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zNorthern Galapagos Cruise + Quito (2020 Itinerary)

8 days

Three Small Ship Adventures aboard the 24-cabin La Pinta

Small Group Discoveries

+ Our signature Small Group sightseeing brings Quito to life! Explore the architectural treasures of this UNESCO World Heritage capital and meet city residents eager to share insight into their life and culture.
+ With never more than 16 guests in a landing party, you’ll enjoy deeper engagement and more personalized attention from our expert naturalists, a more comfortable pace, and unforgettable up-close encounters with some of the most amazing animals on the planet.
+ Informative and entertaining shipboard lectures enhance your voyage and deepen your understanding of the island’s unique geology and wildlife.
+ Complimentary wet suits, snorkeling gear, sea kayaks and a glass-bottom boat enrich your exploration of the Galapagos’ colorful undersea realms.
+ With 3 nights luxury hotel + 4 nights cruise; 16 meals; all sightseeing + shore excursions; all transfers; both internal flights; Galapagos Park Fee + Transit Card; port charges; and all gratuities.

Includes 2 UNESCO World Heritage sites

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Upon arrival at the airport, you’ll be met and escorted to Casa Gangotena, our luxury boutique hotel in the historic heart of Quito.

In the engaging company of our expert resident guide, your exploration of this World Heritage city begins in the historic heart of town, home to important Colonial-era landmarks like the Cathedral and Presidential Palace. At the Church and Convent of San Francisco, you’ll discover a splendid 16th-century landmark that blends spectacular Baroque elements with Moorish architectural style
Then delight in a guided stroll through La Ronda, a charming historic district filled with shops, studios and galleries. Spend time with some of these resident artisans including the owner of a hat shop who learned her millinery skills from her father; for 60 years, the family has been producing some of Quito’s finest hats! For lunch, we’ll take you to a restaurant set in a handsome Colonial house. Join the chef for a lively talk and cooking demonstration, followed by a congenial lunch of traditional Ecuadorian dishes.  Meals B+L


Fly to the Galapagos Islands

La Pinta

You’ll be escorted to the airport this morning for your included flight to Baltra Island in the center of the archipelago. On arrival, cross the narrow Itabaca Channel by ferry to Santa Cruz Island and sit down to lunch at a local restaurant. Then join our expert naturalist for an exciting excursion into the Santa Cruz Highlands. Observe giant tortoises in their natural habitat, learn about the unique ecosystem of this pristine nature reserve, and discover its unusual lava tube formations.
Then travel to Puerto Ayora to board our Galapagos vessel, the intimate La Pinta. You’ll have time to settle in to your Upper Deck outside stateroom before joining fellow passengers for dinner. This evening’s briefing with our expert shipboard naturalists offers an entertaining and informative introduction to your upcoming voyage.  Meals B+L+D


Eden Islet and Chinese Hat Islet

La Pinta

Today’s excursions explore the diversity of two small and uninhabited isles. In the morning, a guided expedition in our maneuverable panga boats takes you along the shores of Eden Islet, where you might observe Nazca and blue footed boobies diving into the sea for food, reef sharks and frigatebirds. Conditions permitting, this is also a great place to take advantage of our free snorkeling gear and glass bottom boat. With its cinder cones, tuff cones and semi-eroded lava flows, Eden Islet also offers a chance to learn more about the volcanic origins of the Galapagos Islands.

After lunch, a guided nature walk on Chinese Hat Islet offers a chance to espy marine iguanas, Galapagos hawks, sea lions and Galapagos penguins. There’s also terrific snorkeling here amongst white-tipped reef sharks and penguins, or you might choose to explore these waters by sea kayak, glass-bottom boat or panga.  Meals B+L+D


Bartolomé and Santiago Islands

La Pinta

After breakfast, join our naturalists ashore for an invigorating walk to the summit of Bartolomé Island. A network of wooden stairs and boardwalks protects the fragile environment, including small lava lizards and a species of cactus found only in the Galapagos. Once at the top, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most picturesque and memorable vistas of your Galapagos adventure! Later, a panga boat excursion around Pinnacle Rock offers a great opportunity to photograph this iconic natural formation. Before returning to La Pinta for lunch, you’ll have time to relax on the beach, snorkel or ride in the glass-bottom boat.

In the afternoon, you’ll step ashore at Sullivan Bay on the southeastern coast of Santiago Island. There was a major eruption here only 100 years ago, and the sinuous Pāhoehoe lava formations look almost like still-flowing molten lava. There may not be much wildlife here, but the barren, other-worldly landscape makes for remarkable photography, and this is a great place to observe and experience the volcanic origins of the Galapagos archipelago.  In addition, the lovely coral sand beach of Sullivan Bay is ideal for swimming and snorkeling.  Meals B+L+D


Two landings on Genovesa Island

La Pinta

Genovesa is celebrated for its remarkable birdlife including magnificent frigatebirds, red-footed boobies, swallow-tailed and lava gulls, and yellow-crowned herons. This morning, you’ll step ashore with our naturalists at Darwin Bay. From the small sand and coral beach, an easy trail winds its way along a tidal lagoon, offering myriad opportunities to observe and learn about the island’s birdlife. After your guided walk, you can hike along a more challenging lava trail to a look-out point, go for a swim or snorkel in the bay. The more adventurous can paddle or snorkel along the cliffs at the edge of the bay.
After lunch back onboard, you’ll explore Prince Philip’s Steps - named for Prince Philip who visited the Galapagos in 1964 aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia. As you approach the lava cliffs in our panga boats, keep your eyes peeled for animals using the crevices for shelter and for red-billed tropicbirds flying overhead. You’ll make landing at the base of a staircase that leads to the top of the cliffs where a mile-long path will take us to the other side of this small island. Along the way, you’ll have a chance to espy large colonies of Nazca boobies, frigatebirds, storm petrels and the elusive short-eared owl.  Meals B+L+D

After breakfast, you’ll disembark on Baltra Island and transfer to the airport for your included flight back to the South American mainland. You can fly to Guayaquil at the Hotel del Parque or Quito at the JW Marriott: we include your overnight accommodations and a transfer to the airport in the morning. Or you can connect to your international flight on the same day.  Meals B


Farewell, Ecuador

We transfer you to the airport today.  Meals B

Extend Your Trip

Discover Peru after your Galapagos Cruise

6-Day Extension from $3,599

Enhance your travels in South America with our fully-guided 6-day tour to Lima, Cuzco and Machu Picchu. We include all flights within Peru, a choice of luxury hotels and extensive sightseeing.

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Arrive Lima, Peru

On arrival in Lima, you’ll be escorted to your choice of luxury hotels, well-located in vibrant Miraflores or the artistic area of Barranco.


Discover Lima

After a leisurely breakfast, your car, driver and guide will be waiting to show you Lima’s highlights – starting at the Larco Museum; renowned for its superb collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, your private tour is the perfect introduction to the Inca sites you’ll explore in the coming days.
After a light lunch, continue to Plaza Mayor in the historic heart of the city. Admire the Archbishop’s Palace, easily recognized by its grand wooden balcony, and behold the impressive 18th-century Cathedral. Close by, you’ll tour the beautiful Convent and Basilica of Santo Domingo, built in 1766.
Then spend time exploring the streets of Barranco, where 19th-century aristocratic homes have been given new life as cafés, galleries and boutique. Visit the Jade Rivera Museum, home to the Peruvian visual artist, muralist, technique researcher and constant apprentice.  With more than 20 years of experience, he focuses his work on representing situations of daily and cultural life, through an imagery that embraces the emotions and the spiritual of the human being. Jade understands that the street is a communication tool and that the murals are codes of reflection between the passerby and the wall, with the main purpose of posing questions to the viewer but not giving answers. Motivated by the language of the mural, he supports and strengthens his graphics with a strong admiration for animals and visual poetry.  Meals B+L


Fly to Cuzco

After breakfast, you’ll be chauffeured to the airport for your included flight to Cuzco, the ancient capital of the once vast and mighty Inca Empire. On arrival, you’ll be escorted by private car to the luxury hotel of your choice – where oxygenated rooms promise greater comfort in this high-mountain town. With your own personal guide, this afternoon’s tour begins in the peaks outside of town where you’ll discover the magnificent ruins of Sacsayhuaman. Built in the 1400’s by the Inca Emperor Pachacútec, the massive limestone blocks of this venerated complex were cut with such precision that they fit together without mortar like the interlocking pieces of a jigsaw puzzle! With some individual stones towering more than 10 feet tall and weighing several hundreds of tons, Sacsayhuaman is a monumental achievement of architecture and masonry.
You’ll also visit San Pedro Market, where your guide will offer fascinating cultural perspectives and personal insights into the life of local citizens. Then discover Cuzco’s Cathedral and the other Colonial-era landmarks that line the Plaza de Armas. At the Temple of the Sun and Convent of Santo Domingo, you’ll discover one of Peru’s most fascinating sites. It also demonstrates the rich layering of history here in Cuzco, where a sacred structure of one culture, the Convent, literally sits atop and practically encloses another, the Inca-built Temple of the Sun. Finish your tour with an engaging local bartender and learn how to make the perfect Pisco Sour, Peru’s signature cocktail.  Meals B


By Rail to Machu Picchu

After breakfast, you’ll be chauffeured to the station to board the Vistadome Train for your journey through the Sacred Valley. Sit back and enjoy the views as you travel through this timeless region of snow-capped Andean peaks, quiet villages and terraced fields that have been cultivated for centuries. On arrival in the charming town of Aguas Calientes, you’ll board the coach for the 30-minute ride up the switchback mountain road that brings you to the entrance to Machu Picchu. The fabled Lost City is certainly the single greatest landmark in Peru – and perhaps all of South America. Indeed, little can be written here that would do justice to the breathtaking grandeur of its mountain setting, the enigmatic power and aura that so permeate this ancient citadel, and the unforgettable experience of standing among these ancient stones. And with your personal guide’s illuminating expertise, your visit will bring to life the ancient Inca civilization that built Machu Picchu. After sightseeing, board the train back to Cuzco and return to your luxury hotel.  Meals B+L


Morning at Machu Picchu + Back to Cuzco by Train

We’ve included your motorcoach transportation back up the mountain and your entry ticket so you can explore the Lost City at your own pace.  At this early hour, people have yet to arrive from Cuzco or the Sacred Valley. With far fewer visitors and the soft light of morning just breaking over the surrounding mountain peaks, your return visit promises an exceptionally powerful and evocative experience.
In the afternoon, you’ll make the return rail journey through the Sacred Valley. On arrival in Cuzco, you’ll be met and chauffeured to the luxurious JW Marriott.  Meals B


Fly Back to Lima

We’ll take you to the airport this morning for your included flight to Lima, where you can connect to your homeward journey.  Meals B

Add the rainforest before your journey!

4 days from $2,199

Discover the amazing diversity of Ecuador’s rainforests! We include one night at the elegant Casa Gangotena in Quito, two nights at our luxury rainforest lodge, Mashpi, roundtrip transfers from Quito, all meals, and a choice of naturalist-guided excursions.

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Upon arrival, you’ll be met and escorted to the Casa Gangotena.


Overland from Quito to the Mashpi Reserve

Depart Quito after breakfast and head north from the capital, crossing the Equator and driving up to the Pululahua Crater for magnificent views over the mountains and countryside. Continue to the archaeological site of Tulipe and learn about the Yumbo civilization that built these pools and stone structures. Continue to the Mashpi Reserve, a 3,200-acre protected rainforest reserve acclaimed for its rich biodiversity. Check in to the exceptional Mashpi Lodge in the heart of the reserve and enjoy a briefing from our naturalist guides before sitting down to lunch. Depending upon the interests of you and your fellow guest as well as the local conditions, your afternoon activity might include a guided walk along jungle trails or a visit to the Observation Tower. Climbing this 85-foot tall structure is well-rewarded by the chance to see toucans, woodpeckers, parrots and even raptors. After dinner, the adventurous can join our naturalist for a night safari along the Reserve’s well-maintained trails.  Meals B,L,D


A Day in the Rainforest

Morning activities for the early-riser are designed to explore the forest at dawn, when birds and other wildlife are active. Return to the Lodge for breakfast and then enjoy another guided nature excursion, perhaps a hike to a jungle waterfall followed by a refreshing dip. After lunch, you can rest or join another rainforest adventure: Maybe visit the Lodge’s Hummingbird Viewing Station or explore the forest canopy and cross a deep river gorge on a Sky Bike! You can also visit the Life Center to learn more about the many species of flora and fauna that thrive in this protected Reserve.  Meals B,L,D


Back to Quito

After breakfast, you’ll have time this morning to join one of Mashpi’s shorter excursions. Lasting about 3 hours, the hike and visit to the Life Centre is a good choice. Learn about Mashpi’s ongoing research and conservation work, and visit the nearby Butterfly Farm to see some of the 300 butterfly species that have been discovered in these forests. There are also comfortable chaise lounges where you can simply relax and take in the beauty of the forest,  maybe spotting birds and listening for the call of the mantled howler monkey.
You’ll have a boxed lunch to enjoy on your drive back to the capital. Depending upon traffic and road conditions, you should be back in Quito between 4:00 and 4:30 PM.  Meals B+L

Galapagos Cruise MapSearch

The Most Choice
to the Galapagos…

Encompassing the farthest reaches of
the Galapagos archipelago, we offer two
other Exclusive Journeys featuring Quito
and our stylish 24-cabin cruiser.

Or you could choose our unique land-based
tour, or combine a Galapagos cruise with our
fully guided tour of Machu Picchu and Peru.

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Prices are per person, land only. We offer air on LAN. Add extra nights.

Family + Friends

Travel is one of  life's most rewarding experiences, perhaps even more so when it's shared with those you love! Take advantage of our Family & Friends offer and Save $100 per person anytime you book 4 or more people on the same A+R program.


Save $600 per couple + $300 solo on all of our Small Group, Small Ship and Private Journeys when you book and pay-in-full within 7 days of booking and prior to the final payment date listed in our published terms and conditions.

Get a Glimpse of our Galapagos Journeys

These videos, articles and podcasts will illuminate the enthralling experiences that await you on our Galapagos journeys. Drawn from respected independent sources, we’ve curated this multi-media collection to ignite your imagination. Inspiring as they are now on your screen, the things you see, read and hear will truly come to life when you travel with our expert guides and naturalists.

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About Your Journey… Ecuador + Galapagos

You have chosen one of the most rewarding places in the world to visit… Whether you’re visiting Andean villages in the highlands, marveling at Colonial architecture in Quito, exploring flora and fauna in the Amazon jungle – or all of these – your journey will be filled with many unforgettable experiences.

You’ll find that colonial history and architecture come alive in Quito and Cuenca. Guayaquil has all the color and energy you’d expect in a bustling Pacific port. The famous Indian market in Otavalo is brimming with well-crafted textiles, arts and crafts. Amazing encounters with nature wait in the Amazon basin. And the Galapagos Islands promise breathtaking landscapes and extraordinary wildlife viewing.

So no matter where your travels take you in Ecuador… whether it’s mountain, city, jungle or sea… get set for the trip of a lifetime!

Passports and Visas
American citizens will need to present a valid passport upon entry into Ecuador. Passports must remain valid for six (6) months after completion of your visit. It is the traveler’s responsibility to obtain required travel documents (passport, visas, and vaccination certificates). No visas are required for American citizens.  

Visitors from countries other than the United States should check on their specific entry requirements with the nearest Ecuadorian consular office.

Now’s a good time to assemble and check your travel documents, then keep them together in a safe, accessible area of your home. If you keep your passport in a bank safe deposit, retrieve it now to avoid a last-minute rush - and double check the expiration date!

Medical Insurance Required
Tourists who enter Ecuador must have health insurance covering their stay in Ecuador.  You may or may not be asked by immigration officials to show proof of health insurance coverage, but please carry an insurance card or other proof of your private or travel insurance coverage when you travel in Ecuador or anywhere overseas.

Your Health
For current inoculations and health precautions, we strongly recommend that you check with your medical practitioner before traveling for suggestions to prepare for your journey. Clients can also check the Centers for Disease Control’s website ( for their recommendations.

A yellow fever vaccine may be required by local governments in South America if you are traveling or transiting within Latin America. For current yellow fever vaccination requirements, please consult the following website:

Entering the Galapagos Archipelago
Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism has issued new regulations regarding health information to be provided by Galapagos-bound travelers:  passenger blood type is now required in order to be able to assist in the event of a medical emergency.  When checking in for your flight from Quito to the Galapagos, airport staff will confirm whether this information has been provided --its omission may delay your boarding.  Please have this information handy before boarding your flight.

Additionally, the National Park Management has announced that all shoes including shoes that are checked within suitcases are clean of any debris or mud.  This is to prevent contamination issues that can disrupt the delicate nature of the Galapagos.

A Word about Altitude
Quito sits at an elevation of 9350 feet above sea level. Visitors should be aware of the lightness of head and shortness of breath that many travelers experience at high altitudes. Sometimes called altitude sickness, or soroche in Spanish, most people are usually not overly bothered by the experience. If you are concerned with the prospect of high altitude sickness, please consult your physician prior to departure since there are medications available to help relieve the symptoms.  Eating lightly the night before you travel to higher elevation, drinking more water than usual, and taking things slowly can also help minimize the effects of altitude sickness.

If You Face Physical Challenges
Travelers to the Galapagos should be in reasonably good health as journeys to Galapagos tend to be active trips. The excursions and activities that are included often involve a great deal of walking over uneven terrain – both paved and unpaved. There will be hills to climb and descend, and steps usually have no wheelchair access. The Galapagos excursions are done in small inflatable boats (zodiacs or pangas) that transport you from La Pinta to the islands.  Visits include wet landings and require visitors to climb out of the zodiac directly into the surf.  Even indoor sites like museums and historical buildings may have only steps - no elevators or ramps.

For travelers with mobility issues or physical challenges, be prepared for a lack of accessibility that we enjoy in the United States. Hotels may be limited in the provisions made for such travelers and some do not have elevators. Airports are not always fully equipped with modern jet ways, and ramps for wheelchairs are often absent.

We regret that we cannot provide individual assistance for guests who need mobility assistance.  Nor can we ensure that local vehicles will be wheelchair-equipped. For these reasons, a qualified companion must accompany guests who need such assistance.
If you have any mobility or medical issues of which we should be aware, please advise Alexander+Roberts well in advance of your departure.

Climate… What You Can Expect
As you would expect from a country that encompasses everything from coastal lowland and rainforest to high-mountain terrain, the weather you’ll encounter depends as much on where you go as when you go.

Quito and the Highlands: Although Quito sits near the equator, its elevation (more than 9,000 feet above sea-level) blesses the capital with almost spring-like weather all the year round. The average high temperature in this region is in the upper 60’s and the average low is around 50°. The weather is coolest from June to September, but this is usually just a few degrees lower than the rest of the year. These are also the driest months, but then again the annual range is not extreme: June, July and August average less than 2 inches of precipitation per month. During the rest of the year, the average rainfall ranges from less than 4 inches per month (Nov to Jan) up to an average of around 6 inches in March and April. In other words, you can encounter rain any time of year, but it’s unlikely that you’ll find your trip spoiled by the weather.

The Galapagos:  Although these islands straddle the Equator, the climate is tempered by Pacific Ocean currents and breezes. January through May is the warm and wet season with daytime highs climbing well into the 80’s. Ocean temperatures are usually comfortable as well, hovering around 75°. During these months, heavy tropical showers and drizzly rain are not unusual but skies are often clear and sunny. From July to December, it’s generally cooler and windier, with daytime highs in the 70’s. Water temperatures drop, sometimes below 70°, and the skies are often overcast with occasional mist or drizzle.

Money Matters
The local currency throughout the country is now the U.S. Dollar. It is no longer necessary to exchange money. For small change, Ecuador also has its own coins, equivalent to half dollars, quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies.

Visa, MasterCard, and American Express are accepted at most hotels, shops and restaurants, and onboard La Pinta. Debit cards are less widely used. In the rural areas and for shopping in the open-air markets, it’s wise to have a supply of smaller denomination bills ($20 or less).  Please note that some restaurants and stores may not accept $100 bills. We recommend that you contact your credit card company before you travel to advise which countries you are visiting. 

Traveler’s checks are not widely accepted outside of upscale, big-city hotels and restaurants that cater almost exclusively to foreign visitors. Your best bet is to exchange them for cash at a casa de cambio (money exchange) or bank, which may not always be convenient when you are on tour. 
You will find ATM’s throughout Ecuador and most will accept cards on the Plus and Cirrus networks. Note, however, that machines go offline more often than most Americans are used to and some ATM’s will not accept PIN numbers of more than four digits. It’s always a good idea to carry some cash, especially small bills for tips and small purchases.

Out + About in Ecuador
This information is designed as a comprehensive overview of the country and to provide you with broad context for your travels. Not all of the places described below may be included in your program, but if this entices you to explore more of Ecuador, our travel experts can work with you and your travel agent to plan an extension to your program (if your itinerary and schedule allow a longer stay).

About Quito
Before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, there was an important Inca city here in this beautiful narrow valley high in the Andes. Although there are no longer any traces of this ancient city,  perfectly-preserved Spanish Colonial buildings still stand in Old Town almost exactly as they appeared nearly 500 years ago. Indeed, this architectural gem is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. But Quito is also very much a 21st century city, and along with these Colonial monuments there is a gleaming modern section of the capital filled with glass skyscrapers, international boutiques, and trend-setting eateries.

In short, the city offers a wonderful blend where you can experience fascinating history with all the comforts of the 21st century. Much of your touring will concentrate on the amazing sites of the Old Town….

San Francisco Church – Aside from its striking presence on the eponymous plaza, this handsome church is notable for several historic reasons. Construction on the church began in 1534, just weeks after the city was founded by Spanish Lieutenant Sebastián de Benalcázar. It’s the oldest church on the Continent and it’s setting upon a gently sloping hill is testament to its unusual building site atop the rubble of an Inca palace destroyed by the conquering conquistadors. The impressive interior reflects a harmonious blend of Spanish Baroque and Mudejar design. But the ancient heritage of the city is evident in the entry way and the ceiling, both embellished with images of the sun, which was sacred to the Inca. It’s believed that this important symbol was incorporated to attract indigenous peoples to Christianity. The main alter is spectacularly carved and worthy of specific attention. Admission to the Church is free. It is open Monday to Saturday from 7AM to 11:30AM and from 3PM to 5:30PM; Sundays from 7AM to Noon. Special admission schedules are set on Christian holidays.

Plaza De La Independencia – This beautiful public square is the heart of Old Quito, an area of hilly narrow streets filled with lovely Colonial architecture, much of it recently restored and now home to restaurants, shops and galleries. By the close of the 16th century, this was the main square of the city and a popular gathering place used also as a central market and bullfighting venue. Today, the Plaza is still a focal point for Quito residents. The Government Palace is one of the most impressive buildings flanking the square; it’s a handsome building of Spanish Moorish design. The Archbishop’s Palace has dominated the north side of the square since the mid 1800’s. The newest building here is City Hall, built in 1952, and the oldest structure is the Metropolitan Cathedral, which dates to the 16th century. The Plaza is also lovely at night when all of these monuments are lit.

Church Of La Compañía De Jesus - Some have called this the loveliest church in all of Latin America. Begun in 1605, it took more than 160 years to complete. Indeed, the intricate details of both the interior and exterior are breathtaking. The extremely fine carvings on the façade alone are most impressive. Inside you will discover a masterpiece of Baroque and Quiteño Colonial art. The altars are covered in gold leaf and nearly every inch is richly decorated. The walls and ceilings of the Church reflect a strong Moorish influence, with finely detailed paintings of only geometric forms and no human figures. As with the San Francisco Church, look for images of the sun when you enter. Again, the Spanish hoped that the use of this potent Inca symbol would attract the local people to join the Church. There is a modest admission charge. The church is open Monday to Friday from 10AM to 1PM and from 2PM to 5PM; Saturdays from 10AM to 1PM. Special admission schedules are set on Christian holidays

Cerro Panecillo – Dominating Old Town, this hill offers marvelous 360° views of the city. It’s topped by La Virgen de Quito, a beautiful 148-foot tall statue of the winged Virgin. On a clear day, you can even see the mighty volcano Cotopaxi in the distance.

Close To Quito – There are a number of wonderful day trips that can be made from Quito. The Mindo Nambillo Cloud Forest is about 90 minutes from downtown but feels worlds away. This protected region lies generally below Quito, ranging in elevation from 3,800 feet all the way to the peak of the Guagua Pichincha Volcano at more than 15,000 feet. The diversity of flora and fauna in this lush cloud forest is mind boggling with thousands of species of orchids and bromeliads and more than 350 unique birds including Cock-of-the-Rock, Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan, Toucan Barbet, and Torrent Duck. For the nature enthusiast, a number of simple but comfortable lodges in the region make it easy and convenient to spend a couple days exploring the forest.

To the north of Quito is the popular La Mitad del Mundo. Located at 0° latitude, this is the monument that marks the Equator! During the equinox (March 21 and September 21) it’s especially crowded. With the sun directly overhead, neither the globe-topped monument nor the visitors cast a shadow. During the rest of the year, the highlight is the opportunity to snap a picture of your feet, one in each hemisphere!

About Imbabura Province, Otavalo
The province of Imbabura offers a wealth of wonderful experiences just 60 miles north of Quito along the Pan-American Highway. The area presents one of Ecuador’s most beautiful landscapes -- a breathtaking region of snow-capped volcanoes, pristine high-mountain lakes, and tranquil Andean villages. And with a number of different indigenous groups, it’s also one of the country’s most culturally vibrant provinces. For many, the strongest appeal may be the shopping: Imbabura is also home to several small towns renowned for their skilled artisans… San Antonio de Ibarra for its generations-old wood carving traditions… Cotacachi for its fine leather work… and Otavalo for its skilled weavers.

Otavalo – with its world-famous market, is perhaps the most visited of these three towns. Nestled in a picturesque valley under the watchful gaze of two mighty volcanoes, this charming Andean town hosts an enormous open-air market every Saturday, with locals in traditional dress selling their finely made handicrafts… woven rugs, jewelry, clothing, stone carvings, paintings, musical instruments, pottery, and more. Although there are fewer vendors on non-market days, shopping here on any day of the week promises plenty of fun and great bargains.

About the Avenue of the Volcanoes
It was an early 19th century German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, who coined the phrase ‘Avenue of the Volcanoes.’  And indeed it is wonderfully appropriate. Heading southward from Quito, whether by rail or by road, is a spectacular journey quite unlike any other in the world. With Ecuador’s location on the Equator, it’s natural that the journey transports you through a nearly tropical landscape of orchids, lush vegetation, and palm trees. But look up and you see flora more typical of the tundra, glaciers and snow capped peaks.

The Avenue takes you up and down a series of mountain slopes and into the fertile valleys that lie in between. As you descend from the high Quito plateau into the first valley, the first volcano that stands out to the east is the mighty peak of Antisana, 18,720 feet above sea level! But looming over the entire region is the incomparable Cotopaxi Volcano, beautifully symmetrical and crowned with snow. This is the 2nd highest peak in the country and it’s the highest continuously active volcano in the world. On a clear day, you can see this mighty mountain, sometimes with its peak rising above lower level clouds.

About 40 miles from Quito along the Avenue of the Volcanoes is the entrance to Cotopaxi National Park. Scaling the 19,342-foot summit of Cotopaxi is definitely best left to experienced climbers, but even a day trip by car from Quito to the Park’s parking lot (as un-exciting as that may sound) is quite rewarding. For the very energetic, and those not too severely affected by the thin air here at nearly 15,000 feet, a two-hour hike from the lot brings you to the point where the glaciers begin

In addition to hiking, even the less energetic can explore the small towns that surround Cotopaxi. Lovely towns like Saquisilí or Pujilí are famous for their Andean charm, colorful indigenous markets, and the timeless traditions which endure here in this remote region of South America.

Farther south along the Avenue is the peaceful town of Riobamba, set at an elevation just below 9,000 feet but in the shadow of the Chimborazo Volcano, the highest peak in Ecuador (20,697 feet). The original city of Riobamba was located about 13 miles away, built by the Spanish on the site of a large Inca settlement. But after an earthquake destroyed most of the buildings, a new site was chosen in 1797. Today, Riobamba retains the elegant architecture and tranquil ambience of an 18th century town. The main plaza, Parque Maldonado, is graced with fine architecture, fountains and inviting arcades. Nearby, the beautiful Catedral de Riobamba retains elements of a Baroque façade rescued from the original Riobamba Cathedral that was heavily damaged in the 1797 earthquake.

About Cuenca
Descending from the Avenue of the Volcanoes into the southern highlands you’ll note that the Andes appear broader and flatter, without the dramatic snowcapped peaks of the north. But it’s still a very beautiful region and Cuenca, the capital of Azuay Province, promises a rewarding visit. With approximately 400,000 residents, it’s the 3rd largest city in Ecuador but it retains the charm and ambience of a small town. Much of this appeal lies in the extraordinary preservation of its Colonial architecture. Indeed, many regard Cuenca as the most beautiful city in Ecuador, and it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

But even before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, Cuenca was a major city in the vast Inca Empire, second in fact only to Cuzco. And archaeologists have found evidence of an even earlier civilization, the Cañaris culture, that flourished here more than 1,000 years ago. The city itself is a physical embodiment of this rich layering of history, with Spanish-built churches sitting atop the foundations of Inca palaces which were constructed from the stones of earlier Cañaris buildings!

Cuenca is a delightful city to explore on foot with charming cobblestone streets, beautifully landscaped public plazas, and whitewashed buildings with imposing wooden doors and graceful wrought iron balconies. Parque Calderón is the historic heart of the city and a great place to begin your wanderings. On the east side is the Catedral Vieja (Old Cathedral). Built in 1557 atop the foundations of an Inca palace, it’s the oldest structure in the city. Three hundred years later, the city outgrew its Colonial-era church and construction of the Catedral Nueva began across the square in 1885. Blending Gothic and Romanesque elements, it took 80 years to complete this imposing alabaster and marble church. The interior is made from imported Italian Carrara marble and the Cathedral’s lovely blue cupolas are visible from many parts of the city.

Cuenca is renowned for its skilled artisans, and you’ll enjoy a wonderful selection of well-priced, finely-made handicrafts including ceramics, Panama hats, baskets, Christmas ornaments, jewelry, shawls and blankets. The nearby artisan villages of Gualaceo and Chordeleg are particularly noteworthy for the quality and variety of handicrafts available.

There are also some excellent side trips from Cuenca. Area Nacional de Recreación Cajas (Cajas National Park) is just 20 miles from the city. Extending across more than 70,000 acres at altitudes ranging from 9,000 to 13,000 feet, this spectacular park offers more than 200 pristine lakes, streams and rivers set in a landscape of rugged, rocky peaks. About 40 miles from Cuenca, the ancient ruins of Ingapirca have been called the “Machu Picchu of Ecuador.” It’s the largest pre-Columbian site in the country and certainly worth exploring. The Inca arrived here in the 15th century, gained control over the indigenous Cañaris, and established an important city here on the royal highway that ran from Quito to Cuzco. Among Inca sites, Ingapirca is unique because of the Cañaris influences you find here, including the prevalence of round and oval structures, a building shape rarely seen at other, more purely Inca sites. The high quality of the stone work in the elliptical Sun Temple is especially remarkable.

About Guayaquil
Many visitors assume that Quito, the capital, is also the largest city in Ecuador. But in fact the bustling Pacific port of Guayaquil has an unofficial population of close to 3 million, nearly 50% more residents than Quito. Most American visitors are simply transiting here en route to the Galapagos. But for those who spend more than just an overnight, there are number of places worth exploring.

The Guayas River is endlessly fascinating, always busy with ships, small boats, canoes and even rafts, all laden with produce from the interior. The riverfront Malecón Simón Bolívar has been revitalized and rechristened Malecón 2000, and it’s once again one of the city’s most popular destinations, abuzz with malls, restaurants, museums, parks and markets. It’s easy to spend an entire day here gazing at the river traffic and joining residents and visitors alike in the many dining, cultural and entertainment venues.

At the very north end of the riverfront promenade is the new Centro Cultural Libertador Simón Bolívar. It’s vast and unusual collection comprises both ancient archaeological artifacts and works of modern art. The museum is open Wednesday to Saturday from 10AM to 6PM and on Sundays & holidays from 10AM to 4PM. There is an admission charge.

The Torre Morisca is an 18th century Moorish clock tower surrounded by beautiful gardens that are perfect for an evening stroll. It’s a narrow winding climb, but the energetic are rewarded with fine views over the city and river.

About El Oriente – the Amazon Basin
The enormous swatch of rainforest that stretches from the eastern slopes of the Andes all the way to the jungle border with Peru is known as El Oriente – the East. The snow-fed rivers of this region make their way ultimately to the mighty Amazon, and hence it’s considered part of the vast Amazon Basin.

Isolated by the towering Andes to the west and thousands of miles of impenetrable jungle in virtually every other direction, El Oriente remained relatively undisturbed throughout much of history. This has changed quite dramatically since oil was discovered in the late 1960’s. But the Ecuadorian Amazon still offers unparalleled opportunities to immerse in a pristine though fragile ecosystem and to encounter indigenous communities with traditions and lifestyles little-changed by modern culture.

About the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands lie about 600 miles off the mainland coast of Ecuador. Sailing in the wake of Charles Darwin more than 170 years after his famous voyage, visitors today can still experience some of the best wildlife viewing in the world - little changed, indeed, since the young naturalist arrived aboard the HMS Beagle. A cruise through the archipelago is definitely one of the most unforgettable travel experiences available.

It’s estimated that the Galapagos Islands were formed about 5 million years ago and that some of the new islands in the western part of the archipelago emerged as recently as 1 million years ago. Like the Hawaiian Islands, the Galapagos are the result of non-explosive volcanic eruptions, where the molten material emerges smoothly forming rivers of lava resulting in what we see today – the tops of shield volcanoes that poke above the sea, rising up some 30,000 feet from the ocean floor.

When these islands first emerged millions of years ago, they were just barren expanses of basalt rock. But today visitors find the islands filled with life… plant and animal species not found anywhere else in the world! This curiosity has intrigued casual visitors and scientists alike since Charles Darwin arrived in 1835 and made these creatures the cornerstone of his theory of evolution by natural selection. And ever since then, the unique species of the Galapagos have been the primary draw for visitors flocking to these islands.

When these islands were still very young, animals and plants somehow made their way here from the South American mainland. Obviously, only some could make the long journey across sea and sky. This is one reason for the prevalence of sea birds that could fly the distance, sea mammals that could swim, and reptiles that likely floated across inadvertently but were able to survive without food or fresh water for the duration. In contrast, amphibians and land mammals would have been unable to make the journey – either accidentally or “purposefully.”

Plant seeds and insects most probably were hitchhikers carried over by the birds, sea mammals and reptiles. Once on the islands, certain creatures were able to survive in this bleak new environment, and those that did so were able to live and reproduce without any of their natural predators, all left behind on the South American continent. This quirk of nature is one of the reasons the islands are so renowned for wildlife viewing. Without any large predators, the animals of the Galapagos developed with hardly any sense of timidity or insecurity. As a result colorful birds, playful sea lions, lounging iguanas, and other fascinating creatures all seem oblivious to you and your camera as you approach within steps of them!

Since the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, the Galapagos Islands have served as a living laboratory for evolution. The classic example most often cited to illustrate the process of natural selection is the famous Darwin’s finch. Within the archipelago you will find 13 similar species of finches that had a common ancestor on the South American continent. But over thousands of generations, 13 species have evolved – each with distinctive characteristics that have allowed them to survive and flourish in very specific environments. Some have short powerful beaks that can split seeds; others have longer bills better suited for catching insects.

As you visit the islands of the Galapagos you’ll discover a surprising diversity of climatic and vegetative zones, depending upon your location in the archipelago and where upon a specific island you are. Many of the flatter islands are quite barren while the more mountainous islands tend to be quite verdant. There are six zones in the Galapagos. In the Coastal Zone, for example, you’ll find plants that do well despite the high salinity of this borderland between sea and land; mangrove, saltbush and other aquatic plants predominate. Various types of trees, cacti and flowering shrubs grow extensively in the Arid Zone. As you ascend into the more densely forested Transition Zone, you begin to find fewer cacti and more small shrubs and perennial herbs. The unique vegetation of the Scalesia Zone begins to appear about 650 feet above sea level and up to an altitude of around 1,600 feet. It’s more fertile here than at the lower elevations and among the forest trees you’ll also find ferns, bromeliads, orchids and other plants that do well in the higher humidity. The open forests of the Brown Zone have disappeared on many of the islands due to human activity. Above 1,500 feet, you begin to transition into the Miconia Zone, characterized by dense growths of shrubs, fewer native trees, and abundant ferns and moss. On the inhabited islands, this zone is often cultivated as coffee, fruit trees and vegetables do well here. Occupying the highest regions of the islands above 1,800 feet, the Pampa Zone is generally devoid of trees or shrubs. In this humid environment you instead find unique ferns and grasses, including the Galapagos Fern Tree which grows to an impressive height of 10 feet.

Animals in the Galapagos
As noted above, the micro-climates of the Galapagos offer diverse ecosystems and unusual flora. The geological formations and spectacular volcanic landscapes provide a dramatic backdrop for every island landing. But for nearly every visitor, the main attraction is the unique wildlife and the opportunity for amazing, up-close encounters.

Many island hikes will include unforgettable sightings of the islands’ reptiles. Most common is the black marine iguana which you’ll often encounter in impressively large numbers as they gather together in groups to sunbathe along the rocky cliffs and shoreline. Most likely descended from a long-extinct land-based reptile, these primitive looking creatures are the only sea-going reptiles, diving into the ocean to great depths to feed on seaweed. Land iguanas, yellow in color and larger than their sea-diving relatives, are not as ubiquitous as the marine iguana but still sighted by nearly all visitors. There are also seven species of smaller lava lizards.

The giant tortoise is probably the most famous reptilian resident of the archipelago; it’s also quite rare. One of the most ancient of reptile species, they exist today only in the Galapagos and on a remote island in the Indian Ocean. When Darwin arrived, there were 14 subspecies in existence. But thousands of turtles were slaughtered for their flesh and by the beginning of the 20th century, three had become extinct. The Pinta Island subspecies lost their last lone survivor in 2012, Lonesome George. He was discovered in 1971 and brought to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island where he lived until over 70 years old.

Galapagos bird life is always fascinating, even for visitors who don’t consider themselves to be bird watchers! There are 29 species of land birds and 19 species of sea birds. Of these 48 types of birds in the Galapagos, 27 are found only on these islands. A number of them are particularly impressive, even for the casual nature observer. The magnificent waved albatross breeds only one place in the world, and that’s here on Española Island. With a wingspan that can reach nearly 8 feet and a very long, bright yellow bill, they are one of the most impressive Galapagos sea birds. There are 2 species of frigatebirds in the archipelago, known for their long black wings, ominous-looking hooked beaks, forked tails and most especially for the bright red sacks beneath the beaks of the male birds, inflated during the mating season to attract female frigates.

There are only 800 to 1,000 pairs of flightless cormorants in the entire world, and they are all found on the remote coasts of Isabela and Fernandina Islands. Without any predators and able to efficiently swim and dive for food, these large dark birds have lost the need to fly. When they spread their wings to dry after feeding, it appears even that their wings have lost more than half their feathers! Rarer still is the lava gull. Found only in the Galapagos, there are only an estimated 400 pairs of these dark grey gulls still in existence. Of the 13 species of Darwin’s finches, the mangrove finch is threatened with extinction and only 40 to 50 pairs remain in the world.

The 3 species of booby that inhabit the archipelago are especially fun to observe. The Nazca booby, sometimes called the masked booby, is the largest member of the family; it’s identifiable by its white body, brownish-black wings and tail, a long orange-yellow bill, and its black-masked appearance. The red-footed booby, with its distinctive webbed feet and bluish grey bill, is a consummate diver able to plunge nearly 100 feet into the ocean to feed! The blue-footed booby is the most common and during mating rituals, the male birds show off their famously blue feet with a high-stepping courtship dance.

The Galapagos penguin can be seen in the waters and on the coasts of Fernandina, Isabela and Bartolomé Islands. This is the only penguin species found north of the equator and is able to survive here because of the cold Pacific currents that swirl around these islands. Standing just a little more than 1-foot in height, these are also some of the smallest penguins in the world. They look rather ungainly on land but if you’re fortunate enough to observe them while snorkeling or scuba diving, you’ll discover that their swimming skills are breathtakingly fast and graceful.

Land mammals were far less likely to make or survive the long journey from the mainland. As a consequence, there are far fewer land mammals than birds and reptiles here in the Galapagos. In fact, the only native land mammals are the red bat and the hoary bat – probably blown across on the high winds of a Pacific storm – and the Darwin’s rice rat. All of the other land mammals on the island were introduced by human settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries. These include domesticated animals, livestock, and hitchhikers like the common brown rat. Over the generations, many of these mammals escaped into the wild, upsetting the delicate ecology of the islands and creating extensive problems for the native flora and fauna. Everything from cats and dogs to goats and pigs have become feral; their wide path of destruction has included everything from eating turtle eggs and baby iguanas to soil erosion and devouring native plants.

In contrast to their landlubber cousins, sea mammals simply swam with the ocean currents to arrive on the islands. Although there are only sea lions and fur seals, they have thrived here in the Galapagos and a 3 or 4-day cruise through the islands will include several memorable encounters with these fascinating creatures. With its playful inquisitive nature and cute young pups, the Galapagos sea lion is especially popular with visitors. The male bulls can grow up to 7 feet in length and the larger ones tip the scales at close to 800 pounds! Sea lion colonies can be quite impressive, comprised of dominant males and “harems” of between 5 and 25 females (cows). Within the colony, young pups spend time together in a “rookery” (similar to a nursery) – napping, feeding and playing together. You will often see one female caring for a group of pups while the other cows go off into the ocean to feed. In the water, the pups are often extremely playful with snorkelers, sometimes swimming up to stare into your mask before darting away! Note that older dominant bulls can be territorial and aggressive. Be sure to pay attention if your guide advises you to stay away from certain areas and particular animals.

The Galapagos fur seal is the other sea mammal that you may observe on your island excursions. Smaller than the sea lion, these furry creatures are typically about 5 feet long and no more than 150 pounds when fully grown. Where sea lions are inquisitive, even around humans, fur seals are shy by nature and thus less often encountered by visitors. While sea lions gather on the same beaches where visitors arrive daily, fur seals prefer to group themselves in colonies along less accessible cliffs and rocky shores. During the height of a sunny day, they will often shield themselves from the strong Equatorial sun by retreating onto protected rocky ledges and caves along the lava cliffs of the western islands.

Visiting the Islands…
The Galapagos archipelago consists of 13 major islands, 17 smaller islands and more than 40 rocks which are more-or-less permanently above the ocean surface, but Galapagos National Park rules limit visitors to 54 sites. These landing sites were carefully selected to minimize the impact of tourism throughout the Galapagos while still providing visitors with a fascinating overview of the islands’ unique flora, fauna and geology. Visitors must always be accompanied by a licensed naturalist guide and group sizes at some sites are limited by Park Service rules. Traveling aboard La Pinta, your island landings will be in groups of no more than 16 people.

At many of the visitor sites, the construction of piers and jetties is not allowed. In some instances, your visit to an island will begin with a wet landing. That is, a small panga boat will transport you from ship closer to shore. You’ll be required to step out of the panga into shallow water (ankle to knee-deep) and wade ashore. On other islands, the panga will tie to a pier for you to step directly ashore.

Baltra is one of the smaller islands and there are no National Park visitor sites. Previously, most scheduled flights from the mainland arrived at the Baltra Island airport which was built by the Americans during WWII. Until the opening of a smaller airport on San Cristobal in 1986, this was the only one serving the Islands. In April 2013, Ecuador opened a new terminal to replace the aging facility.  From the airport, it’s a pleasant drive over the channel and across Santa Cruz Island to Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos and the starting point for most cruises.

Santa Cruz Island in the center of the archipelago has the largest resident population, with about 6,000 people living in the town of Puerto Ayora. The Charles Darwin Research Center is located here in town as well. Although this is a scientific research facility, it is open for guided visits. The Van Straalen Visitor Center here has an informative presentation on the geology and natural history of the Galapagos. At the Tortoise Breeding Center, giant tortoises are hatched and raised until they are old enough to be returned to their natural island habitat.  One of the designated visitor sites on Santa Cruz is the Tortoise Reserve where giant tortoises can be seen in the wild. Coastal sites on the island offer great opportunity to observe sea turtles, pelicans, marine iguanas, herons and many other species. On the northwest side of Santa Cruz, Dragon Hill is one of the newer visitor sites, so named for the large population of land iguanas that can be seen here. Dragon Hill became an important nesting site for these elusive creatures after they were reintroduced here by the Charles Darwin Research Center. From the top of the hill there are impressive views of the bay, and the area is rich with wildlife including flamingoes, migratory birds and lava lizards; along the shore there are marine iguanas, sea lions, pelicans, and small colonies of blue footed boobies.

The interior Highlands of Santa Cruz offers an extraordinary visitor experience. Traveling on a coastal road that begins in Puerto Ayora, the route turns inland climbing through a variety of eco-zones past agricultural land into the mist-covered forests of the higher elevations. This is an amazing trip for bird watchers, with nearly all Galapagos bird species present here including Darwin’s finches and vermilion flycatchers. The Highlands are an excellent place to observe giant wild tortoises in their natural habitat. Geologically, the region offers lava tubes, craters and sinkholes. Lava tubes are formed during major flows when the external lava gets cold and hardens while the interior remains fluid and continues to flow. The resulting tunnels, here up to 1,300 feet long, offer the fascinating opportunity to literally get inside the geological make-up of the Galapagos!

Bartolomé is a small island off the southeastern coast of James (Santiago) Island. The unique geological formations including cinder and spatter cones are quite dramatic and give Bartolomé a lunar landscape. Most visitors make the climb to the summit of the inactive volcano for spectacular views over the island and bays, with the much-photographed Pinnacle Rock in the distance. Steps to the summit protect the volcanic ash from erosion by visitors and make the climb a little bit less difficult. The island offers two fine beaches accessible to visitors. Snorkeling here can be quite exciting with schools of tropical fish, playful sea lions and teams of penguins hunting underwater. This sandy beach offers another great view of Pinnacle Rock. Just a short hike away, the second beach offers close encounters with stingrays, spotted eagle rays and white-tipped sharks that swim surprisingly close to shore!

James Island (also called Santiago or San Salvador) is included in nearly every Galapagos itinerary, due to its central location in the archipelago and multiple visitor sites. It also offers compelling evidence of human impact here in the islands. Once rich in vegetation, goats were released here in the late 1800’s. They thrived, increasing to more than 100,000 and eating everything in sight. Although the Park Service is working toward eradication with some success, it’s not unusual for visitors to see goats and signs of their presence. One of the most interesting visitor sites in all of the Galapagos Islands is here at Puerto Egas. It begins with a wet landing off the dark volcanic sands of James Bay. Walking along the rocky coast, visitors can examine tidal pools, brimming with life including sponges, snails, hermit crabs, barnacles and fish like the endemic four-eyed blenny. Also along the coast are shore birds, marine iguanas, sally light foot crabs and sea lions. From the coast, there are two approved visitor site trails. One leads up the side of the volcano. It’s a steep hike but bird lovers are delighted with great opportunity to spy one of Darwin’s finches, the Galapagos hawk and the vermilion flycatcher. At the crater rim, you can look down into the extinct volcano. The floor of the crater has sunk below sea level and salt water has seeped in creating a small lake. The second trail is a continuation of the hike along the coastal tidal pools. At trail’s end is Fur Seal Grotto, one of the few places in the archipelago where this elusive creature can be observed at fairly close proximity. Here you often see fur seals and sea lions swimming in large pools and coves ringed by spectacular volcanic rock formations. The clear waters, volcanic rock formations, sea lions and fur seals make this one of the best snorkeling spots in the Galapagos.

Fernandina is the youngest of the Galapagos Islands, about 700,000 years old. Its location at the western edge of the chain, on the far side of Isabela Island, makes it inaccessible for many Galapagos ships and itineraries. But it offers one of the most unique landscapes in all of the Galapagos. Being one of the most geologically active, it’s in a constant state of change and without the native plants and animals of the other islands, its harsh and remote landscapes are like no other place on the planet. The lava fields and flows also offer a rare opportunity to witness recent volcanic activity. After a dry landing, a rocky trail leads past enormous colonies of marine iguanas to a peninsula rich with other wildlife. Vegetation is nearly non-existent; there simply hasn’t been enough time for plant life to take hold yet. Lava cactus seems to be one of the rare exceptions. These tiny plants with yellow to brown spines live just a few years and produce delicate creamy white flowers. As you near the point of the rocky peninsula, there is another gigantic colony of marine iguanas along with barking sea lions, and flightless cormorants. More recently, Galapagos penguins have been observed nesting in the area.

Isabela is easily identifiable on a map as the largest of the Galapagos Islands and for its distinctive seahorse shape. Like her neighbor Fernandina, Isabela is relatively young. It was formed about one million years ago with the merging of six shield volcanoes, five of which are still active. There are a number of Park Service visitor sites on the island and one of the most interesting is right at the “mouth” of the seahorse. This is a marine site where visitors explore along the spectacular volcanic cliffs either from panga boats or in the water by snorkeling. Masked and blue footed boobies perch on the rocks and flightless cormorants gather along the shoreline. The Cromwell Current, a cold Pacific upwelling in this part of the archipelago, brings rich nutrients and abundant marine life – evident in the unique greenish color of the water. Whether you’re in a panga, snorkeling or diving, this is a great place to observe sea turtles, Manta rays, sea lions, dolphins and penguins.

North Seymour is a small islet just north of Baltra Island. Created from a geological uplift rather than volcanic activity, it’s a relatively flat island with typically arid vegetation including prickly pear cactus and salt bushes. After a dry landing, the visitor trail extends for a little over one mile crossing the rocky island to a sandy shoreline. North Seymour is a great place to witness the unusual relationship between blue footed boobies who nest on the ground and the large frigate birds who nest just above them in the salt bushes. Boobies are excellent fishing birds, able to dive from mid air into the sea to catch fish for themselves and their young. In contrast, frigate birds produce very little oil for their wing feathers and are therefore not waterproof – making them very poor at fishing. Instead they will attack boobies just as they are returning from a successful fishing trip – stealing their catch to feed themselves and their young! North Seymour is also home to sea lions, marine iguanas, land iguanas and swallowtail gulls.

San Cristobal is the easternmost island in the Galapagos and one of the oldest. Unlike the harsh volcanic landscapes of Isabela and Fernandina far to the west, visitors here find eroded peaks and rich vegetation. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the provincial capital and the second largest town in the archipelago. As home to one of two airports in the islands, San Cristobal is often the first or last stop on a cruise itinerary. Just a 10-minute drive from town, La Loberia is one of the island’s approved visitor sites. Unique vegetation in a variety of unusual colors greets the visitor. From there it’s a pleasant walk down to a sandy beach that is home to a great sea lion colony and nursery. During low tide, you can sometimes observe mothers teaching their pups to swim in the shallow tidal pools. The marine iguanas that gather here on the nearby rocks are among the largest specimens in the Galapagos.

Isla Lobos is just up the coast from Puerto Baquerizo. This tiny basalt outcrop just off the coast is home to a noisy population of sea lions and is also a nesting site for blue-footed boobies. Cerro Tijeretas (or Frigate Bird Hill) offers a delightful one-hour hike from town. The hill is often visited by frigatebirds and the summit offers a spectacular view of the island’s white sand beaches and the charming rooftops of Puerto Baquerizo. In 1998, the Galapagos National Park Visitor & Interpretation Center was opened in town. The interesting architecture, landscaped gardens and panoramic ocean views alone make this a worthwhile stop. In addition, there are informative exhibits on the islands’ natural history, human impact, eco-systems, flora and wildlife. In the center of San Cristobal, El Junco is the only large freshwater lake in the entire Galapagos. Surrounded by dense Miconia vegetation at an elevation of nearly 2,300 feet, El Junco offers an interesting excursion and scenery quite unique from the other islands. Cerro Brujo (or Wizard Hill) is on the western side of the island. This spectacular white sand beach offers good snorkeling and beach walks. It’s home to Sally Lightfoot crabs, marine iguanas, sea lions and a variety of shore birds.

Española  is the oldest and southernmost island in the archipelago. Because of its remote location, it offers a number of interesting endemic creatures not seen elsewhere, species that have adapted to the island’s unique environment. Marine iguanas on the other islands, for example, are black in color, allowing them to camouflage against the black lava rocks where they gather. On Española, adult marine iguanas are brightly colored, with a reddish tint except during mating season when they become more of a greenish color. There are only two National Park Service visitor sites on the island, but they offer some of the most spectacular wildlife viewing in the entire archipelago.

Punta Suarez is on the western tip of the island and the wildlife here can be astonishing. Just walking along the beach after a dry or wet landing (depending upon sea conditions), you can observe sea lions, lava lizards, marine iguanas, gulls and crabs. Farther along the designated trail are nesting sites for masked and blue-footed boobies. Other birdlife to be seen are the Galapagos dove, hood mockingbird and several subspecies of finches – large cactus finch, warbler finch and small ground finch. At the end of the trail is the world’s only nesting site for the magnificent waved albatross. Presently, the colony is estimated to include about 12,000 pairs. These amazing birds mate for life and every April the male begins an elaborate 5-day ritual to re-attract his mate, a performance of strutting, honking and beak fencing. Once the couple is reacquainted they produce a single egg and share responsibility for its care. The colony remains on Española until December when the chicks are fully grown. From January through March, the birds are away from the island feeding off the coast of Ecuador and Peru, taking advantage of the life-rich Humboldt Current that flows along South America.

Gardner Bay lies on the northeast coast of the island and offers a beautiful white sand beach. The immediate vicinity is considered an open area and you are free to explore without your guide standing close by. It’s a great place to photograph lounging marine iguanas and lazing sea lions. Gardner Bay also offers excellent snorkeling and the opportunity to swim with sea lions. Farther off shore, you can observe colorful tropical fish including yellow tailed surgeon fish, king angelfish, parrot fish and the occasional manta ray, sea turtle or white-tipped shark.

Rabida Island is one of the most geologically interesting in the Galapagos, with eroded hills and lava emitted from spatter cones. This unique volcanic origin is apparent upon your wet landing where you wade onto a beach with a striking deep maroon color! In the nearby caves and along the shore, you can usually observe marine iguanas and sea lions in fairly impressive numbers. Behind the beach in the salt brush are the nests of brown pelicans, a rare opportunity to see these great birds up close. Above in the cliffs, visitors can spy blue-footed and masked boobies. The visitor path continues to a small saltwater lagoon where various birds come to feed including pink flamingos, Bahama pintail ducks and common stilts. The designated trail ends atop a rocky red cliff with magnificent views of the peaceful cove, the Pacific and the richly hued volcanic cliffs. Off the landing beach, snorkelers will often see sharks and manta rays.

Plazas Islands are twin islands located off the east coast of Santa Cruz. Both islands were formed by a geological uplift. The island's southern portions have a greater degree of uplift, contain cliffs with spectacular views.
Visiting South Plaza begins with a dry landing. The rocky trail circumnavigates the island displaying the combination of dry and coastal vegetation zone. The island is home to enormous prickly pear cactus and the endemic succulent sesuvian. These succulents with almond-shaped leaves are green during the rainy season December-May. Then become red during the dry season giving the island an unusual appearance.
South Plaza has one of the largest populations of land iguanas in the Galapagos. The iguanas seem to be everywhere once you land. These yellow-brown land iguanas feed on the fruit and pads of the prickly pear cactus.
South Plaza is also home to marine iguanas living along the coast and a hybrid iguana whose fathers are marine iguanas and mothers are land iguanas. As the walk continues along the sea cliffs swallow-tailed gulls, frigatebirds, Audubon shearwaters, red-billed tropicbirds, brown pelicans, blue-footed and masked boobies are frequently seen.  Along the shore a colony of bachelor sea lions can frequently be seen.

Floreana Island is one of the oldest islands. Floreana illustrates the aging process of a volcanic island. Unlike the younger western islands, Floreana's volcano has been long extinct and is in the advanced stages of erosion. The erosion process gave the island the nutrients and soils need to sustain plant life. The combination of this rich soil and a good water supply have given the highlands of Floreana a diversified landscaping of native and introduced flora.

Floreana is best known for its colorful history of buccaneers, whalers, convicts, and colonists. In 1793 British whalers established the Post Office Barrel to send letters to and from England. This tradition has continued over the years, and even today visitors may drop off and pick up letters, without stamps, to be carried to far destinations. Punta Cormorant offers two highly contrasting beaches. The landing beach is of volcanic origin and is composed of olivine crystals, giving it a greenish tinge. At the end of the short trail is a carbonate beach of extremely fine white sand. Formed by the erosion of coral skeletons, it is a nesting site for green sea turtles.

Genovesa Island owes its distinctive horseshoe shape to its unusual geological origins; the island consists of the remains of a large crater which has been partially submerged, with just a portion of the caldera walls rising above the sea! There are two authorized landing sites here on Genovesa – nicknamed “Bird Island” for the remarkable diversity of its winged inhabitants. At El Barranco, an invigorating 2-hour walk across lava fields is regularly rewarded by terrific encounters with sea lion colonies, Galapagos fur seals, and numerous bird species including vampire finches and Nazca boobies. Darwin Bay offers a gentle walking path along the beach with opportunities to observe frigate bird colonies as well as Galapagos sea lions, swallow-tail gulls, barn owls and the elusive red footed booby! The unique flora along the beach includes red mangrove, prickly pear cactus and the incense tree.

A Note about Wildlife Viewing in the Galapagos
There are a few places on Earth where animals are easier to see and photograph than in the Galapagos. The animals are unique and seldom found in such numbers elsewhere. They are easy to locate, unafraid and allow you to approach very close. One of the biggest problems you will have is trying not to step on the wildlife! Always be careful where you place your feet, especially when you are backing up to take a picture. It is important to keep a respectful distance from babies and eggs; the animals still need their zone of privacy.

The best time for animal watching is early morning or late afternoon. On almost every island you visit you will see sea lions, marine iguanas, Sally Light-foot crabs, lava lizards and Darwin’s finches. On most islands you will see: herons, blue-footed boobies, swallow-tailed gulls and mockingbirds. On selected shore excursions you will see masked boobies, land iguanas, Galapagos penguins (very shy), fur seals, red-footed boobies, flightless cormorants, frigatebirds, pink flamingos and the nesting grounds of iguanas. Giant tortoises can be observed at the Darwin Research Station or in the Highlands of Santa Cruz Island.

The ecological system on the islands is a fragile one and the naturalists and guides will help to maintain it by reminding you that there is no smoking on the islands, no touching the animals or using flash when filming, and no removal of shells or flora from the islands.

Ecuador is on Eastern Standard Time year-round. In other words, when we are not on Daylight Savings Time, the time in Ecuador is the same as the time in New York. During Daylight Savings Time, Ecuador is one hour behind New York. The Galapagos Islands and La Pinta are on Central Standard Time year-round. You will need to reset your watch or alarm clock when you travel between the mainland and the islands.

Conversing with the Locals
Spanish is the official language of Ecuador, but English is widely spoken and you should have little difficulty as a tourist. Menus in restaurants are usually available in English for travelers. Even with language difficulties, people are very friendly and will generally go out of their way to help you.

Meal Time…
Ecuador has a rich and varied culinary tradition reflecting indigenous South American and European influences. Ceviche is one dish you’ll find on many restaurant menus. Different seafood - usually shrimp, fish, mussels or octopus – are cooked by marinating in lemon, orange and tomato juice. It’s typically served with a side of fried corn and plantains. Empanadas de verde is a tasty turnover made from green plantain and filled with cheese or meat. Empanadas de morocho is a small meat pie, often stuffed with pork and served with hot sauce. Humitas can be either sweet or savory; this is a corn husk-wrapped pastry made from corn, crumbled cheese, egg and butter. In the highland regions especially, delicious and hearty soups are made from potatoes and cheese; look for locro de papas on the menu. Seafood is wonderfully fresh and abundant along the coast including shrimp, white sea bass and lobster.

Dining onboard La Pinta will include traditional Ecuadorean and International dishes. Soft drinks and water are included and available throughout the day onboard La Pinta.  Alexander+Roberts guests enjoy an included glass of wine with dinner.  All other beverages may be charged to your cabin you’re your account settled at the end of your voyage with a credit card.

Ecuador’s Famous Indian Markets
Shopping for wonderfully made handicrafts and folk art is a highlight for many visitors. The Indian markets, in Otavalo for example, are a great place to look for these indigenous items. Textiles and woven goods are plentiful, colorful, and of generally good quality. You can find alpaca scarves, gloves, sweaters, bags, and wall hangings. Ceramics, woodcarvings, silver jewelry and leather goods are also good buys. Although bargaining is not as strongly ingrained in the Ecuadorian culture as in other parts of the world, some price negotiation is expected at these indigenous markets. Be attuned for facial expressions which might suggest that you are being too demanding or difficult. Bargaining here in Ecuador is usually not a protracted process. Any price drop you negotiate early on will probably be the final price. Walking away in hopes of a better deal might work… but not always. And be aware that intrinsic worth and value are usually well-reflected in the price offered. And often the seller needs the money they are asking for in the purchase price; sometimes it’s better to make a friend than a deal! That said, it’s still wise do some comparison shopping before making your first move. There can be tremendous price variations for similar items in the same market!

In the malls and boutiques of the larger cities, you will be able to find nicely made local products as well as international brands. Cuenca is the world’s largest producer of Panama hats. Never buy items made from black coral, turtle or tortoise shell as these animals are protected!

Shopping in the Galapagos is limited. There is a small gift shop onboard La Pinta and you will find local vendors on San Cristobal Island and Puerto Ayora. 

Know the Customs + Traditions
Many American visitors conclude that all of South America operates at a slower pace than North America. So remember that you’re on vacation… Slow down, be patient and be prepared for what you might consider a mañana mentality.

A few other comments to guide you…. Never ask someone not to smoke, even in areas not designated for smoking (it’s better just to move to a new location). Also, seek permission before taking a photograph of anyone since many superstitions still go along with photography in South America.

A Note about our Ship…
La Pinta is one of the finest vessels operating in the Galapagos. Of course, the ship sails in full compliance with all regulations of the Galapagos National Park Service.

Fully reconstructed for ocean cruising in 2007, La Pinta offers your choice of cruise itineraries and lengths.  This deluxe ship offers just 24 staterooms, all on the same deck and of approximately the same size.  They vary only in their ability to accommodate 3 passengers, and 8 cabins have connecting doors.  All cabins are spacious exterior suites with floor to ceiling windows, two twin beds or one queen bed, desk, bathrooms with environmentally friendly amenities, hairdryer, in-room safe, telephone, individually controlled central air conditioning, multi-channel sound system for closed circuit music and connection for personal iPods.

Life onboard… A delightful daily routine quickly develops, starting with a morning wake-up call and a hearty buffet breakfast. A morning excursion usually includes the opportunity to swim or relax ashore. You return to the La Pinta for lunch as the ship charts a course for another island.   TV monitors on the cabin deck and lounge give you easy access to the timings of the daily activities.

Cruising can be a great opportunity to work out in the ship’s fitness center with its full-length windows, relax in the lounge or check email in the library (though Internet connections are low-bandwidth and intermittent).

Around mid-afternoon, join your naturalist guides for another shore excursion. Back on ship, you can relax or enjoy a cocktail before dinner.

Every evening before dinner, guests are encouraged to gather in the spacious lounge for an informative presentation by the ship’s naturalist guides, all licensed by the Galapagos National Park Service. These informative talks provide invaluable information on the following day’s shore visits. You’ll learn what type of terrain is to be covered, special clothing or footwear that is recommended, and what species might be encountered. You’ll gain some insight into the natural history, flora and fauna of the islands to be visited, providing you with excellent context for your next day’s adventures.

Meals onboard… are served in the ship’s dining room with expansive breakfast and lunch buffets and casually elegant dinners served course by course. Weather permitting, lunch may be served al fresco on the lovely Sun Deck.  Evening meals usually feature two entrée choices, including vegetarian options. The ship’s skilled chefs prepare a variety of Ecuadorean and International dishes using the freshest ingredients. There is also a coffee & tea station which is open 24 hours-a-day.

After dinner, you can head to the Observation lounge and bar to have fun with karaoke or enjoy a nightcap before retiring.

Shore excursions… begin aboard a small boat (known as a panga or zodiac) which will take you from the ship to the island and back. There are two types of landings - wet and dry. Wet landings are the easiest and are so named because you swing your legs over the side of the boat step into shallow water, usually just calf or knee-deep. For this kind of landing, waterproof sandals or Tevas are recommended. Because waterproof sandals are usually not the best for walking, we suggest having good walking or hiking shoes in your daypack. You can of course make the wet landing barefoot, but sharp volcanic rocks make this inadvisable.

For a dry landing you will climb from the boat directly onto a pier or rocky shoreline. However, because of the ocean swell and slippery rocks, take extreme care lest the dry landing become a wet one! If you are unsure or unsteady, always ask for assistance. You will be required to wear a life vest when going to/from your shore excursions.

Be sure to have in your daypack whatever else you need for the excursion – lip moisturizer, sunscreen, binoculars, etc.

Basic Rules aboard your Ship… The ship’s crew will familiarize you with some basic rules including a request to recycle all trash, no paper should be thrown in the toilet, and no trash should ever be left on an island or thrown overboard.

Air Conditioning… The ship is fully air conditioned, but staterooms do not have individual air conditioning units.  You will find a control switch in your cabin which can be adjusted to regulate the fan speed.

Wellness… There is a full-use fitness room, a hot tub and a Medical officer (M.D.) permanently on board and available 24/7.
The Boutique… carries a range of personal care items, souvenirs, camera batteries, etc. Purchases will be signed and charged to your shipboard account which can be paid at the end of the cruise in cash or by credit card.

A Safety Box… is available in your suite.

The Jacuzzi… is located outside the Sky Bar and is a wonderful place to relax after your last shore excursion.

Laundry Services… The La Pinta does not offer guest laundry services onboard for personal items.  If you are taking the 6-night cruise, the ship can take your laundry prior to landing in Puerto Ayora and have it back to your cabin the next day.  A regular clothes dryer is available onboard for wet clothing on the Aft Deck.

Towels…  Colored towels are available by the Jacuzzi and reception area, and can be carried ashore on your morning and afternoon island excursions for swimming and snorkeling.

Lectures…  In addition to the evening briefings, La Pinta’s naturalist guides also give fascinating lectures on Darwin, and the islands’ natural history and culture.

Whale Watching…  Whales are most active in the Galapagos between July and September.  Whenever you’re on deck or enjoying the view from your suite, it’s always worthwhile to keep an alert watch for whales as the La Pinta makes its way through the archipelago. In particular, as your ship sails along the northwest coast of Isabela Island you’re entering waters where whales have been regularly sighted. Be sure to inform your guide if you wish to participate. The best time is early in the morning so we recommend that you request a wake-up call so you can be on deck by 6:00AM that morning.

Access to the Bridge… La Pinta is equipped with state-of-the-art marine technology and a visit to the Bridge is always fascinating.  We ask that visits be arranged through the Hotel Manager.

Sand…  Despite its natural beauty, sand causes serious problems! It can transport insect eggs and seeds from one island to another and may obstruct the pipelines of the ship’s sewage system. Please check your feet and footwear before stepping aboard the panga boat and get rid of all sand before entering! Shake out your towels and brush off your hats, clothing and daypacks!

Snorkeling… in the Galapagos promises to add entirely different and very enriching experiences to your journey. It requires a certain degree of preparation that will be provided by your guide, but it should not be attempted by people without swimming ability. Snorkeling gear is available at no charge on board.  Due to the cooler waters of the Humboldt Current its best to wear a wetsuit (also available at no charge onboard) for snorkeling, especially from July to November when water temperatures are lower.

Similar Trips

Northern Galapagos Cruise + Quito

Begin with our luxury stay in Quito and our exclusive sightseeing. Then we fly you to the Galapagos for a 4-night cruise in an Upper Deck outside cabin aboard the stylish, newly-renovated La Pinta. You’ll join our expert naturalists to explore the Northern reaches of the archipelago, home to some of the most iconic sights in the Galapagos.

Eastern Galapagos Cruise + Quito

Delight in Quito’s finest luxury boutique hotel and our immersive sightseeing. Then step aboard the stylish, newly-renovated 24-cabin La Pinta for a 4-night cruise in an Upper Deck outside cabin. With our expert naturalists, you’ll explore the best landing sites in the Eastern Galapagos - home to remarkable flora and fauna.