Staff Member: Susie Youn
Travel Dates: September 25-October 2, 2016
Destinations Visited: Ecuador: Quito and Galapagos Islands
Day 1 / September 25: Arrival in Quito, Ecuador
I landed at the Quito Mariscal Sucre International Airport shortly before midnight. At that time of night, I found it easy to catch a cab to my hotel. The ride was a great reintroduction to the way people drive in South America. My cab driver used all four of the winding mountainous highway lanes (all heading in the same direction) on the drive to my hotel in the Mariscal district in the middle of Quito. But I arrived in record time, which was great after the long day of travel from the United States.
Day 2 / September 26: Sightseeing in Quito
We had a private tour with an English-speaking driver for my one full day of sightseeing in Quito and the equator. We went first to the TelefériQo, a sky tram that took us up Volcán Pichincha, for a marvelous view of Quito below. What a beautiful way to get my bearings in Quito as we could see all of Quito below us from north to south.
- Travel details: The TelefériQo ride takes about 10 minutes to travel the 2.5 km from the base to the top (13,451 feet/4,100 meters). The cost for an adult is $8.50. Optional activities: hiking to the summit of Rucu Pichincha (15,413 feet/4,698 meters) (roughly 3 hours for very fit walkers as you are at altitude), horseback riding ($10 per hour). If you have small children, there’s an amusement park, VulQano Park, a short walk below the TelefériQo base.
After getting the grand overview of Quito, I needed to visit the equator, of course, which runs through Ecuador (hence, the name). To do that, I went to the Museo Inti Nan In Situ, where a friendly guide took our group of four on a tour of Ecuadorean animals and culture, and of course, some education about the equator. The most interesting part of the tour was the fun demonstrations, including balancing an egg on a head of a nail.
- Travel details: The Museo Inti Nan In Situ costs $4 per person. I also tipped the guide $1. Don’t forget your passport as your guide will stamp it, showing you visited the equator.
Being in Ecuador and among so many volcanoes, we next stopped for a quick look of the volcanic caldera in the Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve and the only caldera where the inhabitants cultivate the land. The Reserve has a row of native Ecuadorean handicraft shops, where we caught our first glimpse of the fine handmade clothing made from alpaca hair.
Then, for the highlight of the day for me, we visited the Basilica del Voto Nacional, the largest neo-Gothic cathedral in the Americas. The Basilica was just as beautiful as any I have visited in Europe. The distinguishing feature of the Basilica is, instead of gargoyles, the roof of the Basilica is decorated with fantastical statues of native Ecuadorean animals, like iguanas and land tortoises.
- Travel details: Entry into the Basilica costs $2. Entry to the upper floors also costs $2. I recommend you climb the interior spiral stone staircases for the view. For those who love heights, you can cross over the main transept of the Basilica and then climb fire escape ladders for an amazing view of Quito below.
Our last sightseeing stop was El Panecillo, a hill to the south of Old Town Quito. On the top of the hill was La Virgen de Quito, perhaps the only Madonna in the world this large with wings. We finished off our whirlwind tour of Quito by having sushi at the number one rated TripAdvisor restaurant in Quito, Shibumi Sushi Bar.
Day 3 / September 27: Quito and Start of Galapagos Islands Cruise – San Cristobal Island (Kicker Rock)
Today, we started our 8-Day Galapagos cruise! We took a mid-morning flight from Quito to San Cristobal Island. The flight takes about 3.5 hours, with a short stop in Guayaquil. We arrived on San Cristobal Island about 12:30 pm local time, as the Galapagos Islands are a time zone behind Quito. After collecting our bags, we were met by the boat representative right outside the airport building. Then, our group was transported by private van, a short 10-15 minute drive, to the dock, where we took a panga (dingy) ride to our magnificent luxury cruise ship, the Natural Paradise, which was to be our home for the next five days.
After lunch, we visited Kicker Rock, a stunning rock formation located off the western shore of San Cristobal Island. There, we jumped into the water for the first of many snorkeling excursions. The water felt great after all the traveling to get to the Galapagos Islands!
After dinner, where we got to know our cruise mates, we got a briefing from James, our Galapagos National Park guide. Then, we turned in early, rocked to sleep by the waves gently lapping against the sides of the Natural Paradise.
Day 4 / September 28: North Seymour Island and Santa Fe Island
This morning, after breakfast, we got our first look at island life when we visited North Seymour Island. James gave us the first of his informative lectures on Galapagos animals as we saw frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, and land iguanas. The boobies put on a show for us, lifting their feet in a mating dance, that we, of course, all had to imitate. James explained the connection between frigate birds and boobies, where the frigate birds rely on the boobies for food.
We went on two snorkel adventures today. We saw tons of colorful marine reef fish, as well as turtles peacefully gliding through the water.
After lunch, we took a walk on Santa Fe Island. We landed on a beach littered with sea lions. They lay there calmly in the afternoon sun as we walked among them, but we always kept a safe distance between us and the sea lions to protect the animals. Then we walked to a tall Opuntia prickly pear cactus forest, where we saw land iguanas. Our guide explained that the male land iguanas protect their territory, which may encompass several prickly pear cacti, which provide food and water for the iguanas.
Day 5 / September 29: Santa Cruz Island (El Chato Ranch, Charles Darwin Research Center, and Puerto Ayora)
In the morning, we took a panga ride to the Puerto Ayora pier, where we got in a private van, to drive up to the Highlands of Santa Cruz Island. Our destination was the El Chato Ranch, which serves as a refuge for giant land tortoises. During our stroll on the property, we saw about a hundred of these individuals. They move faster than I thought! On our way back to the van, we walked through some large lava tunnels, which had lights and handrails to make our descent into the depths easier.
Our van deposited us at the entrance of the Charles Darwin Research Center, which was in the middle of remodeling. Much scientific research occurs here, but alas, out of sight of visitors’ eyes. We watched an interesting video highlighting research conducted at the Center, however, and saw two different kinds of land tortoises in exhibit pens.
We had the rest of the day at our leisure. Some of the group decided to have lunch in Puerto Ayora, while some of us went back to the Natural Paradise for more of the delicious food on board. Most of us spent the afternoon exploring Puerto Ayora and catching up on the outside world as almost all of the bars and restaurants in Puerto Ayora have WiFi connections.
Day 6 / September 30: Santiago Island (Sullivan Bay) and Bartholomew Island
This morning, we went for a truly otherworldly hike on Santiago Island. We took a panga ride to the edge of an immense black lava field at Sullivan Bay. When we landed on the island, we had to avoid an alpha fur seal lion, who was on the pier, calling to his pups to come in the water to play. Our hike completely absorbed us. The photographers among us had a field day taking pictures of the lava. I liked seeing pictures in the lava; it was like seeing pictures in the clouds, except beneath my feet!
After visiting the lava field, we took another hike at Puerto Egas, which was chock full of wildlife. We saw fur seal lions lying in and beneath the brush, land iguanas eating the cacti fruit, a couple of short-eared brown owls, and many, many birds.
After the hike, we went snorkeling for about an hour. During this time, we saw an abundance of marine life – fur seal lions frolicking in the water, turtles, rays, and a couple of white-tip reef sharks.
After lunch, we took a panga ride to a soft sand beach. Here, we went on a snorkel excursion, drifting with the current around Pinnacle Rock. We saw lots of marine wildlife, including penguins on the rocky shore. One lucky person in our group had a curious penguin tap his face mask.
In the mid-afternoon, we went for a hike on Bartholomew Island. We climbed 375 stairs up to the summit of an extinct volcano. The views of Pinnacle Rock, with the setting sun casting the most perfect light on everyone, made this the perfect picture stop.
Day 7 / October 1: South Plaza Island, End of Galapagos Islands Cruise, and Gordon Rocks Dive
We woke up early this morning to go on our last hike of the cruise on South Plaza Island. Among other sights, we got our last glimpse of the intriguing land iguanas guarding their Opuntia cacti.
After breakfast, we transferred off the Natural Paradise at the north end of Santa Cruz Island. We were sad to leave the Natural Paradise, as the Natural Paradise offers 10 additional days of visits to the other Galapagos islands, but we had more of Ecuador to see! Some of us went to the Baltra airport, but four of us decided to continue on to our next adventure — scuba diving in the Galapagos at Gordon Rocks! Our Natural Paradise guide, who was also a dive master and scuba diving guide, arranged for a dive boat to meet us at the ferry port and we were whisked off to Gordon Rocks, which is located to the east of Santa Cruz Island. Gordon Rocks is a premier dive site to see hammerhead sharks. But it’s not for novices, due to the strong currents in the area. That being said, the dive was definitely worth the time and effort!
Our dive day consisted of three dives: a check dive and two dives at Gordon Rocks. Due to the current (and my excitement), I had some issues with maintaining my buoyancy. Our group also had a couple of stops where we had to kick hard to stay in place so the group could stay together, but thankfully, we did not encounter the dangerous down currents we had been warned about. We did see some marvelous marine life, including a sunfish (mola mola), turtles, eagle rays, a Moray eel, and hammerhead sharks! We also had the best safety stop I have ever experienced. A curious sea lion wanted to see what all the humans were doing hanging out at 15 feet below the surface so it kept diving and swimming around us. I have never been so entertained during any 15-minute safety stop.
Upon returning to the ferry pier, the dive shop took us back to Puerto Ayora. After our early exhausting day, we explored Puerto Ayora a little bit. One of our cruise mates recommended we check out the outdoor seafood restaurants located on Charles Binford Avenue for dinner. These restaurants all seemed to have similar offerings and showcased spiny lobster, so we chose one almost at random, sat down and toasted the end of our day with a caipirinha and spiny lobster.
Day 8 / October 2: Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island
After all of the activities of the last week, we took it easy and relaxed in the small port town of Puerto Ayora. We relaxed, caught up with the outside world by using the Internet available in all of the restaurants in town, and stretched our land legs by wandering the streets of Puerto Ayora.
Day 9 / October 3: Return to Mainland Ecuador
At 7 am, we took a taxi to the ferry pier at the north end of Santa Cruz Island. There we took the ferry ($1) across and the free airport bus to Baltra Airport. We had an extra hour to kill as our hotel recommended we leave for the airport three hours before our 10 am flight, but better safe than sorry. Our flight back to the mainland was uneventful. Which, when you’re traveling, is sometimes the best outcome.
I thoroughly enjoyed my once-in-a-lifetime Galapagos Islands cruise on the Natural Paradise. If you are interested in more information about the Natural Paradise and any of its 5, 8, 11, 12 or 15-day itineraries or the Galapagos Islands and/or Ecuador, please contact us.
All photographs by Darrell Ansted. Please give credit if using any of the photographs contained in this AWR blog posting.