April 10, 2015 by Guest Author
Filed under Accommodation, Beaches and swimming, Cruise, Eating and drinking, Ecuador, featured, Guest post, Leisure, Misc, Nature, Photography, Sightseeing, South America, Walking
In this article, our guest author, Kate Convissor, shares an unforgettable week in the Galapagos, with pristine beaches, aquamarine seas and of course the birds, seals and other wildlife.
Most people travel through Quito in Ecuador, heading for the Galapagos Islands as their main destination. My experience was the opposite. I was already traveling through Ecuador and planned to spend several days in lovely Quito. The city was UNESCO’s first cultural World Heritage Site, so it’s very historic and photogenic. Since I was already so close, my trip had to include the Galapagos and when my sister learned of my plans, she decided to join me.
Still, my expectations were, well, non-existent. Other than cute sea lions and birds with funny names, I had no idea what to expect from an 8-day cruise through one of the most precious and unique places on the planet.
I must say, my first sight of the Galapagos through the windows of the tiny Baltra airport was underwhelming. It looked like a dry, shrubby, rocky moonscape with heat that would melt your eyeballs.
On board the San Jose
But things improved once onboard the breezy deck of the San Jose, the ship that would be our home for the next eight days. Once we found our cabin, which was more comfortable and spacious than I had expected, with twin beds (not bunks) and a nice-sized bathroom and a big window (not to mention blessed air-conditioning for those blistering afternoons), I began to feel the excitement build and the tension drain away.
A ship at sea! What could be more delightful?
And indeed, once we were underway, slicing through an impossibly blue ocean with a far horizon melting into a similarly blue sky and the wind rushing off the bow of the ship, I began to catch the magic of the Galapagos.
The amazing animal culture
Our first landing that afternoon was on the tiny islet of Mosquera, which was little more than a lump of sand with sea lions lazily scattered about and a handful of other creatures I’d read about, like Sally-lightfoot crabs and tiny lava lizards. At this point, I was completely smitten.
This would be a great week.
Almost every day we woke to sun, sea, maybe another boat or two at anchor, a satisfying breakfast, and new wonders to explore. Days were filled with activity, which usually involved one or two hikes and/or one or two snorkeling adventures, and maybe a panga ride to some interesting cove. We usually visited two different sites each day, but the boat motored during mealtimes or at night, so we weren’t twiddling our thumbs en route to the next place.
The hikes, while sometimes very hot, were always interesting and sometimes entrancing. And, of course, there was always the blue ocean to cool off in.
Snorkeling is almost de rigueur in the Galapagos since the water is teeming with all sorts of life, from sea turtles to small sharks to schools of colorful fish. The color and variety is fascinating.
I am not an avid swimmer, but I was determined not to miss this opportunity, so I grit my teeth and wore a life jacket for the first snorkel. It was fantastic! The water was warm and so bouyant that staying afloat was effortless and all that aquatic life under the surface of the ocean was worth enduring any momentary discomfort.
One of the more delightful hikes was at Punta Suarez on Espanola Island. Since it was high tide with waves crashing against the rock, our “dry” landing was a little tricky. (This is where you want experienced guys driving your panga – the little boats that takes you from your cruise ship to the shore.) We walked across a tide-flooded inlet guarded by a big bull sea lion who was jealous of his girls. (This is where you want an experienced naturalist-guide who knows the ways of macho sea lions.)
Birds, birds, birds
Espanola is a nesting condo for Nazca boobies and other birds I’ve forgotten the names of. The rocks are dripping with whitewash, and fluffy juveniles are waiting patiently (or not) for a snack, while their beleaguered parents are trying to oblige (by regurgitating the fish they’ve worked hard to find). Bird families were strewn haphazardly across the relatively flat and somewhat rocky clifftop. An occasional blue-footed booby broke the monotony.
We clambered over rocks snapping photos like crazed tourists, while the birds couldn’t have cared less. The trail wound among the nesting birds and along a cliff edge until we all settled cliff-side to watch the waves crash on the black volcanic rock and send plumes of mist and water through a blowhole. All of which formed a dramatic foreground as the sun slowly rode down the western sky.
Now, I ask you, where else in the world can you sit with 16 people with this kind of natural wonder playing out around you? (Okay, there was another small tour group waiting to take our place on the rocks, but that doesn’t change the overall picture.)
Small luxuries combine with pleasant company
After every activity, our long-suffering steward, Jackson, met us with his broad smile and a juice drink and snacks. Every evening we passengers gathered for a beer to chat and swap notes about the birds or fish we’d seen. And every night we fell asleep to the gentle rocking of the boat as it steamed toward our next magical destination.
Our naturalist-guide, Carlos, was an energetic, informed and personable 26-year-old. He, like many other guides, had grown up on the islands and that native knowledge was honed by the compulsory training all the guides receive.
My sister and I were also lucky in that all the passengers on our small boat were wonderful to travel with for a week, from the 86-year-old lawyer and his wife (Please, God, may I be like them when I am old) to the young brother and sister who came with their mom.
I think our group was so compatible, in part, because we all opted for a small, less luxurious boat (but make no mistake, the San Jose was very clean and comfortable) so that we could focus on experiencing the islands and not staying comfy and entertained on board the ship. Some of the luxury cruise liners carry 100 passengers and can’t get to as many islands as the smaller boats.
“If you want a bigger cabin and more amenities, you should choose a luxury cruise. If you want to really experience the islands, you can have a very good time on a smaller boat,” said Evelyn, my agent at Happy Gringo, through whom I booked our cruise.
True in every way. Cruising in the Galapagos Islands was a fantastic experience, and a longer cruise on a smaller boat like the San Jose was, for me, the best way to do it.
About our guest author: Many thanks for this story to Kate Convissor who has been traveling more or less continually since she sold her house in 2010 and trailered around North America. Kate blogs semi-regularly at Wandering Not Lost. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter
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Ecuador is one of the countries that you’ve heard a lot about, but maybe would never consider visiting. Why go to Ecuador on holiday, when there are the exciting destinations of Colombia, with its rich jungles and famous beaches, and Peru, with its Inca history and Andes culture, both nearby?
One fabulous destination that Ecuador does offer, and one that you have probably seen countless times on TV documentaries and in wildlife, travel and photography magazines, is the Galapagos Islands. The islands will forever have their position in history due to their astounding array of endemic wildlife species and their connection with Charles Darwin and his infamous work on evolution following his trip to the islands on the Voyage of the Beagle.
However Ecuador has so much more to offer the discerning tourist than these islands, and the many tourists that fly in to Ecuador, transfer to the islands for a tour or cruise then immediately fly home, are missing out on so much! Having had the pleasure of travelling through Ecuador and experiencing the delights that this country has to offer, over and above the Galapagos Islands, I realised that many people are missing out. Here’s my brief guide as to the best of the rest of the fabulous country of Ecuador:
Quito is one of two main stopover points for international tourists travelling to and from the Galapagos Islands (the other being Guayaquil), but is potentially a destination in itself. If you ever get the chance to visit Quito (and you should give yourself the opportunity!) then try and stay in a hotel in the old-town city centre rather than in the new modern region – it might cost a little more but you won’t regret it.
This region of the city is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, due to its outstandingly well-preserved, ancient and beautiful central region. To explore this area is like stepping back to colonial-era South America – labyrinthine cobbled streets wind through white-painted buildings, leafy plazas, and ancient churches and religious buildings. You can get lost here for days, exploring, and soaking up the history. Make sure to visit the Basilica del Voto Nacional, if only for the adventurous climb through the rickety old roof for fabulous views of the city from a viewing platform on top near one of the spires.
Also worth visiting, although a little touristy (but good for a laugh!) is the equator visitor centre, only a few kilometres from Quito – stand on top of a painted line on the earth for a memorable, if a little corny, photo. Just don’t tell your friends and family that this isn’t “technically” the equator (they built the site in the wrong place – the true equator is a few hundred metres away!). Finally, for those that have fully acclimatised (don’t visit this if you’ve only just arrived), Quito’s “TelefériQo”, a giant gondola that travels from Quito, at 3117m above sea level, to the top of one of the valleys, at 3945m above sea level, offers excellent views of the city stretching away from you far below.
Okay, so this may be a metropolis, and quite a large one at that, but if you’re going to pass through a destination (many international flights and connections to Galapagos use Guayaquil Airport), then it would be a shame not to visit the best of this city. Maybe not worth visiting for more than a couple of nights, but in that extra day or so you will be able to experience modern Ecuador – how Ecuadorian people see it and live it. Head down to the “Malecon 2000”, the walkway overlooking the Guayas River, built in 2000, lovely in the evenings.
During the day Guayaquil can be a sweaty and humid affair, but as dusk begins to set and the temperature falls this modern river-side getaway stretches for a few kilometres along the river-front, and contains many monuments, mini parks, restaurants, art displays and plenty of space for a relaxing stroll. At one end of the Malecon there is the fabulous district of “Las Penas”, which is a regenerated area of the city, full of many mini streets built up the sides of a hill, complete with perfect little art galleries, salsa bars and restaurants, and other delights abound – explore to your heart’s content! A walk along the streets of Las Penas will eventually lead up towards the hill at Cerro Santa Ana – there are fabulous views of the city below and a lighthouse at the top of the hill.
Unspoiled Beaches of Ecuador
There are many fabulous areas of South America that are not that well known by the English-speaking world. Take the beaches of Uruguay for example – very popular with Argentinians, and with Spanish wanting to escape the humdrum of Europe in the height of summer, but not really on the radar of other Europeans. The same could be said for Ecuador’s beaches, and it was tempting to not even mention the beaches on this list for fear of increasing their popularity – some places are best kept secret! The benefit of Ecuador’s beach regions, compared to many of their equivalents in the Mediterranean or other similar locations, is their relative quietness without the crowds and without high-rise hotels of purpose built resorts.
Of course, there are exceptions, with the city of Salinas being one example (a resort-town if ever there was one)… however a journey north from Salinas up Ecuador’s beautiful coastline (simply a delight at sunset) will take you past endless fishing villages, all sitting atop beautiful sandy beaches – just take your pick. Montañita, once a well-kept secret complete with lovely sandy beaches and fishing shacks serving up cold beers, has over recent years started to grow in popularity (the secret got out!), but is still worth visiting for those seeking a surfing style holiday, cheap beach-side villas, and glorious sun. As you head further north, travel along the “E15” road and either stop wherever takes your fancy – try Mompiche, Cojimies, or countless others.
Cotopaxi National Park
There are many national parks in Ecuador, and all are probably worth a visit if you have the inclination, and time. Cotopaxi is probably the most well-known of the mainland parks, because of Cotopaxi stratovolcano that sits within the park and gives the park its name. The volcano features the beautiful symmetrical cone shape that is synonymous with volcanoes in general, and sits majestically on the Andean plateau (resembling that other equally beautiful volcano – Mount Fuji in Japan). Visitors to the national park are greeted by stunning Andean landscapes – rough tundra shrubbery, grazing llamas, indigenous farmers, sporadic farming buildings offering limited shelter – all with the sight of the giant conical volcano on the horizon. This is a landscape unlike anywhere else. The best way to experience this area is to get up close and personal with the region, and go on a horse-trekking adventure through the lands. For the brave, the volcano can be climbed on a guided climbing excursion, worth it to experience the awe-inspiring views from the top.
Stay in a Hacienda
Not really a destination, but more of a way of life, haciendas were, and still are, large self-sufficient estates situated across much of the Ecuador mainland, around Quito and the surrounding area. Although their traditional ways have started to disappear, many of these haciendas have adapted and provide exceptional, and unique, tourism opportunities. Many excellent haciendas are close-by to Quito, so can easily be visited, and they provide an excellent way of experiencing what life might have been like for colonial people in Ecuador hundreds of years ago. The centre-piece of these large estates is usually the central mansion, some of which contain ancient Inca walls that were used in the construction of the mansions when built by the land-owners, and these mansions have been converted into wonderful and delightfully decorated accommodation.
Many thanks for this article to Jonathan, who spent time living in South America throughout 2008 and 2009, and who has travelled extensively in Ecuador. Since returning home to the UK, Jonathan has taken up photography after being inspired by the fabulous landscapes of the Andes, and works for Go Andes, a specialist holiday company that offers cruises and tours to the Galapagos Islands, as well as many other destinations through South America.
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In my travel podcast series, I have a podcast interview about the rainforests of Ecuador you’ll hear how to enjoy how to enjoy your rainforest experience, as well as the many other diverse areas of of the country, the Avenue of the Volcanoes, the Indian markets, and the beaches of Manabi province where you can see migrating whales.
While I was at the World Travel Market recently, I met up with my friend from Ecuador, Luis Hernandez who was part of the Ecuador country stand, promoting his travel business and Cuyabeno Lodge. When I visited Ecuador with two friends two years ago, we spent an amazing week travelling by canoe down the Rio Bobonaza and stopping at the Rainforest Community at Sarayaku for a few days, all of which was organised by Luis and he also accompanied us.
Luckily Luis had made the journey before, so he knew the local communities and also had military connections which smoothed our journey through the lower river military zone near Peru considerably. Luis had also been elected as a member of the Ecuadorian Congress, just before our trip and so he was the man the rainforest communities wanted to meet, to put across their point of view and speak in the schools to their students.
I thought Luis with both his military jungle experience and knowledge as a tour operator and guide would be a great person to talk to about the best of Ecuador. I hope you enjoy the interview.
In this interview with Luis Hernandez we discussed;
- The Cuyabeno Lodge in Ecuador; where it is, how you get there, the type of accommodation and what you would do while you are there
- The steps the Cuyabeno lodge take to be eco-friendly, such as using solar energy, using biodegradable products and recycling waste, as well as employing local people or transport by canoe and guides.
- The variety of Flora and Fauna you can find at Cuyabeno Reserve and lagoon, such as birds, plants, flowers, river turtles, cayman and even pink dolphins
- How to deal with a snake, cayman or anaconda if you should meet one in the forest
- The equipment that you might need in order to be comfortable in the jungle, such as wellington boots, hat, suncream, insect repellant, torch and what health advice Luis gives to his visitors.
- The problems in Ecuador with oil exploration and logging and how supporting tourism in the rainforest areas will put money into the local economy and prevent the destruction of the rainforest.
- Other areas of Ecuador to visit, such as the mountainous Andean area of the Avenue of the Volcanoes where you can hike and walk on the volcanoes of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo staying in old haciendas.
- The Indian markets of Otavalo on Saturdays and Saquisili on Thursdays
- On the coastal area, Luiz recommends the south of Manabi province which has the Machalilla national park and the beach of Canoa in the north and Isla de las Plata where you can see migrating whales in July and August.
- The political situation in Ecuador which is generally calm and stable – although the factions within the government may dispute among themselves, the situation for tourists is calm. The government is also creating a good network of roads and infrastructure, which makes it easy for visitors to get around.
- The music on the podcast was Venus as a Girl by Andy McGee on Musicalley.com
Cuyabeno Lodge and Neotropic Turis – Travel company in Ecuador the organises tours throughout Ecuador as well as to Cuyabeno Lodge
Sarayaku Rainforest Community that we visited on my trip to Ecuador
Ecuador Tourism website
See all my Ecuador Photos on Flickr
Read all my Ecuador articles
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If you enjoyed this travel podcast please check out my other podcasts in my Travel Podcast Archive