items of a personal nature like: laundry, telephone charges, or optional activities. It also does not include your flight to Ecuador, or departure tax from Ecuador though for most this is built into your international airline ticket.
We recommend gratuity for local guides and ship crew, at your discretion.
You may arrive just one night ahead, but this is risky with winter travel delays?you don’t want to miss the boat! If you plan only an overnight before or after the cruise, you may fly into Quito or Guayaquil. A staff member from our cruise operator will be present to help check-in for the flights at both airports.
Please plan to arrive in Quito or Guayaquil NO LATER than Saturday, February 5. If you plan to join us for the Antisana National Park pre-tour extension, please plan to arrive at your leisure on Friday, February 4. If you plan to depart directly after the Galápagos cruise, you may plan your departure from Quito or Guayaquil after 8:00 PM on Sunday, February 13. If you plan to join us for the Mindo area post-tour extension, please plan your departing flights after 8:00 PM on Thursday, February 17. Please note that many flights arrive or depart near midnight, so do watch your times and dates carefully!
We highly recommend booking your flights through our travel agent, Pam Davis. She is fantastic at finding good flights at good times that work with our itinerary schedule. The best part? We’ll pay her ticketing fee. If you would like us to connect you with Pam, please let us know.
Photo credits: Banner: Galapagos Tortoise by by Bud Ferguson; Bartolome Island by Greg Smith; Great Frigatebird, Naturalist Journeys Stock; Galapagos Penguins by Dodie Logue; North Seymore Island Sunset by Greg Smith; Great Frigatebird, Naturalist Journeys Stock; Group on Bartolome Island, Naturalist Journeys Stock; Marine Iguana by Greg Smith; Short-eared Owl, Naturalist Journeys Stock; Galapagos Flamingo by Bud Ferguson; Galapagos Scenic by Greg Smith; Blue-footed Boobies by Bud Ferguson; Sally Lightfoot Crab by Bud Ferguson; Naturalist Journeys Groups, NJS; Wet Landing, Greg Smith (GS); Lava Lizard, NJS; Hiking in the Galápagos, NJS; Panoramic, GS; Swallow-tailed Gull, BF; Frigatebird, NJS; Short-eared Owl, Howard Topoff (HT); Snorkeling, SH; Frigatebird, NJS; Red-billed Tropicbird, Sandy Sorkin; Wet Landing, SH; Flamingo, BF; Flightless Cormorant, SH; Dueling Land Iguanas, SH; Galápagos Penguins, SH; Marine Iguanas, GS; Blue-footed Booby, PA; Exploring the Mangroves, SH; Galápagos Fur Sea Lions, GS; Woodpecker Finch, NJS; Dolphins, NJS; Giant Centipede, SH; Black-tipped Shark, GS; Galápagos Fur Sea Lions, PA; Galápagos Sunset, Naturalist Journeys Stock (NJS); Eared Doves, Ed Madej; Antisana, NJS; Andean Condor, HT; Black-faced Ibis, GS; Andean Lapwing, PA; Giant Antpitta, PA; Andean Cock-of-the-rock, GS; Choco Toucan, PA; Violet-tailed Sylph, PA; Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Xavier Muñoz; White-bearded Manakin, Hugh Simmons Photography; Golden-hooded Tanager, PA; Cactus Trees, Ed Pembleton (EP); Flamingoes, EP; Park Sign, EP; Galapagos Sealion, Carol Rooney (CR); Group, EP; Group Hike, EP; Iguana with Crabs, CR; Snorkelers, CR; Newborn Sea Lion, EP; Up Closer Greeting, EP; Snorkeling with Sea Lion, EP; Snorkeling, EP.