When it comes to wildlife, no place on Earth compares to the Galapagos Islands. It must be the only place where you can swim with penguins, snorkel with sea lions and lumber along with giant tortoises. See cormorants dive into the water, dance with the waved albatross and ogle at the feet of the blue footed booby. Like Africa’s Big Five, the Galapagos Islands have their Big 15, which reflects the archipelago’s most unique and fascinating wildlife. Take a look at the Big 15 below and find out about the abundance of wildlife you can expect to see during a trip to Galapagos.
Sonia takes a trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands
Latin America specialist Sonia left us all green-eyed with tales of her incredible trip to Ecuador and Galapagos, one of the most exciting and varied destinations to visit. Read on to find out what she did and where she stayed…
The Galapagos Islands are some of the most spectacular and unique islands on the face of the earth and are high on many a bucket list. But while Galapagos has gained a lot of attention from intrepid travellers over recent years, Ecuador, the country to which these islands belong, is often overlooked. Yet Ecuador is easily one of one the most diverse countries on the planet – with lush rainforest, palm-fringed beaches, colonial cities and the mighty Andes, there’s plenty to do and explore. In this one trip, I spent time relaxing in the highlands, exploring the cloud forest, falling over wildlife in the Galapagos and walking around the cobbled streets of Quito – you can’t get more diverse than that! Each and every area I visited was so different from the last, and every time I turned a corner I was blown away by the natural beauty of my surroundings.
Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, is a beautiful colonial city and a great way to begin any trip to Ecuador. I was utterly spoilt with an overnight stay at the luxurious Casa Gangotena, located on the equally stunning San Francisco Plaza. Every single detail of this restored mansion is perfect and it has an almost regal feel. It is hands down the best hotel in Quito and the service was phenomenal. I particularly loved the freshly made truffles left by my bedside in the evening… as someone with a (very) sweet tooth, I can confidently say Ecuador is home to some of the BEST chocolate in the world.
There’s loads to enjoy in Quito. For me this was my second time here, but having our guide Cristina there was like exploring the old town for the first time all over again. She knew so much about the history and what was going on, it really brought the city alive. She also took us to the local markets and to visit healers; I felt that we were really getting under the skin of the city and slightly off the beaten track. If you get to visit the local market, I urge you to try a red banana, they are ridiculously sweet!
After a wonderful day and night in Quito, my next stop was the Galapagos Islands! This was the part of my trip I was most excited about as it had been high on my bucket list for years. Touching down on Santa Cruz Island, it is hard to find words that adequately explain how amazing the Galapagos Islands are. It is truly the most magnificent place, teeming with wildlife and dramatic landscapes. Our naturalist guide, Tariq, was incredibly knowledgeable and explained all about the wildlife and our surroundings in great detail. Every day we enjoyed different activities that exposed us to an incredible variety of exotic wildlife. During the four day cruise I saw sea lions, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, cormorants, sea turtles, frigate birds, sea gulls, Galapagos snakes, tortoise and so much more.
What I loved the most is how the animals do not care that you are there; they just carry on as they would without giving you a second thought. Saying this, the sea lion pups are a little more inquisitive and would come right up to you when you are snorkelling. On my second day I had one sea lion pup, only about four months old, swirling around me and coming right up to my face to work out who I was. It was incredible, and it doesn’t stop at the sea lions, I had sea turtles swimming beneath me and was surrounded by hundreds of fish – it was like stepping into an aquarium. This had to be one of the most magical experiences of my life; nothing else quite comes close to it.
On my last day, I visited the Giant Tortoise Reserve and the Charles Darwin Research Centre. Although Lonesome George is no longer a resident, there are plenty of giant Galapagos tortoise to spot and it’s so interesting to find out about some of the conservation projects that are currently ongoing in the islands. To finish my Galapagos excursion, I spent one night on the islands at the stylish Finch Bay Eco hotel. It’s located right on the beach and serves as the perfect place to relax for a few days pre or post cruise. I loved the Galapagos and enjoyed every single moment there (my 3000 plus photos are testament to that).
To make up for the loss of leaving the Galapagos Islands, once back on the mainland I headed north to Otavalo and checked into the gorgeous Hacienda Zuleta. This colonial period working farm offers a real slice of Ecuadorian culture and is beautifully located at the feet of the Andes Mountains and surrounded by fertile farming valleys. The rooms here were bursting with charm and character and were so cosy – it was like a home from home.
I had one full day here, which I spent wandering around the beautifully manicured gardens with Patricio, who had been working at the Hacienda for five years and was more than happy to show me around the local farm. I got to see the process of making milk and cheese (you can also get hands on if you like) and also took a visit to the trout farm. The cuisine here is really something special, as most of it is completely homemade with fresh milk, cheeses and eggs from the farm, freshly made bread and muffins, fruit and vegetables from their organic garden and rainbow trout which is farmed there too. These are just a few of the authentic delights to enjoy here! This place was perfect to relax and wind down, but it also has loads of activities on offer for those feeling more adventurous, such a horse-riding, mountain biking and more. I could have happily stayed a whole week!
To finish my adventure, I headed to the Mindo Cloud forest and stayed in the sleek Mashpi Lodge. Wow – what a place! Completely hidden in the cloud forest, the lodge blends in beautifully with its surroundings. With its contemporary feel, the design of each room means it really is possible to relax in a luxurious setting and yet still feel like you are in a remote part of the forest. The key to this is the large floor to ceiling windows, designed to enable you to lie on your bed and still see the birds flying around or perching on the trees. With over 500 species of birds in the area, bird watching is the main draw here, but it is by no means all that is on offer. I spent the day with an amazing guide called Heraldo, who took me on a number of walking trails to explore the wide variety of plant species and wildlife in the area. One of the trails led down to a hidden waterfall in a remote part of the forest, where you are welcome to jump in and have a swim in the crystal clear waters. In the afternoon, I experienced something known as a sky bike, which is literally a bike which is suspended 60m up in the sky on an intricate network of cables. It is a truly amazing way to explore the forest canopy up close and allows you to see it from a completely different perspective. A place where luxury and nature merge, this lodge was the perfect place to end what had been such a fantastic trip.
Tempted to experience a trip like Sonia's?
Check out our brand new Introduction to Ecuador and Galapagos itinerary. If you are looking for a mix of wildlife, dramatic scenery and rich culture, whilst staying in luxury accommodation, then this trip could not be more perfect.