Breakfast on the Pacific coast, lunch at a snow-covered volcano and dinner in the Amazon?
This might sound impossible but in one of the smallest countries in South America you can do this in a day – welcome to Ecuador, Republic of the Equator – a country straddling the equator on South America’s northwest coast. Its diverse landscape encompasses jungle, Andean highlands and the wildlife rich Galapagos Islands.
Arriving in Quito you could ever so slightly feel the effects of being at 2,850 metres above sea level. The city (population almost 2 million) is sprawled out along the valley of Guayllabamba River and is flanked by volcanoes, some of them snowcapped, and visible from the city on a clear day – Cotopaxi, probably the most well known.
Our hotel for a couple of nights, Casa Gangotena, the only Relais & Châteaux hotel in Quito, is an incredible colonial style hotel located in Quito’s cobbled San Francisco square and features panoramic views of the historic centre from its terrace. The location of the hotel provides ease to explore the historic old town (declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978) – Monastery of San Francisco, the whitewashed walls of San Francisco Church, and just a few blocks away from La Compañía Church as well as the City Museum, the Santo Domingo Plaza, the Presidential Palace, numerous other tourist hotspots and the hustle and bustle of the capital’s many iconic neighborhoods.
Plaza San Francisco can be a very different place on the weekends, especially close to holidays. This large space will host large tents full of vendors selling craft items and stages set up for folk dancing. A small restaurant/cafe, Tianguez – is the perfect spot for people watching and a fabulous place to grab a quick snack at the outdoor tables. They serve local dishes – locro de papas (an exquisite cheese and potato soup), humitas (steamed fresh corn cakes) and much more. When dining outside, expect the shawl vendors to ply you with their wares – always women, usually dressed in native costume, selling stacks of colourful woven shawls. The more you buy, the cheaper the price per shawl!
Watching over the city, on a 200 metre high volcanic hill, El Panecillo, a 45 metre tall monument of the Virgin Mary, made out of 7,000 pieces of aluminum, standing on an ornate pedestal, and is visible from almost anywhere in the city.
No visit to Quito is complete without travelling to Otavalo – a small town that is situated about 100 kilometres (2 hours) north of Quito. Generally there is not much to see in this little town, but it gets pretty colourful and busy on Saturday’s when the locals begin to display their goods in the market at Poncho Square. They sell virtually everything here, including carpets, blankets, belts and all other kinds of souvenirs. Almost everything is created by hand with skills that have been handed down from one generation to the next. The markets are everyday but the biggest day is Saturday and then Wednesday.
Next stop – Galapagos! A volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, laying about 1,000km off the coast of Ecuador and considered one the world’s most outstanding wildlife viewing. It’s isolation shelters an assortment of plant and animal species, many found nowhere else on the planet – a mini Jurassic Park of sorts. Visited in 1835 and first made famous by Charles Darwin, which later inspired his theory of evolution, visiting the Galapagos is a trip of a life time.
Our flight was bound for Balta Island, one of only 3 airports servicing the Galapagos Islands. After a 2.5 hour flight from the mainland we arrived at the tiny airport. We were ushered onto buses that would take us the 5 minute drive over bare moon like arid landscape to a small pier, where we boarded zodiac’s that took us to our home for the next 5 days – La Pinta. Enroute we spotted sea lions – we were beginning to feel like David Attenborough already.
La Pinta is a comfortable ship that carries 48 passengers, crew and 3 naturalists – one for every 16 passengers for the panga/zodiac cruising. We were on the Eastern Galapagos itinerary visiting South Plaza Island, Santa Fe Island, San Cristobel Island, Espanola and Santa Cruz. Our days were planned with morning and afternoon excursions with the ship repositioning during the night and during the lunch time break so that you are at a new location 2 times a day. The Ecuadorian Government has placed strict controls on how many people can land at each location so you are never at the same beach/landing point with any other boats/people other than passengers from your ship.
Turquoise waters contrast brilliantly with the white sand and black lava of the shoreline of South Plaza Island which is populated by yellow grey land iguana, the smallest iguana in the archipeligo, and sea lions. Along the cliff tops swallow tailed gulls play in the thermals of this spectacular island.
Colonies of sea lion populate the sandy white beaches of Santa Fe Island, along with the Santa Fe land iguana, unique to just this island. We spent some time snorkeling and swimming in the crystal clear warm waters that surround the island and were joined by playful and inquisitive sea lions not more than a few centimetres from us – one even nibbled at the flipper of one of the passengers! After a delicious lunch back on board the ship, our afternoon excursion sees us disembark at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno where we board buses that take us to Cerro Colorado Tortoise Habitat. This is the breeding centre for the highly endangered giant tortoise.
The following morning we land at Punta Pitt, the eastern most tip of San Cristobel Island. A quite demanding hike high up onto the hill provides spectacular views of the bays and beaches below. Good hiking shoes are advisable. Blue footed boobies were nesting with their 2 young chicks on the walking path suppling fabulous photo opportunities. Also spotted in the trees, red footed boobies. Sally Lightfoot Crabs scurried along the rocks where we snorkelled while Galapagos Green Turtles effortlessly glided past us.
Our excursion at Punta Suarez, Espanola offered an exciting walk on lava terrain to visit a colony of Waved Albatross – their wing span being around 2.5 metres. Along with rock formation the Nazca Boobie and the paths were littered with dragon like red green black marine iguana – the only lizard in the world with the ability to live and forage at sea and endemic to the Galapagos Archipelago.
In the afternoon we were set down at Gardner Bay where the interaction with wildlife continued – a beautiful white coral beach, scattered with sea lions who were surfing and tumbling in the small waves along the shore and mocking birds and finches fluttering throughout the trees and bushes. There was also the opportunity to kayak at this pristine location.
Disembarking on Santa Cruz Island we visited the Charles Darwin Research Station – a rearing program for the giant tortoise. We then transfer by bus across the island and a short ferry ride to Balta for our flight back to the mainland.
Being able to see species of birds and reptiles found nowhere else on earth is thrilling, but seeing them in their natural habitat is something you’ll never forget. The best thing about a visit to the Galapagos is that you can get quite close to them since they have no fear of humans.
From the arid landscapes of the Galapagos to Mashpi Lodge – a rainforest hotel in the clouds – where nature meets luxury.
Mashpi Lodge, one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World – alive and breathing with 400 species of birds, trees and frogs found nowhere else in the world. About 2.5 hours from Quito, the last portion of the “where the hell are we going” track is only wide enough for one vehicle. Arriving at the lodge we are astounded by the uniqueness of the construction in front of us. We are handed a welcome drink and ushered into the lobby for a briefing of what we can expect over the next 3 days.
The lodge is all inclusive, so your meals and activities are taken care of – with the assistance of the guides you chose exactly what you want to do during your stay. Most activities you are accompanied by the lodge’s own guides who are all local Ecuadorian’s and extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the environment surrounding the property.
A short walk from the lodge (15 minutes up the access road and 5 minutes along a trail), above ground level, Mashpi offers guest the opportunity to experience the cloud forest from above the canopy – Sky Bike. Designed for two people, one pedaling the silent bike across the forest about 200m above a beautiful gorge with a river flowing between the trees below – you get a real sense of how high the trees grow and spectacular views down the valley. The cable stretches between two points in the forest and the ride takes about 20 minutes round trip.
The other above ground level experience is the Dragonfly canopy gondola – an open air cable car system that carries you over the forest canopy, offering an exciting and relaxing way to enjoy the stunning scenery from overhead. The system consists of six towers separated by a distance of 500 metres. The gondola can be stopped at any time to allow for an extended observation of flora and fauna that is spotted – along with a stop at intermediate stations that gives guests the opportunity to walk along one of trails below and return to the tower to continue the cable car. The trails take you along river beds (the guide spotting and picking up a tiny frog so small it is less than the size of his smallest fingernail), along steep tracks passing ferns and palms, moss covered logs and hanging vines. Huge and beautiful butterflies flit about while you can hear countless birds calling to each other across the valleys. One of the trails takes you to a beautiful lagoon and waterfall (Magnolia Waterfall) where we you can strip off your sweaty trekking clothes to your swimming costume and dive in to cool off.
The Life Centre – a place for learning and discovery – were we learn about the metamorphosis of the 300+ butterfly and moth species in the area – from eggs to beautiful butterflies. There are about a dozen different species in the centre that you can walk through and observe. The Centre has a wooden deck which is a great place to sit, watch and listen to the many birds that are in the region – toucan, tanager, trogons etc. Also tayra and agouti came out to munch on the banana, and in the distance, the howler monkeys.
The big drawcard of bird species for me – the hummingbird. Mashpi is the home to 32 species – 19 of which are observable by guests. The Hummingbird Garden is a buzz of their effortlessly flapping wings – sounding more like a swarm of bees than birds. Hummingbirds need a lot of sugar because of their metabolism (having to flap their wings 70-200 times per second, depending on the activity). The garden has feeders for them to access. They are in a frenzy and shot right past you, a blur of feathers – velvet, violet, green to get to the feeders. The site and shelter is located at a natural viewpoint with breathtaking views of the forested hills. Even though the action was fast it was very mesmerising and calming to just stand and watch the action of these fascinating birds flying about at breakneck speed, their wings beating so fast.
The evening excursion brings a whole new set of players – frogs (some transparent), snakes, insects, lizards, glow in the dark fungus and tarantulas. Huge, black tarantulas that live in the ground during the day but hunt by night. The guides let us know that despite their looks, they are not dangerous. Other nocturnal animals, including puma’s elude us.
Between these excursion’s you are back at the lodge for amazing and delicious food – breakfast and lunch are buffet while dinner offers selections that changes nightly. The restaurant and bar are encased by windows, floor to ceiling 2 stories high looking out into the forest. The menu is inspired by traditional Ecuadorian food combined with international delicacies – meals sometimes being the highlight of the day.