All of us sat in the tender, looking at the steps and trying to figure out what to do. We thought we were headed ashore for a hike to the summit of Bartolome, a craggy, volcanic islet in the Galápagos archipelago. But several sea lions—each of them weighing well more than 200 pounds—were quite comfortable lounging on the stairs where our feet needed to go.
Such is the typical experience during a yacht charter in the place where giant tortoises roam, blue-footed boobies abound and sea lions cavort without fear of humankind. The Galápagos are their world, not ours. These islands are a place where what the animals want and need comes first, a place where it’s still possible to see nature unfettered by civilization.
The Galápagos have occupied a special place on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. In June, I visited aboard the 130-foot (39.8-meter) Grand Daphne, a yacht built from an unfinished Broward hull that was launched in 2020 and is now part of the Burgess charter fleet. Renowned as the birthplace of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, these relatively young, volcanically formed islands exhibit exceptional biodiversity. Being isolated in the eastern Pacific, straddling the equator some 565 miles off the western coast of South America, has allowed the islands’ flora and fauna to develop in a distinctive way.
The Galápagos are a province of Ecuador, and much of the islands’ territory is designated as a national park and marine reserve. In an effort to preserve its unique culture, the Ecuadorian government has established a strict protocol to follow in order to visit—hence our needing to wait so patiently for the sea lions to remove themselves from those steps.
Misconceptions about the Galápagos are common. Some people believe Darwin discovered the islands (he got there in 1835, about 300 years after the bishop of Panama). Other people imagine that the islands are unpopulated except for some small villages and scientific research centers (there are actually some 30,000 residents).
As for the terrain, people envision a combination of Jurassic Park and the surface of the moon. There are indeed some desolate, volcanic landscapes, but there are also lush highland forests that propagate coffee, cocoa and orchids. Habitats vary from island to island, with several claiming uncommonly prolific species of living things. There are still more than 15 species of finches in the Galápagos, which are a birdwatcher’s paradise. The very name of the islands comes from the animals there: Galápagos, in Spanish, means saddle. Apparently, tortoise shells reminded early sailors of saddles.
Getting to the islands is still a journey, even with modern transportation.Depending on where you originate, the trip will most likely require a stop on mainland Ecuador—either in Quito or Guayaquil. Then, you need to take a connecting flight to the islands, where the crew of Grand Daphne will collect you at the airport. The yacht also sometimes collects frigate birds, which caught a lift on our handrails as we got underway.
Each day’s activities included land exploration, snorkeling and encounters with wildlife, such as the northernmost penguins in the world. I found them as entertaining as any Disney cartoon as I swam alongside them, and with sea lions, and with the white-tip reef sharks, and with so many fish: sturgeon, king angels, parrotfish and sergeant majors were just a few within my gaze amid the coral, sea cucumbers and sea stars.
On the island of Sombrero Chino—which means Chinese hat—a nature walk along the rocky lava field coastline of Sullivan Bay led to bright orange Sally Lightfoot crabs, marine iguanas and multitudes of sunbathing sea lion pups. At one point, flamingos flew by. This was Galápagos exactly as I’d always imagined it.
On Santa Cruz Island, we changed climate zones the higher we got on our drive to El Trapiche farm. Owner Adriano Cabrera regaled us with stories and jokes and demonstrated how to process sugarcane the old-fashioned way: with donkey power turning a wheel press. We tasted his home-brewed cachaça, distilled from sugarcane infused with his own coffee beans. Not quite an espresso martini, but the same effect, and a delight along with the organic 80 percent dark chocolate from his homegrown cocoa pods.
Scalesia forest was home to orchids, mosses, bromeliads and many species of birds. We stopped to gaze into Los Gemelos—a gigantic sinkhole—and visited El Chato Tortoise Reserve, where the tortoises were generally about 6 feet long and weighed around 570 pounds. They live around 100 years; the oldest one recorded on the Galápagos lived to 177.
Puerto Ayora, a bustling port on the southern end of Santa Cruz, surprised me in a whole other way. It’s the largest town in the Galápagos and has the trappings of modern, upscale civilization, including hotels, restaurants, bars, boutiques and art galleries. And yes, sea lion lounged on the sidewalks here, too.
Visiting the Galápagos by charter yacht combines all of these experiences with a comfortable platform and welcoming crew. Grand Daphne’s early morning home-baked pastries, and on-deck nighttime stargazing in the absence of light pollution, are also memories to be treasured.
Just be prepared with an adventurous spirit when you step into the tender. You never quite know what will be awaiting on shore.
At 130 feet (38.5 meters) length overall, Grand Daphne is contemporary and bright with flexible accommodations for 12 guests in eight staterooms. The crew of 10 includes a chief stewardess/concierge and a full-time Galápagos guide. Base rates are approximately $217,000 a week.
For more information: burgessyachts.com or any charter broker
Hacienda Zuleta, Ecuador
It’s worthwhile to extend your Galápagos trip and explore the beauty of Quito, Ecuador. Established in the 1500s, and 9,350 feet above sea level, Quito is one of the highest capital cities in the world. It lies in the shadow of the spectacular outlying landscape of the Andes. We visited the 4,000-acre Hacienda Zuleta, where we went horseback riding in breathtaking mountain terrain and indulged in true farm-to-table fare. For shoppers, there is a world-class outdoor market in Otavalo for alpaca wraps, sweaters, llama ponchos and Panama hats (which actually originated in Ecuador). We headed west to the Mindo Cloud Forest and experienced thrilling canopy ziplining, along with botanical parks filled with butterflies. —J.B.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue.