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Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands – My trip of a lifetime

By Sales Manager Zoe Franklin


Early September saw the start of a trip I had been longing to take – the trip of a lifetime that few have the privilege of experiencing – the amazing destination that is the Galapagos Islands. I was part of a group that was invited by Cox & Kings and Avianca Airlines to visit Ecuador, the Galapagos and Guayaquil – and for this opportunity, I cannot thank them enough. We flew from Heathrow overnight via Bogotá to Quito and I was extremely pleased with the aircraft, seat pitch, service and staff of Avianca. A 6-hour layover in Bogotá gave us the excuse to use their executive lounge and sample the delights on offer – including a luxurious shower to freshen up and to make use of the WiFi!



Day 1

On arrival in Quito we were met by the team from Metropolitan Touring who were to be our guides for the 3 days of our stay here and the rest of the trip. Our luggage was taken straight to our hotel – The Hilton Colon – whilst we made the 40-minute journey along the new, quick highway to the city. The 5* Hilton Colon is of typical corporate design and is in the newer business area of Quito, across the road from El Ejido Park, a large public park that comes alive at night with music, games and general merriment. We had a wonderful lunch provided by the hotel with a chance to savour some local dishes before a guided tour of the hotel facilities. A local market provided an afternoon of Ecuadorian culture and gave us the chance to spend some of our dollars! Entrance to the club executive lounge of the hotel was greatly appreciated, with complimentary drinks and snacks, before we headed to bed early ready for the full day of sightseeing ahead of us the following day.


Day 2

An early start on a very sunny day put us in the mood to explore the sights of this wonderful UNESCO World Heritage city. We were going to experience the new tour on offer – ‘Quito like a local’. As we left the modern area we drove through cobbled streets with main squares, colonial buildings and into the ‘real’ Quito. The hugely impressive San Francisco Plaza was full of pigeons, with locals trying to pick them up and children (and a few of us!) running through them to make them all fly in sync and swarm overhead.

We visited many local artisans, including a man who painstakingly restores religious statues. The main indoor market was alive with locals shopping for their meat, fruit and vegetables – chickens with feet and heads still on and full cows’ hooves! Women who heal through the use of herbs and medicines have stalls here, and the one we were introduced to is well renowned in Quito and is constantly fully booked. She gave a demonstration using nettles and various other herbs to cleanse one of our group (not sure if the nettle stings have gone down as yet!) Everywhere we walked the steeply undulating streets were full of old ladies – many toothless but all smiling – dressed in traditional attire and selling their wares.

No city tour is complete without a church visit and this was no exception. La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús or ‘Church of the Society of Jesus’ is one of Ecuador’s most beautiful baroque churches, with every inch of the interior encased in gold leaf – photographs, unfortunately, are not allowed.

From here we visited one of the Leading Hotels in the World – the Grand Plaza Hotel which overlooks Independence Square and the presidential palace. Here we were served a delicious lunch of local fayre followed by a dessert flowing with dry ice and brought to us by a purple hooded ‘cucuruchos’ – quite disturbing for the children on the next table! The lovely, homely Casa la Ronda, located on one of the oldest streets in Quito, is a wonderful place to stay. 22 suites have been created in this former residence and it has an enviable rooftop room with outstanding views – over the city and to the Virgin Mary statue on the highest hilltop.

The general manager, Maria, is an asset to this hotel, who enjoys nothing more than sitting down for a drink with her guests discussing their Quito experiences. After an enlightening presentation on the making of chocolate, from the harvesting of the cocoa beans to the final finished article (that we greatly appreciated sampling) came the highlight of the day. We took a drive north to Mitad del Mundo – Middle of the Earth – a fantastic educational centre and monument that straddles the actual line of the Equator – many photos in various poses were taken by the group to document our visit here, and we even got a certificate as proof!


Day 3

A very early start today took us to Otavalo, an old market town a couple of hours’ drive away. Many stalls were selling an abundance of handmade jewellery & trinkets, wooden and seed ornaments, rugs, clothing and scarves made from baby alpaca – this felt a lot more aimed at tourists than locals though. From here we made a quick stop at a local hacienda before heading to the Hacienda Zuleta – what a place!

An hour or so drive through the mountains off the main highway brought us to this stunning property. A beautiful cobbled courtyard surrounded by whitewashed buildings with horses to ride, tracks to follow, cows to milk and bears to spot. They have a condor enclosure where they have a conservation programme with breeding pairs that they are trying to reintroduce into the wild – an egg was due to hatch any time and they are hoping this will begin the process. After an impressive lunch and tour of the estate, we said our goodbyes and headed the 3 hours back to Quito.

Our hotel for this 3rd night was the Casa Gangotena – a stunning, large historic mansion set on San Francisco Plaza with 31 boutique rooms and original Italian architecture. A definite must for a stay in Quito, with a great location, friendly staff and extremely large beverages!


Day 4

A 4am start was accepted as this was the day we were heading to the Galapagos! A slight flight detour was required due to the amber alert for Cotopaxi volcano.  Located only 60km from Quito, this striking scene of ash cloud spitting from the summit could be seen for miles and was viewed extremely well from our plane windows. We arrived on San Cristobel Island mid-morning after flying from Quito via Guayaquil. It still felt quite surreal to think I was actually in the Galapagos! We left the previous metropolitan tour guide, Adrianna, in Quito and now had Klaus in tow.  He began his career with them as a tour guide and is now Product Manager – what he doesn’t know about the Galapagos you don’t need to know!

The transfer from the quayside to our boat for the 5-day cruise – MV Santa Cruz – took just 5 minutes in a panga/zodiac dinghy speedboat (once we had mastered the art of life jackets) and these became our mode of transport many times during our trip.

Boarding our boat was extremely easy and we were greeted by the crew and shown to our cabins – followed very shortly by our luggage. The cabins were small but completely adequate, with plenty of under bed storage for cases. Oddly, though, there are no keys for the cabins – however, we surprisingly got used to this very quickly and it was nice not to carry anything around with you. We had the obligatory emergency drill, and were sorted with wetsuits and snorkelling gear to keep for the duration of our cruise. An afternoon excursion to Punta Pitt was the highlight as we had our first close encounters, walking amongst sea lions, watching the blue-footed boobies & frigate birds and having lava lizards run past without a care in the world.


Day 5

The next day started with a hearty breakfast. We headed out in groups on the pangas towards Santa Fe Island – this is where we were expecting to see the majority of the islands’ endemic species.  This was, however, delayed by a chance sighting of a mother whale and her calf.

A detour was made for us to follow the movement of the whales and watch them hide underwater and be tracked by the footprint on the water, and then to see the hump appear on the surface – an incredible sight to see and one we could have only hoped for. The excitement between us was immense and, as ours were the only boats in the area, we were able to manoeuvre close at every opportunity. Throughout the day we visited a couple of islands, saw sea lion harems, baby seals, bright yellow and grey land iguanas, sally lightfoot crabs, many species of birds and many, many more sea lions.

Snorkelling in this location was absolutely astounding – we were joined by sea lions, huge schools of brightly coloured fish and saw beautiful underwater rock formations bejewelled with sea urchins and ocean flowers.


Day 6

After another comfortable night, we woke for an action packed day on Santa Cruz Island. We departed after breakfast for a full day ashore heading first to the Finch Bay Eco Hotel – a popular choice with Cox & Kings guests who want a land based stay or add-on. As this hotel is also owned by Metropolitan Touring, along with our boat, both are easily packaged together.

I would highly recommend a few days here post cruise to gather your thoughts and to reflect on your wonderful experiences on the cruise before flying home. There are a selection of 21 garden rooms and 4 interconnecting ocean view in a modern and contemporary style and Wi-Fi is a bonus after days at sea and enabled us all to make quick calls home to loved ones.

A short water taxi to the main town of Puerto Ayora gave us an hour for shopping (which many took great advantage of) or for a drink in one of the local café bars. The local fish market – albeit small – brought delight to us all watching an abundance of cheeky pelicans swooping in for the scraps thrown by the workers or by stealing from each other’s beaks! Next stop was a mountain bike trail (or bus journey for the faint hearted) up and down and through the hills of the island to a sugar plantation. A tough ride especially when we had been lacking in any real exercise for quite a few days but a positive experience for most of us helped along by the almost 100% proof alcohol that’s distilled on site!

After a lovely barbecue lunch we headed off to the lava tunnels – these were only discovered 25 years ago by the landowner although they were made by boiling hot lava millions of years ago. An interesting side trip on the island before we move on to the part that everyone was waiting for – the giant tortoises – well, you can’t go to the Galapagos and not see the tortoises can you?!

We walked amongst many of these amazing creatures who truly look like prehistoric animals. They accept us being around them but certainly let you know when you are getting too close – their heads shoot in the shells and a deep hissing noise can be heard. They are quite solitary creatures and are generally found on their own rather than in groups like the sea lions. Sundowner cocktails on deck before dinner rounded off a wonderful day.


Day 7

Our final day on the cruise was most definitely my favourite – a strong case of saving the best to last! We headed to the very barren Espanola Island that is very rocky but full of wildlife. No sooner had we landed ashore did I come across a week old seal pup suckling from its mother – astounding to watch and surreal to see in the natural habitat. I thought this was the crème de la crème until 100 yards away lay a 2 day old pup and its mother with the placenta lying nearby providing food for the little finches – a few tears came to my eyes I have to admit. Everywhere we walked the floor was covered with marine iguanas. Blue footed boobies, Galapagos finches, mocking birds, swallow tailed gulls and Nazca boobies filled the air. We even saw the Galapagos waved Albatross with its 7-8 foot wingspan. On this island we even saw the Galapagos Hawk and were very lucky to observe one swoop for the kill and take the catch to its nest and young chick.

There was an amazing view as we descended through the rocks of all the different species of birds and iguanas living together in harmony and having no fear of us humans, taking photos and observing them in their own environment. Further along we couldn’t believe our luck as we came across a nesting area of the Galapagos Albatross – not 1 or 2 pairs but at least 15 courting couples, nesting and bashing beaks in their courtship dance – an exceptional sight to behold. Could all of this really have happened in just one morning?! Back to the boat for sunbathing on deck before lunch, whales breaching in the distance and frigate birds flying overhead. The afternoon has to be one of the best times of my life….


We boarded the pangas to head to Gardner Bay – a truly idyllic beauty spot of pure white talcum powder soft sand. En route we stopped to snorkel around the large rocky outcrop – having swam around the rocks a few times and seen a myriad of fish I suddenly looked up and came almost face to face, nose to snout, with a rather large sea lion! After a few moments of hyperventilating I managed to calm down and enjoy this once in a lifetime encounter. He swam straight towards me and came so close I could clearly see where his whiskers entered his snout and his eyes were so bright and clear. He swam in hoops around me and then rubbed all along the side of me! I had to find someone to witness this with me. Hugo, our wonderful representative from Avianca swam over and, once he checked I wasn’t scared, watched in awe as ‘Sammy’ swam around me again. This was a moment I will never forget as long as I live.

After this remarkable experience we headed to the beach – I truly felt like I was in paradise. The sea was crystal clear with a few sea lions frolicking together and the sand was a soft powder – an ideal spot for some fantastic photo opportunities. This really was the perfect end to the most amazing few days of my life. Having said our farewells to the wonderful crew we headed off the next day for our flight from Baltra to Guayaquil where we stayed for one final night at the Oro Verde hotel. A lovely property in the commercial area of Ecuador’s largest city.

The Malecon waterfront has a collection of restaurants, bars, theatres and parks and runs parallel to the Guayas river – a great place for night life with the Wyndham Guayaquil Hotel the perfect location to stay, right on the waterfront promenade. We had a chilled last night at the hotel and a morning of sunbathing in the 30 degree heat before we had to leave for our return flights mid-afternoon. A great end to an outstanding trip.

I was extremely impressed with the services of Avianca, Metropolitan Touring and Cox & Kings – I had no prior experience of South America before this visit but can now honestly say I would have no hesitation recommending any part of the trip to clients, colleagues, friends or family. From the beauty of the old colonial city of Quito with its traditional dress and folk to the more modern sights of Guayaquil. However, all of this is out shone by the outstanding amazement that is the islands of the Galapagos – a destination full of wonderful people and even more wonderful scenery, animals, creatures and wildlife.

Charles Darwin observed the differences between species and this inspired him to look at nature in a different way which, in due course, led him to develop his theory of evolution – I am one of only 75,000 people each year to also witness this and will be forever thankful for this awe-inspiring opportunity. Will you be one of the next 75,000?

For more information about this tour or any of our holidays to Ecuador and the Galapagos, please call call Travel Club Elite free 0800 707 6229 or Enquire. ABTA 38 Years | Rated 5* Trust Pilot.

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