Hang With Giant Tortoises and Blue-Footed Boobies This Summer

The ultimate wildlife destination has reopened to vaccinated animal-lovers everywhere.


Editor’s Note: We know COVID-19 is continuing to impact your travel plans. As of April 2021, official guidance from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention states that fully vaccinated people can travel at low risk, though safety precautions are still required. Should you need to travel, be sure to familiarize yourself with the CDC’s latest guidance as well as local requirements/protocols/restrictions for both your destination and home city upon your return. Be safe out there.

If you’ve ever dreamed of frolicking with sea lions, plunging into equatorial waters alongside penguins, or lounging near giant tortoises-some of which are probably old enough to remember the last pandemic-now’s your chance. The Galápagos Islands (and nearby Ecuador) are now open to vaccinated travelers.

Famous for supporting Darwin’s theory of natural selection, these protected islands will inspire you as easily as they did the late naturalist. With spring-like weather that lasts year-round thanks to the archipelago’s location on the equator, the best time to visit is really anytime-but with our collective love for the outdoors fully reignited by a year inside, you may be ready for Mother Nature to hit you with her best shot ASAP. Here’s what to expect.

What’s open in the Galápagos and how to get there

On the Covid-19 front, you must provide either proof of full vaccination, proof of recovery from Covid, or a negative test taken within three days of arrival to get into Ecuador. To visit the Galápagos, you’ll need a safe travel document from your tour operator, as well as a negative test taken within 96 hours of travel to the islands-even if you’re vaccinated. More info here. You’ll also need $120 in cash: $20 for the transit card fee and a $100 park fee, which goes towards conservation.   

No matter where you’re coming from, getting to the Galápagos will take a few flights. First, head to Ecuador. From the Southern US, a flight to the capitol of Quito is a four-hour jaunt that’ll run you about $450.

To transfer to the Galápagos, you’ll typically fly to Baltra or another one of the more densely populated islands. From there, choose your own adventure: You can pick a hotel on the islands of San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, Isabela, or Floreanathe only islands you’re able to stay and roam freely without a tour group (but you can always book a tour to hop to other islands through your hotel). Or you can opt for a live-aboard boat cruise (like those offered by Metropolitan Touring and Intrepid Travel) whose itineraries typically last between five and eight days. (The latter option tends to offer more opportunities for exploration.)

Steve Allen/Shutterstock
Steve Allen/Shutterstock
Steve Allen/Shutterstock

Make friends with the wildlife

Since the Galápagos have long remained virtually untouched by man, the islands’ animals have no fear of humans-meaning wildlife interactions here are unlike those anywhere else on earth. Plus, some animals can only be found here, like blue-footed boobies, whose tootsies are one of nature’s most colorful creations, and Galápagos iguanas, who’ll charm you with their smushed-in faces and salt-encrusted crowns. (Darwin was not a fan of the latter, writing that they “have a singularly stupid appearance.”)

Wildlife is everywhere, but your best bets are the islands of Española, where sea lions lounge on the beach of the gorgeous Gardner Bay; Fernandina for penguins, hawks, and blue-footed boobies; and Isabela and Santa Cruz for tortoises. For a land-based option, Floreana brings you close to all species of birds.

We’d also be remiss if we didn’t mention that the Galápagos are home to 101-year-old Diego, a giant tortoise whose rampant sex drive essentially repopulated his species. (Thank you for your service, Diego). You can visit the father of over 40 percent of the Galápagos’ tortoise population in retirement on the island of Española.

Scale Ecuadorian volcanoes

Though they’re 600 miles away from the mainland, the Galápagos Islands have been a part of Ecuador since 1812, so you might as well make your trip a bucket list two-fer. Ecuador is considered one of the world’s great mountaineering destinations thanks to its ease of access, multilingual climbing instructors, and peaks that cover a range of difficulty. It’s also home to glacier-encrusted Chimborazo, an inactive stratovolcano in the Andes that’s technically the closest point to the sun on earth.

The second-highest summit in Ecuador is the conical Cotopaxi, an active stratovolcano with popular, straightforward climbing routes ending with gorgeous rewards. Find it in Cotopaxi National Park, where wild horses roam free. (If you’re going to try to make friends with the horses, remember to pack carrots to feed them or else they’ll want nothing to do with you.)

Explore laid-back small towns

Quito and Guyaquil are charming cities, but for a slower pace of life, try one of Ecuador’s smaller cities. Wind down at the beach in Salinas, or for a more earthy surf vibe, try Montañita. There’s also Cuenca, a popular expat destination in the Andes with museums, symphonies, and nightclubs. Climb the steps to the blue cupolas of La Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción de Cuenca, stroll along one of the four rivers that run through town, or pick up a Panama hat, which originated in Ecuador long before it was adopted by influencers.

If it’s leather you’re after, explore the small shops and stalls around the main square in Cotacachi, where leather artisans sell fine wares from jackets to shoes to souvenirs. You’ll find the best bargains on Sunday, market day. Near Quito, there’s also Otovalo, perhaps the most famous market town in Ecuador (for tourists, anyway), where trading dates back to pre-Incan times.

Photo by Adam Aleksander
Photo by Adam Aleksander
Photo by Adam Aleksander

Take a long soak in mineral hot springs

In the foothills of the volcanic Mt. Tungurahua sits Baños-full name Baños de Agua Santa, or Baths of Holy Water. It’s believed that the town’s mineral hot springs have strong healing powers, and some have even claimed to see the Virgin Mary in the area’s spectacular cascading waterfalls, of which there are quite a few. Whether you believe the rumors or not, a long soak here is a relaxing way to begin or end a day of exploring. 

In town, you’ll find adventure opportunities like horse riding, rock climbing, cycling, whitewater rafting, and paragliding; it’s also the last mountain town before the Amazon, so pack a raincoat for jungle treks. And if you’re looking for that one special Instagram shot, Baños is home to the famous Swing at the End of the World, which dangles 8,530 feet in the air at Casa de Arbol. If you don’t have someone to take your picture (or your travel buddies are notorious for tragically blurry shots), there are people there to help out. They’ll also give you a little push if you ask nicely.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat!

Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. She wishes to lounge like a sea lion.


Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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