Snorkel With Playful Sea Lions, Swim on White-sand Beaches, and Go Hiking in the Galapagos With This Tour Company
To visit Ecuador's Galapagos Islands is to have your head on a constant swivel, taking in the otherworldly landscapes and incredible wildlife at every turn. Blue-footed boobies on one side, craggy cliffs around the corner, marine iguanas going for a swim — it's difficult to know where to look.
"I'm going to leave here with a thousand photos," I said, happily snapping away from the moment we landed on South Plaza Island.
"And at least 800 of them will be photos of sea lions," my Galapagos guide said, chuckling.
We were only on the first island of many along a five-day expedition cruise with Metropolitan Touring, and I could already tell that she was right. The sea lions were undeniably cute and entertaining, but I also knew there was so much more in store.
When people imagine going on an African safari, they often think of the Big Five (a.k.a. the five most popular and prevalent animals you're likely to encounter). Well, in the Galapagos, Metropolitan Touring — the largest and longest-running tour operator in the archipelago — is taking travelers to spot the Big 15.
The Big 15 is a list of the most unique and scientifically significant species in the region, plus some fan favorites, like sea lions, of course. Metropolitan Touring coined the term in 2016, but it's more than a catchy nod to its African counterpart. With the Big 15, the company is not only giving guests an animal-spotting challenge to look forward to, but it's also using the term to educate travelers, especially as they choose which journey to embark on.
"The idea behind [the Big 15] is to make sure people understand that the Galapagos is very, very different in all directions," said Francisco Dousdebes, head of corporate responsibility and sustainability for Metropolitan Touring. "Consumers think they're going to see everything on every itinerary, but that's not the case."
For example, travelers determined to see a specific animal can use the Big 15 section on the company's site as a guide for picking the appropriate sailings. The ever-popular Galapagos penguins, for example, are only found on the Northern, Western, and Southeastern itineraries. Traveling on the Eastern expedition would only lead to disappointment for those with their heart set on seeing penguins.
"Most consumers think it doesn't matter where you go in the Galapagos…[but] the Big 15 has become the best catalyst for people to understand what itinerary they should go on," Dousdebes told me as we hiked over boulders and watched a Galapagos snake slither by.
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The creation of the Big 15 concept also sparked some slight changes in Metropolitan Touring's itineraries to ensure that guests would see the majority of the wildlife on the list no matter which trip they chose. Each of the four expeditions available also feature their own iconic element that's unique to that itinerary.
I was on the five-day, four-night Eastern route, so no Galapagos penguins for me, but this is the only itinerary that allows travelers to catch a glimpse of the albatross, a member of the Big 15 and also the biggest bird in the archipelago. We saw juvenile albatrosses shedding their patchy brown feathers, as well as their adult counterparts practicing their mating dance by tapping their bright yellow beaks against each other in a rhythmic way that sounded like teeth chattering in the cold.
Beyond the albatrosses and sea lions, our trusted guides helped us spot a total of 11 species from the Big 15, including red- and blue-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, marine iguanas, giant tortoises, and Santa Fe land iguanas — another species unique to the Eastern itinerary.
If you want to see all 15 on the list, you'll have to hop on back-to-back expeditions sailing the Eastern and Western routes. Luckily, there's only one island overlap between the two, so guests will have plenty of new places to explore.
"Every island develops its own system of survival. Every island is a world of its own," Dousdebes said. "The more islands you see, the more you understand why the Galapagos is so unique and important."
The Metropolitan Touring Experience
Metropolitan Touring was part of the team that helped Galapagos National Park develop its tourism model several decades ago, and since then, they've certainly perfected the traveler experience. Exploring the Galapagos Islands with Metropolitan Touring felt like being at the best adult summer camp, where everything is planned and all you have to focus on is enjoying yourself. Every day, we had morning and afternoon activities that took us hiking, kayaking, swimming on the white-sand beaches, or snorkeling with playful sea lions, rock reef fish, sea turtles, and more. Less strenuous options were also available for guests who needed them.
Between activities, my fellow travelers and I sipped on coffee in the library, took a dip in the hot tub, or lounged on the sun deck, taking in the scenery with a snack in hand. We were also served hearty breakfasts and incredible three-course meals for lunch and dinner. I always thought sailing on a smaller ship in the Galapagos would be the way to go, but a slightly larger vessel, like Metropolitan's 24-cabin La Pinta yacht, meant having more public areas to relax in without feeling crowded. With the national park's limits on the number of visitors that can be on an island at any given time, it also meant that our yacht's passengers alone filled that quota, often leaving us to enjoy our visits privately without any other vessels there.
And since sustainability and education are at the core of everything Metropolitan Touring does, I left the cruise a bit wiser and thoroughly satisfied knowing that this company has run its operations entirely carbon neutral since 2017.
Know Before You Go
If you find yourself planning a trip to the Galapagos, keep in mind that the vast majority of the population is vaccinated against COVID-19, and the government is going to great lengths to prevent any major outbreaks in this remote archipelago. At the time of publication, travelers to the Galapagos will need to present proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of their departure in order to board a flight. Mask-wearing rules are also strictly enforced throughout Ecuador and face coverings must be worn both inside and outside, including in the Galapagos.
Jessica Poitevien is a Travel + Leisure contributor currently based in South Florida, but she's always on the lookout for her next adventure. Besides traveling, she loves baking, talking to strangers, and taking long walks on the beach. Follow her adventures on Instagram.