A trip to the Galápagos has long been the epitome of a bucket list experience, as it gives travelers the chance to observe marine and land animals in a pure environment. That said, planning a trip to the Galápagos can be a little intimidating, what with the paperwork, coordinating transportation, and choosing the right boat for the trip. Good news, though: working with a company like INCA (International Nature and Cultural Adventures) can help ease a lot of those stressors because they take care of everything for you.
The experts at INCA pride themselves on their ability to perfect a detailed itinerary for people looking to travel to the Galapagos and get the most out of their trip. For many, this is a once in a lifetime dream vacation, so it’s important to fit in everything you want to do and see. The family-operated business has been running since the 1970s, so they know the many moving parts when it comes to planning a Galapagos adventure, including the National Park entrance fee ($100), emergency medical and evacuation coverage ($22), and Ecuador’s Transit Control Tax ($20) to name a few.
So, having friendly faces and helpful staff to walk you through the process and help you in person at the airport is a relief.
INCA assists all guests going on board the Integrity in either Quito or Guayaquil with a quick overnighter to make sure everyone is on the mainland, ready to take the flight to Baltra the following day. After an overnight stay in Hotel Wyndham Guayaquil (or similar accommodations in Quito) an INCA team member will pick you up from the lobby and transport you to the airport where you will fly with EQUAIR into the Baltra airport in the Galapagos Islands.
Upon arrival, Integrity travelers will relax in the VIP lounge while the baggage is checked and cleared. Next, the group heads into the national park, where a bus takes everyone to the Itabaca Canal to board a small boat to the highlands in Santa Cruz. The wildlife discovery and tours begin the day you arrive, starting with the giant tortoises and exploring the Charles Darwin Research Station.
In addition to some fun activities on the first day, the group will try on wetsuits before enjoying a quick lunch in town with waterfront views of sea lions, pelicans, baby sharks, marine iguanas, and colorful crabs. After a day of adventure, the group will board the boat for the first time that is anchored in Academy Bay.
Before you unpack, the naturalist will go through what the tour is going to look like, what you can expect to see, safety, briefings, and room assignments. From there, after dinner, you’ll have plenty of time to unpack and relax, letting the boat rock you to sleep. The Eastern Island itinerary that they set up definitely packs in a lot of activity from hiking, swimming, kayaking, climbing, and more, keeping you feeling great throughout the trip.
What’s on Board
The Integrity is a luxury yacht that is the centerpiece of a customized experience that can host as many as 16 people. INCA and this vessel collaborate to give guests the best accommodations in addition to the adventure-packed itineraries. Each room boasts its own bathroom and plenty of space to move around, in addition to powerful air conditioning, which is wonderful to come back to you after a day of hiking. There are also TVs so you can put on a movie to fall asleep to at the end of the evening.
The dining room is elegant, and you get to take in views of the islands or the ocean as you enjoy healthy meals like fresh fish and homemade soups. The top deck has plenty of space for lounging and relaxing, in addition to a hot tub to unwind in at the end of the evening. They also offer laundry services for all guests, which is great if you’re trying to pack light and want to re-wear some pieces.
In addition to providing a luxurious place to stay and rest as you travel through the Galápagos Islands, the staff cares a lot about sustainability and the environment. The company separates waste into recyclable objects, non-recyclable objects, hazardous material, and organic items. The staff is even trained to understand environmental issues.
The crew is also passionate about creating healthy dishes, with plenty of fresh vegetables, beans, mashed potatoes, lean red meat, fresh fish, chicken, and desserts like fresh fruit with a sprinkle of chocolate. The breakfast buffet offers scrambled eggs, waffles, pancakes, fruit (like fresh papaya), sausage, bacon, plenty of juices, and cereals. The lunches are nice and light, similar to dinners, generally with lean protein and fresh veggies, with some kind of carb to keep you fueled and feeling great for the next adventure.
The itinerary will vary a bit based on the destination—this particular trip reflects stops along the Eastern Route—but expect early wake-up calls to seize the day before the heat gets too strong. Generally, the day starts around 5:30 AM with breakfast at 6 AM, heading out for activities bright and early. Each day consists of at least one hike and snorkel, in addition to other activities. In the evening, the group has dinner together, and the naturalist will go over what is to be expected the next day. He explains what the terrain is like, what to expect during the hike, what animals you might see, how long it will take, and he is more than happy to address any comments or questions you have.
Where You’ll Go
Santa Cruz Island: Exploring the Rainforest Highlands means unpredictable weather, so plan to have protection for your camera gear, a raincoat or poncho, and proper footwear for the day you arrive. Santa Cruz is the place to see a wide variety of plant species and tortoises snacking on guava and passionfruit. After seeing the tortoises, the group will head to Puerto Ayora to have lunch before visiting the Charles Darwin Research Center. With a day of exploring in the books, you’ll head onto the yacht to settle in for the evening, go through the safety briefing, and talk about the upcoming adventures.
Española: On day two of the eastern itinerary, you’ll stop in Española, particularly Gardner Bay in the morning. This area has a beautiful, white sand beach with crystal clear bright teal water. You’ll see plenty of seals lounging in the sun or running towards the water. After walking along the beach, guests will then prepare for the first snorkel. This is more of a low-key snorkel in a very calm area, so that the naturalist can gauge how strong of a swimmer the group members are and give you a taste of what you can expect to see coming up. We also played with a group of seals and saw plenty of colorful fish and turtles.
Later in the day, you will stop in Punta Suárez for a hike over rocky terrain to spot sea birds. This is your time to see the waved albatross birds, that can be observed between April and November. There’s even a chance to see their famous mating dance. This is also a great opportunity to see marine iguanas and other colorful birds like blue footed boobies.
San Cristóbal: The morning begins with a trip to Punta Pitt, a small beach that leads to a climbing hike to spectacular views of the island where you might get the chance to see all three booby birds, in addition to other wildlife. You can see mountain goats strolling along the hilltops, while down on the beach, seals play in the water with you while you take a dip after the hike to cool off.
After a morning hike, the group will get ready for a snorkeling adventure. Anything can happen, from playing with seals to swimming through schools of colorful fish. Guests will also have a little downtime before heading back to the boat for lunch and setting sail for Cerro Brujo. From there, the group takes a walk on the coral sand beach, watching shore birds dive down rapidly to catch fish while the sun sets in the distance.
Santa Fé and South Plaza: In the morning we arrived at Santa Fé to go for a hike on a white beach covered with sea lions and iguanas. We observed the Opuntia cactus and discovered many creatures before heading out to snorkel in the turquoise waters with plenty of fish, sharks, turtles, and more. There’s also an opportunity to kayak in the morning, and those who don’t want to kayak can explore the cliffs along the shore from the panga boat. In the afternoon, the boat anchors in South Plaza, where we see seven more land iguanas and a variety of birds, including the legendary finches.
Genovesa: In the morning, the group stops at Darwin Beach to explore the bird species. The beach appeared due to a sunken crater, and it is covered with a wide variety of birds from herons and warblers to red footed boobies and frigatebirds with the red pouch puffed up. The group will snorkel at least once a day, playing with seals and looking for hidden gems in all the cracks and crevices of the rocks and reefs for lobsters, eels, and other surprises.
We visited two snorkeling spots in this location, one that generally has hammerhead and Galapagos sharks, as well as huge schools of rays in deep water, and another location with much calmer water with fish, sea turtles, and other marine life. In the afternoon, the group hikes up Prince Phillip’s Steps to see colonies of booby birds—look for short-eared owls and watch the storm petrels whip through the air in the Palo Santo Forest.
Santiago and Bartolomé: In the morning, the group stops at Sullivan Bay in Santiago to explore the young lava flow and rock formations. After the hike, head out for the first snorkel of the day, where you can potentially see seals fishing in the water, white tip reef sharks, and maybe even some Galapagos penguins. In the afternoon, the boat anchors at Bartolomé, right near the famous Pinnacle Rock. A panga ride is next, on which you can see penguins along the shore before hiking to the very top of the island to take an incredible view of the bay, Santiago Island, Daphne Major and Minor, and of course, the sunset.
Rábida and Sombrero Chino: On Rábida, the day begins very early, as the group lands on a red beach first thing in the morning. As the lagoon came into view, speckles of hot pink appeared all throughout the water. There were so many bright, beautiful flamingos in the lagoon, in addition to incredible plant life.
The day was full of snorkeling excursions, where the group found a variety of stunning fish like the hieroglyphic hawkfish and the scorpion fish, among other marine life like sea turtles, white tip reef sharks, seals, and much more. In the afternoon, the boat anchored in the turquoise waters of Sombrero Chino. The snorkeling there is phenomenal, with turtles, eels, huge schools of fish, and other surprises.
We were extremely lucky to swim with Galapagos penguins, as they darted and dived around us, catching fish. We laughed joyfully underwater, taking it all in. It was the perfect way to end our snorkeling adventures. The day ends with a walk on the beach, taking views of the lava rock, before heading to Baltra to disembark the following day. With so many beautiful places to explore on this planet, the Galapagos Islands make for a truly special destination.
The bold wildlife, with seals looking you in the eye, blue footed booby birds walking with the group along the trail, penguins darting in front of you underwater, just as curious about you, as you are of them. The Integrity, INCA, and Greg Estes, our incredible guide, made this trip one for the books.