Galapagos Classic with Spirit of the Andes and Otavalo Market
For such a small country, Ecuador packs a punch! Towering volcanic peaks, lush Amazonian rainforest, colonial architecture intermingling with ancient Incan ruins, and the out-of-this-world Galapagos Islands are all part of Ecuador’s splendor. I recently returned from a two week journey through this amazing land.
My trip began in Quito – Ecuador’s magnificent historical hotspot. One of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites, Quito is not to be missed. After a day of roaming cobblestone streets full of elaborate churches, colonial mansions, and tree-lined plazas, I headed south to experience the Spirit of the Andes. With my knowledgeable guide, I spent the next four days traveling along the Pan-American Highway (with a few detours along the way) to discover the natural and cultural wonders of Ecuador.
Two parallel chains of mountains cross Ecuador north to south, with the most dramatic peaks located just south of Quito. It’s here, along the Avenue of Volcanoes, that you find snowed-capped Cotopaxi, one of the highest active volcanoes on the planet, and Chimborazo, whose summit is the closest point to the sun on the planet. Living in Washington State, I’m no stranger to beautiful mountains, yet these grandiose peaks took my breath away.
As I traveled through the highlands I continued be to be entranced by the landscape—quaint Andean towns nestled in the valleys, wild vicuna roaming rugged terrain, and sloping hillsides covered with a checkerboard of crops. Thanks to the rich volcanic soil and location, practically anything and everything can grow in Ecuador! Each day there was something new and exciting to discover. I trekked through the lush sub-tropical forest to one of the most powerful waterfalls I’ve ever laid eyes upon, had my first go at zip-lining across a rushing river (exhilarating, and terrifying!) and rode along Ecuador’s newly restored historic zigzagging railway, aptly named the Devil’s Nose. At the end of each jam-packed day, I experienced the warmth of Ecuadorian hospitality at a beautifully restored hacienda.
My southbound journey ended in Cuenca, which many contend is the most beautiful city in Ecuador (and I agree!). The streets of Cuenca are lined with stunning churches, colorful Spanish haciendas, and ornate French architecture. There are even Incan ruins in the middle of town! The rich history of Cuenca can be found around every corner. Indigenous women in colorful skirts sell flowers in the church courtyards, and entire blocks are devoted to master blacksmiths, tailors, and barbers, whose skills have been passed down from one generation to the next. Cuenca is also a modern day cultural hub, with trendy restaurants and cafes everywhere, filled with hip Ecuadorians and expats alike. I loved roaming the vibrant streets while people watching and taking in the beautiful architecture.
Although not quite ready to leave the beauty of Cuenca, I was ecstatic for my next stop – the Galapagos Islands! The Galapagos has been on my “Must Experience” destination list quite some time, but no amount of reading (or dreaming) could fully prepare me for the magic of this place.
Full of excitement and anticipation, I arrived in the Galapagos Islands after a ninety minute flight from Guayaquil. My fellow shipmates and I were greeted by our expedition team at the airport, and after a short bus and Zodiac ride, we were aboard our home for the next 8 days, La Pinta.
Wasting no time, we headed out that afternoon to visit the small island of North Seymour. Fire-red Sally Lightfoot crabs scurried along the black lava rocks as we stepped ashore, and a golden manta ray glistened in the water below. Colorful, pre-historic land iguanas were all around, entirely unbothered by our presence. After just a few steps, we found exactly what we were looking for – a Magnificent Frigatebird, with his vibrant scarlet throat inflated like a balloon and drumming his distinctive mating call. A few more steps down the pathway, we discovered the first of many adorably cartoonish blue-footed boobies. I stood still, watching these creatures in complete awe – and disbelief – I couldn’t believe I was finally experiencing the enchantment of the Galapagos firsthand. As we made our way back to the Zodiac, sea lions lounged along the shore in the orange glow of sunset. What a spectacular day! And it was just a taste of the week to come.
Over the next few days we visited several islands, each with unique landscape and spectacular wildlife. In order to fit in all the fun, our days aboard La Pinta began bright and early, with a wakeup call via Mozart or similar streaming through the cabin speakers. After a delicious breakfast, we headed to shore aboard Zodiacs – small boats that carry around 12 passengers. There are three seasoned naturalists aboard La Pinta, each with outstanding knowledge of the Galapagos. With a contagious passion for their home, our wonderful guides lead us to shore at least twice a day to explore the magnificent islands. The itineraries are carefully organized by the Galapagos National Park in such a way that you usually will not see anyone else ashore. It often felt like my shipmates and I were the only ones privy to this far-off land.
The birdlife in the Galapagos is incredible, but I just couldn’t get enough of the Islands’ prehistoric reptiles. One of my favorite spots was Fernandina, the youngest island in the archipelago, which our guides lovingly nicknamed “iguana city.” The rocky shores are home to piles of dinosaur-esque marine iguanas, soaking up the sun with their solar-paneled skin. And then there’s the Galapagos’ most famous reptile, the giant tortoise. Not only did I have a chance to observe these amazing creatures at the Charles Darwin Research Center and in the highlands of Santa Cruz, but also at Isabela’s Urbina Bay. We were told we may find a tortoise that day – if we were lucky. We ended up seeing five! I could have watched these funny, ancient-looking creatures all afternoon.
Snorkeling in the Galapagos was a definite highlight! Schools of colorful fish, petite penguins zipping about, and scores of sea turtles gracefully swimming in the shimmering ocean. The star of my underwater exploration was a playful sea lion. The overwhelmingly adorable sea lions of the Galapagos are not only entirely unthreatened by human presence, but they love to socialize with snorkelers. I couldn’t stop smiling as my velvety, doe-eyed friend and I chased one another underwater. Some of my shipmates opted out of snorkeling, and chose to discover the beautiful sea creatures aboard the glass bottom boat. At times they saw more than those snorkeling, including reef sharks and grand Moorish idols!
After a day of adventure, La Pinta was the perfect place to come home to. My cabin was spacious, comfortable, and had a large picture window with a different beautiful view every day. I was amazed by the organization of the ship, and the attentiveness of the friendly crew. The meals were outstanding, featuring delicious Ecuadorian foods – ceviche, plantains, and sweet, exotic fruits. Lunches were often served on the delightfully breezy upper deck. After a busy day exploring the islands, we were always greeted with a delicious snack and beverage. And then there was the hot tub – a splendid place to relax after an active day.
I spent eight days in the Galapagos, which was the perfect amount of time (though I would have signed up for a longer stay in a heartbeat!). On the flight back to Quito, my new friends and I couldn’t stop talking about our amazing week, sharing photos and swapping anecdotes. The week was life changing.
Before heading back home to Seattle, I spent two more nights in wonderful Quito, which gave me the opportunity to travel north of the city to the amazing Otavalo market – one of the largest and most colorful markets in all of South America. It’s a fantastic place to roam for hours, and pick up unique souvenirs. Here you will find beautiful weavings, alpaca sweaters, and intricate handicrafts all created by the local Indigenous people. The ride to Otavalo is beautiful – lush countryside and towering snow-capped volcanoes.
The Galapagos Islands are Ecuador’s most famous highlight – and rightfully so! But the country has so many amazing experiences to offer. I’m incredibly grateful I had a chance to discover the beautiful mainland of Ecuador. For your Galapagos adventure, I whole-heartedly suggest you take a few extra days to explore the Andes, the Amazon, the mysterious cloud forest, or more!