Thursday, June 9, 2016

Gretchen's Ecuador Trip Report - Part I - Otavalo & Galapagos

Galapagos marine iguanas mugging for the camera
Ecuador is a not-so-big country with an incredibly diverse set of attractions. It's generally split into four broad ecosystems; the Galapagos, the coast, the Andes and the Amazon. I was fortunate to visit three of the four. Because I managed to see so many things in my 15 day trip, I've split my trip report into two to make it more manageable (read Part II - Cotopaxi, Amazon and Quito). I first visited Otavalo, followed by the Galapagos...

Top 3 takeaways from Otavalo and the Galapagos

1. Tropic's lodge-to-lodge trek is perfect for active pax that love to walk, as well as to be immersed in local culture. They'll get the exercise they crave, but also experience gorgeous landscapes, vibrant villages and interact with friendly local residents. The three unique lodges that Tropic has chosen offer a wonderful different flavor each night - but all offer the warm hospitality the Andes are well known for.

2. Land-based Galapagos travel is here! There are myriad advantages to staying on the islands versus only doing day visits by boat, but I'll sum up a few of the top reasons here:
  • For those of us without worthy sea legs, the land-based option is a godsend. Obviously, there is still boat travel, but pax aren't living on a boat for the bulk of their vacation.
  • Land-based travel allows pax to get a real flavor of life on the islands. Tropic's itineraries focus on traditional Galapagos activities, but mix in a great cast of characters that will make travelers' journeys much more colorful and memorable.
  • Land-based travel helps the local islands' economies. Speaking with a Floreana resident, I detected some frustration with boat travelers. I'm paraphrasing here, but she said that the boat travelers come to the island, looks at its highlights, leave their trash and go. Land-based travelers are spending money in hotels and lodges and restaurants, making a sustainable existence for local residents.
3. Encourage your pax to spend more time! I certainly wouldn't have known what I was missing if I hadn't visited four different islands, but my experience was so rich for having been able to do so! The landscape from island to island is incredibly different, there are interesting species variations, and of course I was able to meet more of the local people and experience the local culture. A lot of pax want to come and 'do' the Galapagos in 5 days, and while its eminently possible, there's lots more to discover if they're able to add a few more days to their vacation.

Read on for my full Otavalo and Galapagos trip report...

The spectacular view when entering the Otavalo region
I arrived late at night after an easy journey. Quito's new airport is about an hour outside of the city with no traffic. The next morning, we immediately set off for the Otavalo region. The roads are fantastic, allowing for total focus on the surrounding scenery. As we made our way to Otavalo, we stopped in a small village among the flower plantations where roses are the specialty and biggest cash crop export. Roses with three-foot-long stems of every color were on display, and with mother's day around the corner the prices were still jaw-droppingly low (about $2/dozen for the roses not destined for export).

Onward, we traced the steps of Tropic Ecuador's lodge-to-lodge trekking itinerary. From the starting point, it's a gorgeous walk through the Andes with absolutely stunning views. In the afternoon, trekkers arrive at the scenic Mojanda Lakes, where they will be collected and taken a few miles down the road to charming Casa Mojanda. We visited for a site inspection and lunch. Features include expansive views of the surrounding valleys, a wood-fired Japanese hot tub for soaking after a long day of trekking, charming and comfortable cabins, locally-grown food and a kitchen that's very adept at knowing what to do with what the farm produces.

The market in Otavalo is colorful and
full of lovely gifts to bring home
From Casa Mojanda, it is about a 90 minute downhill walk to Otavalo Town. It's a bustling place of about 50,000, and visitors will see locals in traditional dress going about their daily lives. One of its most (deservedly) famous sites is its craft market. It is open daily and is fantastic for its local color, vibrancy and bustle alone. But for real shoppers or those seeking out unique Ecuadorian souvenirs, this is the place. A working knowledge of Spanish or reliance on your guide should net you about 30% off originally quoted prices for scarves (including alpaca and llama), clothes, Panama hats, jewelry (go for Ecuador's high quality, well-crafted silver) and more. It's easy to while away an hour just browsing.

Next up was Sacha Ji - an ecolodge and wellness retreat. I didn't expect anyplace to match the views of Casa Mojanda, but Sacha Ji delivers, with a gobsmacking view over the Otavalo valley. The lodge has a serene feel, with gardens for meditation, spaces to practice yoga and sacred spots for shamanic healing. There is attention to detail in everything here, and it feels like a getaway in the truest sense. Sacha Ji also has its own extensive gardens, and much of the food they serve is locally grown.

We didn't have time to visit the charming colonial Hacienda Zuleta, where trekkers spend their third night, but I've made a vow to do the trek myself on my next visit to Ecuador. (Latest review on Trip Advisor of Hacienda Zuleta? "Heaven on Earth." I'm sold.) After another night in the fun and funky Casa Gardenia in Quito's old town, I was off to the Galapagos.

The Galapagos . . . 

Blue-footed boobies are on the 'must-see' list of many travelers
Visiting the Galapagos Islands had always been on my radar because of its incredible wildlife, but way down on my priority list due to my lack of sea legs. Boats and I - we don't get along. But after joining Kusini, a visit to Ecuador was a must, and going to Galapagos was a given. I already had a leg up, however, as Tropic has a land-based Galapagos offering. It isn't without time on boats, of course, but it's not 100% boat-centric, which I appreciated.

Little did I realize that a land-based Galapagos trip was more than avoiding seasickness, it was an opportunity to get to know the islands and their characters. While boats have the advantage of reaching some of the islands that are not otherwise practical to visit by day trip, they also have the disadvantage of stopping on an island for a day or just an afternoon, visiting whatever highlights they can squeeze in, and then leaving. They miss the pace of life on the island, and they aren't able to give more than just a surface glimpse into what it might be like. They also do nothing to support the local economies of the four inhabited islands.

We arrived on Baltra (the gateway for most Galapagos visitors) and immediately got changed into our swimming gear in the airport's VIP lounge, as our first activity wasn't to go to our lodge, but to jump right into the gorgeous waters of the Itabaca Channel, which separates Baltra from Santa Cruz Island. We were given a safety briefing, then taken out on a boat to find a spot for snorkeling. While cruising, we immediately got a taste of the wildlife of the Galapagos. Blue-footed boobies were hunting en-masse, while brown pelicans napped on mangrove trees on the shore's edge. Frigate birds cruised high in the sky, making what I would come to think of as the classic Galapagos silhouette against the blue firmament.

Getting ready to snorkel in the Itabaca channel and doing our
part for the #EcuadorNOW campaign
After assessing everyone's swimming abilities, we plunged into the cool water with our naturalist guide. We took a few minutes to grow accustomed to our fins and masks, then plunged our faces into the sea. This is where the magic of the Islands lies. The turquoise waters are filled with life - and the animals and fish under the surface are totally indifferent to human presence. In that first hour of snorkeling, we saw white-tipped reef sharks, green turtles, puffer fish, parrot fish, sergeant major's...and then I forgot names. The point is, everywhere we looked, there was something. It was incredibly peaceful swimming through the water, but also completely engaging.

Our next activity was kayaking. We settled into our ocean (sit-on-top) kayaks and paddled slowly along the mangroves and looked at the resident bird life, as well as spotted a few sharks in the clear water. We kayaked all the way back to the pier (about an hour) for our journey to the highlands. It was fantastic to arrive in the Galapagos and immediately get to see what's special about it (and to get what felt like a decent amount of exercise).

It's about a 45 minute drive up into the highlands to Magic Galapagos, a quiet, funky, away-from-it all lodge. The property consists of six safari tents and four tree houses. Six more safari tents are under construction (when completed, the original six tents will be retired, keeping the property fairly intimate). The new safari tents will be en suite. The tree houses have a flush toilet and a sink with vanity. There are shared bathhouses that have flush toilets and hot showers.

The tree houses at Magic Galapagos are totally unique, and
guests can gaze at the stars from their beds
The tree houses are simple, but wonderful. At night, you can gaze through your window at the millions of stars overhead - while listening to the sounds of giant tortoises moving through the grasses below. While their presence is seasonal and population fluctuates, visitors have a good chance of seeing them ambling through the property when they visit.

There is a communal open-air main lodge with a bar, spaces for relaxing, a dining area and an open-air kitchen. Food at magic is excellent. Dinner was multi-course (fresh, local tuna one night and steak the next), and breakfast was fantastic fresh tropical fruit followed by eggs cooked to order. Laundry service is available.

Highlights of a stay at Magic - star-gazing (there is also a star-gazing deck out behind the tree houses), sleeping in a tree house(!), the cuisine, having a cocktail in the 'Lava Lounge' (natural lava tubes on the property), chatting with Polo, Magic's owner, who has been on the island for more than 40 years, and of course, giant tortoises.

The next day we took a tour to Bartolome Island on the 16 passenger yacht, the Sea Finch. The Sea Finch is equipped with several outdoor seating areas, an air conditioned lounge and dining facilities. The 2 hour trip to Bartolome was a combination of views and wildlife watching. Frigate birds shadowed our boat while we watched other birds feeding on fish, sea turtles swimming, and huge rays cartwheeling out of the water (I didn't know they did that!).

The Bartolome view might be recognizable from the film
'Master and Commander'
On arrival, we were greeted by Sally Lightfoot crabs and sea lions - a nice welcome to this uninhabited island. Bartolome offers one of the most dramatic views in the Galapagos Islands. A 600 meter walkway takes visitors through an alien lava landscape to the islands' highest point (it is steep, but fine for those with reasonable fitness). A naturalist guide interprets the local flora and fauna en route, as well as sharing facts about the island and its formation (while ensuring a pace that's comfortable for everyone on the excursion). On the top, the reward is the incredible view of Bartolome and Isla Santiago - it's absolutely stunning.

After our hike, we had a dingy trip to spot penguins (much success!), then had two snorkeling opportunities, both of which we were richly rewarded with sightings of sharks, turtles, penguins, starfish, rays, etc. The snorkeling was absolutely spectacular.

After returning to Santa Cruz, we enjoyed some late-afternoon exploration of the island. Another sumptuous dinner and starry night at Magic, then we departed for the sparsely populated island of Floreana on our privately chartered speedboat.

Stargazing is compulsory at Floreana Lava Lodge, as the
Milky Way is draped over the lodge
Floreana is home to fewer than 150 residents, and is the least developed of the inhabited islands. Visitors are greeted at the pier by lazing sea lions and sneezing marine iguanas. Tropic's Floreana Lava Lodge is just a 5-minute 'Chiva Bus' ride away. The lodge has 10 en suite cabins that face the ocean. Lodgings are simple - 2 twin beds (though some cabins have a twin and a bunk, and can accommodate 3), with a window a/c unit (yes!) and a porch with an Adirondack for reading or just gazing out to the water. There is a communal area for relaxing as well as an open-air dining area. A purified water station is available for refilling your reusable water bottle.

Floreana is as much about its people as its wildlife. The Lava Lodge is operated by Claudio Cruz, a born-and-raised native whose father was one of the first Ecuadorians to arrive on the island back in 1939. Claudio is happy to share his family stories, as well as to show visitors his farm, which supplies a sizable amount of food to the lodge, and share his encyclopedic knowledge of the island and its flora and fauna.

Marine iguanas are fascinating to look at, but be sure to
stay out of their sneeze zone
Activities/highlights on Floreana include snorkeling (again - fantastic), hiking (both for views and to learn more about Floreana's fantastic and odd history), stargazing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), and fantastic wildlife viewing (I'll never get tired of watching marine iguanas and giant tortoises). The sleepy port of Velasco Ibarra offers several dining options so you can get out and about in the evenings and soak up a bit more of the local color. Visitors can do as much or as little as they want here. The pace of Floreana is slow, and it's a unique spot in the islands for its relaxed and quiet vibe.

Tropic has an add-on visit to Isabela Island on their land-based Galapagos set departure, so the next morning we took another hike (I can never hike enough) then headed off to Isabela. Isabela is the largest of the Galapagos Islands, and one of the youngest. It has a tremendous amount of activities on offer, including those available on the other islands, as well as substantial hikes, active volcanoes, a tortoise breeding center, cycling and surfing.

The quiet sandy streets of Puerto Villamil invite visitors to
kick off their shoes and slow down
Isabela's Puerto Villamil has a laid-back, beachy vibe. The town has dirt streets, fun restaurants and bars, and a good selection of hotels lining a very long beach. We stayed at Hotel Albemarle on the beachfront. It's a Mediterranean-style villa with spacious, bright, high-ceilinged rooms and large bathrooms. There's a bar and restaurant, as well as a water cooler for topping up your water bottle. Isabella is also significantly less expensive than many of the other islands. 

One highlight was a visit to Los Tintoreras. Just a 5 minute boat ride from Puerto Villamil, this small, volcanic island has fantastic close-up wildlife viewing, including into a sea-filled crevasse chock full of white-tipped reef sharks. The excursion to Los Tintoreras includes snorkeling forays - this particular time in the water was made especially memorable as I had the chance to swim with playful sea lions.

Next - back to the mainland for mountain and rain forest adventures! Read Part II - Cotopaxi, Amazon and Quito! 

No comments:

Post a Comment