As a team of explorers first, our Destination Experts are constantly on the move; discovering South America’s destinations, restaurants, and hotels firsthand and uncovering unique experiences in the hope of sharing them with you. Sometimes we are lucky enough to get up close and personal on their journey as they share their experiences live over SA Expeditions’ social media platforms – no filter.
The results may not be as slick and polished as what you'd find on some other travel feeds...But we're sure you'll agree this is a small price to pay for absolute authenticity. Follow along with our Destination Expert, Julia Steck, as she explores the wonders of Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands...
The Galapagos Islands lie 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador and visitors can only travel to them via the county's two biggest cities. Which is why I will start my adventure in the capital city of Quito, staying at the lovely Casa Gangotena hotel in the colonial center. And because I told my guide I’m a foodie, we start the tour at the nearby San Francisco market, trying local fruits and getting to know the traditional dishes before heading to la Compañia, a church famous in South America for its interior that's almost entirely covered in gold!
Did you know shrimp is the number two export of Ecuador? (Photo: Julia Steck)
Ecuador gets its name because it straddles the equator, and its Middle of the Earth, Intiñan museum, just a few hours outside of town was where I finished the day’s explorations learning about the scientific quest to find the middle of the world. Upon return to my hotel, hot chocolate and Andean cheese, a favorite local combination awaited, which we happily took up to the hotel rooftop overlooking the plaza and Quito’s colonial charms.
The location of the Middle of the Earth is 13 kilometers to the north of Quito. (Photo: Julia Steck)
We departed from Quito on a three-hour flight across the vast blueness of the Pacific to the Galapagos Islands. Landing at a small airport on the island of Baltra, we were taken on a ten-minute bus ride to load up onto pangas (small boats) to our expeditionary vessel, La Pinta. Upon boarding we were greeted with welcome drinks, followed by a hearty lunch before our explorations of the islands began. First stop was North Seymour Island, where we observed frigate birds, land iguanas, sea lions, and the iconic blue-footed boobies who were in full swing with their mating dance. It was a full day, topped off with a cocktail in hand and a feeling full of wonder as I watched the sunset from the upper deck.
The iconic blue-footed booby. (Photo: Julia Steck)
The next morning, our day began at 7 am (as it does on most days of the cruise). After breakfast, we headed off to Punta Vicente Roca on Isabella Island to take our first swim in the Galapagos waters. Our snorkeling adventure was all about sea turtles, and tons of them, which our guide playfully referred to as “turtle soup”. After post-swim refreshments, lunch and even a quick nap, we headed to Fernandina Island at Punta Espinosa for an overland walk in the afternoon. On land, we were greeted by hundreds of marine iguanas lazily lounging amongst the volcanic rock and using their neighbors as pillows. The flightless cormorants were busy doing their courtship dance, while others, already successful at pairing up, were busy nesting. What’s incredible about the Galapagos is that the animals never had a chance during their evolution to grow wary of humans as predators, which means visitors today can observe them at length in their natural behaviors.
Sunset on board La Pinta Galapagos. (Photo: Julia Steck)
Over the next few days, we experience countless species of wildlife and vegetation, both native and endemic. Our naturalist guides carefully explain the history of the islands and the role of Charles Darwin in the region. Since almost all of the islands are completely uninhabited and the wildlife isn’t afraid, it’s easy to feel an instant connection with the animals who live here. Snorkeling with the playful sea lions was by far my favorite activity, since they’re just as curious about you as you are about them!
Sea lions are a bit more standoffish on land but I managed to get one to pose with me for a picture. (Photo: Courtesy image)
Being on a 6-day cruise and spending all day with the other passengers, we’ve formed unique and long-lasting friendships. Between excursions and meals, each day we enjoy a new activity on board such as a ceviche cooking class, live music and dancing, or a documentary on the variety of native bird species. The Galapagos attracts people from all walks of life who are drawn to the mystery and richness of the islands, and the combination of these different perspectives made our trip all the more memorable.
Each day was a new adventure, and our naturalist guides never ran out of interesting information to share with us. (Photo: Julia Steck)
There are two ways to experience the Galapagos: on a cruise or with a land-based excursion. Or, if you’re like us, a combination of both. Only a few islands have hotels, and Santa Cruz Island is the most popular. Its main town Puerto Ayora is small but lively with many restaurants, bars, and stores, just 40 minutes from the Baltra airport ferry.
Kayaking is one of the activities you can do on the cruise. (Photo: Julia Steck)
Here we spent two nights at the Finch Bay Eco Lodge, one of the top waterfront hotels on the island, so that we could get to know Santa Cruz a bit better. Two of the main attractions are the Highlands Giant Tortoise Reserve, where you can walk (slowly) with these huge primordial creatures as they go about their day, and the Charles Darwin Research Station, a great place to visit if you’re keen to gain more scientific knowledge on Galapagos species while supporting their conservation efforts. Another popular activity is to walk about 3 kilometers to the secluded Tortuga Bay, a white sand and crystal water beach, where you can swim, snorkel, rent kayaks, or just relax...Which is exactly what we did after a busy week of excursions.
The marine iguana is the only lizard in the world with the ability to live and forage at sea and is endemic to the Galapagos Islands. (Photo: Julia Steck)
Has Julia’s tale inspired you to travel to Ecuador? Check out our Galapagos itineraries here or speak to a Destination Expert about crafting your own.
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