Launched in 2022, Kontiki Expeditions has created a “neo-luxury” yacht cruise experience that combines cultural immersion, outdoor adventures, exclusive excursions, and the kind of luxury one expects when sailing on an indulgent yacht.
Sailing from Manta, Ecuador, Kontiki (which takes its name from the Incan god of creation Kon-Tiki Viracocha) sails along the Pacific coast of Ecuador along the Manabi Province on 5- to 8-day luxury sea expeditions to locations that most tourists never see or even bother to consider.
That’s a mistake. While Ecuador’s Andes Mountains, cloud forests, and sections of the Amazon attract those visitors who aren’t going to The Galapagos Islands, the coastal area of Ecuador is rich in ancient culture, pristine marine reserves, protected forests, thriving indigenous communities, and beaches uncrowded by party-goers or screaming kids.
Combine those experiences with luxurious touches, culinary excellence, and an indulgent onboard stay, and Kontiki Expeditions may have the perfect trip for travelers who want the comfort and amenities of a high-end cruise with the authenticity and exclusive experiences of small-ship, expedition-style action.
Here are the five reasons I loved this small ship cruise of Ecuador’s rarely-explored coastline.
I was a hosted guest of Kontiki Expeditions, but all opinions are my own.
1. Small Ship, Big Luxury
Kontiki Expeditions’ MS Wayra is a 128-foot luxury yacht with nine staterooms for just 18 guests. And with a full staff of absolute professionals, you’ll feel like you’ve got the ship to yourself — even in the common areas where other guests congregate.
The rooms and bathrooms are roomy and comfortable, and the topside bar, hot tub, and sundeck are always fun places to sip on cocktails and chat with friends. A wine cellar, fitness room, massage area, and plenty of deck seating round out the beauty of the MS Wayra, but it’s the staff that makes this ship truly a luxury experience.
The staff of roughly 10 — plus an onboard naturalist and guide — are trained in safety and service, ensuring that you will be catered to and looked after. The rooms are spotlessly cleaned three times a day like magic. I say “magic” because the little fellow in charge of the rooms slips in and out without ever being seen, leaving only little treats and a freshly-made bed as proof he was actually there.
After shore excursions or snorkeling adventures, the staff is always waiting with cool damp hand towels, hot chocolate, herbal tea, and coffee, and the barista/bartender is a pro at making your favorite cappuccino and latte or pouring a glass of that malbec you just fell in love with.
The ship isn’t just luxurious amenities though; it’s full of fun as well. The water club includes ocean kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and “SeaBobs” to play with as well as a three-story inflatable slide from the top deck to the ocean that’ll make you feel like a kid again.
The ocean swimming pool is ocean-net enclosed so you don’t have to worry about jellyfish or other sneaky critters brushing up against you, and the ship has all the snorkeling gear you’ll need to gaze around the pristine ocean off the coast of Ecuador.
Oh, and if you are prone to seasickness, the staff is ready with motion sickness tablets if you need them.
Pro Tip: While the ship etiquette onboard is barefoot, you must bring good walking shoes for land expeditions, beach sandals, and water shoes (optional). You’ll definitely need your bathing suit, comfortable walking clothes, and a hat. Sunscreen is an absolute must because you are basking at the equator. A light jacket is recommended for those cooler, windier nights on the ship. Also, an end-trip gratuity of $300 to $350 is a typical amount to set aside if you are happy with the service.
2. One-Of-A-Kind Adventures
On Isla de la Plata, blue-footed boobies waddled everywhere, their turquoise feet slapping at the dry, hard ground. Male boobies sat protectively on their chicks — cotton ball fluffs with curious black faces — while the females were out searching for food on the ocean. A little farther down the path, along the steep cliffs overlooking the wild Pacific, Nasca boobies were in the middle of their own mating and breeding season.
While 10 local tour organizers visit Isla La Plata, we had the island to ourselves for the morning. Part of Machalilla National Park, this protected uninhabited island is known as a “mini-Galapagos” because of the blue-footed, Nasca, and red-footed boobies that nest here, as well as the Galapagos albatrosses.
As part of Kontiki’s exclusive experiences, we had private guides to lead us up the trails that run to the sheer cliff tops that sometimes overlook migratory humpback whales. Our on-board naturalist and expedition guide Raul (Ruly) Menoscal shared facts about the ecosystem, but hiking and bird watching weren’t the only Kontiki Expeditions exclusive adventures we enjoyed during the 5-day cruise.
From snorkeling the marine reserves to hiking through small national parks and rainforests and getting our hands dirty learning the ancient pottery techniques of the pre-historic Valdivian civilization with the Orrolo family in Puerto Lopez, the wet and dry landing excursions through Kontiki are one of a kind.
The Pacoche Marine Wildlife Refuge near Manta brought us on a hike (easy, but rocky in places) through a rainforest to spot howler monkeys, spot tiny fingernail-sized frogs, say hello to a calm and quiet tarantula, and learn about the ecosystem in this marine cloud forest.
You also have a chance to interact with local communities, learn about indigenous culture and history and take part in hands-on activities with local artisans.
3. Interacting With Small Communities
From Shamans To Chocolatiers
Inside the circle made from ashes, a shaman and two assistants from the indigenous Agua Blanca community in the Machalilla National Park waited with traditional grass skirts and headdresses to lead our small group in a Seven Winds blessing ceremony led by Shaman Plinio Merchán.
With palo santo smoke and oil, we were cleansed of our negative energies and told to make a wish before giving thanks and blessings to the directions, the sky, the earth, and all the communities and peoples in every direction. With bare chests, a crown of feathers, and jangly seed anklets, the shamans welcomed each of us with open hearts, and we felt comforted and light after the ceremony was over.
Descendants of the Manteño-Huancavilca civilization — one of the last pre-Columbian civilizations in modern-day Ecuador that existed from 850 to 1600 A.D. — the Agua Blanca community visit was only one of the deep interactions we had along the Ecuadorian Coast.
We learned about the world’s rarest chocolate from Servio Pachard, one of the main cacao growers for To’Ak Chocolates, who grows heritage cacao trees thought to be extinct or near extinct. In fact, Pachard had to use DNA testing to prove the ultra-rare (and ultra-expensive) Arriba Nacional cacao bean still existed. He led us through the process of sampling various rare cacao pods, roasting the beans, and peeling and grinding the beans to create a shot of pure, heavenly chocolate rich enough to make you light-headed.
We learned about the Manabita ovens used in the Manabi area — an all-in-one oven/grill/smoker — at LaSecreta’s cooking school/restaurant/food lab in the rural area of Manabi. Created to give opportunities to those affected by an earthquake and the pandemic, this school includes a cooking lab, classrooms, an outdoor kitchen, herb and vegetable gardens, and even a distillery, giving the adult students a thorough education in hospitality and culinary arts.
We watched master hatmaker Domingo Carranza use his sharpened fingernails to separate palm fronds into the perfect straw to weave into toquilla straw hats (unfairly called Panama Hats), a by-hand process that can take months.
We kneaded clay with the Orrolo family at Puerto Lopez to make our own clay pots in the same way the ancient Valdivian peoples created pottery, and we dined on cuisine harvested locally from farms, rainforests, and oceans.
Interacting with the communities and history in this area through exclusive experiences offered only by Kontiki Expeditions was my favorite part of this entire trip.
4. Culinary Delights
Trust me: You won’t go hungry or unsatisfied on the Kontiki MS Wayra. The two on-board chefs are masters of creating dishes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that highlight the local seafood and produce of the Manabi region and are able to tweak dishes to accommodate dining preferences or allergies.
The breakfast buffet always had a selection of fresh fruits like dragon fruit, papaya, mango, and berries as well as fluffy pastries, freshly-squeezed juices, and sliced smoked salmon. The hot dishes included eggs and bacon, but also regional dishes rich with plantains.
Lunch and dinner always included a seafood option, which I loved. From prawns swimming in spicy sauce to perfectly prepared fish filets, the dinners also included other meats for the non-seafood fans and rich, decadent desserts paired with wine or drinks of your choice.
All meals were served in a communal dining room which rang with the laughter and jokes of the passengers, and tasty little snacks like empanadas were served at the topside bar and jacuzzi during free time.
Pro Tip: Don’t miss out on having the bartender cut open a fresh coconut for you to sip on. Whether or not you add rum is your choice, but it’s an amazingly refreshing treat after a long day of snorkeling or hiking.
5. Naturalist Knowledge And Passion
Carlos Nuñez started Kontiki Expeditions to bring tourism and sustainable income to the coast of Ecuador, where he grew up. His family was among the tuna fishing moguls, so sustainability and reducing the carbon footprint of expedition touring were important to him.
Beyond that, Carlos wants the rich and diverse culture and ecosystem of coastal Ecuador to be enjoyed.
“We are pioneers on this. We kind of invented the wheel on this,” he said. “Not even locals come to the coast because people are focused 100 percent on Galapagos. Now, I think we will definitely get more attention for the destination because of Kontiki. Now people are thinking, ‘Why not? Why not go off the beaten track?’”
In addition to creating jobs and supporting local communities, Nuñez wants the world to experience neo-luxury yacht cruising in a way that matters. Every tour includes an onboard naturalist guide, and Ruly Menoscal was among the best. A former naturalist and researcher (he spent 8 months alone on one of the Galapagos islands), Ruly was our translator for language and the experiences we were on. He had a wealth of knowledge and was patient, funny, enthusiastic, and passionate about the region and conservation.
Each day ended with a slideshow presentation of all we experienced that day and a run-down of the next day’s activities. Having a trained guide/naturalist on board and on all the excursions gave us a depth of knowledge and understanding that we never would have experienced otherwise.
For travelers looking for authentic, off-the-beaten-path, and exclusive experiences and adventures combined with the expected luxury of a super-yacht, Kontiki Expeditions offers both. Although the days are packed full of fun and excursions, you’ll feel more relaxed on this expedition cruise than most.
And because you’re among the few that can explore the Ecuadorian coast in neo-luxury, you’ll have stories to share that few people have experienced themselves.