Exploring Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands: Tips and Insights

By Mauricio Zarzar

“Ecuador has something for everybody”. On a recent visit to Ecuador I realised that saying is just 100% true. Starting what would be a 5 day trip from Guayaquil to Quito overland plus 5 days on a cruise through the Galapagos Islands I felt nothing but excitement and curiosity. We’ve all have heard so much about this country that “has it all”, but what exactly does Ecuador really has to offer?

On day 1 we landed in Guayaquil around 2am after a long but comfortable flight with LATAM from Melbourne, Australia. The direct flight from Melbourne will cross the Pacific Ocean and fly over Antarctica landing in Santiago the Chile. This will take 14 hours so make sure you have your comfy pants and are ready for good food and entertainment on the plane. Good time to consider a business class ticket or use those frequent flyer points to upgrade. From there you could catch a connection flight to Guayaquil but I would recommend spending a night or two in Santiago to recover and explore this beautiful city.

Our first stop the next morning was actually driving outside of the city and visiting a Mango and Cacao farm. This 2 hour drive ride will take you on the highway through beautiful scenery of mountains and banana and mango farms. At arrival on the farm you will enjoy a demonstration of how the locals live and produce cacao for exportation (one of Ecuador’s biggest income). After this we had time to relax on the hammocks and lunch was served. For those mango lovers like me, be aware that the mango season runs only from November to February. Any mango outside the season won’t be as fresh and natural!

Early in the afternoon we took the same way back to Guayaquil were we had a city tour through the malecon and the Parquet Seminario were meter-long iguanas wonder around right at your feet! After this we went back to our Hotel Continental, a 3 star accommodation, centrally located and clean and tidy. The big plus about this hotel is it has one of the best restaurants in town, rated on the top 3 in Guayaquil by TripAdvisor. If you are looking for a higher level of accommodation, I highly recommend Hotel Del Parque, recently opened and owned by Oro Verde, a luxury class hotel chain. Hotel Del Parque is in a very nice and suburb about 20min from the city. The hotel has an elegant colonial style and it’s inside of a private park where you can go for relaxing walks through the beautiful gardens or take a tour with the hotel.

The next morning we got picked up and driven 3 hours through the cloud forest to Cajas National Park, a Scottish highlands looking area where a guide took us on a short 4km long hike surrounded by vegetation and lagoons. On this hike visitors have a good chance to spot wild llamas, hummingbirds, condors and if you are lucky, spectacle bears and pumas. Make sure to have plenty of water with you and bring warm clothes (hiking boots, beanies and gloves too) since you will be hiking at 3,800 m.a.s.l.

After lunch in an elegant but rustic restaurant we continued our drive to Cuenca where we spent the night in a beautiful old style colonial 3 star Hotel Santa Lucia. Highly recommend an upgrade here to boutique Hotel Alcazar. Cuenca was my favourite city. A small, colonial town where you will feel safe and relax. The people are mostly religious and conservative but most of all, friendly so feel free to start a chat in the main plaza with the locals or ask for directions. Here is as must to try the local food in Cuenca’s number one restaurant: El Mercado. Budget around USD15 for mains.

The next morning we had to depart Cuenca and I wished we could have stayed at least 2 nights to have a full day and explore further. We went on a 4 hour drive on the highway overlooking the green mountains of the highlands to Alausi where we took “the most dangerous train in the world”: The Devil’s Nose Train. Since there is an 8am or an 11am train ride, I suggest to take the 11am so you don’t have to be picked up at 4am from the hotel. Of course this will depend on your itinerary after the train ride, so try to allow some resting time here. The train ride takes about 3 hours and is very scenery and the train is nice but not luxurious.

Back on the road to Riobamba we make a stop to see Ecuador’s highest mountain: Chimborazo (6,268m) which is the Earth’s closest point to the sun! Lunch is provided in a mountain lodge owned by Chimborazo’s biggest fan who has climbed it more than 1,000 times. After lunch the tour starts where you climb from one lodge to the next one. The park has a lunar-like landscape where it is easy to spot vicunas, alpacas, deer and many other types of fauna.

After a long day of activities we went back on the road and to our hotel in Riobamba. An hacienda style hotel with big rooms and beautiful gardens: Hotel Abraspungo. The town is only 10 min drive away so plenty of options for dinner. However, the hotel has one of the best restaurants in town so a good opportunity to relax in your accommodation and enjoy the spa too. Good place for horseback riding for those looking to do some activities.

The next morning, on the way to Quito we make a stop 3 hours away from Riobamba to visit one of the highlands main attractions: Laguna Quilotoa, a turquoise coloured lagoon formed in a collapsed volcanic caldera. Its summit at 3,850 m.a.s.l. Make sure you bring good comfortable shoes with a good grip since the way down to the lagoon is slippery dirt. Great views, photo opportunities and the chance to do kayaking.

We then continued on the highway for another 3 hours to Ecuador’s capital: Quito. Here we spent the night in Casona de La Ronda, a centrally located 4 star hotel. As expected, another beautiful colonial style building with comfortable and spacious rooms. The hotel has one of the top 5 best restaurants in Quito so no need to leave for dinner.

The next morning the time has come to visit Ecuador’s gem: Galapagos. We take a 1 hour drive transfer to Quito’s airport and board our LATAM flight to Baltra, one of the two airports in Galapagos. Make sure you have USD20 cash per person to pay the transit control card at Quito’s  (or Guayaquil’s) Airport before flying to Galapagos. At arrival in Galapagos you will need to pay the National Park entrance fee which is USD100 cash per person. After immigration, we met our guide and were transferred to the pier were we board a zodiac to our cruise: The Treasure of Galapagos. We have already seen 3 types of birds and Galapagos sea lions before we arrive into our cruise. The 16 pax catamaran is a Superior style vessel with large cabins (main deck suites, upper level suites and 1 master suite which can fit a family of 4), balconies on every cabin, an inside lounge and a sun deck with a hot tub. The interior is modern and simple with wooden floors and large windows around the vessel.

The next 5 days are nothing short of amazing. We travel the Central and Eastern Islands of Galapagos. Starting in Santa Cruz, after settling in our cabins we took a short zodiac ride to the pier and got on our bus to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station. Along the way we had the opportunity to see the popular giant tortoises in the wild. In the Research Station you can see iguanas and tortoises in captivity while they get strong enough before they get release into the wild. Also, you can find a small and interesting exposition about Lonesome George, the last survivor of his species.

On day 2 we explored Sullivan Bay and Bartolome. Here we had our snorkelling practise and walked along the island cover in volcanic matter. Here is very important to apply sunblock since you will be walking for a couple of hours. The walk is easy and flat, however the surface is uneven and rocky so closed shoes are recommended. Don’t forget to bring your swimmers for a refreshing swim afterwards. We went back to the ship for lunch and rest before our first proper snorkelling session where we swam with a great variety of fish, sea turtles and sharks!

On day 3 we headed to North Seymour where we had a “dry landing” and a hike where we had the chance to see the beautiful blue footed boobies, colonies of frigates, fork tailed gulls, terns, sea lions, lava lizards and land iguanas besides the vegetation such as Palo Santo trees. After this we return to our cruise for lunch before we visited Mosquera, a small island which you could walk from one side to the other in 20min. But don’t write it off, here you can see large colonies of sea lions playing in the water and resting under the sun in the great white sand beaches. Great photo opportunities.

On day 4 we had a dry landing and hike in South Plazas. The vegetation in this island changes according to the season of the year and you can see sea lions, iguanas and a great number of birds such as nesting tropic birds and fork tailed seagulls. We had the opportunity to see birds feeding on sea lion placenta… not the most appealing show but quite interesting. Don’t worry, the next photo won’t be about this! Our second disembarkation of the day was in Cerro Brujo, a truly beautiful beach of white coral where you can swim and snorkel or just relax and watch the bird life and sea lions.

On our last day we disembark in the morning in San Cristobal where we stop at the interpretation centre, where we had the chance to learn about the evolution of Galapagos and the animal life in the islands.

I honestly recommend the Treasure of Galapagos to those who would like to explore Galapagos the right way, in a comfortable and classic vessel that offers good food (catered for all diets), attentive staff and excellent guides that will not only take you to the most magical places but share valuable information that you wouldn’t receive anywhere else! I would love to keep talking more about this but have to go back to work, so email us or just gives us a call at Eclipse Travel (1300 575 752-Sydney or 0800 144 874-Christchurch) and I or one of my team colleagues will be happy to have a chat about your next adventure!

If you want to find out more about the destinations in this article, or have any questions in general please contact us.