Whether you want your head in the clouds, your legs astride the equator or your entire body in a tortoise shell, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands have something for everyone says Jaq Bayles.
With its rainforest, cloud forest, waterfalls and volcanoes, Ecuador crams more biodiversity into its tiny girth than many countries three times its size. Add in the architectural splendour of Spanish colonialism, and an intriguing backdrop of indigenous community life, and you have a breathtaking melting pot that will leave the most hardened traveller giddy with excitement.
Sandwiched between Peru and Colombia, Ecuador also lays claim to the stunning archipelago that is the Galapagos Islands, the wildlife of which is widely credited as the inspiration for Darwin’s theory of evolution – and if you’re going to South America, you may as well make the most of it.
Having been to Peru a few years ago, we had since regretted not doing the Galapagos while we were there, so needed an excuse to return. For the various reasons mentioned, Ecuador seemed like a good bet, and it certainly delivered. We opted for Intrepid Travel’s ‘Ecuador on a Shoestring’ trip – a cracking option if you’re on a budget and don’t mind the five-hour bus journeys and community lodge stays that go with it. In fact, travelling by bus through the country’s interior is pretty unbeatable for getting to grips with the incredible scenery – as you navigate roads decimated by landslides, your attention is diverted from the apocalyptic possibilities by volcanoes disappearing into clouds, waterfalls cascading down the mountains and valleys dropping way below you to tumbling rivers.
We began our trip in the high-altitude capital, Quito, the old town of which is a maze of cobbled streets dominated by vast colonial churches and museums, bursting with restaurants and alive with street stalls and shoe-shiners on a Sunday when the roads are closed to all traffic except bicycles. From there we took the five-hour journey to the rainforest city of Tena at the base of the Andes, from where a boat ride led us to the Kichwa community where we spent the next two days, exploring the jungle, learning how the locals live and sharing mealtimes with the resident (massive) tarantula.
At night, fireflies dance around your lodge and the sky is a wonderfully confusing conflagration of northern and southern constellations. By day, hiking through the forest brings revelations of the Kichwa community’s survival tactics, such as creating a bed that can become a backpack (for carrying the bodies of monkeys felled by poisoned darts) out of giant leaves, or feasting on ants that taste of lemons. All rounded off with tubing down the river – letting the current take you while you ride an inner tube.
If that’s all a little too back-to-nature for your holiday, head on over to Baños, a town of thermal springs surrounded by lush forest and a centre for every extreme watersport you can imagine. It’s also home to volcano Tungurahua, which decided to wake up while we were there, spitting fire and ash in a vast cloud over the town – a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle for visitors. We were even issued with masks to guard against the ash fallout.
A backpacker destination, Baños is a lively, colourful little town, with more operators offering ziplining, white water rafting and canyoning excursions than you can shake a poisoned dart at. When in Baños… we went with both white water rafting and canyoning (abseiling down waterfalls) for the adrenalin rushes and couldn’t have been more impressed with the skills of the Geotours guides – wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them – while others in our party of nine went for the less stressful ‘activity’ of lounging in the hot springs and shopping.
From Baños it was back to Quito for an overnighter in yet another five-hour journey, then the next day on to Otavalo, a bustling market town which dates back to pre-Incan times where you can buy any manner of hand-crafted goods, from Panama hats to llama wool blankets to bracelets, belts and sandals – all for a snip (the currency in Ecuador is the dollar).
We spent another few days in Quito just wandering the streets, checking out the churches and museums, then got ourselves a guide to take us to the charming little cloud forest town of Mindo, home to more than 450 species of birds and the greatest concentration of humming birds in the country. Locals hang trays of sweetened water to attract the tiny, iridescent creatures and you can spend hours watching them dip and dive just a few inches from where you stand. A hike through the forest got us sightings of toucans, countless butterflies, orchids and the hilariously named Cock of the Rock (a bright red bird that dances on rocks in the mornings to attract a mate), as well as possibly the world’s most ill-thought out water slide – ending about 12m above a river strewn with boulders at low water. Needless to say we didn’t give it a go.
Moving on to the next part of our trip, we decamped to a hotel in the new town of Quito – the lively, if less charming hub of the capital where tourists rub shoulders over happy-hour cocktails and cheap pizzas and tacos. Just a note on the food front, Quito is not the gastro delight that, say, Lima is – it’s too far inland for the ceviche to be comfortable and Ecuadorian food is a tad bland, hence the ubiquitous bottles of chilli sauce that accompany every meal. We mostly ate (very good) Argentinian steak and Mexican food.
From there it was a flight to Santa Cruz, the second largest of the Galapagos Islands and home of the famous giant tortoises. Man those critters are BIG. And if the point needed proving there were carapaces lying around that we could easily fit in.
We spent a good few hours roaming with the tortoises in the wild, up to our knees in droppings and thankful of the wellies provided. It being the mating season there was a point when it looked like we might see some shell on shell action, but as we only had the one day we didn’t have the time to see it through…
Indeed, the time of year we were there (late November – there are no seasons in Ecuador other than wet and dry) was general mating season, so we got to see the Blue-Footed Boobies and Albatrosses choosing their lifetime mates and building nests on Isabela Island, while pelicans roamed the sands, sealion colonies nursed their pups on the shoreline and pilot whales frolicked offshore.
Transport through the islands was via boat and we moved at night in very lively water, so if you need your sleep that’s not necessarily recommended. But, on the upside, we got to go deep-water snorkelling in some stunning spots, including Devil’s Crown off beautiful Floreana Island, where green sea turtles and pink flamingos were nesting. Here we swam with turtles, sealions, seahorses, sharks and rays, through rocky outcrops of old volcanoes and amid shoal on shoal of brightly-coloured fish.
Everything you’ve heard about the wildlife in Galapagos having no fear is true. You’re told to keep a distance of at least seven feet between yourself and any of the creatures, but this is easier said than done when you’re practically tripping over sealions and marine iguanas at every turn. You can stroll through nesting colonies of the seabirds already mentioned and they don’t bat an eyelid, while the turtles are too busy trying to get ashore through the surf to care.
Another highlight was the snorkelling at the stunning Kicker Rock, also known as Léon Dormido (sleeping lion, because of its shape), which towers 500ft above the ocean and where the natural erosion has created a channel between the rocks that houses sharks and rays as well as the ever-present sealions and turtles, while frigate birds hover overhead.
The final island was San Cristobal, the archipelago’s administrative centre, the town of which is literally overrun with sealions. Here around the harbour they snooze in the middle of the road, lounge on street benches and lollop on the pavements.
The Galapagos is one of those places I’ve always wanted to visit but never thought I’d actually get to. If you have a thing for nature, it’s an absolute must, but visitor numbers are closely monitored to keep the human footprint down and preserve this remarkable place, and there are rumours it’s going to become even more tightly policed. This, of course, is a good thing – it also meant that at every stop we made, ours was the only group, and there were just 16 of us.
It doesn’t come cheap, of course, but you wouldn’t expect that for the trip of a lifetime. And if you’re thinking about going, bear in mind that you have to stump up $100 to gain entry to the national park – and that will likely be on top of anything you’ve already paid.
But, lighter of bank balance though we may be, this is a trip we will never forget.