This 20-person Yacht Cruise Is the Best Way to See the Galapagos Islands — Without Disturbing the Animals (Video)
The sweat trickles down my forehead as I attempt to keep pace with my hiking group on what was intended to be a quick morning jaunt on the island of Española in the Galapagos.
Beyond the small huffs and puffs from the people on this journey with me, there are few other sounds; just the bugs buzzing and the ocean waves crashing nearby. It’s perhaps because of this eery silence that the next moment is so thrilling.
After rounding the corner to the very top of the hill we finally come upon the sight we are after: A blue-footed boobie sitting silently on her nest, which happens to be filled with two round, speckled eggs.
We watch her throat throttle back and forth in rapid succession to cool herself in the equatorial sun. She barely notices our arrival and doesn’t care as we stared at her, inspecting every feather and detail from a safe distance, trying our best to crane our necks to see her soon-to-be little ones. We sit there until our group leader tells us we've overstayed our welcome and will miss our ride home if we don't hurry.
Having this quiet moment to gaze upon nature and appreciate it in all its glory, and being told when it’s time to high tail it out of there as to not disturb the habitat, is exactly why I chose to see the Galapagos Islands with a small, eco-friendly cruise company known as Ecoventura.
“Galapagos is the place god forgot to finish,” Ivan Lopez, one of the two naturalists onboard Ecoventura’s boat, The Theory, tells me as we load back into our dingy to head back to our vessel. Indeed, it’s a place that seems gloriously untouched and left by some higher power with just the right amount of rough around the edges. And it will only stay this way through the sheer determination of local leaders, travel experts, and tourists willing to step up to ensure their trip is as ethical as possible.
It’s no secret that the Galapagos Islands are a wildly popular destination. In 2017, more than 275,000 people made their way through the archipelago, marking a 14 percent increase in tourism from the year before. All those tourists, just like me, have come to catch a glimpse of a world still dominated by animals like massive sea lions, iguanas, hammerhead sharks, and the endangered Galapagos tortoise. However, the combination of too many people and the threat of climate change is forcing both Ecuadorian officials — who are now considering increasing park fees to $400 per person — and tour companies alike to rethink how they bring guests to see this almost prehistoric place.
“Environmental protection is something we have been spearheading for nearly two decades,” Santiago Dunn, CEO of Ecoventura, tells Travel + Leisure. He notes their newest vessel, Evolve, is its most eco-friendly boat yet, even beating out my boat, The Theory: “As we continue to ‘evolve’ our fleet we’re keeping sustainability front of mind. It remains a key factor through our conservation commitments on board as well as our involvement with not-for-profit organizations.”
Beyond things like installing alternative energy sources to offset carbon emissions and producing their own fresh water on board each boat, Ecoventura takes it one step further by only allowing 20 passengers on each sailing. The crew also includes two naturalist guides, so there are no more than 10 passengers per guide at any time.
“It’s more personalized,” Lopez says. “With Ecoventura, you can experience something totally untouched. It’s a fragile place. Sometimes you need an expert to interpret it because we live in different worlds.”
It’s a method that proves to not only be helpful in ensuring the protection of the animals and the environment, but also one that helps guests dive more deeply into their animal science vacation.
“The Galapagos as a destination is highly exclusive and it should be approached as such, and our fleet gives travelers an intimate experience around the archipelago that is simply not possible aboard larger vessels,” Dunn says. “This starts with the most favorable naturalist-to-passenger ratio in the Galapagos. We also only offer a full week cruise on our entire fleet. By offering only seven-night itineraries, we limit the number of visitors the islands receive every year versus if we were to operate the shorter three and four-night cruises that bring a lot more people to the islands and require more flights.”
The beauty of choosing a smaller vessel, Dunn adds, is the unique access to parts of the archipelago that larger ships can't reach.
“As a boutique cruising company and family-run business, our impact is significantly smaller as we have more control over our conservation efforts and how we protect these cherished islands,” he says.
The boats also offer something else for guests thanks to their small size: a sense of family and a total democracy. Each room is the same size; the meals are all enjoyed together in the morning and in the evening. It is then that everyone can decompress and re-live the day’s adventure as they make their way through San Cristobal, Española, Floreana, Santa Cruz, and Bartolome Island.
It’s a sense of community I’ve never felt on a curated vacation before as we all pour over one another’s photos, laughing at funny moments, and learning more about each creature we came upon earlier in the day. Before heading to bed each night, the boat’s naturalists go over the day ahead and give a short animal behavior lesson to further drive home the point that we are visitors to their home and not the other way around.
It’s terrain so entirely different than any place you’ve seen before. It’s a destination that will live with you forever and quickly becomes a piece of paradise you want to recommend and protect all at once. And that makes it all the more important to travel with a company you know loves the Galapagos just as much as you do.
“We are blessed to be able to operate in such a breathtaking corner of the world, but that beauty and purity is not something we can take for granted,” Dunn says. “We must work very hard to preserve it so that the land, waters, and wildlife of the Galapagos can be enjoyed by generations to come.”
To learn more about booking a seven-day cruise with Ecoventura’s environmentally friendly boats, which start at $7,850 per person for a double-occupancy room, check out their itineraries here.