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Straddling the equator, and rising from both the Pacific Ocean and the Amazon basin to volcanic peaks above 6,000 meters (20,000 ft), Ecuador squeezes more biodiversity into a small area than any other country.
It is also wonderfully diverse culturally. Roughly 25% of the population is indigenous with the largest group being Quichua (or Quechua or more easily Inca). The Andean chain that runs the length of the country was historically integrated into the Inca Empire.
When the Spanish concurred the region, they focused their administration in a lush valley located 2,800 meters above sea level. Quito still boasts some of the best colonial architecture in Latin America.
My group arrived all the way from the UK, via Bogota, to the second highest capital on Earth. It is important to take the first day at altitude quite easy, so I took them on a short walking tour of the old town. We started at the Basilica – not normally my style – but this consecrated, yet officially unfinished building does celebrate Ecuador’s biodiversity by replacing gothic gargoyles with iguanas, tortoises, and the many endemic species found throughout this amazing country.
It is said, when the Basilica is finally finished, either the world will end, or Ecuador will cease to be.
The second day we had a more in depth look at the city and visited one of the fabulous food markets. The variety of fruits and vegetables is simply outstanding, and whenever I’ve lived in the Andes, my morning juice becomes an art. Locals spend more money on a good blender than most other appliances! Even in the hotels, juices at breakfast were a highlight.
As much as I enjoy Quito, the city has terrible traffic and when cloudy the air can be noticeably polluted. To that end, it was a pleasure to drive north, cross the equator at ‘Mitad del Mundo’ and began descending into the cloud forest region of Mindo.
Our first stop was to see hummingbirds which was a visual treat!
Then it rained the rainforest, but we enjoyed discussing cacao production and looking for butterflies before checking into our rustic, but beautiful lodge. One night isn’t enough!
On our way back to Quito we took a photo right on the equator – it is interestingly very dry in that area, yet lush several kilometers north and south of the line. For fun, we enjoyed a good lunch (almost always fish, chicken or sometimes beef), on the rim of a volcano 10,000 feet up!
Then back to Quito and time to repack for the Galapagos.
Obviously these volcanic islands are Ecuador’s main draw and they are incredible. I would like to add that Ecuador itself has so much to offer – it warrants a full two-week tour, but when the islands are included, budgets change dramatically.
For all sorts of understandable reasons, travel to, and between the Galapagos islands is heavily controlled. The Ecuadorian government has now instituted an on-line, pre-registration with a site that seems to crash almost daily. This still costs $20 (cash at the airport).
While trying (and trying) to get my group registered (one of the many reasons to take an organised tour), the system announced I was still on the Islands from last year and had overstayed the maximum period. Thanks to Mauro and Cristian for fixing this bureaucracy – it did help that I had passport stamps from around the world, whilst ostensibly not leaving Galapagos!
At the airport there is a biological control, non-native plants and animals pose one of the biggest challenges to the conservation of the Galápagos Islands. For more specific information visit IGTOA. Flights from Quito descend 45 minutes down to Guayaquil and then 1 hour 45 minutes further on to the islands.
Galapagos – particularly from January to May – is extremely hot and the islands are desert.
After paying our $100 island entrance fee, we began by seeing endemic birds, crabs and of course tortoises! I love it when a place so quickly lives up to expectations.
On this tour we had 6 full nights on three islands. In any real sense, this is about as comprehensive as a trip to islands will be. On our first night in Puerto Ayora – Santa Cruz Island, we enjoyed delicious fresh food and wandered the streets of the largest community on the islands. People often think of the islands as uninhabited, whereas there are 33 000 inhabitants over four islands.
In the morning we took tenders out to our private speedboat for the two-hour crossing to Isabela – the volcanically active, and largest island in the chain. Upon arrival we were greeted by sea lions, Frigatebirds, Blue Footed Boobies and penguins. And on land, many, many tortoises (and flamingos, mocking birds and iguanas).
In our time on Isabela, many in the the group tried snorkeling for the first time. This adds an import note:
*So much of what one comes to see on Galapagos is marine. Boat trips are an absolute must – even if you do not swim. This adds significant costs, but really offers the principle reason for visiting the islands.
We walked up to the edge of one of the largest volcanic calderas in the world, it was deliciously cloudy and relatively cool for the walk! Lava defines all the islands – from the oldest (over 5 million years) to the youngest (still growing at under 1 million years).
Back to Santa Cruz we visited the Charles Darwin Research Station and enjoyed time in the town before transferring east to San Cristobal Island. This is the administrative capital of the islands and, in my opinion, the most attractive town (the overwhelmingly least popular hotel with the group however).
It was my first time on this island, so I was excited. Sea lions are ubiquitous and noisy, but other highlights include the Magnificent Frigatebirds with the red balloon throats and even Hammerhead Sharks!
Everyone made it out to ‘Kicker Rock’ (or sleeping lion) and some even swam between the rocks!
Culturally the islands are peculiar, they do not have a native culture. Rather they were first used (and abused) by pirates and sailors who found the tortoises and sources of food. Under Ecuadorian administration, people were encouraged to colonize several generations ago, then almost all migration was halted.
Now, people secure residency through marriage and the islands have developed a rather unique international mix of residents. As so many foreigners visit, marriages are often international, this is interesting, but also one’s pride in being ‘Galapagonian’ can be very assertive. While the islands are expensive, locals are extremely critical of any businesses not from the islands. I’m not sure I am entirely sympathetic.
For all of the costs to visit the islands, the towns are not as clean and neat as one would imagine. Despite all the fanfare of banning plastic – water bottles and single use plastic bags are common. There is trash laying around and common pets – cats and dogs – walk freely – I wonder how Darwin’s Finches feel about that.
Money from around the world pours into these islands for tourism and for research. I think perhaps they could make a better effort (and I too live right beside a famous national park).
Back to the Continent
After so much fun and sun on the islands, we were getting ready to fly back. At 6:15 AM I looked at my emails and saw a ‘flight change.’ On time to Guayaquil, but suddenly a ridiculous 6+ hour layover in Ecuador’s largest city!
Well, the group was game and I like that steamy hot city, so I managed to organize a bus and a guide and we spent the late afternoon and early evening in the world’s banana capital. In the end a bonus. Guayaquil – historically the world’s banana capital – has a reputation for being unsafe, but the 15 year redevelopment of the waterfront (malecon) has been a huge success. We enjoyed the outing immensely – although did not get to our hotel in Quito until 3 am!
Back in the Highlands, there is still so much to see. Despite being tired, it was Saturday, so we went out to Otavalo – one of the largest, mostly indigenous, markets in the region. March / April is the rainy season in this part of the Andes. Clear mornings almost invariably give way to to clouds and rain in the afternoon. Hence the beautiful, lush hills.
It was also election time in Ecuador – I was unaware the country goes completely (or virtually completely) dry for this event. Quito was quieter than normal, and we did enjoy a glass of wine in coffee cups 🙂
As a final adventure, we took Quito’s cable car up above the city to 4,000 meters before heading to the airport.
Farewell to the beautiful Andes…until next time 😉
If you want to learn more about Ecuador, Patrick has also written the following articles:
Highland Ecuador, Biking & a Dentist, Finn in Quito (by Finn), Travel and Altitude, High! From Quito, Ecuador, Galapagos, Quechua Women, I was Robbed!