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We don't have to try hard to see the Galapagos' storied creatures: as soon as we step off the panga, the path before us is crawling with lizards, either side lined with busy bird nests and Sally lightfoot crabs scurrying over the sand. Right before us, one day, flightless cormorants participate in a courtship ritual; another day, we see albatross chicks learning to fly and red-footed boobies incubating their eggs.
A few hours later, we're back on the Evolution, always cheerfully greeted onboard with fresh juices, mid-morning pastries and tropical fruit. There's a scramble on the decks as passengers change into their wetsuits and adjust their snorkel masks in preparation for the morning's second activity. The strategy depends on the island: some days we snorkel off the pangas, other times we'll enter the water from the shore. Considering we're practically on the equator, the water is surprisingly icy; as our naturalists tell us, we're feeling the chill of the Humboldt current, the same current that originally brought the Galapagos penguins here. Every time, the cold water shocks me at first. But a few deep breaths later, I have my face in the water, and I'm suddenly enveloped into the spectacular underwater world.
The hot tub on the main deck—with room for at least a dozen of us at a time—is a very welcome feature as we climb back onto the yacht.
Refinement in the great outdoors
Despite the fact that some of us are still in swimsuits and sweatshirts after snorkeling, lunch is an elegant affair onboard the Evolution. The tables are formally set with white linens and silver, a few bottles of Chilean Chardonnay are chilling on a side table, and the staff serves a soup course—Ecuadorean ceviche one day, Italian minestrone another —before we help ourselves to an elaborate buffet. When it's not too windy on the rear deck, we can carry our plates outside, piled high with grilled tuna and steak, sliced avocado and green salad, linguine with shrimp or a range of other gourmet dishes.
An hour or so later, after a well-deserved siesta, we're back on the pangas to make the most of the remaining daylight. We head out for an afternoon excursion: a hike to take in sweeping vistas, a white sandy beach for swimming, a penguin-spotting boat ride along the rocky coastline, a paddle into a cove populated by dozens of sea turtles. Every island holds surprises. One afternoon, we come upon sea lion pups diving and playing in a crystal-blue swimming hole; another day, we spot a colony of iguanas or a gigantic frigate bird, wings spread against a black lava rock, soaking up the sun's rays.
We make it back onto the Evolution just in time for a dazzling sunset. The captain calls for the anchor to be lifted and we're moving again, small groups gathered on the open-air lounge, poring through wildlife guides from the yacht's library or chatting over margaritas prepared by the friendly barman. The naturalists give their daily briefing around 7pm, followed by dinner. Then it's early to bed for most of us. Tomorrow's wake-up call is still many hours away, but we're happily tired from the sun, the surf, the hikes, the rich desserts—the general sensory overload.
Giant tortoise frontier
There's one day on the itinerary that greatly differs from the routine - the day we see the giant tortoises on the island of Santa Cruz. The day features an action-packed agenda filled with hikes around forested craters and treks into eerily, cave-like 'lava tubes' - both reminders of the island's volcanic past - but the highlight is our visit to a private ranch, one of several on the island that's designed to attract giant tortoises. We kick off our hiking shoes and step into knee-high rubber boots, the better to tramp around the muddy grounds of the tortoise wonderland where the prehistoric-looking creatures crawl, graze and bathe. We watch one tortoise, said to be more than 100 years old, slowly make his way from a murky pond to a verdant patch of grass. We see a 'teenager turtle' that pulls back into his shell when a little boy from our group approaches him too closely. Later, at the nearby Charles Darwin Research Station, we'll see the famous old bachelor tortoise, Lonesome George, and hundreds of baby tortoises that look strikingly similar to the box turtles of my youth.