6 January 2016 by Janet Welsh
An archipelago some 1,000km west of the South American continent, the Galápagos Islands are the land that time forgot. Its unique landscape and fantastic range of wildlife inspired Charles Darwin and, today, great efforts are made to preserve its rich biodiversity. Of course, any trip to the islands isn’t complete without a visit to the cultural delights of Ecuador.
Landing in the mountainous Ecuadorian capital, Quito, I was met on arrival and transferred to my home for three nights – the beautiful Casa Gangotena Hotel set overlooking Plaza San Francisco in old Quito. After quickly checking in, I took myself on a short walking tour of the area; it was a Saturday night and the place was buzzing with an open-air concert and market.
The next morning, after a delicious breakfast, I was collected and taken for a city tour on foot. Quito’s monasteries, museums and churches have been designated by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site and make for atmospheric strolls. The Old Town is easy to navigate being fairly flat but with many hills leading in and out.
Casa Gangotena is an elegant hotel, with a fabulous terrace overlooking Plaza San Francisco, one of Quito's most historic squares
The following day I was taken to Otavalo Handcraft market, a two-hour drive from Quito. The scenery is quite spectacular, driving through the valley surrounded by volcanoes. The famous Ecuadorian Rose farms were in abundance along the floor of the valley with greenhouses stretching for miles.
The market itself was huge, selling everything from spices, grains and meat to textiles and bags, wood and leather goods and typical tourist souvenirs. It’s open daily but, for the ultimate experience, Saturday is its biggest and busiest day. As I was there on a Monday, it was very quiet but this meant easy shopping and I took the chance to buy some Christmas gifts.
On leaving the market, I was taken to Puertolago, a country inn on the shore of Lake San Pablo, where I enjoyed a selection of typical Ecuadorian dishes. With log fires and beautiful lake views, I would happily recommend an overnight stay here to break the two-hour journey each way to the market.
Instead, we headed back to Quito where I had a lovely dinner in the hotel’s restaurant and headed to bed early in preparation for the early start the next day. I was collected at 5am for my transfer back to the airport. To my surprise, a waiter was waiting in reception with a table laid with pastries, cheese and a plentiful supply of coffee to see me on my way. Excellent service! I then flew the two hours from Quito to Baltra with Aerogal, a simple airline with cake and coffee provided.
I was met in Baltra by our Haugun Cruise guide, Harry, and, together with the other guests, was quickly transferred to the quayside where we were provided with life vests and embarked on the first of many trips on a Panga (dinghy). Before we even left the harbour we saw a mass of blue footed boobies fishing and sea lions swimming around. The first of many photos were taken.
We were taken to the Ocean Spray, my home for the next four nights where Alisandra, the cruise director, greeted us. This luxury catamaran carries 16 guests but for this cruise there were just 12 of us. Guests came from the UK, Canada, Belgium and USA.
My cabin was very comfortable with a spacious bathroom and private balcony. L’Occitane toiletries were provided together with portable water containers and bottled water.
Lunch was buffet service with a wide choice of cold starters, hot mains and delicious desserts. Credit to the chef on board for producing such a wide variety for each meal in such a tiny galley. He even managed to make all the excellent bread and pastries.
Tea, coffee, soft drinks and snacks are available 24 hours a day for you to serve yourself while alcohol is an optional extra.
After lunch, we had a short safety demonstration and then it was straight onto our first snorkel and swim where we saw the very rare Galapagos Penguins. Then back to the ship for a quick shower before we were taken by Panga to Bartholomew Island where it was possible to climb to the top of the volcano for a fantastic sunset view.
Before dinner each evening, we had a briefing from Harry about the following day’s activities. It soon became very apparent how knowledgeable and passionate he is about this wonderful environment.
The next three days were spent with two island walking visits each day, together with a daily snorkel. To rival the traditional safari Big Five, there’s considered a Big Fifteen to spot in Galápagos and I’m proud to say that I spotted all but one – the Albatross. I saw both red and blue footed boobies and the Nazca booby, cormorants and flamingos, both great and magnificent frigate birds, the Galápagos hawk, land and marine iguana, penguins, sea lions, the Galápagos fur seal and the incredible giant tortoise.
The opportunity to get so close without fear from them or us was quite special while watching the nesting birds and snoozing sea lions was magical. And, having a Galápagos owl land right in front of us with recently-caught prey in its claws was a moment I will never forget.
Each evening, after dinner, guests soon drifted off to their cabins. With such energetic daytime activities, this was certainly not going to be a party ship at night. But sitting on my private balcony reflecting on the day was a lovely end to each evening.
After four nights, and back on land, I was met by my guide/driver from the Finch Bay Eco Hotel on Santa Cruz Island, one of only four of the otherwise uninhabited islands in the archipelago where I was to spend the night. After a bus ride, I took a short ferry ride over to the island where a one-hour drive took me across the island to Porto Ayaga, where I was taken by scenic water taxi to the hotel.
The Eco Hotel is very proud of its ethical accreditations and I had a very comfortable one-night stay in this lovely place. With one toe in the water, it’s set on the beach amid manicured gardens and is the perfect place to decompress after a cruise. I took the water taxi back to the port in the evening to lap up the Spanish way of life, with families out on a Saturday evening enjoying the balmy weather.
The next morning, sad to say goodbye, I made the return journey to the airport for my flight to Guayaquil. Here, I was met on arrival and given a tour of what is the largest city in Ecuador. With a population of three million, it’s the financial and commercial centre of the country.
However, I was more interested in the long river fronted promenade, its fine collection of colonial buildings and its ornate, modern cathedral. I particularly enjoyed the colourful old quarter near the river whose cafés and art galleries are well worth exploring.
My hotel for the night was the Oro Verde, a ‘Leading Hotel of the World’. Having been spoilt with the warmth and service of recent hotels, I found it to be rather business-like and a touch impersonal.
The next morning, I had the day to myself and took the chance to buy some of the beautiful Ecuador roses to bring back with me before my evening flight back to Heathrow. Fortunately, it was a night flight so the lack of inflight entertainment on this leg was not too much of a problem.
What was your highlight?
Undoubtedly the Galápagos Islands. Each one offered something unique and I felt privileged to visit such an unspoilt part of our world.
What would be your tip for this holiday?
Choose your cruise ship and itinerary carefully. The ships range in size from 12 guests to 100 with varying degrees of service and stability.
The itineraries vary from 4 to 14 nights so if you have a particular species that you wish to see, then you need to read the itineraries carefully to make sure that you are visiting the right islands.
Why should you travel there?
It’s one of the best protected and, resultantly, unspoilt places in the world,
What is unique about this place?
The islands are a like no other environment I’ve ever seen. There are fantastic opportunities for photography and the chance to get up close to the wildlife.
Did you have any disappointments?
I thought parts of Guayaquil lacked some character.