There’s a reason why the Galápagos Islands inspired Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. On this volcanic archipelago, the renowned naturalist observed certain species of tortoises and land iguanas found only here. You’ll see them and many other “Big 15” species on this nine-day nature-lover’s expedition from Hurtigruten.
After two nights in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, you’ll fly to the Galápagos Islands and see the best of the archipelago aboard MS Santa Cruz II. This small expedition vessel designed for navigating this part of the Pacific has a maximum guest capacity of 90. With all excursions included and led by expert naturalist guides, guests explore with small expedition boats, kayaks, snorkeling gear, and paddle boards to see some of the islands’ most iconic residents.
ItineraryPLAN YOUR TRIP
Day 1Arrival in Ecuador
The city’s rich history dates to an ancient Inca settlement. Today, modern-day architecture sits comfortably alongside classical Spanish designs like 17th-century churches and charming plazas in the Old Town, the city’s star attraction. Later in the evening, the city lights up with the view of the surrounding hills, and it’s time to explore the pedestrianized street of Calle La Ronda. Take a seat at a cafe or browse the handicrafts sold in the independent shops before retiring to your included hotel room.
You’ll have even more time for independent exploration of Quito if you arrive early. Other options include joining Hurtigruten’s four-day tour to the cloud forest of the Mashpi Reserve as part of a pre-program (also available as a post-program) to the Incan stronghold of Machu Picchu, one of South America’s most iconic attractions.
Day 2Cotopaxi National Park
Located just a 90-minute drive from Quito, the treeless landscape of Cotopaxi National Park is typical of the Andean moorlands, or paramo, where llamas roam freely. While hiking to Limpiopungo Lagoon, a mirror-like lake that reflects the surrounding peaks, look for Andean gulls, fluttering hummingbirds, and even the mighty condor.
Cotopaxi, which means “Neck of the Moon” in the local Quechua language, is one of the highest volcanoes in the world. The crater measures 2,620 feet and features one of the few equatorial glaciers on Earth. Cotopaxi terrified both the indigenous people and Spanish settlers when it first erupted in 1534. But, as of today, it has yet to erupt since 1904.
Following the visit to Cotopaxi, you’ll stop for lunch at San Agustín de Callo, a beautifully preserved colonial hacienda built on the site of an Inca palace. Then, after trying some delicious traditional dishes prepared by some of the region’s best chefs, you’ll return to the hotel to partake in a group dinner before spending another night in Quito.
Day 3Depart for the Galápagos and embarkation
Upon entering your cabin, you’ll be greeted by the soft glow of sunlight streaming through the expansive picture window, illuminating the understated elegance of the Scandinavian-inspired decor. Once settled in, you’ll make your way to Beagle Restaurant to savor a delectable lunch of locally sourced organic cuisine, carefully curated by a Le Cordon Bleu-trained gastronomy director. Then, as the ship sets sail for Mosquera Islet—a slight volcanic uplift just four nautical miles from Baltra—the Captain will invite you to raise a toast to the adventure that awaits.
Despite its distinction as one of the smallest islands in the Galápagos, Mosquera Islet is home to a diverse collection of wildlife, including one of the islands’ largest colonies of sea lions. Hurtigruten’s expert guides will share their deep knowledge with you as you observe these enchanting creatures from the safety of small expedition boats.
Day 4San Cristóbal Island
Later in the day, don’t forget to bring your swimsuit and comfortable walking shoes before boarding a small expedition boat to reach Punta Pitt, a peculiar strip of land formed from an eroded volcanic cone and located at the eastern tip of the island.
After disembarking, you’ll follow a leisurely walking trail leading to breathtaking coastal views. This moment will likely be the first of many chances to see three different species of boobies, including the easily recognized blue-footed boobies. The clear water also makes it an excellent spot for snorkeling, swimming, or watching sea lions congregate around the nearby reef.
Day 5Santa Fe and South Plaza Islands
You’re guaranteed to have worked up an appetite by lunchtime, so you’ll return to the ship around midday to enjoy a delicious meal as MS Santa Cruz leaves for South Plaza Island. As the vessel passes more white sandy beaches dotted with black lava rocks, keep an eye out for frigatebirds, swallow-tailed gulls, and shearwaters gliding along the shoreline. And upon arrival, you’ll likely spot land and marine iguanas sunning themselves among many species of succulents.
Day 6Santa Cruz Island
Then you’ll go by bus or bike to a sugar cane mill to learn to use a trapiche or sugar cane grinder to extract juice. Afterward, you’ll head to the cooler highlands to experience an altogether different ecosystem. Finally, you’ll have lunch while observing mature giant tortoises grazing on grass or wallowing in pools.
After eating, you’ll be itching to get active. Choose from options like kayaking, swimming, or snorkeling in Tortuga Bay or mountain biking. Alternatively, you could hike a 1.3-mile trail and stop at Playa Brava, a sugar-white beach that’s a seasonal nesting site for green turtles.
This island is also a haven for birdwatching since it’s home to almost the entire world population of waved albatrosses that breed here between March and January. Swallow-tailed gulls and two different species of boobies are sometimes spotted in this area too. Also, look for the endemic subspecies of the marine iguanas, and red-hued Española lava lizards found only on this island.
Your last stop on Española will be a visit to El Soplador, a blowhole that blasts water 75 feet into the air. After returning to the ship for lunch, you’ll visit the gorgeous coral beach of Gardner Bay and the nearby Osborn Islet to swim, snorkel, or kayak while observing sea lions, mockingbirds, and finches.
Days 8 and 9Eden Islet, North Seymour Island, and the expedition concludes
After lunch onboard, the ship will depart for North Seymour, a small island with flat terrain created by a volcanic eruption. Blue-footed boobies, frigatebirds, and swallow-tailed Gulls abound here, as do sea lions and marine iguanas.
The following day, you’ll say goodbye to the Galápagos when the expedition ends at Baltra Island, and you disembark MS Santa Cruz II. Then a transfer will take you to the airport for a flight to Guayaquil, Ecuador. From there, a representative will assist you with your international flight connection. Alternatively, you can continue to Quito to catch your international flight.
You’ll also have plenty of options to extend your adventure—Hurtigruten offers two different post-programs to explore more of Ecuador, including the Ecuadorian Amazon and the Mashpi Reserve. Or you could start dreaming about your next trip. Hurtigruten Expeditions has an array of itineraries with seven ships cruising to destinations around the world, including Antarctica, Greenland, and Alaska.