Galapagos In-Brief with Ecuador Overland and Napo Wildlife Center
If you can spare some extra time on a trip to the Galapagos, why not explore more of what Ecuador has to offer?
Looking back on my experience, I am so happy that I was given the time to explore such a large part of Ecuador. Not only did I experience wonderful traditions of the Ecuadorian culture, I indulged in amazing tastes and textures of local food, tested my sense of smell and built a love for a country that I am longing to go back to.
My two-week Ecuadorian adventure began at midnight upon arrival into Quito. I was greeted by my friendly guide, who was there to take me from the airport to my hotel.
As soon as I stepped outside the airport, my sense of smell was immediately overwhelmed with the different aromas of a foreign country; reminding me how great my passion for travel really is. I instantly fell in love with Ecuador before I'd even explored the country.
I have been a backpacker since I was a young girl, and I could hardly wait for a two-week overland exploration of Ecuador that also encompassed the Amazon and the Galapagos.
My first stop was a three-day visit to the Napo Wildlife Center in the Amazon. I can honestly say that I really had no idea what to expect; other than the fact that the mosquitoes were known for eating you alive. I was pleasantly surprised; three full days and I managed to escape with only seven bites!
I was completely blown away by what the Amazon had to offer. There was a vast array of bird species with colors so vibrant that it made me wonder how Mother Nature created art that could be so beautiful. Howler monkeys had a call so deep and fierce that I could hear them from miles away underneath the thick, forested canopy. Hundreds of screeching parakeets frantically gathered around clay licks, which I was told is similar to Pepto-Bismol for humans. There were villages where the local shaman, who has been around for more than 70 years, performs a ceremony where he heals people of bad energy with the wind of his breath. And, how can one forget the dugout canoe rides over the glassy, black-water lakes, which revealed the most amazing fireball orange reflections of the setting sun I have ever seen?
The warm wind blew through my hair on the hour-and-a-half boat ride down the Napo River to the city of Coca where my Amazon adventure had originated. I felt as though I could spend another week exploring what the Amazon had to offer. But, there wasn't time as I was off to my next adventure: a three-day, two-night drive from Quito to Cuenca through the spectacular Ecuadorian Andes, also known as "The Avenue of the Volcanoes."
The Avenue of the Volcanoes
In all of my travels throughout the past 10 years, I have never seen a countryside as well utilized as this one. The agriculture and vast array of fruits and vegetables in Ecuador is incredible. From tree tomatoes to corn, Ecuador seems to have it all; and, because of the location, they are able to keep these crops growing year-round. The countryside looks like a gigantic checkerboard, with each square being a different food, and in between the checkerboard valleys lay spectacular volcanoes.
As I made my way further south each day, there was never a dull moment. Whether it was peering through high cloud cover at different volcanoes, hiking to beautiful waterfalls in Baños, searching for orchids along the steep, windy roads of the lush hillsides, and curling up to the fire with my journal in a 300-year-old hacienda, I was awestruck at how much history and beauty there is in Ecuador. The simplicity of life is almost magical there, and as we drove along the countryside I found myself wanting to take in as much as I could.
Each indigenous group wears a different style hat. While visiting city centers you might see men, women and children belonging to as many as 10 different indigenous groups. The colors of the clothing are vibrant and full of life, and those qualities, put together with the amazing smiles and sun-weathered skin is heartwarming.
As luck would have it, our timing was perfect for a local market in a small town called Guamote, which is only held on Thursdays. Not only were they selling fruits and vegetables, handicrafts and textiles, but they were also selling animals! I even passed a small sheep on its way to its new home, riding down the windy roads tied to the top of a local bus.
Once I reached Cuenca after the three-day overland adventure, I was off to Guayaquil for a night before my flight to the Galapagos. I couldn't wait!
The Galapagos Islands
When we arrived at the pier there was a small sea lion sleeping on the wooden bench in the shade. I knew then that I was in for yet another treat!
My life on board the Santa Cruz for four days in the Galapagos was incredible. The staff, guides and crew welcomed with open arms like I was family they had known for years. The service I received was impeccable.
The naturalist guides were knowledgeable with a passion for educating everyone on life in the Galapagos. There wasn't a single question that went unanswered. There were even five different languages that were spoken on my particular trip and people of fourteen different nationalities!
I must say that my favorite landing was on Fernandina Island. My group was able to sit and watch a mother sea lion clean and nurse her newborn pup of only 15 minutes, for more than half an hour. We even saw marine iguanas walk one-by-one into the water when they swam out to eat their vegetarian lunch. It was then that I learned they don't even use their arms and legs to help them swim! When it was time to head back to the ship I found myself lagging behind, so that I could soak in every last second of what Fernandina had to offer.
I have never been to a place like the Galapagos Islands where the wildlife doesn't move out of your way, and I was amazed at moments when I carefully stepped over marine iguanas that weren't even bothered by my presence. It was always a surprise as to what lay around the bend in the trail: blue-footed boobies nesting with little ones underneath their bellies, albatrosses in the distance with the sound of their beaks kissing as they fought for a mate, and even sea turtles popping their delicate heads out of the water for a small breath of air. I was speechless and awestruck at the same time.
Oh, and I can't forget the snorkeling! Frolicking with sea lions underwater and swimming behind a school of 30 rays made me feel like I was stuck in a dream that I wasn't quite ready to wake up from.