A visit to the Galapagos Islands is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. There’s something so thrilling about witnessing the behaviors of some of the world’s most unusual animals. You’re out there on a ship in the middle of the sea with the wind in your hair, traveling among a vast chain of sunny volcanic islands. When you land and start hiking, the animals aren’t afraid of humans and stand patiently waiting to have their photographs taken. The mating behaviors of blue-footed boobies, for example, are hilarious with all that sky pointing and bowing. There are penguins (!) and you get to swim with sea lions! Kids–wait, no–everyone is enchanted by this extraordinary place.
So how could you possibly improve upon this nearly perfect destination? The truth is you have to travel through mainland Ecuador to get to the Galapagos so why not take advantage of some of the truly wonderful experiences on offer en route to the Galapagos as well? My travelers who do, have reported that this was one of the very best trips of their lives.
(Click any links below to see slideshows of what I am describing.)
Get ready because there is a whole smorgasbord of things to see and do in Ecuador. Some of my favorites include visiting the Ecuadorian highlands to see how people have lived and farmed for centuries. Visit the Otavalo craft market for some brightly colored embroidery and take in the volume of creations at one of the largest craft markets in the world.
Nearby you’ll find a series of hotels and haciendas I adore, like the romantic Hacienda Pinsaquí with its beautiful horses, and Hacienda Zuleta, a centuries-old working farm turned into a charming lodge where your kids can learn how to milk cows and make cheese when they’re not wandering across the vast landscape. La Mirage is an eccentric yet stunning 5-star hotel with peacocks wandering the elaborate gardens and gilt furniture filling the salons. Step into the spacious pool and spa area designed to resemble a Grecian bath and receive a purification from an Ecuadorian shaman. (I told you it was eccentric.)
People travel to the Galapagos via one of two gateway cities, and both are worth exploring for at least a day or two. Quito is a lovely Spanish Colonial city offering lots of history and culture. You might enjoy exploring the churches and cobblestone streets of Old Town, visiting a local rose plantation, or maybe mountain biking or horseback riding near the Cotopaxi volcano. We also have insider access to special cooking classes, behind the scenes tours of private residences and even a visit to a musical family who make traditional instruments for an impromptu concert. There are many wonderful things to do in Quito! One of my favorite Quito hotels is the lovely 5-star Casa Gangotena.
Because Quito is 9000 feet in altitude, some travelers prefer the lower altitude of the industrial port town, Guayaquil. There are fun historical sights in Guayaquil like cobblestone streets and the Santa Ana Fort where you can see the canons that protected the city from pirates. Plus, the waterfront is lively and fun to explore. Still, if the altitude is acceptable, Quito is my favorite Galapagos gateway city.
Another city which everyone should get to visit sometime is the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cuenca. Cuenca embodies the spirit of the Ecuadorian good life. Whether you spend the afternoon relaxing in a café, walking along the Tomebamba River which runs through the town, visiting a local orchid garden, or hiking at Cajas National Park, Cuenca delights all visitors. Mansion Alcazar is one of my favorite hotels there.
For those looking for deep relaxation, the town of Baños de Agua Santa or the Papallacta Hot Springs will both offer opportunities to soak in hot water. Leave your home life behind in the steaming pools, and prepare for your exciting Galapagos adventures ahead.
And if you’re looking for a wildlife-filled hiking destination in complete contrast to the rocky Galapagos Islands, how about heading up to the Mashpi Cloud Forest to stay at the stylish Mashpi Lodge with its observation tower and sky bikes that fly over the cloud forest canopy? Night hikes, waterfalls, butterfly gardens and hummingbird gardens all invigorate the senses. The Mindo Cloud Forest, about an hour and a half away from Mashpi, has outstanding birding and butterfly gardens too.
And, if you head high up into the cloud forest yet still want to add even more wildlife and wonder to your adventure, the Ecuadorian Amazon awaits with its lush foliage, green rivers, and mysterious jungle culture. There are several beautiful eco lodges in the Ecuadorian Amazon. My favorites are Sacha Lodge (which has air conditioning), La Selva, and Napo Wildlife Center/Napo Cultural Center. Each of these has a different personality and is right for different travelers. There’s also a stunning Amazon river ship, the Anakonda, for those who like even more comfort.
Have you seen anything you’d like to add to your Galapagos trip? I hope so. At Wild Nectar, we’re standing by to make sure your Galapagos adventure is more than spectacular. Whether you like culture, museums, horses, crafts, active pursuits like hikes and climbing, music, cooking–whatever, we'll help you create a trip you and your traveling companion(s) will remember forever. Contact us and let’s get started on your Galapagos trip!