The first tourists arrived in the Galápagos Islands via cruise ship in
1934, initiating a travel trend that has persisted for decades until
operators like Classic Journeys chose to defy the status quo and
offer island-based tours of the islands. "It really comes down to
the amount of quality time you get to spend engaged in activities,
and shuttling back-and-forth to your boat really cuts into that,"
explained Edward Piegza, who founded Classic Journeys 25 years
ago. He added that his company has "kissed a lot of frogs" to
assemble island-based tours that use the luxury of time to go
beyond where boat tourists tread.
I unwrapped the gift of surplus seconds on my second day in
the Galápagos. Rising before the crack of dawn at my oceanfront
hotel on Isabela Island, I set out to do some solo exploring with a
run along the beach and into the national park. Even before the first
boat-based tourists were loading into inflatable boats for transport
to shore, I was hurdling the island's famous giant tortoises. These
behemoths, the longest-lived of all vertebrates, appeared unphased
by my presence as they languidly chewed tiny green "poisoned"
apples along an aptly named tortuga allée. At this early hour, the
humidity hung on my shoulders like a weighted blanket, and I was
relieved that the sound of bird calls and the rhythmic beating of
waves on the beach was enough to mask my labored breathing. By
the time our scheduled itinerary kicked off at 9 am, I was elated
that I'd already enjoyed my fair share of awe-inducing moments.
Within the first few hours on a Classic Journeys-led trip, it's
easy to see why the company was named the World's Best Tour
Operator in 2019, by the readers of Travel + Leisure (the second time
in the past five years). The secret sauce ladled over its diverse menu
of tours around the globe includes heavy hyper-local involvement,
which Piegza likens to applying the farm-to-table concept to travel.
From native guides to locally-owned hotels and restaurants, guests
receive a comprehensive cultural immersion at every step.
Our Galápagos adventure commenced at Seymour Airport on
arid Baltra Island, home to a United States Army Air Force base during
World War II. Sebastian, our primary guide for the trip, awaited us.
The Quito, Ecuador native said he fell in love with guiding at age
17 and feels lucky to have spent the past two decades doing what
he loves. Attentive and affable, we knew right away that we were in
good hands. A short, scenic small craft flight took us to Isabela Island,
where we met another Sebastian, one of the island's 2,000 residents.
He introduced us to his infectious and endearing enthusiasm with
a booming "Hello my beautiful travelers!" as soon as we deplaned.
Ninety-seven percent of the Galápagos is a national park, and
humans have only been living on its five habitable islands since the
beginning of the 19th century. On Isabela, buildings reflect island
life where resources are scarce (there's no fresh water), and the most
is made of what's available. Just outside the heart of town, Iguana
Crossing, our home base for the first part of our trip, is a familyowned
and eco-friendly beachfront hotel that provides quick access
to the aforementioned national park trail.
Classic Journeys offers several versions of their island-based
Galápagos trips, from a five-day multi-sport jaunt to a nine-day
culture and walking tour that includes a stop at Machu Picchu.
What I loved most about my small-group multi-sport adventure
was the ability to actively explore both above and below the water.
From coming face-to-face with a sea lion in the water near Santa Fe
Island (who let us know quite emphatically that we were getting a
little too close to his pup), to hiking 11 miles round-trip to the top
of the six-mile-wide crater of Volcan Sierra Negra (one of the most
active calderas on the planet), the itinerary accommodated our
group's varied interests and physical abilities.
During the volcano hike, where we observed boat-based
tourists turning around at the half-way mark due to time
constraints, we stopped periodically to taste wild plants and admire
a landscape that went from a scrubby beach, up to a lush jungle,
and topped out with at a vast lunar-like lava field. As someone
who has set off on more than one outdoor adventure woefully
underprepared, I appreciated that the guides think of (and carry)
everything, from bottled water to fresh aloe vera.
Adventures in the field are supplemented by opportunities
to discuss local culture, politics, and quality of life with our guide
and fellow guests. Before a dinner at Iguana Crossing, we enjoyed
a ceviche-making demonstration and learned that Ecuadorans
garnish the traditional Latin American dish with popcorn.
We island-hopped from Isabela to Santa Cruz via private boat.
The two-hour ride was quite scenic and relatively smooth, which was
a great relief for someone like me who is prone to seasickness. Unique
lodging continued at the Angermeyer Waterfront Hotel, accessible
via a five-minute water taxi from Santa Cruz across Puerto Ayora
Bay. While there are a host of upscale lodging options in this high
cotton district, only Angermeyer can lay claim to being operated by
the first person born on nearby Baltra Island. Teppy Angermeyer's
family relocated to the island from Germany in the 1940s to escape
the war. "There was literally nothing here," he said while recounting
the realities of a subsistence existence. Today Teppy's father's boat is
permanently "docked" on the hillside, where it's now into a one-ofa-
kind suite. My favorite spot on the property was a 1960s era grotto,
where groovy vibes are served up alongside a hearty breakfast buffet.
At the El Chato Reserve on Santa Cruz, we walked alongside
giant tortoises, who generally went about chomping grass as if we
weren't there. Far lusher that Isabela, the fertile volcanic soils are
ideal for growing coffee and sugarcane. Stopping at El Trapiche, an
agritourism destination, it's hard not to be smitten by the charm
of farmer Adriano Cabrera. He demonstrated how donkey power,
elbow grease, and ingenuity are employed to produce everything
from coffee to moonshine. Picking up a few bags of coffee beans
allowed me to recount this exceptional experience with my
morning cup of joe long after returning home.
While the Galápagos is a protected ecological wonder, it is not
entirely immune from destructive practices, as we learned during
a snorkeling trip around Santa Fe Island. En route, our eagleeyed
captain spotted something bobbing in the water and quickly
realized it was a sea turtle entangled in an illegal dragnet. The crew
promptly sprang into action, and in a whirl of activity that had all
of our hearts pumping, gingerly freed the traumatized turtle who
swiftly swam away.
The boat captain (yet another Sebastian), whose family once
fished these waters for a living, estimated that the turtle might
have spent months in this precarious position based on the net's
condition. "Because of guests like those from Classic Journeys who
want to really experience the wildlife in these waters, the octopus I
used to catch and sell to a restaurant is now my business partner,"
he explained. "I can take people to snorkel to his hidden places, and
he reveals himself to us."
Following the afternoon's excitement, we enjoyed a barbeque
lunch on the boat, taking time to wade into the azure waters and
onto dry land to ogle a species of iguana unique to this island.
Reflecting on the adrenaline-packed day, which came at the end of
our trip, Piegza said, "I have the best job in the world, creating trips
of a lifetime, and Classic Journeys has the wherewithal to make that
statement more than just a tagline." sl
For more information about Classic Journeys, visit classicjourneys.com.