Galápagos Islands 2014

The Galápagos Islands, a volcanic archipelago located 575 miles off the coast of Ecuador, are one of the world’s premier wildlife-watching destinations.  Inspiration to Charles Darwin for his theory of evolution by natural selection, the islands today are a delight for anyone with an interest in nature.  The animals, including mammals, birds and reptiles, are unafraid of humans, and so you can get up close to land and marine iguanas, Galápagos penguins and fur seals, as well as blue-footed boobies and waved albatrosses, not to mention some of the endemic birds that so inspired Darwin.  Each of the 16 main islands offers unique habitats and wildlife, and so any itinerary in the islands is bound to thrill.

We are using a small, comfortable motorcruiser, with a capacity of only 16 people, to ensure we have the best experience possible.  The itinerary below is an example of a 7 night itinerary in the islands, but may well change to take advantage of the best wildlife sightings during our visit.  A 7 night itinerary visits approximately half the islands and landing sites in the Galápagos.  A 14 night cruise would continue on for a further 7 nights, visiting different islands and different landing sites, giving a comprehensive visit to the Galápagos Islands, with the opportunity to see most of the endemic birds and other wildlife.  (Anyone wishing to take a 7 night cruise can join the boat on either 15 or 22 September. 

Day 01;                      September 15th

This morning we leave Quito and transfer to the airport for our flight to the Galápagos.  On arrival we board our 16-passenger motor-cruiser to start our 7 or 14 night exploration of the Galápagos Islands.

Days 02 to 07;         September 16th to 21st  

On a 7 night cruise we have 6 full days to explore the islands of the Galápagos.  During our time here we cruise through many of the islands in the group, taking hikes with our resident naturalist, snorkelling with California sea lions and marine iguanas, and relaxing on some of the beautiful beaches.  Our itinerary is not fixed, but amongst our stops may be some of the following islands.  To make the most of our time here, we do most of our sailing at night.

San Cristobal Island, home to one of the Islands’ two small airports, is home to the beautiful white, powder-sand beach of Cerro Brujo, which is a great place to swim and beachcomb.  From here we cruise around Kicker Rock, a conical tuff formation that juts up almost 500 feet from of the ocean.  We will watch sea lions, blue-footed and masked boobies, and magnificent frigate birds on the cliffs of Baltra Island, which is the tip of an extinct volcano.

We also explore the island of North Seymour, an uplifted rock off the north coast of Baltra Island.  This tiny island has some of the largest seabird colonies in the islands, and our hikes take us through the nesting sites of blue-footed boobies and the largest colony of magnificent frigatebirds in the Galápagos. We also visit a sea lion colony and may see them body-surfing in the breaking wave.  On North Seymour we look for swallow-tailed gulls, marine iguanas and lava lizards.

Santa Cruz Island is home to Cerro Dragon  (“Dragon Hill”).  Walking quietly along the footpath we should see some of the land iguanas that are endemic to this island.  The path skirts a salt water lagoon and we look for American flamingos feeding in the shallows.  Other birds often found here include Darwin finches and yellow warblers. Our easy hike ends at the top of Dragon Hill for a majestic view.  Santa Cruz is also home to the Charles Darwin Research Station.  Founded in 1959 at the centennial celebration of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, the research station has an international team of scientists that studies the biology and conservation of the Galápagos Islands.  The station conducts captive breeding program of giant tortoises, and we can see the hatchlings of several subspecies that have been brought back from near-extinction.

Another day takes us to Isabela island, largest island in the Galápagos.  Isabela was formed by the combined lava flow of six different volcanoes.  We will walk inland on this extremely scenic island and marvel at the spectacular lava fields and bizarre volcanic formations.  Graffiti can still be found on the rocky cliffs which dates back to the 1800’s when the islands were welcome stops for square rigged sailing ships as they cruised the vast expanse of the Pacific.

From here we cross the Bolívar Canal to Punta Espinoza on Isla Fernandina.  Located in the western part of the archipelago, Fernandina is the youngest, and one of the most pristine islands, of the archipelago.  Fernandina is unusual in that it has no introduced plant or animal species.  The giant volcano, Volcán La Cumbre, dominates the landscape, rising 4,900 feet to the rim of the caldera.  Fernandina is home to the largest colony of marine iguanas in the Galápagos, and we have the opportunity to study these fabulous reptiles up-close.  Punta Espinoza is home to flightless cormorants, which nest on it’s rocky shore, while Galápagos hawks fly overhead.

Today we visit Puerto Egas on Santiago Island.  Named after Hector Egas, the owner of the now closed salt mine during the 1960’s, Puerto Egas is in the northwest corner of James Bay. Perhaps the single dominant feature of the Puerto Egas / James Bay region is a volcanic cone called Sugarloaf, which rises to almost 1,300 feet.  To the north and east is a massive lava flow that was noted by Charles Darwin during his famous six-week visit to the archipelago in 1835.  We walk along the Bay’s coastal trail looking for octopus, starfish and other sea life caught in the tide pools.  We may be lucky enough to spot whales or dolphins cruising.  At the end of the trail is a magnificent lava-walled grotto carved out of the rugged shoreline.  In its shady crevices is often found a small group of fur seals, which were once on the verge of extinction.

Later we visit the tiny island of Bartolomé, where it seems like we are walking on the moon. This small island on the east coast of Santiago is one of the younger islands in the Galápagos, and it’s volcanic rock is only just being colonized by plants and animals.  We take a walk to the summit of the inactive volcano.  Along the way we can see the remains of the last violent eruption: lava bombs, spatter cones and cinder cones. From the top we’ll have a panoramic view of the island including the famous Pinnacle Rock, a pointed obelisk of  hardened volcanic ash called tuff.  Down below, crystal clear water invites us to snorkel with schools of tropical fish and occasional penguins.  We may also explore the other side of the island where at times sea turtles and white-tipped sharks are found.

Gardner Bay, on the north-eastern shore of Española Island, has beaches covered with large colonies of sea lions lounging on the brilliant white sand.  Later we disembark at Punta Suarez, where 90 foot cliffs rise up from the sea offering a spectacular view of soaring birds.  This rocky point of land sustains one of the most impressive and varied colonies of sea birds in the Galápagos.  If we are lucky we may even observe the mating rituals of the waved albatross, found only on Española.  Certainly at Punta Suarez we will see blue-footed boobies engage in “sky-pointing” and masked boobies busily caring for their young.  Colorful Sally Lightfoot crabs crawl along the shoreline near the famous “blow hole”, a bizarre natural tunnel connected to the sea where the surf spurts a column of spray 30 to 60 feet in the air.

Floreana Island is famous for Punta Cormorant, the largest flamingo colony in the  archipelago and also for Post Office Bay, where a large barrel was originally places by whalers in which seamen could place letters which passing ships would take home and deliver.  It is still used as a post office today, and is a great place to send your postcards home from!  Genovesa Island is the furthest north that we will visit, and one of the most remote islands.  The edge of an extinct caldera, Genovesa is known as Bird Island for its colonies of frigatebirds, swallow-tailed and lava gulls, red-footed boobies and tropicbirds, as well as being home to four species of Darwin’s finches.

Day 08;                      September 22nd

After a morning landing for some last minute wildlife viewing those people on the 7 night cruise will transfer to the airport for their flight back to Quito, and to connect with international flights home.  Those on the 14 night cruise will continue on to visit other islands and make other landings in search of wildlife, with our first landing this afternoon.

Days 09 to 14;         September 23rd to 28th 

Continuing our exploration of the Galápagos Islands, we have another 7 days to discover  more of the spectacular scenery and wildlife of the islands.  Our itinerary is not fixed at this stage, but some of the destinations we visit will include the following.

Today we visit Santa Cruz Island, including the Gemelos (or Twins), a pair of spectacular craters approximately 30 meters deep.  This is a good area to see Galápagos hawk and barn owl, while the surrounding forest is full of birds, including vermilion flycatcher and yellow warbler.  We also drive across Santa Cruz, climbing through the agricultural lands and into the mist covered forests in search of a variety of birds, including some of Darwin’s finches.  This area also offers excellent opportunities for viewing wild Galapagos tortoises, not to mention spectacular volcanic scenery, including lava tubes, sinkholes and craters.  These eerie formations offer a fascinating view into the belly of the island to see its volcanic make-up.

Sailing through “Tintoreras” islets in search of white-tipped reef sharks, we keep an eye out for lava herons and Galápagos penguins, while sea lions often pop out on shore.  From here we sail to Isabela Island, the largest island in the Galápagos archipelago.  Between 1946 and 1959 Isabela was a penal colony, where prisoners built a wall with huge blocks of lava as punishment.  The wall is 100 meters long and 7 meters high.  Due to the arduous labor and harsh conditions in which the prisoners lived this site is known as the Wall of Tears.  Isabela is also home to several volcanoes, and we hike to the rim of Sierra Negra volcano for spectacular views over the island.  Today we visit Punta Moreno, located on the north coast of Isabela Island, which is home to a spectacular expanse of pahohoe (solidified lava), as well as a complex of coastal lagoons and mangroves which are home to a variety of birds.

This afternoon we visit Elizabeth Bay.  The excursion is carried out by zodiac, starting with a visit to the Marielas islets which is home to the largest penguin colony in the Galápagos Islands.  The excursion continues into a cove surrounded by red mangroves, where we hope to observe turtles, flightless cormorants, spotted eagle rays, brown pelicans and sea lions. Galápagos hawks are often seen soaring overhead while schools of pompano and dorado fish swim in the turquoise waters below.

Today we sail along the west coast of Isabela Island to Urvina Bay.  The waters of the bay are a good place to see turtles and rays, and ashore is a short trail leading to a coral reef which is evidence of uplift from the sea which occurred in 1954.  Land iguanas are often seen here, and there is the possibility of seeing giant Galápagos tortoises, flightless cormorants, blue-footed boobies, Galápagos penguins, pelicans, and marine iguanas.  This afternoon we visit Tagus Cove, where a zodiac cruise gives us a good chance to see Galápagos penguin, flightless cormorant and other sea birds.  From the landing dock it is about a 30 minute hike along the trail up to the top of the cliff from where we can view Darwin Lake, an uplifted ultra-saline lake  which is saltier than the sea.  The graffiti on the cliffs surrounding the cove has been written by pirates, whalers and bucaneers in past centuries.

Located at the northern end of Isabela Island, Punta Vicente Roca is the remnant of an ancient volcano comprising two turquoise coves with a protected bay.  The spot is a popular anchorage from which to take zodiac rides along the cliff that are the remains of the volcano or to explore a partially sunken cave at the water’s edge.  Masked and blue-footed boobies sit perched along the sheer cliffs, while flightless cormorants inhabit the shoreline.  The upwelling of coldwater currents in this part of the Galápagos, give rise to an abundance of marine life which, in combination with the protection of the coves, make Punta Vicente Roca one of the archipelago’s sought-after dive spots.  One cove is only accessible by way of an underwater passage, which opens onto the calm waters of the hidden cove where sea lions like to laze on the beach having traveled along the underwater route.  The entire area of Punta Vicente Roca lies on the flank of 2,600 foot high Volcano Ecuador.

This morning we visit Rábida Island, unique because of the red color of its rocks and sand. The volcanic material on this island is very porous and external factors, such as rain, salt water and wind have acted as an oxidizing agent.  A short walk leads to a coastal lagoon behind the beach which is home to birds, including Darwin’s finches, doves, yellow warblers, and mocking birds, as well as a colony of flamingos.  After lunch we sail to Chinese Hat, a small islet located just off the southeastern tip of Santiago Island.  It is a recent volcanic cone, shaped like a Chinese hat when seen from the north side.  On the west you can see lava formations, formed under the sea and pushed upward, with coral heasds embedded in the lava.  The islet is inhabited by sea lion colonies, marine iguanas and Galápagos penguins.

Day 15;                      September 29th 

Today we bid a sad farewell to our boat and crew at the end of the 14 night cruise, and transfer to the airport for the flight back to Quito, and to connect with international flights home.


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