Find caves, coves, creatures and craters with a land-based stay in this bucket list destination
“Stop where you are, and—whatever you do—don’t move or make a sound,” our tour guide calls out to our group in a loud whisper. My heart races as I grab the hand of my friend who’s standing beside me. Just then, an oversized alpha male sea lion rushes towards us and toddles through our circle, nearly grazing our legs as he barks loudly to show his dominance. We stand frozen in place and watch on, terrified.
There are only seven of us on Mosquera Island, a tiny islet nestled between Baltra and North Seymour in the Galapagos Islands, and as we stand huddled together on the white sandy beach, I realize that we are greatly outnumbered by the sea lions that surround us. My attention turns back to the alpha male, who has now moved right past our group, and I realize that he doesn’t care that we’re there at all. His attention is solely focused on a younger male sea lion who has tried to tread tracks on his territory.
We exhale and laugh together as our guide gives us permission to move on, and as we continue along the beach, we pass baby sea lions that are only days (some merely hours) old. We watch our step as large land iguanas race past our toes, and we point at the varying species of shorebirds that soar over our heads.
People who have yet to visit the famed archipelago always ask what makes the destination so special, and the first answer is always the wildlife. Here, animals don’t fear people. Birds will fly towards you, playful sea lions will swim by your side as you snorkel, and tortoises will stare back at you with the same wonder and curiosity as you do to them. There are no predators, and there is no harm done by humans. In the Galapagos Islands, animals rule, nature is preserved, and humans are the guests.
The unique species found in the Galapagos are worth the trek alone, but beyond the animals, there is so much more to the islands. During our visit, we crept through lava tube caves, cavorted along the crevices of craters, kayaked in the pristine waters, and chatted with locals. The magical landscape is mesmerizing, and every aspect is a must-see.
1. Where to stay: Pikaia Lodge offers the best of both worlds
Light fills my room, and I rub my eyes as I shuffle towards the floor-to-ceiling windows of my spacious suite to pull up the blinds. I step out onto my balcony, and am taken aback by the view. Below me, and stretching out towards the horizon, I see rows upon rows of lush green Scalesia trees, a species endemic to the Galapagos. Amongst them, tortoises roam freely, stopping to munch on long blades of grass as they meander through the sweeping property.
I contemplate going for a walk, but opt instead for a quiet coffee by the infinity pool before our day’s adventures begin.
Pikaia is set in the centre of a private giant tortoise reserve, nestled between two inactive volcanic craters, and surrounded by trees, so everywhere you look, the view is absolutely breathtaking. The stay on land gives me a break from a day of shaky sea legs, but I appreciate that I don’t have to miss out on the wonders of the water entirely.
The property offers day excursions aboard their privately-owned 105-foot luxury yacht, with private cabins for guests, exclusive to the lodge. Unlike other land-based properties, Pikaia Lodge is the only hotel in the Galapagos to own a yacht, and the privacy and smaller group dynamic makes all the difference when you’re cruising from island-to-island each day. Whether on property or out at sea, we are fed well during our stay. Evolution, the property's on-site restaurant, offers a delicious à la carte menu that fuses modern international cuisine with traditional Ecuadorian dishes, and aboard the yacht, the same high quality food is served to keep us fuelled up.
2. Getting around
Whether exploring by land or sea, a tour guide is mandatory in the Galapagos Islands, and Pikaia ensures that guests get the best. Our assigned guide for the trip, Luis “Champi” Rodriguez, is known as the island’s “champion”. A local with over 20 years of experience as a guide, and a walking encyclopedia who combines wit with passion to keep us engaged all day long, Champi knows it all and I feel safe under his watch.
Because he provides an insider’s perspective, I’m convinced that we’ve seen, experienced, and learned more from him than the average visitor, and his understanding of his surroundings pushes me to step outside of my comfort zone. With his encouraging push, I face my fears and snorkel nose-to-fin with white-tipped reef sharks, emerging from the water feeling completely elated.
3. Giving back
To help the local economy thrive, Pikaia Lodge promotes the "Pack For a Purpose" initiative, encouraging guests to bring supplies for local schools. The property also sponsors the Tomas de Berlanger School, the first of its kind on the islands, where the focus will be on educating and training the youth of the Galapagos Islands in science, language, tourism and environmental industries in order to foster the innovators of the future.
Guests to the lodge are also encouraged to complete their stay with a visit to an on-site spot where they can plant a Scalesia tree, imperative to ensuring the continued survival of the sensitive species that call the island home, and I’m excited to take part.
Crouching on the ground with my fists full of dirt, and grinning from ear to ear, I place the plant into the ground. I’ve connected with this magical place, and it feels good to leave my mark there, just as the Galapagos Islands have left a mark on me.