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What country/countries did you visit?

Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands

How did you get there?

Avianca flights between London and Quito via Bogotá in Colombia. The Galápagos Islands were reached with Avianca flights from Guayaquil to San Cristóbal and from Baltra to Quito.

Whereabouts did you go? (give an idea of the general route)

We visited the capital Quito, before heading west into the cloud forest for some birdwatching and soft adventure near the town of Mindo. Next was the northern region of Otavalo, which is one of the best places to gain an insight into native traditions and is also home to some of the country’s best haciendas. We continued to Cotopaxi National Park, a volcanic wonderland ideal for keen walkers, before making our way southeast, via the thermal baths of Papallacta, into the rainforest. From here, we navigated west, stopping first in the activity hub of Baños and then the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca, before eventually reaching the coastal metropolis of Guayaquil. From here I left my two colleagues and flew to the magnificent, wildlife-packed islands of the Galápagos.

Had you been before?

Yes - I travelled around the mainland for 2 weeks in 2018 but had never been to the Galápagos Islands before.

If so, any notable differences?

Ecuador’s tourist industry was less impacted by the effects of the pandemic than many other countries, due largely to a steady influx of visitors from the US. Therefore, very few hotels and other tourist-related services have closed - many have, in fact, managed to expand and make improvements.

Which was your favourite:

Place:
The Galápagos Islands have been very high on my bucket list since my childhood, and they did not disappoint!

Hotel:

We stayed at some very special properties, but Kuyana Amazon Lodge near Tena was probably the most memorable. It offers the kind of laid-back jungle-style luxury that appeals to my pampered explorer disposition, but also has an incredible location with a large selection of hikes available into the rainforest – one goes to a sumptuous swimming spot beneath a thundering waterfall.

Excursion:

My last snorkelling excursion in the Galápagos, just off the island known as Chinese Hat, was one of the most remarkable hours of my life. Never have I been in the water with such an abundance and diversity of wildlife. One moment I would be filming a huge shoal of dazzling fish, and then a playful sea lion would dart beneath me. Before I could retrain my camera, a white-tipped reef shark would begin prowling to my right and a tap on my shoulder from a fellow snorkeller would alert me to two enormous turtles gliding gracefully towards the surface over to my left. Then, a look up to the sky would reveal an array of circling sea birds, all patiently awaiting their moment to plummet into the surf and pounce upon their prey. It was nature at its dizzying best.

What was your most memorable moment?

I will never forget the distinctive squarks emanating from the dozens of dancing cock-of-the-rock birds we encountered near Mindo, as the sun rose above the tree-lined horizon in the distance.

Were there any surprises along the way?

The quality of the food was a real bonus. My memories from 2018 were of a country that seemed shy and embarrassed about promoting its own cuisine and so restaurants would instead serve up the same international dishes you could find on any high street in London. This time, however, it was very apparent that attitudes towards gastronomy are beginning to change. Most hotels and restaurants now at least offer a few Ecuadorian alternatives and indeed, traditional recipes and local produce are fast becoming a key highlight of any visit.

What tips do you have for travellers wanting to visit the same destinations?

Ecuador has a bit of everything. Stunning mountain scenery, extraordinary birdlife, remote Amazonian rainforest, eye-catching colonial architecture, ancient Incan ruins, documentary-spawning wildlife, and an almost endless list of activities and excursions to choose from. Its equatorial location also means it can be explored all year round. Many travelers, however, tend to ignore the mainland and instead opt to hop straight to the Galápagos. My advice would be that Ecuador deserves to be treated as a complete destination in its own right – there’s so much more to do here than just pass through.

Is there anything indispensable to pack or prepare for?

People often assume that because of Ecuador’s location, it will be swelteringly hot and humid. In the Andes, this is definitely not the case. The high altitudes experienced throughout much of the mainland make for a very comfortable climate most of the time. Indeed, visitors should always be sure to pack long trousers and a couple of jumpers, as evenings can often turn rather chilly. The rainforest, coastal regions, and islands will generally be warmer, so you should still pack your shorts, t-shirts, and sunblock, but even they rarely suffer from extreme heat. And of course, no matter which regions you are visiting, you should never forget your waterproofs.

Any local snacks, dishes, or drinks that should be sampled?

Agave is a genus of monocots (grass-like plants) that is famed for being used in the production of tequila and mezcal in Mexico. In Ecuador, however, agave is utilized slightly differently to create miske, a smoother, slightly sweeter alternative which, it is claimed, is hangover-proof. Despite the fact that agave sap has been harvested by the natives for centuries, the distilling process is a relatively new phenomenon which was only commercialized in 2010. As such, Miske is yet to hit the supermarket shelves and bars overseas. Therefore, until this metaphorical wave sweeps the globe, the hangover theory can only be tested on Ecuadorian territory.

Any restaurant or bar recommendations?

Cuenca is possibly Ecuador’s most beautiful and characterful city, and one of the best views of it comes from the rooftop terrace at Negroni. The entrance is slightly odd (you need to navigate your way through a clothes shop to get to the elevator that takes you to the bar), but once you get there, you will be treated to fantastic food, a lively atmosphere, and panoramic vistas over the city’s main square.

Sum up your trip in a sentence?

An extraordinary exploration of a truly diverse country, packed with natural wonders, historic landmarks, evolving cultural heritage, and countless moments of joy and awe.

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PLEASE PROVIDE AN EXPERT COMMENT:

Since Costa Rica has seen a surge in popularity since the pandemic, I’d highly recommend Ecuador as a quieter alternative (and indeed, a great next destination for anyone who’s been to and loved Costa Rica). Its jungles and beaches are less trodden, its landscapes are every bit as varied and its wildlife is perhaps even more iconic. With a more defined culture and proud historical past, it could also be argued that it offers a more rounded experience overall.

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