It was a photo of the spectacular Cotopaxi volcano that first captured my imagination. I was ten years old and I promised myself that I would one day visit Ecuador. I had an opportunity in 2008 while I was in South America on my round-the-world trip. I’d planned to fly to Lima from Buenos Aires and spend some time exploring Peru and Ecuador. That didn’t work out as I ended up staying in Buenos Aires for almost two months (BA does that to you)! Several months ago, I received an invitation from Metropolitan Touring (the premier tour operator to Ecuador) and LAN Airlines for a ten-day trip to Ecuador. I’d missed one opportunity before; I wasn’t going to miss another so I responded with a resounding “YES, PLEASE”! It turned out to be a truly extraordinary tour of Ecuador; one that took me from the historic heart of Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, to the mysterious Andean cloud forest and on to the incredible Galapagos Islands.
Quito is the capital of Ecuador. Located at an altitude of 2,800m (9,300ft), Quito is the highest official capital city in the world (La Paz in Bolivia is higher but Sucré is the official capital) and was one of two cities to be bestowed with the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status in 1978.
The first thing that struck me was the altitude – climbing a staircase was suddenly a bigger challenge than it normally is. Taking smaller steps was the solution and that worked out just fine as I got to enjoy the gorgeous historic heart of Quito at a slower pace. It was quickly evident why Quito’s historic centre is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. With its colonial buildings, stunning churches, quaint cobblestone streets and colourful houses, it truly is a gem!
I stayed at the beautiful Casa Gangotena, a fully-restored colonial-era mansion at the corner of the Plaza San Francisco. The hotel was absolutely gorgeous – my spacious room looked out on the San Francisco square and the hearty breakfasts in the bright atrium each morning were a joy! In the afternoons, high tea is served to all guests – this is included in the room rate – and comprises a wonderful selection of finger sandwiches, pastries and chocolate.
Together with an expert guide, we went on long walks across the various neighbourhoods in the old town, stopping at some of the most stunning churches I’ve ever seen such as the San Francisco Church and La Compañia, monasteries, the San Francisco market (where we met a local medicine woman who specialises in herbal treatments), and local artisans like the terrific Panama hat-maker in San Roque and Chez Tiff, the chocolatier in La Ronda. If you love hats and chocolate, you’re in for a treat! One thing I quickly discovered is the insanely good chocolate! Two brands that totally blew me away were Pacari (Oprah is also a fan!) and Republica del Cacao.
Quito is also rapidly becoming a hotspot for Latin American cuisine and this was more than apparent at Restaurant Lua in the La Floresta neighbourhood. We sat around a table, pisco cocktails in hand, and were simply wowed by Chef Alexander’s passion for Ecuadorian cuisine – the ceviche, grilled piranha and chocolate mousse were sure highlights!
The magical Mashpi Cloud Forest
After three lovely days in Quito, we made our way to the Mashpi Cloud Forest Reserve. It was a beautiful 4-hour drive with astounding vistas of the Andes and the snow-capped volcanoes (I managed to catch a glimpse of the Cotopaxi volcano!), and past lush forests and sleepy villages. We even crossed the Equator several times! I fell asleep at some point and when I awoke, I found myself in a mysterious, mist-shrouded forest with giant anthuriums, mosses and towering trees.
The car soon came to a halt and as the mist cleared, I spotted a futuristic-looking building with large windows, almost completely encapsulated by the forest. This was the Mashpi Lodge! Situated on a ridge overlooking a broad valley, the lodge was designed as a cocoon of luxury in the clouds. I’ve been to many jungle lodges around the world but I’d never seen anything like this before.
The concept was evident: keep guests comfortable inside the lodge but never more than a step away from the glorious nature outside – you certainly won’t find bugs, lizards or snakes in your bed or bathroom at the Mashpi Lodge! Large windows all around allow for magnificent views of the forest and the mountains in every direction! The design of this place was simply breathtaking!
During our two days there, we went on guided walks through the cloud forest, rode the Sky Bike (a bicycle-like contraption on a cable; you basically pedal your way through the forest canopy 60m up in the air!), learned about the many species of birds, insects and plants, and swam in beautiful rock pools. The guides were true experts and they never ceased to amaze with their nature-spotting capabilities and knowledge of the forest.
Meal times were a feast – the chef had something exquisite to serve every day! And in the mornings, I would wake up to the incredible sounds of the forest just outside my window. Simply magical!
The wonders of the Galapagos Islands
Whilst Quito was lovely and Mashpi magical, it was the Galapagos Islands that truly blew me away. I spent three wondrous days on the La Pinta yacht, visiting the islands of San Cristóbal, Española and Santa Cruz.
There are simply no words to describe the incredible beauty and unique flora and fauna on these islands. These islands are the stuff of dreams for nature lovers, botanists and photographers. When I spotted a sea turtle just outside my window on Yacht La Pinta, I knew this cruise was going to be special!
What made it so special was how ‘friendly’ the animals are – in the absence of any land-based predators, the sea lions, birds, reptiles, turtles and other animals do not scurry away. On the contrary, some of them show a good dose of curiosity. One of my many highlights on the islands was snorkelling among sea lions. They swam up to us and kept us company as we gaped at the colourful tropical fish, rays and turtles. Many of these species are indigenous to the islands so every precaution has to be taken to ensure their preservation. In this sense, the crew and guides on La Pinta were outstanding. We were very well briefed about the islands and the rules we had to adhere to, and every step was taken to ensure we left nothing but our footprints in the sand on the islands.
This tour of Ecuador was certainly a dream come true for me. I only touched the surface of what this amazing country has to offer but that’s a great excuse to return and explore more of the Andes mountains, the volcanoes, the Pacific coast and the Amazon jungles. Soon I hope!