Dancing in the shadows with Galapagos sharks, hiking the peaks of emerald cloud forests, and hitting the cosmopolitan enclaves of cultural Quito: Nicola Moyne unearths Ecuador’s beauty.
Famed for its wild, rugged landscapes and diverse cultural offerings, Ecuador has long been bucket-list territory. What’s more, you can experience all its natural highs in less than a fortnight. Here’s how…
Diving into the Galapagos Islands
Sun-soaked and salty-skinned, we slip into the gin-clear swells for our first snorkel of the expedition. Within seconds, I’m diving down to swim with a green turtle the size of an emperor bed. Minutes later, a curious sea lion bullets past us, playfully rolling and twisting through the current, calling us out for a race. I rise to the surface again and note the lone rocky outcrops in front of me. Their molten basalt ledges are camouflaged by a tangle of jet-black marine iguanas who are busy sunning themselves in the scorching midday blaze. The Galapagos Islands have been famed for their bounty of unique and diverse wildlife since Darwin’s discoveries in 1835, but I never expected such a warm welcome from the locals on day one.
Here to experience the volcanic archipelago’s Northern Islands itinerary, I’m staying aboard the luxuriously appointed La Pinta yacht for the next four nights. And it’s already abundantly clear to see why this remarkable little pocket of the Pacific, which squats some 563 miles off the coast of mainland Ecuador, is firm bucket-list territory.
Only here can you watch magnificent frigate birds soar overhead, their signature crimson-coloured pouches punctuating the cobalt-blue skyline, or casually breaststroke beside the only penguins thriving north of the equator. And the fact that these islands’ rich tapestry of endemic species have no fear of humans makes the experience of meeting them all the more magical.
Back aboard the stylish La Pinta, which features floor-to-ceiling windows in the bar, contemporary Scandi-style interiors, Le Cordon Bleu-standard cuisine and a top-deck hot tub, the group can’t quite believe their luck. ‘I have never seen a turtle that big; did you see the two sea lions dancing? What about the white-tipped reef sharks – I can’t believe how close we were,’ we chortle excitedly before getting ready for the afternoon hike. It’s an orchestra of joy that continues for the entirety of the tour.
Setting sail from Santa Cruz, we stop to see the blue-footed boobies on Eden Islet dip and dive for their lunch, before hopping over to the whitewashed sands of Chinese Hat bay to count the saffron-stained Sally Lightfoot crabs expertly skimming the scorched, volcanic tuffs. We hike to the top of Bartolome Island to drink in 360-degree views from its long-deserted lighthouse, and marvel at the moonscape-like lava flows while snorkelling off Santiago Island.
As we sail to towards the sunken caldera of Genovesa for our final night of ocean exploration, we spot a flock of pink flamingoes gracefully balanced in the shallow bays beyond, and drink sundowners while a pod of dolphins bow-ride with us in the surf below. Magical doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Back on land, we check into Finch Bay Galapagos, the only design-led, beachfront hotel on Santa Cruz for two nights of some much-needed R&R. Our five days of coastal discovery have taken their toll and I literally sink into the massage bed as my muscles are kneaded into submission with a perfume of lavender oils.
Here, plush daybeds, boutique beach house interiors and hurricane-lamp lighting come as standard. I barely need mention the enormous marine iguana bathing himself by the pool.
The rainforest retreat: Mashpi Lodge
Next up: Mashpi Lodge. Nestled deep in the heart of mainland Ecuador’s emerald Chocó-Andean Cloud Forest, this design-led hotel drips with contemporary style. Floor-to-ceiling windows in our vast double room reveal the dense jungle canopy beyond, fingers of mist positively clawing at the glass as we try to spot swinging sloths and mantled howler monkeys amid the layers of towering copal and silvered cecropia.
Set in a protected reserve spanning 3,200 acres, Mashpi Lodge is an ambitious eco project that, along with conserving some of world’s most precious habitats, has redefined the forest-floor travel experience for international guests.
Essentially, this is a luxury boutique hotel that has been dropped into the middle of the jungle and if you’re not lounging in its award-winning spa or feasting in the five-star restaurant – a decadent space featuring modern design details and polished, attentive staff – you’re out trekking the foothills of the forest with Ecuador’s most knowledgeable guides.
There are more than 15 trails available at the resort (strictly no solo wandering) and, depending on your interests and fitness levels, you’ll explore everything from secluded waterfalls (take your cossie; jump in; ignore the freezing cascades – the thrill of swimming in one of the world’s wildest natural pools will stay with you long after you stop shivering) and camouflaged owl butterflies to soaring toucans and leaping glass frogs.
Almost everyone experiences the crowd-pleasing hummingbird station, which is an iridescent blur of 30 different species – their bullet-speed wings slicing the sky with a kaleidoscopic haze of electric blues, grass-like greens and candy-floss fuchsias. Attracted to the nectar-feeding platforms planted around the Mashpi hut, you can almost feel the vibrations of their wings beat against your cheeks as they thread their way through the air to get to the sweet spot.
Also recommended: night walks. Although optional, rediscovering the Mashpi Reserve under an inky canvas is a must-do in my opinion, with dusk’s insect orchestra and tapestry of equatorial stars enough to make it a magical experience. On our excursion, we spot the elusive four-eyed possum stalking us through the knotted roots of elephants ear and hold a delicate emerald glass frog in the palms of our hands before watching him leap back into the moonlit lagoon. See? Pure magic.
City culture in Quito
In truth, it’s a wrench to leave this wild, secluded landscape, but for the final leg of my expedition through Ecuador, I’m hitting the cultural enclaves of Quito – 69 miles away in the north of Ecuador. A city of heritage and heart, this complex country’s historic capital has undergone something of a cosmopolitan reboot in recent years. Now, its authentic artisan quarters, boasting traditional craftsman and indigenous community food markets, coexist beside the luxury members’ clubs, artisan cafes and buzzy galleries of González Suárez.
Staying at Casa Gangotena – a premium boutique hotel ideally located on the central cobbled Plaza San Francisco – we discover the city’s famous equatorial hubs straddling the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, before taking a cultural tour through Old Town to shop natural herbalist remedies and be ‘cleansed’ with stinging nettles (which is just as painful as it sounds, according to my overly game partner).
Later, we tread the boards of trendy restaurant Terra, which neighbours Quito’s buzzy Yoo outpost and serves up delicious cocktails with plates of sauteed squid, before taking in the sheer majesty of Iglesia de San Francisco – a 16th century convent that fronts its namesake square. Set opposite Casa Gangotena, this iconic landmark boasts stunning rooftop views out to the ring of volcanoes beyond, their peaks framed perfectly by the golden glow of ringing brass bells.
Here, like everywhere else in Ecuador that I’ve been, it feels as though the modern world is shaping itself to protect the old; that the new not only values its wild, weathered past, but is empowered by it. And where better to escape than a county defined by diversity, nature and hope?
Rainbow Tours (rainbowtours.co.uk; 020 7666 1260) offers an 11-night Ecuador & Galapagos itinerary incorporating stays at Casa Gangotena, Mashpi Lodge, Finch Bay and a four-night cruise aboard La Pinta from £7,795 per person. The price is based on two sharing, including accommodation with breakfast at Casa Gangotena and on full-board basis in all other locations, return international flights from London, all domestic flights, transfers and Galapagos National Park entry fees.