Love is in the air on Santa Cruz Island in the Galápagos Islands region, and the giant Galápagos tortoises are taking full advantage of the amorous atmosphere.
We were having lunch at a former cattle ranch located in the highlands of Santa Cruz, and unlike the sometimes barren-feeling islands and coastal areas, the highlands are full of verdant foliage. It’s also where the most amount of giant tortoises roam in their original natural habitat.
Thanks to aggressive breeding programs and conservation efforts, the Galápagos tortoises are on the rebound. Overhunting in the past two centuries nearly decimated the population of these lumbering giants; once, more than 250,000 tortoises called the Galápagos Islands home. That number dropped to a terrifying 15,000, but thanks to breeding programs and education, the numbers have increased to 35,000 today.
Learning about the conservation efforts to save the Galápagos tortoises, who can live up to 200 years, was only one of the experiences that Hurtigruten Expeditions’ inaugural cruise to the eastern Galápagos offered up. I was invited on a hosted trip on Hurtigruten’s inaugural cruise offering to the eastern islands of the archipelago off the coast of Ecuador aboard its fully-renovated ship, Santa Cruz II.
With only 35 guests aboard, the Santa Cruz II was my floating home away from home, and with stellar cuisine and a staff of highly-educated naturalists and cruise leaders, I couldn’t imagine a better way to explore a location that ranks high on many people’s bucket list.
I just experienced Hurtigruten’s inaugural cruise to the Galápagos Islands, and here’s why I loved it.
1. A Perfect Way To Explore The Galápagos
Our Galápagos National Park naturalist David Guzman halted our hike and pointed up into a tree on San Cristobal Island. I caught a glimpse of bright red feet curled around a branch, my first sighting of the famed red-footed boobys that call the islands home.
“Besides the color of the feet, the difference between red-footed boobys and blue-footed boobys is that red-footed boobys nest in trees. They have articulated feet that make it possible for them to grasp branches,” Guzman said.
Having a trained Galápagos naturalist leading all of our excursions made all the difference to me, and I learned much more about the ecology, the geology, and the history of the Galápagos Islands than I could have ever expected.
Hurtigruten’s daily itinerary offered different options of activities, ranging from light hikes and longer hikes to glass-bottom boat wildlife touring, deep water snorkeling, and visits to places like the Charles Darwin Research Station and a ranch where giant tortoises roam free like they did before hunting nearly wiped them out.
While you are required to stay 6 feet away from any animal, the opportunities to see the famous “Big 15” animals of the Galápagos abound. Sea lions were everywhere it seemed, and these curious creatures made it difficult to keep your distance, especially when the painfully-adorable pups flopped up to you to say hi.
Thanks to our guides, we were able to see 13 of the Big 15, missing only the penguins and the flightless cormorants. We hiked among the marine and land iguanas, snorkeled with the playful sea lions, observed the nests of the three different boobys, and even the Galápagos albatross. We witnessed the mating of giant tortoises, shooed away the fearless and curious Galápagos mockingbirds, counted the diverse little finches that Darwin made famous, and gazed at little black-tipped sharks in the clear waters surrounding the island.
Honestly, the knowledge of our guides and the educational sessions during the days were my favorite parts of this inaugural Hurtigruten cruise. If you are looking for a cruise experience that allows you to be intimately involved in learning and promoting conservation in these unique islands, this is the cruise for you.
2. Newly Renovated Ship
As a guest of Hurtigruten Expeditions’ Galápagos, I was among the first to sail aboard the “new” MS Santa Cruz II. This ship, in partnership with Metropolitan Touring of Ecuador, is custom-built for exploration. It has only 50 cabins and suites, which means a limited number of guests. That limited number creates an intimate and comfortable way to explore these islands without feeling like you’re part of a giant herd of tourists.
The MS Santa Cruz II underwent a multi-million dollar upgrade leading up to the inaugural cruise, and the cabins and suites were roomier than I expected and decorated in a subtle Nordic theme. The beds were ridiculously comfortable, and being swayed to sleep each night by the rocking of the ocean was relaxing and soothing.
The ship has three decks for lounging and enjoying the scenery, a common room library with a coffee station, a group room for activities like games and movies, a pretty stellar bar, and a restaurant area. The sky deck is outfitted with lounge chairs to soak up the sun, and on clear nights, it’s a perfect spot for stargazing.
The Santa Cruz II also has a fitness center, hot tubs, washers and dryers, a Science Corner, and a small gift store. Besides the spacious Darwin Suites, the ship offers family and single cabins, which have all been upgraded with new mattresses and beddings.
The dining menu features vegan and more vegetarian options at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and each day also features unique Ecuadorian cuisine options.
Oh, and the best part? Free wine and beer all day!
Pro Tip: While Hurtigruten cruises are famous for the strong Wi-Fi on their ships, this particular cruise had limited wi-fi, so be prepared for that.
3. Strong Local Relationships
Hurtigruten Expeditions kicked off its inaugural tour by partnering with Ecuador’s Metropolitan Touring, which is widely thought of as creating expedition cruising in Galápagos more than 70 years ago.
According to Hurtigruten Expeditions, this long-term partnership leverages the local knowledge and access to local experiences that Metropolitan Touring has developed over the past 70 years. In addition, Hurtigruten Expeditions and Metropolitan Touring have exclusive access to some of the best landing sites on the Galápagos Archipelago.
“The added itineraries and experiences are the result of what has proven to be a very fruitful partnership for the benefit of our valued guests. Our expanded offering will truly cover all the key areas of the Galápagos, which are all distinctively different from each other, offering guests an otherworldly experience combined with incredible wildlife,” said Asta Lassesen, CEO of Hurtigruten Expeditions, in a recent press release.
One of those uniquely local experiences was a bike ride to visit a local sugarcane/cacao plantation owned by Adriano Cabrera Sanchez. Not only did we learn about sugarcane and farming in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, but we tasted Mr. Sanchez’s homemade sugar cane moonshine, which he also sells. Trust me, that moonshine is a doozy!
It was the kind of local curated experience that allows guests to interact one-on-one with those who live on the Galápagos Islands, giving a deeper understanding of culture on these islands.
4. Experts In Expedition Cruising
Hurtigruten Expeditions’ inaugural Galápagos “In the Footsteps of Darwin” expedition cruise may have just debuted in January, but already, the company is developing three additional itineraries for 2023 and 2024.
These new itineraries allow guests to choose from four different small-ship expedition cruises. Ranging from four to eight nights, the options include a six-night eastern Galápagos itinerary that I experienced in January, but guests can also choose from a four-night northern Galápagos cruise, a four-night western Galápagos cruise, and an eight-night combination covering northern and western Galápagos. All four options are now available to book for travel in 2023 and 2024.
Hurtigruten Expeditions also offers additional add-on programs to its Galápagos itineraries. For instance, you can add a unique three night pre- or post-program to the award-winning luxury rainforest hotel, Mashpi Lodge. Located in the Ecuadorian Chocó Rainforest, Mashpi Reserve is a private conservation resort tucked within one of the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspots.
Before embarking on the Galápagos cruise, we were able to spend a day in and around Quito, Ecuador, exploring a Sangolqui open-air market and Cotopaxi National Park, which is only an hour-and-a-half drive from Quito.
Led by the Hurtigruten and Metropolitan Touring staff, Cotopaxi is one of the highest volcanoes in the world. After a short hike in this high national park, we enjoyed a traditional lunch from one of the region’s best chefs in San Agustin del Callo.
Pro Tip: The Mashpi Lodge experience includes walking on uneven terrain, so it might be tough for guests with limited mobility.
5. Safety And Conservation
During this inaugural cruise, we visited several conservation facilities, including the endangered giant tortoise breeding center at Cerro Colorado at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the Charles Darwin Research Station at Puerto Ayora, and the tortoise reserve in the highlands.
Conservation and sustainability in travel is a hallmark of Hurtigruten cruises. In fact, thanks to the Hurtigruten Foundation, seven climate and conservation-focused projects around the world are being funded. One of the seven organizations to receive funding is the Fundación de Conservación Jocotoco in Ecuador for its work on the critically-endangered petrel bird on the Galápagos Islands.
The foundation is a collaboration between Hurtigruten and its passengers, partners, suppliers, organizations, and donors. To date, the Foundation has funded more than 41 projects in 11 countries.
Safety is also one of Hurtigruten’s focus areas, from specific protocols on embarking and disembarking, the use of masks in all public areas, and detailed explanations on what one can expect during that day’s itinerary.
Pro Tip: As of this writing, visitors will need a PCR negative COVID test to enter Ecuador, and masks are required in all indoor and outdoor areas throughout Ecuador. And while you don’t have to be in perfect shape, this particular cruise does have several hikes over uneven terrain, so be prepared with good hiking shoes.
For more eclectic experiences near the Galápagos Islands, see these stories: