Swimming with playful sea lions blowing bubbles, lounging on empty white sand beaches with penguins strutting out of the water, witnessing the sun rise from the deck of a boat—these wonders of the Galapagos haven’t changed since Charles Darwin charted the islands in 1835. But one thing has changed dramatically: the quality of what comes before and after these experiences.
Any visit to these volcanic islands—located almost 600 miles off the coast of mainland Ecuador—comes with a certain level of exclusivity; the Galapagos National Park has strict regulations on the number of visitors permitted at any one time, mandating precisely where visitors can explore and on what days of the week. But in recent years, companies long established in the Galapagos have shifted their focus. The promises of adventure and exclusive access to remote islands were no longer enough, and discerning customers wanted more. Since 2012, the options for small luxury yachts and catamarans in the Galapagos have almost doubled, with five new vessels premiering in 2015-2017 alone.
One of those vessels, launched in February 2016, is the MV Origin from the sustainable cruising company Ecoventura. The Origin is their most luxurious vessel to date, with ten staterooms for 20 passengers on the 142-foot yacht. This boat brings new amenities (a fitness center, a scenic open-air hot tub) and services (cooking demonstrations, a masseuse for private charters) on board, and keeps the experience intimate with a ratio of just ten passengers to every naturalist guide (a more common ratio in the Galapagos is 16:1).
On dry land, the experience is changing, too. Travel to the Galapagos often requires a stopover in one of mainland Ecuador’s gateway cities, and the options are improving, with a new boutique hotel soon opening its doors in Guayaquil and a steadily developing food scene in both Guayaquil and Quito. Within the Galapagos Islands themselves, new and recently renovated hotels are offering polished accommodation for visitors that want to extend a live-aboard vessel experience with time spent on land.
The Galapagos are changing; here’s a guide to the very best of these islands now.
Planning a Trip
The Galapagos Islands are located on the equator, with warm temperatures year round, but there are two distinct seasons. June to November is known as Garua (“mist”) season. During these months, the Humboldt Current brings a mass of cold water through the islands, and marine life is very active as a result (though days can be a bit overcast). The dry and sunny season is from December through May. Most species of animals can be seen all year long with a few exceptions; the waved albatross is only in the islands from April through November and Whale Shark season is from June through November.
To reach the Galapagos Islands, flights depart from either Guayaquil or Quito in mainland Ecuador. With limited flight times, an overnight stopover is often required in one of these cities. In Guayaquil, the city’s first boutique luxury property, Hotel del Parque (rooms from $350; Av. Rio Esmeraldas; 593-4/232-7999; hoteldelparque.com.ec), is slated to open in late 2016. The serene 44-room hotel has a massage room in the bell tower of a former church and an elegant restaurant. In Quito, Casa Gangotena (rooms from $350; Bolivar Oe6-41 y Cuenca; 593-2/400-8000; casagangotena.com) is an attractive 31-room boutique set in a historic mansion. The vibe is particularly suited to relaxing before or after an active trip to the Galapagos, with peaceful common spaces from the lush garden to a glassed-in patio to a scenic third-floor terrace.
Where to Stay
Quiet time on dry land is a nice supplement to an active weeklong itinerary at sea. The Finch Bay Eco Hotel (rooms from $385; Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island; 593-5/252-6297; finchbayhotel.com) originally opened in 1976, but a complete renovation in February 2016 refreshed the property with design by one of Ecuador’s premiere interior designers, Julio Vinueza. This beachfront hotel has a freshwater swimming pool, a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef in the kitchen, and hammocks in all 27 rooms. The Pikaia Lodge (rooms from $825; Santa Cruz Island; 593-5/303-2058; pikaialodge.com), opened in 2014, remains one of the most striking hotel options in the Galapagos. The 14-room property is set on a dramatic volcanic plateau with views stretching out to the ocean. This ecofriendly boutique has an infinity pool, stocked wine cellar, cocktail bar, and onsite spa.
What to Do
One of the strengths of the Galapagos Islands is its diversity in landscape; one island may have a lunar feel with cascades of volcanic rock while others are spotted with flamingoes and flanked by dramatic cliffs. Choosing a live-aboard vessel allows maximum exposure to the greatest variety of islands, including remote destinations that are difficult to reach during a day trip. Ecoventura offers two different seven-night itineraries with routes that are regulated and set by the national park (see it all by staying for two weeks straight). Their new MV Origin, available for private charter, is the plushest way to experience the journey, and while the route can’t be altered, there is room for customization on board. Guests can request bespoke lectures on topics of their choice, take part in cooking demonstrations, and arrange for an onboard masseuse. In the past, the Galapagos had a reputation for total digital detox, but the Origin allows guests to stay connected with satellite phone and Wi-Fi; cabins also have an Apple TV with pre-loaded movies. With two private pangas, or small boats, drivers are capable of landing on secluded beaches and private excursions can be arranged. As the vessel moves throughout the Galapagos, activities include naturalist-led guided hikes; the opportunity to snorkel with sea lions, sea turtles, and sharks; kayaking excursions; and encounters with different species of birds and giant tortoises. $13,000 for 7 nights, based on double occupancy; origingalapagos.com.
Where to Eat and Drink
Chef Andres Torres, a South American native who has worked at the Michelin three-star rated restaurant Celler de Can Roca in Spain, is behind Guayabera Pop Up (guayaberapopup.com), a (roughly) monthly restaurant pop up in Guayaquil. The location is different for each dinner, which includes a tasting menu under a specific theme. In Quito, reservations are essential for LUA (Pontevedra N240-422 y Francisco Salazar; 593-2/511-2570; luarestaurante.com), where Chef Alexander Lau prepares a Peruvian-influenced menu.