Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands – My Trip of a Lifetime
Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands – My Trip of a Lifetime
Early September saw the start of a trip I had been longing to take – the trip of a lifetime that few have the privilege of experiencing – the amazing destination that is the Galapagos Islands. I was part of a group that was invited by Cox & Kings and Avianca Airlines to visit Ecuador, the Galapagos and Guayaquil – and for this opportunity, I cannot thank them enough. We flew from Heathrow overnight via Bogotá to Quito and I was extremely pleased with the aircraft, seat pitch, service and staff of Avianca. A 6-hour layover in Bogotá gave us the excuse to use their executive lounge and sample the delights on offer – including a luxurious shower to freshen up and to make use of the WiFi!
On arrival in Quito we were met by the team from Metropolitan Touring who were to be our guides for the 3 days of our stay here and the rest of the trip. Our luggage was taken straight to our hotel – The Hilton Colon – whilst we made the 40-minute journey along the new, quick highway to the city. The 5* Hilton Colon is of typical corporate design and is in the newer business area of Quito, across the road from El Ejido Park, a large public park that comes alive at night with music, games and general merriment. We had a wonderful lunch provided by the hotel with a chance to savour some local dishes before a guided tour of the hotel facilities. A local market provided an afternoon of Ecuadorian culture and gave us the chance to spend some of our dollars! Entrance to the club executive lounge of the hotel was greatly appreciated, with complimentary drinks and snacks, before we headed to bed early ready for the full day of sightseeing ahead of us the following day.
An early start on a very sunny day put us in the mood to explore the sights of this wonderful UNESCO World Heritage city. We were going to experience the new tour on offer – ‘Quito like a local’. As we left the modern area we drove through cobbled streets with main squares, colonial buildings and into the ‘real’ Quito. The hugely impressive San Francisco Plaza was full of pigeons, with locals trying to pick them up and children (and a few of us!) running through them to make them all fly in sync and swarm overhead.
We visited many local artisans, including a man who painstakingly restores religious statues. The main indoor market was alive with locals shopping for their meat, fruit and vegetables – chickens with feet and heads still on and full cows' hooves! Women who heal through the use of herbs and medicines have stalls here, and the one we were introduced to is well renowned in Quito and is constantly fully booked. She gave a demonstration using nettles and various other herbs to cleanse one of our group (not sure if the nettle stings have gone down as yet!) Everywhere we walked the steeply undulating streets were full of old ladies – many toothless but all smiling – dressed in traditional attire and selling their wares.
No city tour is complete without a church visit and this was no exception. La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús or ‘Church of the Society of Jesus’ is one of Ecuador’s most beautiful baroque churches, with every inch of the interior encased in gold leaf – photographs, unfortunately, are not allowed.
From here we visited one of the Leading Hotels in the World – the Grand Plaza Hotel which overlooks Independence Square and the presidential palace. Here we were served a delicious lunch of local fayre followed by a dessert flowing with dry ice and brought to us by a purple hooded ‘cucuruchos’ – quite disturbing for the children on the next table! The lovely, homely Casa la Ronda, located on one of the oldest streets in Quito, is a wonderful place to stay. 22 suites have been created in this former residence and it has an enviable rooftop room with outstanding views - over the city and to the Virgin Mary statue on the highest hilltop.
The general manager, Maria, is an asset to this hotel, who enjoys nothing more than sitting down for a drink with her guests discussing their Quito experiences. After an enlightening presentation on the making of chocolate, from the harvesting of the cocoa beans to the final finished article (that we greatly appreciated sampling) came the highlight of the day. We took a drive north to Mitad del Mundo – Middle of the Earth – a fantastic educational centre and monument that straddles the actual line of the Equator – many photos in various poses were taken by the group to document our visit here, and we even got a certificate as proof!
A very early start today took us to Otavalo, an old market town a couple of hours' drive away. Many stalls were selling an abundance of handmade jewellery & trinkets, wooden and seed ornaments, rugs, clothing and scarves made from baby alpaca – this felt a lot more aimed at tourists than locals though. From here we made a quick stop at a local hacienda before heading to the Hacienda Zuleta – what a place!
An hour or so drive through the mountains off the main highway brought us to this stunning property. A beautiful cobbled courtyard surrounded by whitewashed buildings with horses to ride, tracks to follow, cows to milk and bears to spot. They have a condor enclosure where they have a conservation programme with breeding pairs that they are trying to reintroduce into the wild – an egg was due to hatch any time and they are hoping this will begin the process. After an impressive lunch and tour of the estate, we said our goodbyes and headed the 3 hours back to Quito.
Our hotel for this 3rd night was the Casa Gangotena – a stunning, large historic mansion set on San Francisco Plaza with 31 boutique rooms and original Italian architecture. A definite must for a stay in Quito, with a great location, friendly staff and extremely large beverages!
A 4am start was accepted as this was the day we were heading to the Galapagos! A slight flight detour was required due to the amber alert for Cotopaxi volcano. Located only 60km from Quito, this striking scene of ash cloud spitting from the summit could be seen for miles and was viewed extremely well from our plane windows. We arrived on San Cristobel Island mid-morning after flying from Quito via Guayaquil. It still felt quite surreal to think I was actually in the Galapagos! We left the previous metropolitan tour guide, Adrianna, in Quito and now had Klaus in tow. He began his career with them as a tour guide and is now Product Manager – what he doesn’t know about the Galapagos you don’t need to know!
The transfer from the quayside to our boat for the 5-day cruise – MV Santa Cruz – took just 5 minutes in a panga/zodiac dinghy speedboat (once we had mastered the art of life jackets) and these became our mode of transport many times during our trip.
Boarding our boat was extremely easy and we were greeted by the crew and shown to our cabins – followed very shortly by our luggage. The cabins were small but completely adequate, with plenty of under bed storage for cases. Oddly, though, there are no keys for the cabins – however, we surprisingly got used to this very quickly and it was nice not to carry anything around with you. We had the obligatory emergency drill, and were sorted with wetsuits and snorkelling gear to keep for the duration of our cruise. An afternoon excursion to Punta Pitt was the highlight as we had our first close encounters, walking amongst sea lions, watching the blue-footed boobies & frigate birds and having lava lizards run past without a care in the world.
The next day started with a hearty breakfast. We headed out in groups on the pangas towards Santa Fe Island – this is where we were expecting to see the majority of the islands' endemic species. This was, however, delayed by a chance sighting of a mother whale and her calf.
A detour was made for us to follow the movement of the whales and watch them hide underwater and be tracked by the footprint on the water, and then to see the hump appear on the surface – an incredible sight to see and one we could have only hoped for. The excitement between us was immense and, as ours were the only boats in the area, we were able to manoeuvre close at every opportunity. Throughout the day we visited a couple of islands, saw sea lion harems, baby seals, bright yellow and grey land iguanas, sally lightfoot crabs, many species of birds and many, many more sea lions.
Snorkelling in this location was absolutely astounding – we were joined by sea lions, huge schools of brightly coloured fish and saw beautiful underwater rock formations bejewelled with sea urchins and ocean flowers.
For more information about this tour, please call directly on 0121 213 0012 or visit us at Travel Club Elite! A quick call or email to Travel Club Elite could bring you huge savings!
- 26th August 2017
- Zoe Franklin, Sales Team Leader