Day 1 Baltra | Santa Cruz Island | Bachas Beach
After passing through Galapagos National Park inspection your National Park Guide will be there to greet you, holding a sign with the name of your yacht. Your guide will accompany you on the short bus ride to the waterfront. During WWII the island of Baltra was a US Air Force base and one can still see the remnants of the old foundations left behind from that era. We transfer via panga dinghy to the waiting M/Y Grace. The crew will see that your luggage is transferred to your cabin.
At the dock, we board a dinghy (panga) to make the short crossing to M/Y Grace. You only need to bring your carry-on luggage on the panga as our crew will transfer your luggage to your cabin. You’ll have time to settle into your new home for the week before assembling to review safety procedures and coming events with your Galapagos National Park Guide. While this is taking place the M/Y Grace will start her engines and set off into the archipelago.
At the north end of Santa Cruz Island is Las Bachas, comprised of two sandy white-coral beaches that is are major egg-laying sites for sea turtles. The official story of how Las Bachas got its name comes from the Galapagos National Park. During WWII the US military discarded two barges on the beaches. When the first settlers to the area following the war arrived they mispronounced barges as bachas, resulting in the name. There are other explanations of how the location got its name having to do with indentations left in the sand by both egg-laying sea turtles and their departing hatchlings, but we will go with the Park’s.
Go ashore the white sandy beach and are greeted by patrolling blue-footed boobies. A brief walk inland takes us to a lagoon where pink flamingos are often found along with great blue herons, common stilts, brown noddys, white-cheek pintail ducks and migratory birds. Snorkeling today is from the beach and you can also enjoy a swim in these waters, which are typically warmer than in other places in the Galapagos.
Day 2 Genovesa
- 1 Breakfast, 1 Lunch, 1 Dinner
The first landing is Prince Phillip’s Steps, named for a visit by the British Monarch in 1964. The dry landing begins at the base of this 25-meter (81-foot) stairway leading up to a narrow stretch of land that opens out onto a small plateau. This is actually a small peninsula that forms the southeastern section of the island. Red-footed boobies wrap their webbed feet around branches to precariously perch in the bushes where they nest. In contrast, their masked-booby cousins dot the surface of the scrublands beyond. Crossing through the sparse vegetation, you will come to a broad lava field that extends toward sea cliffs that form the island’s southern edge. The cavities and holes that have been eroded into the fragile lava are an ideal nesting ground for storm petrels. There are two species, the Galapagos petrel, which is active by day, and the wooden petrel, which feeds at night. The petrels flutter out over the ocean in swarms, then return to nest in the cracks and tunnels of the lava field but not without hazard. Short-eared owls lay in camouflaged wait here and make their living feeding off the returning petrels. After completing the two-hour hike we return to the vessel to change into your wetsuits for some snorkeling at one of the best sites in the islands.
By Phillip’s Steps, along the cliffs that form the protected southern bay of the Tower’s caldera, we enter the water into another world. The first thing you will notice when snorkeling here is very large tropical fish. These are warm water fish feeding off cold water nutrients. You’ll find the full assortment here including oversized parrot, unicorn, angel, and hogfish along with schools of perch, surgeonfish and various types of butterflyfish. Hiding in and around the rocky shoreline that drops off into the caldera you will also see a rainbow assortment of wrasse, basslet, anthias and tang. This is the place to bring your underwater tropical fish identification chart. There are some special treats to be found here including occasional visits by fur sea lions. This area of the bay is also excellent for some kayaking in the calm waters close to the shore to observe nesting birds and you might like to go out for a spin after lunch, before our next landing across the bay to the north.
Landing on the white coral sands of Darwin Bay and walking up the beach, you find yourself surrounded by the bustling activity of great frigate birds. Puffball chicks and their proud papas—who sport bulging scarlet throat-sacks—crowd the surrounding branches, while yellow-crowned herons and lava herons feed by the shore. Farther along you will discover a stunning series of sheltered pools set into a rocky outcrop. Watch your step for marine iguanas, lava lizards and Galapagos doves that blend with the trail. The trail beside the pools leads up to a cliff overlooking the ocean filled caldera, where pairs of swallow-tailed gulls, the only nocturnal gulls in the world, can be seen nesting at the cliff’s edge. Lava gulls and pintail ducks ride the sea breezes nearby.
A brief panga ride brings us to the base of those same cliffs to reveal the full variety of bird species sheltering in the ledges and crevices created by the weathered basalt. Among them, red-billed tropicbirds enter and leave their nests trailing exotic kite-like tails. This is also an intriguing place to go deep-water snorkeling. The center of the caldera is very deep and attracts hammerheads and large manta rays which sometimes patrol the western edge of the caldera that is more open to the sea. You can snorkel here gazing down into the depths where you just may spot these large animals if you are fortunate. But don’t worry, if you don’t really want to see them there is the equally amazing and far more sheltered snorkeling experience across the bay.
Right around sunset, leave Tower to set out across the archipelago to the far western islands. Remember to watch the inner bay at sunset as you might spot a giant manta ray
Day 3 James Bay | Espumilla Beach
- 1 Breakfast, 1 Lunch, 1 Dinner
In the morning we make our way along the northwestern shore of Santiago Island to South James Bay (Puerto Egas), which offers access to three unique sites. One landing is on a black beach with intriguing eroded rock formations inland. A trail crosses the dry interior eastward and rises to the rim of an extinct volcanic crater; cracks within it allow seawater to seep in, which then dries to form salt deposits that have been mined in the past. Darwin describes his visit to South James Bay in Voyage of the Beagle.
Another path leads south, where hikers are treated to a series of crystal-clear grottos formed of broken lava tubes. These are home to sea lions and tropical fish. This is the best place in the islands to see fur sea lions lazing on the rocks by the grottos. Further to the north, another landing and path lead to a series of inland lagoons, home to flamingos. Birders coming to James Bay will have the opportunity to spot vermillion flycatchers, Galapagos hawks, and the tool-wielding woodpecker finch. Puerto Egas is a good spot for taking pictures—the light for photography is perfect at either dawn or sunset. The lava and the black sand seem to catch fire and the animals acquire a surreal and lovely quality. The marine iguanas that inhabit the area resemble Samurai warriors and can easily be seen grazing on seaweed in the more shallow pools of the grotto.
James Bay is a snorkeling site that is accessed from the shore instead of a dinghy. The sandy beach slopes off into a rocky bottom where a multitude of sea turtles like to hide by blending in with the rocks. But these rocks move and will swim right up to you. At certain times of the year, large schools of golden rays and spotted eagle rays also glide by. Both fur sea lions and California sea lions occasionally pass through as well.
In the afternoon visitors to Espumilla Beach come in search of birds rather than freshwater. The short walk up the beach leads inland to a mangrove typically inhabited by the Common stilts. Beyond the mangroves is a brackish lagoon where flocks of pink flamingos and white-cheeked pintails wade in search of mollusks. The trail makes a passes over a tiny hilltop through a sparse Palo Santo forest before looping back to the beach. Galapagos finches and Vermilion fly catchers inhabit the area.
The tuff formations that form the cliffs that surround the cove have created a natural sculptor gallery rising from the sea with formations including the Monk and Elephant Rock. An audience of hundreds of seabirds looks down upon the gallery from surrounding cliffs. Buccaneer Cove and Espumilla Beach offer one of the more dramatic kayaking routes in the Galapagos for paddlers looking for a challenge.
Day 4 Punta Vicente Roca | Tagus Cove
- 1 Breakfast, 1 Lunch, 1 Dinner
Located at the ‘mouth’ of the head of the sea horse, which forms the northern part of the Isabela is Punta Vicente Roca. Here the remnants of an ancient volcano form two turquoise coves with a bay well protected from the ocean swells. The spot is a popular anchorage from which to take panga rides along the cliff where a partially sunken cave beckons explorers. Masked and blue-footed boobies sit perched along with the point and the sheer cliffs, while flightless cormorants inhabit the shoreline. The upwelling of coldwater currents in combination with the protection of the coves makes Punta Vicente Roca one of the archipelago’s most sought after dive spots.
One cove is only accessible from the sea by way of an underwater passage. The passage opens to calm waters of the hidden cove where sea lions laze on the beach having traveled along the underwater route. The entire area of Punta Vicente Roca lies on the flank of 2,600 foot Volcano Ecuador. This is the island’s sixth largest volcano. Half of Volcano Ecuador slid into the ocean leaving a spectacular cutaway view of its caldera. The site offers deep water snorkeling where sea lions turtles, spotted eagle rays and even manta rays are the attraction. After our visit here we set off south and west across the Bolivar channel. Keep your eyes open in this best place in the islands for spotting whales.
Isabela is the largest island in the archipelago, accounting for half of the total landmass of the Galapagos at 4,588 square kilometers. Though narrow in places, the island runs 132 km from north to south or 82 miles. Isabella is formed from six shield volcanoes that merged into a single landmass. It is also home to the highest point in the Galápagos, Wolf Volcano at 1,707 meters (5,547 feet), and calderas of up to 20 kilometers (12½ miles) across.
Head north along the western coast of Isabela Island, to Tagus Cove, named for a British warship that moored here in 1814. Historically the cove was used as an anchorage for pirates and whalers. One can still find the names of their ships carved into the rock above our landing, a practice now prohibited. The cove’s quiet waters make for an ideal panga ride beneath its sheltered cliffs, where blue-footed boobies, brown noddies, pelicans and noddy terns make their nests, and �flightless cormorants and penguins inhabit the lava ledges.
From the landing, a wooden stairway rises to the trail entrance for a view of Darwin Lake; a perfectly round saltwater crater, barely separated from the ocean but above sea level! From the air one can see that both Tagus Cove and Darwin Lake are formed from one, partially flooded, tuff cone on the eastern edge of giant Darwin volcano.
The cove is formed by a breached and flooded section of the crater with Darwin Lake forming the very center of the same cone. The trail continues around the lake through a dry vegetation zone and then climbs inland to a promontory formed by spatter cones. The site provides spectacular views back toward our anchorage, as well as to Darwin Volcano and Wolf Volcano to the north.
While one does not normally think of greener pastures when planning to go snorkeling, that is exactly what you will find at Tagus Cove. The carpet of green algae that covers the floor of the cove gives the impression of a submerged pasture, and really that is just what it is. You can find marine iguanas grazing the algae along with numerous sea turtles gliding and munching their way along. Because the cove opens to the rich waters of the Bolivar Channel this is one of the best snorkeling sites in the island. You also have a good chance of snorkeling with underwater feathered friends including Galapagos penguins and rare flightless cormorants. For those who want to dive deeper, there are special rewards waiting for you at 3 meters where camouflaged creatures await, including scorpion fish nestled against the outcrops and sea horses masquerading as twigs of the seaweed waving in the currents. The rare Port Jackson shark can also be found here. Kayakers can enjoy a paddle around the cove, offering excellent views of nesting birds on the cliff walls above.
Day 5 Espinosa Point | Urbina Bay
- 1 Breakfast, 1 Lunch, 1 Dinner
Fernandina is the youngest and westernmost island in the Galapagos. It sits across the Bolivar Channel opposite Isabela. Our destination is Punta Espinosa, a narrow spit of land in the northeast corner of the island, where a number of unique Galapagos species can be seen in close proximity. As our panga driver skillfully navigates the reef, penguins show off by throwing themselves from the rocks into the water. Red and turquoise-blue zayapas crabs disperse across the lava shoreline, while great blue and lava herons forage through the mangrove roots. The landing is a dry one, set in a quiet inlet beneath the branches of a small mangrove forest. A short walk through the vegetation leads to a large colony of marine iguanas—a schoolyard of Godzilla’s children—resting atop one another in friendly heaps along the rocky shoreline, spitting water to clear their bodies of salt. Nearby, sea lions frolic in a sheltered lagoon.
Dominating this landscape from high overhead looms the summit of La Cumbre, 1,495 meters (4,858 feet), one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Farther down this stretch of shore, the world’s only species of flightless cormorants have established a colony near an inviting inlet frequented by sea turtles. Because these birds evolved without land predators—it was easier to feed on the squid, octopus, eel, and fish found in the ocean—the cormorants progressively took to the sea. They developed heavier, more powerful legs and feet for kicking, serpent-like necks and fur-like plumage. Their wings are now mere vestiges. Back toward the landing and farther inland, the island’s black lava flows become more evident, forming a quiet, inner mangrove lagoon where you will spot rays and sea turtles gliding just below the surface. Galapagos hawks survey the entire scene from overhead.
The snorkeling off Punta Espinoza offers some real treats, as many of the creatures you just saw on land, including the Godzilla-like marine iguanas, flightless cormorants, Galapagos penguins, and sea lions await you in the waters of the point (which incidentally was used as a set during the making of Master & Commander). A key feature of the ocean bottom here are the troughs formed by volcanic rock and ocean currents. Because these waters reach out into the Bolivar Channel they can be quite cold. Sea turtles like to hang out in the warm water of the troughs. You’ll also see marine iguanas ferrying back and forth between underwater grazing areas and their colonies onshore. This is an excellent place to see underwater iguanas munching on algae. If you are fortunate you may catch a glimpse of a flightless cormorant demonstrating their swimming abilities or watch a Galapagos penguin zip by. You will feel the difference in ocean temperature and watch the water get clearer as you move from the more protected shallow areas out into the cold rich waters of the channel. The Bolivar Channel is the very best place in the Galapagos to see dolphins and whales. On rare occasions the groups have been able to swim with dolphins, kayak with melon-headed whales and even spot the elusive sperm whale.
Urbina Bay is directly west of Isabela’s Volcano Alcedo, where we will make an easy, wet landing (a hop into a few inches of water) onto a gently sloping beach. In 1954, a Disney film crew caught sight of this gleaming white strip and went to investigate. To their astonishment, three miles (5 km) of the marine reef had been uplifted by as much as 13 feet (4 meters) prior to their arrival. They discovered schools of stranded fish and other creatures in newly formed tidal pools along with the skeletons of sea turtles and sharks unable to make it to the ocean as a result of the uplift event. Alcedo erupted a few weeks later.
Now visitors can walk amongst the boulder-sized dried coral heads, mollusks and other organisms that once formed the ocean floor. A highlight of this excursion is the giant land iguanas, whose vivid and gaudy yellow skin suggests that dinosaurs may have been very colorful indeed. Giant tortoises inhabit this coastal plain during the wet season, before migrating to the highlands when it turns dry. Our landing beach provides a nesting site for sea turtles and will also provide you with opportunities to snorkel amongst marine creatures, or just relax onshore. Here we must take care not to step on the sea turtle nests dug carefully into the sand. For those looking for snorkeling from a beach, this is the place, with tropical fish hiding amongst the rocks to the north side of the bay. This evening you have a real treat as the M/Y Grace sits at anchor in the Bolivar Channel where you will be spectacularly surrounded by the towering shield volcanoes that form Fernandina and Isabela. Sunset in the channel is also an excellent time to spot whales and dolphins that feed in these productive waters created by the upwelling of the Cromwell Current, while you enjoy a happy hour at the Sky lounge on the upper rear deck.
Day 6 Elizabeth Bay | Punta Moreno
- 1 Breakfast, 1 Lunch, 1 Dinner
continuing our voyage south along the west coast of Isabela we enter the outer part of Elizabeth Bay where we come upon a tall rocky islet that is home to a colony of Galapagos Penguins. Looming to the south is Sierra Negra volcano that forms the southern part of Isabela Island. In 2018 glowing rivers of lava lit up the night as they flowed down the flank of Sierra Negra toward Elizabeth Bay, where some of our lucky passengers had a front-row seat on one of the archipelagos most spectacular performances.
In contrast to the rugged lava fields of Sierra Negra, Elizabeth Bay is one of the most sensitive habitats in the Galapagos. This outing is entire aboard our pangas. The tangle of mangroves roots that line the Bay, as it narrows to a channel before widening out to the back bay, tend to still the waters making it seem like a giant aquarium while giving the area a green forested look. Spotted eagle rays, golden rays, and sea turtle glide just below the surface with the latter coming up occasionally to breathe. You may see a Galapagos hawk circling high overhead as we drift the calm waters. Approaching the back of the Bay, we bring our panga closer into a cluster of mangroves for a surprise. Sealions use the horizontal trunks of the mangroves as resting areas earning them the nickname tree lions.
We return to the Grace for lunch as she makes her way a bit farther along the coast of Isabela to our next visitors’ site, Punta Moreno. You’ll likely be surprised at just how much life you can find in and around a pahoehoe lava field. In 2018 Sierra Negra Volcano, which looms over the entire southern part of the island (and really is the southern part of the island) gave the area a fresh coat of glowing lava that reached within 3 miles of our landing site. This is one of the least visited sites in the Galapagos.
Along the shore, you’ll have chances to see Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants and a colony of marine iguanas with a reddish tinge that sport the usual mohawk from head to tail. Sally light-footed crabs dot the coast reminding us of the color of molten lava.
This is one of those landing sites where you are best off with sneakers or hiking shoes due to time spent hiking over fields of broken lava (not because of hot lava) and there’s more here than lava lizards and cactus. As we cross the broken fields that sometimes sound like clinking glass, you’ll come upon little oasis formed by natural pools surrounded by green grasses. These have become home and resting place for a variety of birds including gallinules, pink flamingos, pintail ducks and more.
As we continue along, the trail brings us to series of coastal lagoons, that again provides a surprising oasis of green including mangrove forests where pelicans nest. Look toward the bottom of the lagoons for resting white-tipped reef sharks, while green sea turtles ply the surface and great blue herons wade the shoreline.
The snorkeling off Punta Moreno above a rocky bottom offers a similar assortment including sea turtles, stingray, and sea lions mixed in with bumped head parrotfish, king angelfish and schools of yellow-tailed and surgeon Pacific creole fish and much more.
Day 7 Breeding Center, Santa Cruz Island | Los Gemelos
- 1 Breakfast, 1 Lunch, 1 Dinner
Santa Cruz, our next stop, is the second largest island in the Galapagos and something of a hub for the archipelago. Baltra, where one of the archipelago’s two airports is found, is on the far north end of the island. Puerto Ayora, located in the south of this large, round volcanic island is the seaside economic center of the Galapagos, focused on fishing and tourism. The little port town offers restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops, internet cafés and a place to get your laundry done!
This morning, visit Puerto Ayora, home to both the Galapagos National Park Service Headquarters and Charles Darwin Research Station, the center of the great restorative efforts taking place in the park, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here visit the Giant Tortoise Breeding & Rearing Program run by the research station, which began by rescuing the remaining 14 tortoises on the island of Española in 1970.
Day 8 Santa Cruz Island | Disembark | Los Gemelos | Baltra's Airport
Say goodbye to the Grace to take a 40 min. bus ride early in the morning to visit Los Gemelos. The terrestrial world of the tortoise and underworld of the lava tubes meet at Los Gemelos (the twins). These two large sinkholes craters were formed by collapsed lava tubes. The contrast between the marine desert coast and verdant Lost World look of the highlands is most striking here and you can easily encounter rain even when sun is shining a half an hour away at the coast.
Los Gemelos are surrounded by a Scalesia forest. Scalesia is endemic to Galapagos and many endemic and native species call the forest home. This is an excellent place to view some of Darwin’s famous finches along with the elusive and dazzling vermillion flycatcher.
After visiting Los Gemelos, continue your bus ride for another 20 mins to the Itabaca channel. We will cross the channel and take a short bus ride to Baltra’s airport.