Today is a free day to relax and explore Quito. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, this charming colonial centre offers a wealth of things to see and you could lose yourself meandering through the narrow, winding cobblestone streets and exploring the lively Plaza Grande and Plaza San Francisco. The city is filled with Baroque art and architecture, as exemplified by magnificent churches, monasteries and public buildings. If your feel like exploring further afield, you might like to head for one of the many viewpoints over the city. El Panecillo (The Little Bread Loaf) offers sensational views of the city's white houses and surrounding volcanoes. The 30-metre high statue of La Virgen de Quito sits atop this small hill and can be seen from all over the city. Incredible vistas can also be enjoyed from La Cima de la Libertad, the site of Ecuadorian independence from Spain. As the city is located 2,850 metres above sea level, you may experience some of the milder effects of altitude sickness, such as dizziness, insomnia and a shortness of breath. If so, we recommend you avoid any strenuous activity and rest today. Land Only clients should arrive at the start hotel today - there is a pre-departure meeting in the evening at 6pm when you'll have the opportunity to meet others travelling on your cruise to the Galapagos Islands.
We are transferred to Quito Airport for our early morning flight to Baltra in the Galapagos Islands. A US$10 per person transit card is payable on departure at Quito Airport and a US$100 per person national park entry fee is payable upon arrival at Baltra Airport. This is best done using cash, as credit cards can be time-consuming. We are met in the arrival hall and then transferred to our boat, the M.Y. Pelikano, anchored a short distance away in Baltra's small port. The rest of the schedule depends if you're following itinerary A or B (please ask your Sales consultant if you're not sure). Itinerary A: Our stop this afternoon is the beautiful beach of Las Bachas on Santa Cruz Island. This beach is a major egg-laying site for sea turtles. Marine iguanas can be found ashore whilst pink flamingos are commonly seen in the lagoon. Remnants of a floating pier can still be sighted, a testimony to U.S. presence in the Galapagos during World War II.
Itinerary B: Today we visit Santa Cruz itself, the second largest island in the Galapagos. The small town of Puerto Ayora is the economic hub of the archipelago and is also home to the Charles Darwin Research Station. The station's visitor centre and museum are essential stops for anyone interested in the archipelago's natural and human history and keen to learn more about conservation efforts to preserve the unique ecosystems of the Galapagos. It also offers visitors their best chance for close-up encounters with giant tortoises. We also see many newborn and young tortoises - part of the breeding program to reintroduce them into their natural habitat.
Itinerary A: The archipelagos northeast outpost, it takes an overnight sail to reach Genovesa, but it's undeniably worth the voyage. Dolphins are often spotted in the waters around Genovesa, while the island itself is one of abundant beauty, with varying landscapes and wonderful wildlife. It's also a twitcher's paradise, with all three kinds of boobies including the rare Red-footed booby; and numerous other species, such as Tropic birds and frigatebirds. Walking the steep path known as Prince Philip's Steps gets us into the heart of the seabird rookeries, with bird's overhead and nesting among the cliffs. On the island's rocky plains, we look out for Storm petrels; Genovesa is the only place in the world where they can be seen on the wing during daytime. Elsewhere, Darwin Bay is another superb site with large breeding colonies of seabirds and frigates, while the islands magnificent marine life makes for spectacular snorkelling. We have the chance of encountering Manta rays and sharks, turtles and Moray eels. Along with many fish this makes Genovesa one of the archipelago's most exciting spots to take the plunge.
Itinerary B: A small island, Plaza Sur nonetheless possesses abundant life and beauty. From our dry landing, we walk among resting sea lions and on trails that get us amid one of the Galapagos' largest land iguana populations, resting in the cacti and volcanic landscapes coloured bright red and green by sesuvium. The island's rugged southern cliffs are an excellent place to spot Tropic birds and Swallow-tailed gulls, as well as 'the gentlemen's club', a gathering of male sea lions either too young or too old to be 'beachmasters'! Our afternoon stop is Santa Fe, located 2.5 hours southeast of Santa Cruz. This small island offers a dense concentration of wildlife, and is a fantastic place to see many of the stars of the Galapagos in one, relatively small area. Expect to see the Galapagos hawk, land iguanas, a variety of finches and the Galapagos mockingbird, sea lions, marine turtles, frigatebirds, Galapagos doves and lava lizards. It's a naturally beautiful island as well, with one of the most attractive coves in the archipelago, the water is jade green and wonderful for snorkelling. Our trail follows the coast into the Opuntia Forest - Santa Fe's trees are the largest in the Galapagos. Hiking into the island you can see a forest of giant cacti and Palo Santo trees.
Itinerary A: On Santiago's eastern coast sits Bahia Sullivan which we visit this morning. We walk across a 100-year old lava flow, a black carpet of intricate markings and patterns, where iguanas and Sally Lightfoot Crabs crawl. On a walk across this lava field and along white sand beaches, our guide informs us of the geological history of the islands as we enjoy the view back across to Bartolome. We sail on for our afternoon visit to Cerro Dragon (Dragon Hill), on Santa Cruz's north coast. From our dry landing, we walk to a brackish lagoon frequented by lagoon birds, including Stilts, Pintail ducks, Sandpipers, Sanderlings and occasionally Flamingos. Further inland, the trail offers a beautiful view of the bay and the western area of the archipelago. This area is a nesting site for land iguanas, which is constantly monitored and assisted by the Charles Darwin Research Station. The arid-zone vegetation can be a rewarding location for bird watching, with Darwin's finches, Galapagos mockingbirds, the endemic Galapagos flycatcher and Yellow warblers all regulars here.
Itinerary B: Beautiful Bartolome is one of the youngest islands in the archipelago and is home to spectacular lava formations, wonderful beaches and rich wildlife - both on land and among its waters. Upon arrival, the evidence of the island's volcanic past is immediately clear with lava bombs, spatter and cinder cones. The summit trail leads us to the iconic view of the Galapagos: looking out towards Pinnacle Rock, the twin beaches of the island backing on to each other, the turquoise waters lapping the shores. During the ascent we see a large colony of marine iguanas and lava lizards. Red mangroves and various cacti all add to the diverse landscape. After our hike we cool off with a snorkel, where we swim among Galapagos penguin, turtles and White-tipped reef sharks! In the afternoon we visit Sombrero Chino, a small islet located near the south-east coast of Isla Santiago. We approach it via a beautiful crescent-shaped, sandy beach that is home to sea lions and Sally Lightfoot crabs. The island is a miniature volcano, shaped like a Chinese hat (hence its name), and along its trails we explore the island's volcanic origin with its fascinating lava tubes. Opposite Sombrero Chino, on the rocky shoreline of nearby Santiago, Galapagos penguins are often seen. We follow a trail that circles the cove and passes through a sea lion colony and innumerable marine iguanas. The cove also offers some great snorkelling opportunities.
Itinerary A: Today we visit Santa Cruz itself, the second largest island in the Galapagos. The small town of Puerto Ayora is the economic hub of the archipelago and is also home to the Charles Darwin Research Station. The station's visitor centre and museum are essential stops for anyone interested in the archipelago's natural and human history and keen to learn more about conservation efforts to preserve the unique ecosystems of the Galapagos. It also offers visitors their best chance for close-up encounters with giant tortoises. We also see many newborn and young tortoises - part of the breeding program to reintroduce them into their natural habitat.
Itinerary B: This morning we sail to nearby Isla Mosquera, an islet situated between Baltra and North Seymour. This stretch of water is rich in sea life and is a popular spot for both sea lions and marine birds. Watch out for the boobies making their spectacularly quick headlong dives into the water! Isla Mosquera is an uplifted coral reef with long stretches of white sand and rock pools - perfect places to spot Sally Lightfoot crabs. The island also has a very large colony of sea lions as well as a sizeable resident Brown pelican population.
Both itineraries return to Baltra after this morning's excursion for the flight back to Quito. If you have enjoyed the services provided by your guide and crew, a tip would be very much appreciated by them. Upon arrival in Quito Airport we are transferred back to our hotel for an overnight stay.
Our adventure comes to an end today after breakfast.