Long overshadowed by the Galápagos Islands, the Ecuadoran mainland is finding new footing as an exclusive—and reclusive—adventure destination.
The sea lions are lively today. I have just tumbled backward over the edge of a dinghy, and already I am surrounded by the beasts, which whip and twirl around me like fat and furry ribbons, somersaulting and zigzagging in and out of my akimbo legs. At times during this majestic dance, we come face to whiskered face, sending me wriggling backward in a state of alarm. But just millimeters before nose-diving into my head or lashing me with the leather-like tips of their flippers, the sea lions spin out of the way, staring at me with their cartoonish round eyes and chattering away in what sound like giggles.
Our underwater encounter, of course, is a quintessential Galápagos Island experience. Floating some 600 miles off the western coast of Ecuador, in a tiny inlet off Floreana Island, I am beyond time and progress. The sea lions have been zipping in and out of this crusted white coral reef for millennia. A passing sea turtle, its wrinkled neck earnestly stretching toward me, appears as though it has been plying these waters for the last century. And ashore, where thousands of dragon-like marine iguanas sun themselves on the warm surface of the volcanic rock, the scene is much the same as Charles Darwin found it in the 1830s.
The illusion passes, however, when I resurface and board the little dinghy that, filled with roughly a dozen other snorkelers, is bound for Silver Galápagos. We are on a tight schedule, as the ship’s all-aboard call will sound at any minute, ready to ferry us to the next island on our itinerary. Just as we set sail, another ship will take our place, hurriedly deploying its own fleet of dinghies filled with eager snorkelers ready to plunk into the water and swim with the playful creatures below.
The Galápagos Islands archipelago—a collection of 13 islands and more than 100 smaller landmasses that is home to some of the world’s rarest and most fascinating species—is unquestionably Ecuador’s main attraction. The islands have long drawn a disproportionate amount of tourism dollars when compared with the country’s mainland, and in the last 20 years, travel to the islands has more than tripled to nearly 200,000 annual visitors. The archipelago’s popularity has resulted in stringent governmental regulations that have frozen the number of vessels cruising its waters and installed strict routing itineraries to ensure that just one boat occupies an island or site at any given time. Such tight choreography aims to reduce the threat of overexposure; at times, it also offers a sense of exclusivity. The more common by-product of this formula, however, is a general sense of packaged tourism, with little freedom to explore and few opportunities to customize the experience.
The debut last September of Silver Galápagos, a luxury cruise ship from the Monaco-based Silversea, promised a more refined way to visit the islands. Boasting 50 suites, a spa, two restaurants, and balconies in more than half of its accommodations, the ship is indeed a grand improvement over the barnacled expedition vessels and pint-size yachts sailing the same waters. But while Silver Galápagos is elevating the tangible elements of a Galápagos journey, it is confined to the same travel routes as its competitors and thus remains unable to change the Galápagos experience itself.
Travelers looking for a wilderness adventure in Ecuador, however, are not confined to the Galápagos. The country’s greatest strides in tourism over the past few years have taken place in a long-ignored locale: the mainland...
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