A trip to the Galápagos Islands is akin to finding oneself at the centre of a David Attenborough documentary
Words: Jonathan Whiley
Mid-morning in the Galápagos and the vast indigo canvas of Pacific Ocean stretching out before us is frequently interrupted by nautical pop-art. Under the water line, effervescent shoals of fish and their kaleidoscopic colour palette take centre stage; the unwitting warm-up act for what’s to follow. First, a languid sea lion drifts past as it makes for the shoreline and then – at eye level – a Galápagos penguin zips through the water within touching distance. There is little time to process either; we follow a wary turtle before it disappears into the depths and then – lingering near the coral reef – a whitetip reef shark ominously hovers in the shallows.
As we clamber back into the panga, swaddled by the fierce midday sun, we’re giddy with excitement. It’s the best snorkelling experience of our lives; as if cast in an unfolding Attenborough documentary.
Visiting this volcanic archipelago – around 1,000km from Ecuador – comes with great expectations. Its other-worldly landscape and diversity of life is both revered and well documented. It was here that a young Charles Darwin visited in 1835; his observation of animals and creatures uniquely adapted to their environments would go on to inform his theory of evolution.
In 1959 the Galápagos National Park was established and a decade on, the first tourists began to visit with a three day trip from the mainland. Mercifully the journey is shorter today, with the flight time roughly three hours from Quito – via Guayaquil – to Baltra airport, built in 2012 as the word’s first entirely environmentally sustainable terminal (constructed with recycled materials and harnessing both sun and wind).
Founded in 1953, Quito-based Metropolitan Touring has been pioneers of tourism in mainland Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands for 70 years. Their M/V Santa Cruz was the first ship to be specifically built for cruising the Galápagos in 1979. Now they have three ships of differing sizes, a five-star hotel in Quito, a world-renowned eco lodge set in the remote Ecuadorian cloud forest and a beachfront hotel in the Galápagos.
It means not only do you have access to seven decades of expertise, but the chance to immerse yourself in every aspect of this spellbinding country. We begin in style by adjusting to the altitude at Casa Gangotena, in the very heart of the capital’s San Francisco square. A member of Relais & Chateaux, it was rebuilt by Italian architects, the Russo Brothers, in the 1920s following a devastating fire. In 2007, having been bought by Roque Sevilla (former mayor of Quito and owner of Metropolitan Touring), work began to lovingly restore it.
The grandeur and elegance has returned with a striking light-filled atrium and courtyard and glorious rooftop terrace. It’s magnificent. My only minor gripe is reserved for the restaurant, which offers a taste of Ecuadorian cuisine but often overcomplicates dishes. Fine dining restaurant, Zazu, is a slick alternative in the city and don’t miss Quito’s artisan chocolate shops (Chez Tiff is particularly good) on Met’s ‘Live like a local’ tour.
From Quito, we venture into the Choco cloudforest – a journey of almost four hours by car – to magical Mashpi Lodge. One of the most remote places to stay in the world, this glass-filled boutique in the Andean foothills is purposefully minimalist.
It’s the vision of Met chairman Sevilla (named Sustainability Hero of the Year in this year’s TTG Luxury Travel Awards) who initially bought the land to protect the forest and then decided to showcase its biodiversity by building Mashpi. Remarkably, not a single large tree was disturbed during its construction. The lodge, which operates on an all-inclusive basis, is now a place where scientists and researchers spend time as guests embark on incredible guided expeditions from river walking to night trekking.
Ensuring a light footprint is engrained. Last year, Sevilla was at the forefront of a successful campaign for the expansion of the Galápagos Marine Reserve and Met Touring operates a 100 per cent carbon neutral offsetting programme.
In the Galápagos, we follow a northern islands itinerary that begins on Santa Cruz Island – home to a giant tortoise reserve – before boarding Yacht La Pinta. Cabins have floor-to-ceiling windows and facilities include a jacuzzi, gym, observational lounge, natural history library, dining room and outdoor sky bar. With only 24 cabins, there is the true luxury of space.
Each day sees nature stage its own royal variety act in contrasting landscapes; from the animated sea lions on Chinese Hat Islet to the large colonies of Nazca boobies and short eared owls on Genovesa Island.
One day we spend the morning taking in a steep climb and spectacular views on vivid Bartolome Island and by the afternoon, walk across the jet-black lunar landscape of Santiago.
Back on board, skip the (disappointing) coffee and allow Victor to rustle up a punchy pre-dinner cocktail .The food is consistently excellent and experienced staff ensure a relaxed atmosphere. As we depart, honeymooners make their way to beachfront Finch Bay on Santa Cruz for another taste of modern, responsible luxury and a chance to encounter the riot of life that makes this corner of our planet so very special.
Rainbow Tours offers an 11-night Ecuador and Galápagos itinerary with stays at Casa Gangotena, Mashpi Lodge, Finch Bay and a four-night cruise aboard La Pinta from £7,995 per person. Includes domestic and international return flights, transfers and national park fees. rainbowtours.co.uk and metropolitan-touring.com
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