Just last month, thanks to Silversea Expeditions, I got to experience this destination as I head off (via Quito) on a once-in-a-lifetime cruise around this utterly unique corner of the world. With each new day and destination offering a different landscape and a wealth of wildlife, I've shared a day-by-day account of my experience, only touching upon all that the Galapagos has to offer...
Day 1-2: Quito, Ecuador
Over the past two days, I've had the chance to explore the Ecuadorian city of Quito, located high in the Andes, which enchanted me from the minute I arrived (after a super easy flight with KLM via Amsterdam). I'm surprised by just how picturesque the city is, particularly the UNESCO Old Town, home to plazas, a huge number of churches and the Notre-Dame style Basilica, where traditional Gothic gargoyles are replaced by Galapagos turtles and iguanas! It is actually left unfinished as, according to local legend, the world will end if the construction of this striking church is ever completed. My time here has been wonderfully relaxed, consisting of sightseeing the markets, monasteries and more, as well as (unsurprisingly for me) keeping my stomach happy. Ecuador is renowned for its chocolate, so it would have been rude not to enjoy an indulgent and delicious organic hot chocolate. Though I'm yet to taste the fascinating local dessert Espumillas, an uncooked guava meringue known as the "ice cream that doesn't melt"!
Historic Building Quito
Evening view on the streets of Quito
Beautiful room in Casa Gangotena
The only Relais & Chateaux hotel in Quito, I've stayed at the gorgeous Casa Gangotena in the heart of the Old Town. The house was originally built in the 1600s, then this family mansion became a boutique hotel in 2010 with many original features, including frescoes, murals and fireplaces, still in place. Simply beautiful, you can just feel the history of this unique property! I particularly loved the third-floor terrace with views over the stunning Iglesia de San Francisco.
Day 3: Boarding in Baltra
Today, I took a flight from Quito to the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil, and onwards to Baltra Island in the Galapagos. Here, I boarded a Zodiac to the ship, bursting with excitement that my once-in-a-lifetime expedition cruise was about to begin. This journey of a few minutes instantly introduced me to some of the wildlife I can expect on the islands, with blue footed boobies diving for fish beneath the boat and sea lions lounging lazily on the jetty... a taste of the awesome encounters that are to come!
Silver Galapagos is one of the largest ships that operates here, though it still feels super intimate and personal. This is mostly due to the absolutely exceptional level of service I've received from the outset. From my Butler Leonardo and Suite Attendant Ivan, to the highly experienced expedition Guides that are absolute experts in their fields, I felt warmly welcomed and so well looked after. Each day, as well as a range of guided excursions that highlight the treasures of the Galapagos, the guides will hold lectures on various topics that relate to the destination - from nature photography and giant tortoises, to marine life identification and plastic pollution. What to choose?! After settling into my suite with ocean views, it was time for dinner, which always had a great choice of western and Ecuadorian specialities. Even better, the cruise is completely all-inclusive, so I don't have to worry about a thing! I can't wait to really begin exploring tomorrow...
Day 4: Genovesa Island
The adventure began bright and early today with the exploration of Prince Philip's steps starting promptly at 7.30am, after I'd fuelled up with a delicious breakfast and headed to the Explorer Room. We boarded a Zodiac to reach the island and one of the friendly expedition leaders lead us up this impressive (and relatively steep) natural step formation, named after Prince Phillip following his two visits to the area. The birdlife here was simply spectacular and we were lucky enough to spot some of the most renowned species in the Galapagos - including Frigatebirds (the males known for their crazy red pouches beneath their beaks) and their fluffy babies, as well as endemic Galapagos mockingbirds and swallow-tailed gulls. We also spotted a short-eared owl (a species that uniquely hunts in the daytime) which turned out to be the only one seen on the entire trip!
This afternoon, I chose to take part in the exploration of Darwin Bay - named, of course, after Charles Darwin - which showed just how diverse the landscape is. As well as the sandy beach and mangroves, much of the landscape is arid here. On just my first full day, I spotted the famous marine iguana, a species that is only found here in the whole world and that, my guide explained, is the only iguana that swims in the sea. Back on the boat, the captain held his welcome toast, and later drinks accompanied by live piano music from the ultra-talented Alfredo (he ended up playing every evening and everyone I spoke to loved him!). Travelling on my own, it was great to meet other people on the ship and share stories of our first day in this fascinating destination.
Day 5: North Seymour and Santiago Island
Today, I saw my first land iguana, easily my favourite species I've seen so far! I just find it fascinating how pre-historic they look with their golden yellow colour, thick leathery skin and spiky crest. I also had my first proper sighting (apart from when I was boarding) of blue-footed boobies. If you think about it, blue is a rare sight in nature, and the colour of their feet is super impressive! This is exactly the point, our guide explained, as the bluer the feet, the more attractive a booby is to a mate. While in North Seymour, I chose to take part in the snorkelling excursion (equipment is provided on the boat) and I'm so glad I did. I was lucky enough to swim with several sea lions, who appeared to be teasing us humans who had much less agility in the water than them! I also saw huge shoals of fish and even a white-tip shark. It genuinely felt like I was looking into aquarium window due to the amount and variety of marine life but, of course, this was the real deal!
After a quiet lunch and little snooze on board, we arrived at Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island. Here, I opted for the lava field walk across an absolutely fascinating lunar-like landscape that was only formed by lava around 200 years ago! You could see exactly where the flowing lava had set, the floor resembling knotted ropes. With the focus purely on this eerily barren landscape, the only real wildlife here was a few lava lizards and sparse greenery beginning to grow through the cracks. We did spot a Galapagos hawk in the distance though, which our expedition leader explained is the apex (top) predator here!
Day 6: Rabida and Santa Cruz Island
A quick breakfast - my favourite being the chocolate pastries - set me up today to explore the small island of Rabida and its amazing red sand. I can see why it's nicknamed 'Mars on Earth'. The prickly pear cactus (I love the name) is endemic to the Galapagos and there are plenty of them here, perched on by blue-footed boobies as they rested between dives. Passing more lazing sealions, our guide took us to a saltwater lagoon where we saw a couple of bright pink flamingos, apparently a very rare sighting here.
This afternoon, I had an amazing kayaking experience along the coastline of Eden Islet on Santa Cruz. Luckily for me, I shared a kayak with the expedition leader, allowing me to relax a little (a lot, actually) and take in my surroundings. From the kayak, I glimpsed turtles, spotted eagle rays and baby black tip sharks - a truly incredible experience from start to finish. Back on the boat, the fun didn't stop and I attended an interactive demonstration on how to prepare ceviche, a traditional Ecuadorian dish where fresh fish is cured in lime. The chef was so enthusiastic and friendly and the ceviche itself, super tasty!
Day 7: San Cristobal Island
Everyone is keen to see the famous giant tortoises. and today was the day! I chose the excursion to a tortoise breeding centre (Galapaguera) on the island of San Cristobal, built to conserve numbers of and breed this amazing species (that can only be found here or in the Seychelles, where I first saw them), before releasing them back into the wild wherever possible. I was delighted to see just how much space the tortoises get here, and they seemed super happy roaming around the green grass and lush vegetation. I also discovered that the Galapagos translates from Spanish to 'saddleback', which was the nickname for these creatures when discovered by the Spanish Bishop Tomas de Berlanga in 1535. This name soon became associated with the islands and the rest was history! Leaving the conservancy, I got the chance to explore Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, a charming little town with cute cafes and shops, as well as several mosaics that reminded me of Gaudi's famous style. The ever-present sealions were here as well, lazing on the pavements like dogs! Fascinatingly, they only spend around 15 percent of their time on land so, when they are dry, they are almost always fast asleep.
This afternoon, it was time to explore Punta Pitt, where the nature walk was a little more strenuous and high intensity than some of the others. As we walked, we spotted red-footed, blue-footed and Nazca boobies, before coming to a beautiful beach. Due to the olivine crystals in the sand, it sparkles. Even when I got my sandals back into my cabin, they looked as though they were covered in glitter!
Day 8: Española Island
Today, I got to experience another great snorkelling excursion in the deep waters around Bahia Gardner on the island of Española, again spotting turtles and seals. The beach here - one of the longest in the Galapagos at 1.2 miles - is absolutely gorgeous with white sand to rival any in the Indian Ocean, Caribbean and beyond. as well as having the added benefit of a host of endemic bird species including Darwin's finches and Espanola mockingbirds. Back on board for midday, the Silver Galapagos made her way towards Punta Suarez on the same island. After a quick siesta (snorkelling is tiring!), I set out on the 'exploration walk' excursion along a scenic coastal trail, passing a lighthouse and a striking blow hole that shot water high into the sky when the waves hit it. Continuing on, the rocks here were absolutely overrun with marine iguanas. seriously, there were about eight huddled together on one single rock! We also saw red crabs that get redder as they get older, and plenty of waved albatross, a really cute looking bird (and the largest in the Galapagos) that mates for life, despite spending up to six years out at sea before returning to their partners! As we made our way back to the boat after, I would say, my favourite walk of the trip, the sun began to set, covering the area in a beautifully calming light.
Day 9: Santa Cruz Island
My final day in the Galapagos began with more giant tortoises at a large natural reserve in Santa Cruz. Again, I was able to get super close to these incredible creatures as they roamed around the lush area freely, getting a great photo of one munching on some guava. As well as the terrific tortoises, what really drew me to this excursion is that it included a trip to a natural lava tunnel, showcasing the fascinating volcanic origins of the islands - admittedly not great for those that are claustrophobic, but I found it a really fun and interesting thing to do. I also explored the town of Puerto Ayora, where there were more charming coffee shops, quirky boutiques and traditionally Spanish mosaics and murals to discover. My highlight here was undoubtedly the fish market where I got to see how locals live on the islands, as well as spotting cheeky pelicans and sealions queueing up for fish as if they were people!
Opuntia cactus forest on Santa Cruz
Great Blue Heron on the beach
Marine Iguanas on the beach
The final port of call on my Galapagos adventure was Plaza Sur, one of the smallest islands in the archipelago, where I set out on my last walk of the trip, passing by cactus forests and unique rock formations, as well as more magnificent bird species. From way up on a cliff, I could actually see the fish in the ocean, showing how clear the water and impressive the marine life is! I also got to see my favourite species, the striking land iguana, for the last time. what better way to end the trip of a lifetime?