Just back from… Ecuador with JulietJuliet Ellwood - Travel Expert
WHERE DID YOU GO?
Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands
How did you get there?
3 Avianca flights! From London to Bogotá, then to Quito and then on Baltra in the Galápagos. It’s fair to say I drank a lot of coffee that day…
Whereabouts did you go?
I started on Santa Cruz in the Galápagos before joining a 7 night cruise. I then flew to the mainland and joined 2 colleagues and together we explored the cloudforest region around Mindo, the famed northern highland market town of Otavalo, Cotopaxi National Park, and the Andean backroads route on the slopes between the Andes and the Amazon, including the thermal spa of Papallacta and the subtropical area near Archidona. We also visited Baños with its hot springs and waterfalls and charming southern city, Cuenca. Finally two of us headed to the Amazon region along the river Napo while the other then went to the Galapagos, and we all finished off our trip in the capital, Quito.
Had you been before?
Yes, but a little while ago! (18 years to be precise). I spent some time there during an extended backpacking trip in Latin America though my budget at the time didn’t extend to the Galápagos!
If so, any notable differences?
When I first visited, aside from the Galápagos, Ecuador did seem to be regarded as more of a backpacker destination than anything else and that feels very much not to be the case now. Throughout the country there seems to have been a growing focus on eco-tourism, there’s a ‘new’ airport (well since I was there – it opened in 2014), and there has been and continues to be much effort to restore and revitalise the historic centres of both Quito and Cuenca (the latter of which now has a recently completed tramline).
Which was your favourite:
Place: It’s genuinely impossible to choose one from a long list, but I’m a lover of mountains and high altitude landscapes so I’m going to say one favourite was the stunningly dramatic Cotopaxi national park. Our time there was only too brief so it’s definitely on my list of places to go back to and explore more (possibly on horseback!).
Hotel: Again a very tough choice, but the first place that I stayed on arriving in the Galápagos made a lasting impression! Finch Bay hotel has a gorgeous location on the bay of the same name in Puerto Ayora, the Galápagos’ largest settlement (on the island of Santa Cruz). The hotel also has a very appealing pool area around which its bar and restaurant are set, and a fantastic breakfast buffet that I’m still thinking about several weeks later!
Excursion: We did a ‘Quito hands-on experience’ as an alternative to a conventional walking tour of the city and that was very enjoyable and something I’d recommend to people looking for something a bit different. It included sampling freshly made juice and experiencing traditional herbal medicine at a local market, a visit to spires of the of the San Francisco Convent for a panoramic view of the city, a visit to the insightful Intiñan museum at the Mitad del Mundo (the equator), and a final stop at an agave distillery where they make a delicious Ecuadorian spirit called Miske (similar to tequila and mezcal but very smooth). Seeing the stages of the distilling process and then sampling our own Miske cocktails was a lot of fun!
What was your most memorable moment?
At the risk of repeating myself, it’s incredibly hard to pick just one! But among so many, I’m not going to forget our pre-dawn departure from the Napo Wildlife Centre in a hurry. A 5am wake-up call was absolutely worth it as we paddled across Anangu lake (which provides the incredible setting for the Centre) and up the creek that connects it to the Napo river. Our guide mostly kept his torch off, so we were able to enjoy the gradual emergence of the day to a soundtrack of gentle paddle strokes, exotic birdsong, and the almost eerie calls of howler monkeys.
Were there any surprises along the way?
We did self-drive for part of the trip, and I was pleased to find that it was actually a very accessible and straightforward country to drive in for the most part, with many decent roads and signage and much less of the alarming behavior on the part of other drivers that I remember from previous Latin American trips!
What tips do you have for travelers wanting to visit the same destinations?
Firstly, just do it – the huge diversity of the country’s geography means it can be an all-year-round destination unlike some other parts of Latin America that have a focus on a particular season. Also, if you’re at all into photography, then bringing a reasonably decent camera is a good idea for the immense variety of bird and wildlife you’re certain to see.
Is there anything indispensable to pack or prepare for?
Swimwear! I initially thought bringing the four swimsuits I’d packed might be a little excessive; however, there were so many opportunities to swim or splash about – in the ocean around the Galápagos islands, in some gorgeous hotel pools, in cloud-forest waterfalls, and in the Napo river – that I was glad I did!
Any local snacks, dishes, or drinks that should be sampled?
Pan de yuca was something I’d never tried before and which popped up frequently – little rolls made from cassava flour and cheese – and which I soon became addicted to. Ceviche is another favorite, like in its neighbor Peru, but in Ecuador, I tried a version made with palm heart, so vegan-friendly, instead of the more well-known seafood variety, and that was delicious.
Any restaurant or bar recommendations?
‘Calle de los kioskos’ (Binford St) is a lively spot in the evenings in Puerto Ayora, where you can get an array of fresh fish and try the slightly alarming-looking local favorite Brujo (scorpion fish).
Sum up your trip in a sentence?
A real trip of a lifetime, and I can’t wait to go back one day!
Please provide an expert comment:
Sometimes overlooked in favor of its neighboring countries or seen only as a gateway to the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador really has something for everyone. With world-class wildlife spotting, stunning mountains and volcanoes, enduring traditional culture and customs, and fascinating colonial heritage in its historic city centers and countryside haciendas (to name just a few things!), it won’t disappoint.
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