Exploring the Galapagos Islands with Metropolitan Touring

Ecuador-based expedition cruise operator Metropolitan Touring has an enviable reputation among Galapagos adventurers. Jon Ingleton asks CEO Paulina Burbano de Lara why

Exploring the Galapagos Islands with Metropolitan Touring
Metropolitan Touring’s small cruise ships provide guests with a comfortable expedition cruise experience

Founded in 1953, Metropolitan Touring excels in delivering unique explorations of Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. While the company may be a relatively small player in the global cruise industry, thousands of satisfied guests can attest to the company’s first-class pedigree. 

“Our long experience in the Galapagos has enabled us to design and perfect the ideal way to explore the archipelago – we know what type of ship to employ, which itineraries and activities work best, and what pre- or post-cruise options guests might choose to add on,” says Paulina Burbano de Lara, CEO of Metropolitan Touring. “Encounters with nature are our number one priority and wildlife experiences are at the core of everything we create as part of our Galapagos expedition cruises, no matter which ship guests are sailing on. Consequently, our onboard expedition manager plays a key role on each ship.” 

Like every travel and tourism operator in the region, Metropolitan Touring acts as a guardian of the Galapagos and its wildlife. “The Galapagos has long been regarded as one of the world’s greatest natural sanctuaries, and we have always aimed to play a positive role in long-term sustainability,” says Burbano de Lara. “We are a carbon-neutral company. Guests who travel with us contribute directly to the protection of the biodiverse forests of the Chocó region of Ecuador, a Unesco biosphere reserve since 2018.”  

The company owns three specialist expedition ships: La Pinta, Isabela II and Santa Cruz II. “Our onboard space-to-guest ratio is excellent, and we always operate with small groups of guests who have similar interests, physical abilities and languages,” says Burbano de Lara. “Our ships are operated by Ecuadorian naval officers, which is not a requisite for all boats in the Galapagos, and sailings are overseen by our maritime operations department. Due to the size of our ships and the number of guides onboard, we’re able to offer all the expedition activities permitted by the Galapagos National Park, such as kayaking, glass-bottom boat trips, paddleboarding and snorkelling.” 

Partnerships are an essential component of the company’s modus operandi. “Over the decades, we have built strong and long-lasting relationships with international trade partners, local authorities and civil society,” says Burbano de Lara, noting that the company is also a member of the chambers of tourism both in the Galapagos and Ecuador.  

“Our long-term relationships with reputable international tour operators – such as UnCruise Adventures, Orbridge and Tauck in the USA, and Audley, Journey Latin America, and Abercrombie & Kent in the UK – mean that we’re constantly improving our standards and levels of service. We’re also members of Latin American Travel Association in the UK and subject to its health and safety audits.” 

Operational excellence is another important mantra for every business department. “We emphasise continuous improvement through guest surveys and feedback loops, and we have a research and development department to identify advances, trends and competition,” says Burbano de Lara. “All our captains, first mates and pilots are Ecuadorian naval officers overseen by our experienced maritime operations department. We organise continuous staff training, including the ServSafe certification for our food and beverage service team. We operate our own supply and logistics chains, with offices in Quito, Guayaquil and the Galapagos Islands, to ensure safety and the finest service and catering aboard our ships.”  

Metropolitan Touring’s strong partnerships and commitment to operational excellence were crucial to the company successfully restarting cruise operations in the Galapagos last summer.  

“We’ve been operating consistently since July 2020, going beyond the criteria of the World Travel & Tourism Council’s Safe Travels stamp since restarting operations,” says Burbano de Lara, noting that the Galapagos has received over 10,000 visitors since then. “Guests are delighted with the up-close natural experiences that they enjoy across the wildlife sanctuary of Galapagos, even more so after the confinement they’ve lived through during the pandemic. We also saw increased demand from the international market for late 2021 and 2022.”  

Metropolitan Touring’s Mashpi Lodge and Casa Gangotena hotel on mainland Ecuador have also been open and operating since July 2020. “We have been continuously learning about operations and safety in a Covid-19 context since last summer and have also been cross training our cruise ship food and beverage staff at Mashpi Lodge, so that they’re more prepared and experienced than ever,” says Burbano de Lara. 

Metropolitan Touring has also been actively involved in helping Galapagos National Park and local government authorities to establish protocols for cruising in the region over the past several months. “We work very closely with the National Park authorities, as well as local government authorities, to ensure our operations comply with and surpass all the regulations,” says Burbano de Lara.  

“We’ve been able to support the Galapagos population in many aspects over the past few months, including with managing the logistics of delivering medical supplies and improving medical facilities in the islands’ towns. We have our own supply and administrative offices in Puerto Ayora, the main hub for tourism in the archipelago, and can therefore react extremely quickly to events on the ground, while ensuring a smooth supply chain through to the ships.” 

Almost 50 years on from its first cruise, it’s clear that Metropolitan Touring remains true to its original vision. “We have always believed creating fulfilling and life-affirming experiences in the Galapagos’ natural sanctuary is the key to our success,” says Burbano de Lara. “We have learned, improved, refined the guest experience, growing our expertise constantly.” 

For passengers, the appeal of an expedition cruise designed by Metropolitan Touring remains constant despite recent global events. “Our itineraries are based on the concept of seeing as many of the ‘Big 15’ species as possible while a guest travels with us, rather than typical cruise criteria. We only visit the sites approved by the Galapagos National Park. It’s worth noting there are 183 visitor sites and only four inhabited ports in the archipelago, so you’re amid nature nearly all the time when expedition cruising around the islands.” 

According to Burbano de Lara, the natural and historical significance of the Galapagos will sustain the island’s appeal in a post-Covid world. “It’s one of the most attractive destinations in the world – it’s wild, far from any crowds, safe and biosecure, and it offers incomparable encounters with nature,” she explains. “The Galapagos has, historically, been highly regulated and controlled and this care for the islands and its inhabitants has only been reinforced by the authorities as a result of the coronavirus.”

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. 

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Jon Ingleton
By Jon Ingleton
25 May 2021

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