Can I let you in on a secret? I’ve never been keen on water. My most recent snorkeling escapade in Costa Rica resulted in me feeling seasick and being carried back to shore on a rescue buoy. The shame. When I was invited by Relais & Châteaux to spend four days exploring the Galápagos Islands, I knew I couldn’t let my ineptitude to open seas stand in the way of witnessing ‘the last paradise on Earth.’ Armed with a strong dose of motion sickness tablets, I set off.
[See also: Elite Traveler’s Top Adventures for 2023]
First stop: Quito. Nestled high in the Andes, the Ecuadorian capital was the first city to be awarded Unesco World Heritage status thanks to its exceptionally preserved historic center. Home for the night is in the heart of the city: Relais & Châteaux’s Casa Gangotena, an exquisite mansion turned boutique hotel in famed Plaza San Francisco.
After my first sips of local coffee, I say goodbye to Quito, vowing to return to explore its cultural riches. Following a flight 815 miles west, I touched down at Galápagos Ecological Airport on Baltra Island. Before I even reach the arrivals lounge, I spot two endemic species: a Galápagos land iguana sunning itself near an opuntia cactus.
The Galápagos has some of the world’s highest levels of endemism (species unique to a region) — 97% of the archipelago is protected national park land, in which you must be accompanied by a National Park certified guide. This includes our transfer to Relais & Châteaux’s five-star Pikaia Lodge on neighboring Santa Cruz Island.
Perched on the edge of an extinct volcano high in a cloud forest, with its own protected giant tortoise reserve, the eco-lodge looks futuristic and otherworldly. At sunset, I stand on my terrace and gaze across miles of untouched green wilderness rolling towards the Pacific.
Many of the archipelago’s visitors opt to stay on ‘liveaboard’ ships. However, 14-room-and-suite Pikaia Lodge specializes in land-based exploration — it’s bespoke adventure during the day but with the assurance of returning to the comfort of a five-star resort with a spa, infinity pool and fine dining restaurant (the tasting menu is a must). The landlubber in me is delighted to hear this.
Of course, you can’t come to the Galápagos and not weigh anchor, and that’s where the resort’s private 105-ft luxury yacht, Vision Pikaia, comes in. A 7am panga boat whisks us aboard. We are joined by one of Pikaia Lodge’s preferred National Park guides, Mario Dominguez, who will lead our group of five across a four-day itinerary, taking in four of the nation’s islands.
North Seymour Island is our first port of call. As I step off the panga, a male frigatebird swoops overhead, its crimson throat pouch blown up like a balloon. “It’s looking for a mate,” says Dominguez. The island is like a winged theater, with hundreds of birds each putting on a performance. Pelicans plummet beak-first towards the ocean, courting blue-footed boobies showing off their moves in an elaborate mating dance, and coupled-up male frigatebirds — balloons now deflated — feed their young.
We then venture to the flour-like shores of nearby Mosquera Islet. Only a third of a mile long, it hosts one of the islands’ largest populations of Galápagos sea lions. We have it all to ourselves. Snorkeling gear (and seasickness tablets) in tow, we go for a dip in the shallow turquoise waters. Soon a mischievous group of juvenile sea lions joins us. They are in a playful mood and dart around us, spiraling and splashing as they orbit.
Isolated from the threats of the mainland, there are few places where animals and man coexist in such harmony, explains Dominguez: “Human history on the islands is short. There were no natives, and it wasn’t until 1832 that Ecuador established [a small population]. In 1959, the islands became a national park and all the species became protected. The animals learned that humans were not a threat.”
We’re in search of the Galapagos penguin, the planet’s second-smallest species of penguin and the only one to reside in the northern hemisphere. Our luck holds and, as the panga cruises in Sullivan Bay, I count nearly two dozen. We enjoy a midday hike during the penguin mission to the steep crest of Bartolomé Island, where we are rewarded with the Galápagos’s most photographed view: Pinnacle Rock.
With temperatures soaring, the water calls and we don our snorkel gear. Eyes peeled, we come across blacktip and whitetip reef sharks before finding ourselves above a shoal of fish. In a flash, eight torpedoing penguins arrive in search of lunch, and we’re suddenly nose to nose (or beak). Raising my head above the water, I make eye contact with one that has also popped up for air and I wonder, for a moment, if I’m hallucinating.
As we flipper our way to the sands of nearby Golden Bay, a large sea turtle glides alongside us for a while — another unforgettable encounter.
The next two days are to be spent (mostly) on land. In the morning we visit the Charles Darwin Research Station in Santa Cruz’s main town of Puerto Ayora. With tortoise knowledge thoroughly expanded, we embark towards a tortoise reserve in the island’s misty highlands. There are slow-moving giant tortoises as far as the eye can see, the largest spanning nearly 6 ft. Some are taking mud baths, while others are raising their crane-like necks to chew on low-hanging leaves.
My final day has the most uplifting of beginnings: the planting of a tree — something Pikaia Lodge asks of all its guests. As I bury the roots of an endemic scalesia tree in the soil, I’m told the hotel has planted 11,000 trees since it acquired the 76-acre former cattle ranch. The weather is just right for our planned visit to Tortuga Bay, named after the turtles that nest in its dunes. A half-hour hike through dry forest takes me past candelabra cacti, lemony cotton flowers and Darwin’s finches before arriving at a pristine ocean expanse. Here, I am introduced to one of the Galapágos’s most curious creatures: marine iguanas.
The mythical-looking reptile is the Earth’s only seafaring lizard. I go for a swim and it’s not long before one meanders its way to the shore, snaking its way past me and out to sea, using its lengthy onyx-hued tail as a rudder.
An afternoon flight transports us back to reality in Ecuador’s port city of Guayaquil. We are eased back into urban life with a stay at Relais & Châteaux’s Hotel del Parque, the city’s most luxurious and historic hotel. It also happens to house one of Ecuador’s most celebrated restaurants, Casa Julián. Dinner is a tremendous tasting menu inspired by one of the country’s biggest exports: cacao. The grand feast is a fitting finale to an astonishing week.
From $4,650 per person for a three-night all-inclusive package at Relais & Châteaux’s Pikaia Lodge. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org, +593 98 635 2538, pikaialodge.com
This article appears in the 30 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Winter 2023/24