Few places in the world exceed visitors' expectations as reliably as the Galápagos Islands do. Isolated 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador and surrounded by the immensity of the Pacific Ocean, the archipelago offers an unprecedented opportunity to observe and photograph endlessly fascinating wildlife at very close range, against a backdrop of impressive lava-shaped landscapes, white sand beaches, cactus colonies and active volcanoes. Virtually all of it is protected as a vast national park. Remarkably tame animals and birds regard visitors with a complete lack of concern, similar to what Charles Darwin found here when he landed in 1835 and began the research that would result in his Origin of the Species.
Our Andrew Harper Galápagos Family Tour begins in Quito, Ecuador's bustling capital and a World Heritage site. From there you'll fly to the Galápagos to board the 210-foot expedition ship Eclipse and visit a dozen of the most intriguing locations in the island. You'll find an extraordinary abundance of fascinating wildlife, including sea lions, giant tortoises, iguanas, countless shorebirds and marine life, and scores of unique species found nowhere else on Earth.
Thursday, August 9, 2012 Arrival, Quito, Ecuador
Welcome to Quito! You will be greeted at Mariscal Sucre International Airport and assisted through Customs and Immigration before being driven to the comfortable, family-orientated Swissôtel nearby. The 275-room hotel offers fine views of Cotopaxi and Pichincha volcanoes, and has indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a gymnasium, a spa and racquet, tennis and squash courts. Numerous restaurants cater to all tastes.
Swissôtel Quito Hotel (Executive Room) No Meals
Friday, August 10, 2012 Quito
The morning is yours to take advantage of the hotel's amenities and to adjust to Quito's climate and 9,350-foot elevation.
At midday, travel north to the official equator and the Midad del Mundo (Middle of the World), where you are able to stand on both hemispheres. Afterwards, enjoy lunch and a welcome at a restaurant overlooking the Pululahua Volcano Crater. We'll also visit the nearby Intiñan Museum, which is on the true equator as measured by GPS. The museum displays examples of life in pre-Hispanic times and conducts entertaining, interactive scientific demonstrations unique to its location.
Later, local celebrity Jorge Rivadeneira will demonstrate his unique, virtuoso skills spinning handmade wooden tops, crafted in his workshop.
Dinner this evening is on your own; the hotel's restaurants offer Peruvian, Ecuadoran, Japanese, Swiss and international favorites.
Swissôtel Quito Hotel (Executive Room) B,L
Saturday, August 11, 2012 Quito/Galápagos
After breakfast, we'll fly to the Galápagos Islands, landing at Baltra, where an inspection point helps prevent the introduction of foreign plants or animals to the islands. A short drive brings us to the M.V. Eclipse, a 210-foot, 1,600-ton expedition ship with accommodations for up to 48 people in 27 cabins. You'll check in, have an introductory briefing, a safety drill and lunch, and we'll sail for North Seymour Island
Afternoon: North Seymour Island
Landings on the Galápagos Islands are either "wet" or "dry;" wet landings may require some wading. Our landing on North Seymour Island will be dry. You will soon find yourself surrounded by sea lions, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, frigates, and swallow-tailed gulls. With some luck, you may even see land iguanas. [Difficulty level: moderate.]
M.V. Eclipse B,L,D
Sunday, August 12, 2012 Galápagos
Morning: South Plaza Island (dry landing)
The turquoise waters of the channel between North and South Plaza islands contrast brilliantly with the white sand and black lava of the shoreline. Seaweed-green rocks are speckled with bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs. A carpet of succulents farther up the shore serves as groundcover for a grove of luminescent green prickly-pear cactus. Yellow-gray land iguanas sit beneath, waiting patiently for pears to drop. Frigate birds, swallow-tailed gulls, and shearwaters glide in the thermal air currents. You'll be able to see Nazca boobies and various types of finches, and one of the largest sea lion colonies in the central region of the archipelago. South Plaza Island is the only place in the Galápagos where the habitats of land iguanas and marine iguanas overlap, and interbreeding produces hybrid offspring with features from each species. [Difficulty level: moderate.]
Afternoon: Santa Fe Island (wet landing)
On a white sand beach, bull sea lions vie for the position of "beach master," while smaller males posing as females make stealthy mating moves. As you walk through a giant prickly pear cactus forest, look for Santa Fe land iguanas, the largest in the islands. Santa Fe is home to a number of species unique to the Galapágos, including a variety of finches, snakes, rice rats, Galapágos hawk and Galapágos mockingbird. Enjoy deep-water snorkeling and swimming from the beach. [Difficulty level: moderate.]
M.V. Eclipse B,L,D
Monday, August 13, 2012 Galápagos
Morning: Punta Pitt, San Cristóbal Island (wet landing)
Punta Pitt on the eastern tip of San Cristóbal is an eroded tuff cone with a rocky trail that ascends from the beach and provides spectacular views of the shoreline. It is one of the few places on Earth where it is possible to see all three kinds of boobies (Nazca, blue-footed, and red-footed) and two species of frigate birds. A colony of bachelor sea lions inhabit the beach. After the walk, if conditions are favorable, there'll be a chance to swim, snorkel or take a ride in a "panga"—an inflatable dinghy—from the beach. [Difficulty level: difficult.]
Afternoon: Cerro Brujo, San Cristóbal Island (wet landing)
An eroding tuff cone on the north coast of San Cristóbal Island offers a fantastic landscape, as well as a gorgeous beach for swimming, snorkeling, walking, bird-watching and panga rides. Here is where Charles Darwin first stepped ashore in the Galápagos in 1835. In addition to sea lions, blue-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, herons, frigate birds and a variety of shore birds, we'll see mockingbirds and lava lizards that are unique to this island. You'll also visit a beautiful lagoon where the locals of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno mine salt. [Difficulty level: easy.]
M.V. Eclipse B,L,D
Tuesday, August 14, 2012 Galápagos
Morning: Floreana Island (wet landing)
On Floreana Island, we'll take a short walk up to an observation tower at Baroness Viewing Point, where we'll learn about an indulgent baroness and other early settlers of the island. Later, we'll visit Post Office Bay on the north side of the island, so named for a wooden barrel installed in 1793 as an informal post office for sailors passing through. The tradition continues today, as visitors leave addressed postcards in the barrel and look for any they can deliver at home. While here, we may encounter Darwin's finches, yellow warblers, flamingos and lava lizards. [Difficulty level: easy.]
Afternoon: Punta Cormorant, Floreana Island (wet landing)
From Green Beach, we'll hike to black mangrove beds and a brackish lagoon that holds one of the largest flamingo populations in the Galápagos, as well as stilts, sandpipers, and pintail ducks. [Difficulty: easy.]
M.V. Eclipse B,L,D
Wednesday, August 15, 2012 Galápagos
Morning: Elizabeth Bay, Isabela Island (panga excursion)
We'll visit a red mangrove-sheltered cove that is a marine refuge for sea turtles, sea lions, spotted eagle rays, golden rays, brown pelicans, flightless cormorants, herons and Galápagos hawks. [Difficulty level: easy.]
Afternoon: Punta Moreno, Isabela Island (dry landing)
Just southwest of Elizabeth Bay, Punta Moreno is a dramatic landscape of pahoehoe lava that stretches to the foot of some of the most active volcanoes in the Galápagos. Small, scattered, brackish lagoons harbor green sea turtles and whitetip reef sharks. Lush vegetation and brightly colored birds provide a striking contrast to the surrounding jet black lava. On our panga ride, we may see rays, young sharks, pelicans, penguins and cormorants. [Difficulty level: moderate to difficult.]
M.V. Eclipse B,L,D
Thursday, August 16, 2012 Galápagos
Morning: Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island
This morning we visit the Charles Darwin Research Station and its resident animal celebrities, such as the tortoise, Lonesome George. The station is headquarters for scientific investigation, conservation and the National Park administration in the islands. [Difficulty level: easy.]
Next we'll drive to the El Chato Reserve, one of the best places in the islands to watch giant tortoises in their natural habitat as they lumber around eating grass and leaves and wallowing in small pools. The tortoises can weigh 550-660 pounds and live as long as 150-200 years. The site also offers excellent birdwatching for highland birds, such as cattle egrets, Galápagos rails, mockingbirds, finches and vermilion flycatchers. Barn owls frequent several lava tunnels in the reserve. [Difficulty level: easy.]
Afternoon: Optional afternoon activities include visiting the town of Puerto Ayora for shopping, walking to Tortuga Bay or simply relaxing aboard ship.
M.V. Eclipse B,L,D
Friday, August 17, 2012 Galápagos
Morning: Gardner Bay, Española Island (wet landing)
There are no trails on the island, so we'll stay along the shore — a beautiful white coral sand beach guarded by a colony of sea lions. We may spot Galapágos hawks, American oystercatchers, Galápagos ground doves, Hood mockingbirds, yellow warblers, lava lizards, marine iguanas and three species of Darwin's finches. In the water are king angelfish, creole fish, damsel fish, parrotfish, manta rays and whitetip reef sharks. Enjoy great snorkeling and kayaking. [Difficulty level: easy.]
Afternoon: Punta Suarez, Española Island (dry landing)
A few steps from our landing site on one of the most attractive sites in the Galápagos, sea lions and Española marine iguanas bask in the sun. Nazca and blue-footed boobies nest near the trail, in the company of Galápagos doves. The cliffs are home to swallow-tailed gulls and spectacular red-billed tropicbirds. Farther up the cliff is the world's largest colony of waved albatross, about 15,000 to 17,000 pairs. During mating season (May-December), they perform one of the most spectacular courtship rituals of the animal world. Española mockingbirds, Galápagos hawks, lava lizards, and Sally Lightfoot crabs also inhabit the island. And from a dramatic viewpoint at the end of the trail, you can see a blowhole that shoots water 75 feet in the air. [Difficulty level: difficult.]
M.V. Eclipse B,L,D
Saturday, August 18, 2012 Galápagos/Guayaquil
Very early morning: Mosquera Islet (Optional) (wet landing)
This tiny islet is home to a huge population of sea lions, as well as many shorebirds. Dolphins and orcas are occasionally spotted in the area. [Difficulty level: easy.]
After breakfast there will be a short film about Charles Darwin, after which you'll leave for the airport and your flight to Guayaquil. At Guayaquil, you'll be driven to the locally owned 230-room Oro Verde hotel in the downtown area, where you may spend the rest of the afternoon enjoying the hotel's amenities, including a pool, sauna, Jacuzzi, spa and Turkish bath. Within walking distance are Iguana Park and Malecón 2000, the rebuilt boardwalk overlooking the Guayas River. Dinner is on your own; the hotel has numerous restaurant options.
Oro Verde Guayaquil Hotel (Standard Room B
Sunday, August 19, 2012 Guayaquil/Depart Home
Your driver will take you by private car to the airport for your international flight home. A VIP lounge is at your disposal.