Most visitors to the Galápagos experience the islands from ships. Until recently, the chief exceptions have been scientists or those traveling on modest budgets. The three main towns in the archipelago, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal and Puerto Villamil on Isabela, all have guesthouses and small hotels. Recently, however, one or two upscale properties have opened on the island of Santa Cruz, catering to a very different market. Some people just don’t like boats — especially if they are susceptible to seasickness — and they represent a clear market opportunity. From a land base, it is possible to make day trips to nearby islands, wildlife colonies and dive sites, as well as to explore Santa Cruz itself.
The island of Santa Cruz is roughly circular and about 20 miles in diameter. As well as containing the town of Puerto Ayora, it has sizeable tracts of farmland, devoted chiefly to coffee and cattle. Although efforts are made to preserve the endemic wildlife, especially the giant tortoises, introduced plant species greatly outnumber the indigenous ones. A tarred highway from Puerto Ayora to the Baltra ferry also bisects the island. In short, Santa Cruz is no pristine wilderness.
Galapagos Safari Camp is in a so-called “transition zone” between cultivated land and the national park. A stylish central lodge and nine safari tents are situated at 1,575 feet, an elevation that affords an inspiring panorama of the northern and western Galápagos islands. The property is the brainchild of an international young couple, Michael and Stephanie Mesdag, who, in addition to running a business, are attempting to restore the 135 acres of land and to eradicate invasive species.
On arrival, we were greeted warmly by the charming Belgian manager and presented with cold towels and passion fruit cocktails. The wall of the main lodge that faces the Pacific is entirely glass. Inside, we found a split-level space with a large log fire — it can be chilly in the evening at this altitude — a 15-foot teak dining table from Bali, sofas, bookshelves and an honor bar. The front door to this eclectic little world was apparently salvaged from an Indian temple.
Our tent was located a few minutes’ walk away on the side of a steep hill — fine going down, less good coming back up — and was set on wooden deck. Essentially, the Galapagos Safari Camp is intended to be an Ecuadorian equivalent of an upscale camp in, say, Botswana. However, this ambition is only partly realized: Although the tents are comfortable, they are smaller than most of their southern African counterparts. However, the bed proved comfortable, the electric lighting was more than adequate for reading, and the adjacent bath was well-appointed with a striking lava stone sink and an excellent shower.
At cocktail hour, we sipped a glass of surprisingly delicious Ecuadorian wine in the main lodge and checked our email. (The Wi-Fi requires patience, but it works.) We then enjoyed an outstanding lobster dinner on the terrace, followed by a nightcap in front of the fire. During our brief stay, the food was of restaurant quality and certainly a great deal better than anything likely to be served on a ship. Throughout, the service was polite and efficient.
The camp’s principal amenity is a small swimming pool, which we didn’t find especially appealing, but numerous activities such as hiking, cycling and diving can easily be arranged. The property provides an excellent base for those who don’t care for ships and is also a good option for those traveling with younger children. Overall, I was impressed, and I recommend it to Harper members with the proviso that if they expect luxury, they are destined to be disappointed. The Galapagos Safari Camp is an imaginative concept and is extremely well-run. But an Amanresort it is not.
Galapagos Safari Camp 86 Double Tent, $500 for two, breakfast and dinner included. Finca Palo Santo, Salasaca, Santa Cruz, Galápagos. Tel. (593) 9179-4259.
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