A Galápagos Update

Tyler Dillon

Thanks to a few new hotels and cruise options, the archipelago off the coast of Ecuador is more accessible—and luxurious—than ever.

From the Cerro Mesa viewpoint in the Galápagos’ Santa Cruz highlands, a national-park-protected forest flows down toward the Pacific Ocean. East is the island of San Cristóbal, and south, Santa Fé, with no sign of human habitation in between—here, west of Ecuador, 600 miles into the Pacific and just 20 miles from the equator.

In a wilderness such as this, Pikaia Lodge, a new 14-room hotel sitting on a volcanic plateau close to Cerro Mesa, is conspicuous. This is not only simply because the building is relatively high up on the island but also because it’s of a dramatically modernist design—a hard-edged linear concoction of concrete, steel and glass, like some bizarre headquarters for Dr. No. Travel consultant Tyler Dillon, who organizes high-end bespoke trips to the 13 main islands of the archipelago for outfitter Butterfield & Robinson, agrees that the architecture conceived by Ecuadorean Humberto Plaza is odd, that people will either love it or hate it. “In some contexts, the building would be a sore thumb,” says Dillon as we look down from Cerro Mesa at the concrete shell of the lodge. “Here it just visualizes the peculiarity of the place.” The fact that some travelers won’t like looking at Pikaia is beside the point: They will love looking from it through floor-to-ceiling windows that reveal the landscape and Pacific beyond.

Pikaia—which will have its soft opening in April 2014 with a limited number of rooms, and launch fully in October—will be for travelers who don’t want to sleep in a tent (Pikaia’s main land-based rival is Galapagos Safari Camp—an enchanting, low-key tented outpost, also on Santa Cruz) and who want wine lists, gourmet cuisine and a suite with a private pool; who want to mix land and sea on lavish day trips using the lodge’s 100-foot oceangoing yacht, Pikaia I, because there’s a hot tub on deck and air-conditioned private cabins for switching into a sarong. Beyond wildlife-spotting, the lodge offers mountain biking, kayaking and snorkeling trips aboard the 35-foot Pikaia II.

But what the debut of Pikaia really signifies is a change from the old way of doing these islands—by live-aboard boat moving from island to island either at huge expense (the private charter) or as a group (booking a berth on a fixed-departure trip). Though so as not to be outshined, cruise company Silversea Expeditions has offered up a competitive strike: more luxury, with the September 2013 launch of its first boat in the islands, the 100-guest, 50-cabin Silver Galapagos. About half the ocean-view suites have private balconies, while the seven-day itineraries will get you farther into the archipelago than Pikaia can manage on day trips. For now this gives Silversea the edge in a destination as otherworldly and varied as its emerging statement architecture.

Rooms at Pikaia start at $3,230 a person for a three-night package; 877-234-7033; pikaialodgegalapagos.com. Silversea cruises start at $5,450 a person for six nights; 877-215-9986; silversea.com. For Galápagos itineraries, contact Tyler Dillon, tyler.dillon@butterfield.com.

Where to Stay on the Way to the Galápagos

We used to consider Quito, Ecuador, little more than a pit stop before heading to the Galápagos. Now there’s a luxury hotel that makes one want to stick around. Since opening in 2011, Casa Gangotena has settled in as if it were a classic, with elegant cuisine and an efficient concierge. The highlight is its location; 8 of the 31 rooms offer Plaza San Francisco views. Rooms start at $480; Bolivar Oe6-41 y Cuenca; 59-32/400-8000; casagangotena.com.