Galapagos Classic with Otavalo Market and Hacienda Zuleta
National Geographic Endeavour
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I traveled to the beautiful islands of Galapagos aboard the National Geographic Endeavour. As a travel professional, I was familiar with what to expect, yet nothing could have prepared me for the remarkable wildlife and scenery I encountered in this otherworldly destination.
Getting to Ecuador was a little bumpy. I experienced one of the most interesting reasons for a flight delay: volcanic eruption. Since the center of the country is dominated by the volcanically active Andes, this can happen on rare occasions in Ecuador. Safety was not a concern, but the flights were delayed due to limited visibility. I was not worried in the slightest; the team at ExpeditionTrips and the crew of the National Geographic Endeavour helped to ensure I would embark the ship on time. After arriving in Guayaquil, a short flight shuttled me to Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos where I embarked the Endeavour, my home for the next week. Within minutes, our itinerary was underway with a fantastic buffet lunch followed by the first of many shore excursions.
Each day was an incredible surprise. Within hours of day one, I encountered an amazing array of wildlife including a beautiful sea lion, frigate birds, marine iguanas and flamingos! It was delightfully overwhelming. Throughout the itinerary, the expedition staff and crew of the National Geographic Endeavour handled every request and portion of the trip to the smallest detail. From the turn down service in the cabins to star gazing lectures in the evening, the attentive staff was always available to make for a flawless experience. I cannot speak highly enough of the naturalists and guides – they were exceptional. Each from the islands of Galapagos, the members of the expedition team had individual and unique stories, and shared a collective love for the islands. One of my favorite shore excursions on the island of Fernandina was particularly memorable thanks to the amazing guide who described coming there as a child. To prevent the children from wandering in the woods, their parents would tell ghost stories of pirates. It set a magical tone to the excursion and I felt like a child again. On a 96 passenger ship, there were many questions from the participants, and the guides were extremely helpful and knowledgeable, able to answer any question about the wildlife, history and present day of the Islands. The educational experience aboard the Endeavour is expert level and the interesting lectures, presentations and guided excursions made us all feel connected to the history, landscape and wildlife.
From morning until night, the itinerary never disappointed. Each following day was described in the evening debriefing. There were options for short or long walks and photos of the terrain to ready all passengers for the upcoming excursions. Each morning, we were taken via Zodiac to different parts of the islands and guided through fantastic species of wildlife. We were fortunate to see unique interactions of the numerous native species, including a giant tortoise standoff, a blue-footed booby courting dance, a large rainbow-colored land iguana protecting his mate, and the mating display of the frigate birds inflated red pouches.
As my experience in Galapagos came to an end, I was sad to go but excited to begin the second portion of my trip . . . Quito and the highlands of Ecuador! I stayed at the Hilton Colon in Quito, located near the colonial district. I very much enjoyed the experience of the hotel; clean, safe and equipped with many amenities found in American hotels. If you're looking for the ‘Ecuadorian experience’, boutique hotels are located throughout the city. I participated in the Quito by Night Tour which explores the beautiful city lit up. Exploring the architecture and sites of the city on a Saturday evening, a very popular time for weddings, I saw six different and equally beautiful weddings in the 30 minute walk around colonial town! The churches are breathtaking and listening to the guide describe the history of each was incredibly interesting.
After Quito, I rode to Otavalo Market, a great stop for shopping. The drive was filled with beautiful sights of volcanoes, mountains and lakes. Close to 9,000 ft above sea level, I truly felt on top of the world. Jewelry, tapestry, clothing and artwork were among the amazing finds that I picked up at the market, a bustling bazaar of handicrafts, fresh vegetables, sweet treats, and traditional wares. The town of Otavalo has darling Ecuadorian charm, and the market can easily be enjoyed in a half day trip. I recommend adding this activity to anyone spending more than a day in Quito. After the market, I took a 2 hour drive and gained more than 800 feet in elevation before arriving at the farming town of Zuleta. This beautiful late 16th century hacienda lies in the spectacular Andean mountain range of Ecuador at 9,600 feet above sea level. Hacienda Zuleta is a colonial working farm of 4,000 acres that has been in the family of Mr. Galo Plaza Lasso, a former president of Ecuador, for more than 100 years.
Upon arrival at the Hacienda, I was immediately greeted by the friendly staff, and showed to my room which was spacious and lovely, with a private patio overlooking horses, and towering mountains in the background. The large king bed and furnishings were sprinkled with pink rose petals, which provided a delightful aroma. I set my bags down and joined two other guests staying at the property in the dining room. Each family-style served meal provides multiple food choices, and all of it is made in house. Each serving was delicious and prepared with the organic resources produced by the farm.
As my time was limited at Hacienda Zuleta, I immediately launched into the long list of available activities. My first: horseback riding along the Andean Mountains and ancient ruins! The landscape is like a scene out of ‘Lord of the Rings’ in the picturesque Shire. Adorable cottages, grassy hillsides, horses, cows, sheep and beautifully-dressed women in authentic Andean clothes carrying bushels of sticks on their backs. It was quite the experience!
Throughout the next two days I enjoyed a light hike to the property’s condor project, more horseback riding, a tour of the on-site cheese factory, and met with the property’s current owner and general manager. In the evenings, guests relax around the fire, reading books and talking about their individual stories. You won't find any TVs or DVD players in this very remote property. There is limited Wi-Fi and minimal contact with the busy outside world. The property is great for those who would like to escape and enjoy solitude while staying active. The property is also very romantic and lovely for couples. Each room has a free standing fire place and the entire property is decorated with roses of every color.
My time in Ecuador concluded after Hacienda Zuleta. I returned to the city of Quito for an evening with a stay closer to the airport in the town of Puembo. Although convenient to the new airport (10 minutes away), the town of Puembo has limited properties with very basic accommodations that may not meet typical American standards, with no available tourist activities in the town. Security can also be an issue in this area, so many lodges have gates surrounding the properties. I experienced Rincon de Puembo, a fine place to lay your head for one evening before leaving the next morning to fly out. My recommendation for travelers coming or going through the Quito airport would be to stay downtown—flights generally leave in the morning and at that time there is light traffic from Quito. I suggest waking up 30 minutes earlier for satisfaction of safety and a good night’s rest.
My whirlwind voyage to the Galapagos Islands and mainland Ecuador was incredible. I will cherish the numerous memories and experiences I brought back, including a highlight of the trip one early morning aboard the National Geographic Endeavour: I was the only one outside on the bow of the ship, sipping coffee and eating a pastry, when all of a sudden a pod of dolphins came right underneath the ship and began to play—jumping and riding the bow wave like little children! Soon there must have been 20 dolphins surrounding the ship; this unexpected surprise was the best wildlife encounter of my life!
Anyone interested in travel or wildlife must make this unexpected destination a top priority!