Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Christmas in the Galapagos Islands (11 Days)

Literally in the middle of nowhere, the Galapagos Islands were born in a violent volcanic explosion millions of years ago. They are located more than 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, just below the equator. Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and of the survival of the fittest came to being right here on these 13 islands. Also known as the “Enchanted Islands,” the Galapagos is home to some of the world’s rarest and most exotic wildlife. It’s an easy 90-minute flight from the capital city of Quito to this tiny archipelago.Whether you’re aged 7 or 77, the Galapagos Islands are perfect for all kinds of adventure-seekers who love wildlife and water. Less than 70,000 international visitors are permitted to visit these fragile and protected islands. A typical day involves hiking on different islands to learn more about their fascinating volcanic and geologic history. In the afternoons, cool off on the pristine white sand beaches. Strap on your snorkel gear, swim with inquisitive sea lions, playful penguins, and harmless black-tipped sharks. Take underwater photographs of a kaleidoscope of unusual fishes darting between colorful coral. Discover hidden coves steeped in ancient pirate lore by kayak. Our 11-day all-inclusive packages include your 8-day / 7-night Galapagos cruise on the yacht of your choice, Quito / Galapagos round-trip airfare, 3 nights in Quito in a small boutique hotelDay 1 Quito Upon arrival in Quito, you will be met and transferred to your hotel. Overnight at Café Cultura, a beautiful colonial building which was formerly the French Consulate . The 26 charming rooms are individually designed; three have fireplaces and one has an antique bathtub. Colorful murals adorn the walls throughout the hotel, while downstairs you will find a wood-panelled library, log fires each evening, and a bright and airy café where you can enjoy meals. Day 2 Quito Your private guide will pick you up at the hotel for your Quito city tour, which highlights some of the important sites of Ecuador’s capital - the oldest capital in South America. Among your stops may be the San Augustin Monastery, one of Quito’s most beautiful religious buildings; Independence Plaza; La Compaña Church; and San Francisco Church, the first great colonial building. Drive to El Panecillo Hill for a panoramic view of the city. The rest of the day is free to explore on your own. Overnight at Café Cultura. (B) Day 3 On board In the morning you will be transferred to the domestic airport for your flight to the remote Galapagos Islands. Upon arrival, you will be met by the captain and crew of your ship and transferred onboard in time for welcome drinks and lunch. All meals and daily excursions are included on board. Snorkeling equipment, wetsuits and kayaks are also available on some ships and may be at an additional charge. with breakfasts, a private city tour of Quito, 4 private airport transfers and comprehensive travel insurance. Day 5 At Punta Suarez, one will find one of the world’s densest and most diversified concentrations of wildlife - sea lions, marine iguanas with unique copper-red patches, swallow-tailed gulls, lava lizards, finches, the endemic long-billed mockingbird, blue-footed and masked boobies, and oystercatchers. Española is also the only place where, between the months of April and December, the majestic waved albatross breeds. A highpoint of your experience is watching the mating dance of these intriguing birds. Along the southern shore of Española rise high cliffs, home to many of the sea birds. Here one can also find the “blowhole,” where, depending on the surf, water spouts from 50 to 75 feet into the air. Gardner Bay: A spectacular white-sand beach at the east end of Hood Island is wonderful for snorkeling with sea lions. If you are adventurous, an offshore rock is known for white-tipped sharks which prefer to rest underneath it. The beach can be reached via a wet landing. Floreana or Charles Island: Patrick Watkins, a whaler from Ireland and the first official inhabitant of the islands, chose to settle on Floreanna. The island also played host to a group of idealistic Norwegians, who lost their life savings in efforts to do everything from farming to fish canning. The 20th century brought the holistic medical doctor, Dr. Ritter, and Dore Strauch, his ex-patient turned lover; Margaret and Heinz Wittmer (she, pregnant), and their 12-year old son; the “Baroness” with her coterie of three lovers; and a hoard of visitors and prospective settlers. After assorted deaths and vanishing people, the island was left with only Margaret Wittmer, her daughter, and grandchildren. One of the most popular visits is to Post Office Bay near where Margaret Wittmer lived. Aside from its fascinating history, the island boasts one of the best flamingo lagoons at Punta Cormorant. The large proportions of fine volcanic olivine crystals give the beach here an olive-green tone. If time permits, you can swim at Devil's Crown, a partially exposed cone of an extinct volcano. Day 6 Visitor Sites Santa Cruz Island: To the east of the island is where you visit the world-famous Charles Darwin Research Station at Puerto Ayora, the archipelago’s most important human settlement. This center not only is actively engaged in studying the ecology of the Galapagos Archipelago, but has also worked hard to preserve the fragile environment of the islands. Perhaps the most visible result of their efforts has been the project to increase the number of Galapagos tortoises, decimated by whalers, colonists, and feral animals. The center has also been actively working to control the human population and protect the marine ecology in the area. The nearby highland vegetation is typical of the lush humid zone. One finds there characteristic vegetation of miconia bushes and scalesia. Extinct volcanic cones are covered with exuberant growth the year round. This island has more species of endemic flora than any other in the Galapagos. Travel to the highlands, where you will discover lava tubes hidden below ground. These tunnels are formed by massive, rushing rivers of lava. After climbing down large rocks, follow the curving tunnels several hundred feet long and about three stories tall. A flashlight is strongly recommended. Also found on Santa Cruz are Los Gemelos (“the twins”), two pit craters which collapsed inwards over time. Day 7 Located on the western side of Santa Cruz. This site has only recently been opened to visitors and is not highly frequented by other boats. Not only is the scenery exquisite, but there are large populations of land iguanas and flamingoes.) San Cristobal: Arrive at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, SAN CRISTOBAL Island. This afternoon, visit Cerro Brujo, where you enjoy a subtle introduction to the Galapagos with a beautiful, white, powder-sand beach. As the sun sets, cruise around Kicker Rock (Leon Dormido), a vertical tuff cone formation that abruptly juts up almost 500 feet out of the ocean. Watch sea lions, blue-footed boobies, masked boobies and magnificent frigate birds on the cliffs. Travel by bus into the interior of the island to visit a new site called Galapaguera of Cerro Colorado (Red Hill). At Galapaguera, you may find Calandrinia, an endemic plant of this island. The National Park has established a breeding program for the tortoises and set up an information center for visitors. Passengers not only get to see the terrestrial tortoises living in their natural habitat but also learn about their origin, evolution and threats by introduced animals. The ship navigates to a small islet (Isla Lobos - Sea Lion Island ) whose shores are home to many sea birds, including frigate birds and blue-footed boobies. There is great landscape photography here. A sea lion colony is a great introduction to the most common seen mammals in Galapagos. These are the shores that Charles Darwin walked upon, back in September 1835, as San Cristóbal was the first island where he set foot in the Galapagos. DBartolome Island: Located in the heart of the islands, Bartolome portrays, better than anywhere else, the geological history of the archipelago. With its 350 foot cinder cone, a phantasmagoria of strange shaped and colored lava formations, and views of volcanic peaks and moonlike landscapes, Bartolome is one of the most popular of the islands visited in the Galapagos. An interesting hike will take you up to the summit of the once-active volcano, a walk of about 30-40 minutes. From the summit, you have a panoramic view of the island, as well as the immense black lava flows on nearby James or Santiago. You can also swim or snorkel on the nearby beach. Sullivan Bay: Located on the east coast of James Island, Sullivan Bay holds a particular fascination for volcanology or geology. A dry landing takes you to a trail of massive lava that illustrate pahoehoe lava, lava bubbles and tree-trunk molds in its surface. Tower Island: Because of its location in the far north archipelago, Tower Island is one of the least visited of the Galapagos Islands. Darwin Bay’s brilliant white coral beach is wonderful for exploring tidepools. Look for lava and swallow-tailed gulls nesting on the cliffs above you. On the east side of the bay, a steep climb up Prince Philip’s Steps leads you to a well-known red-footed booby nesting site. Black Turtle Cove: Considered by many to be the most beautiful beach in the islands. Here in the waters one can find leopard rays and white tipped sharks. Back in the mangrove swamps are the nesting areas of the marine or pacific green turtles for which the island is named. Day 9Fernadina (Narborough) Island: Known as one of the most volcanically active islands in the archipelago, Fernadina is also located the furthest west of any of the islands. Rarely visited by groups because of its distance from other islands, Fernadina offers a spectacular opportunity to explore recent lava flows and the outside slopes of its volcanic crater. The flat lava of Punta Espinosa offers a stark and barren landscape, but here flightless cormorants build their nests on the point, sea lions sprawl on the beach or play in the tide pools and marine iguanas dot the sand. Isabela (Albemarle) Island: The largest island in the archipelago is also quite narrow and features the most impressive terrain. Its six volcanoes include Sierra Negra, Wolf, Cerro Azul and Alcedo. Tagus Cove and Urbina Bay are home to flightless cormorant nests, mockingbirds and Galapagos hawks. At Elizabeth Bay, enjoy a panga ride through the mangrove area to see the rays, turtles, sea lions, and, circling overhead, Galapagos hawks. A colony of penguins inhabit a rocky islet at the entrance to Elizabeth Bay. Rabida Island: The reddish hues of the beach and island soil found here comes from the oxidation of the iron-rich lava. After a wet landing where sea lions can be found basking on the beach, follow a gentle mile-long trail past a saltwater lagoon to the ocean cliffs. You’ll find mangroves, flamingos, white-cheeked pintail ducks, and Palo Santo trees here. Santa Fe Island: Features one of the most sheltered and prettiest coves on the islands, perfect for snorkeling. A wet landing on a sandy beach follows a trail to the top of cliff escarpments. Land iguanas, distinguished by thick spikes along the backbone, are commonly seen, along with huge opuntias and scalesia plants normally found in the highlands. Day 10 Quito After breakfast, prepare to disembark the ship. You will be transferred to the airport for your flight to the mainland. Upon arrival, you will be met and transferred to your Quito hotel. Overnight at Café Cultura. (B) Day 11 Quito We recommend a post-trip land extension to the Andean Highlands, where you can spend the night in an antiques-filled hacienda. En route, stop at villages where skilled artisans show off exquisite leather crafts and wood-carvings. The highlight of your trip is the Otavalo market, famous for both its early-morning authentic farmers market and the more tourist-oriented market where one can pick up local Indian handicrafts (weavings, Panama hats, jewelry, etc.). Optional activities include hiking to hidden lakes and horse-back riding. OR transfer to the airport for your flight back to the USA. (B)


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