Visiting the Galapagos Islands is on the bucket-list of many traveling to South America, and rightly so! Visiting Darwin’s ‘living laboratory’ and witnessing the extraordinary flora and fauna who make the islands their home really is an experience like no other. The logistics of arranging a trip here can sometimes be overwhelming for potential travelers however. Where do I even start? How can I visit in a sustainable way? Where does a cruise fit in? How long should I spend in mainland Ecuador?
While all of these aspects are important to address, one should never let the involved logistics put you off visiting a place such as this marvelous destination, even if you just have a short amount of time. Seeking expert advice and booking your arrangements through a reputable and environmentally responsible tour operator will ensure the best experiences. Whilst a longer trip of around two weeks will of course, allow to see and do more, some people simply do not have this much time. Here we have suggested some of the best itinerary ideas to maximize your experience, no matter what time-scale you have to work with!
If you just have one week to spend, an itinerary combining Quito with a shorter Galapagos cruise is perfectly possible and a very good approach. The arrival airport for the majority of visitors will be Quito anyway, so it would be a real shame to just pick an airport hotel for the night and not spend any time here. Ecuador’s colonial capital city with its backdrop of volcanic peaks has many attractions that merit at least a 2-night stay.
Basing yourself somewhere in the heart of Quito for the first couple of nights will offer the perfect introduction to the city. Illa Experience Hotel, located in the San Marcos neighborhood is a great option, not just because its unique approach focused on experiences, also because its close location to the historic district, the best preserved of the continent. A short walk of less than 10 minutes takes you to the main sights of the city, yet rest is guaranteed in a peaceful area of artisans and local families. Visitors can build upon this introduction to local traditions by taking advantage the daily cultural ‘experiences’ on offer at Illa. As part of the hotel’s wider focus of involving the local community in all their endeavors, they invite local artisans, confectioners and artists to the hotel to demonstrate a skill. This could be gold leaf painting, traditional chocolate making, wooden toy making for children or any number of typical local crafts. These activities are all free of charge to hotel guests, and perfectly timed to be later in the afternoon so one can still include an experience after a city tour of Quito during the day.
Moving on to Galapagos, logistics for travelling to the islands and joining a cruise later the same day tend to work very smoothly. A morning flight of just under 2 hours from Quito will bring travelers to one of the two airports and one will be on board the cruise generally for lunch time and an afternoon activity before the cruise sets sail that evening.
The final day of a cruise generally involves one final morning excursion followed by disembarkation after breakfast. This means you can generally fly back to mainland Ecuador in plenty of time to take an overnight flight back to Europe or the United States. Your perfect overview of Quito and the Galapagos Islands, all within the space of a week!
Ten days to two weeks
This extra time will allow you to see a little more of the many attractions of mainland Ecuador, as well as of course spending more time in the Galapagos. A 7-night cruise on board the Sea Star Journey’s sister vessel – the Galapagos Seaman Journey – would offer an incredible comprehensive experience of the islands and is a very popular option. Not everyone necessarily wants to spend this much time at sea however. A good compromise can therefore be a 4 or 5 night cruise on the Sea Star Journey either as a stand-alone experience or combined with a couple of days ‘on dry land’ in Galapagos. There are a number of very good hotels to be found on both Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal Islands where you can end your cruise with a couple of days relaxation, enjoying the beaches and small towns which still have a very distinctive Galapagos feel.
With extra time on mainland Ecuador too the opportunities are endless! Ecuador encompasses some of the most authentic experiences that people associate with South America – traditional markets, the imposing Andes, dramatic train journeys and the lush Amazon rainforest – but in a compact country with good infrastructure, excellent cuisine and exceptionally friendly people. 2 or 3 day extensions from Quito will allow you to visit the picturesque highlands and the atmospheric indigenous market at Otavalo, or take a scenic journey through the Avenue of the Volcanoes including a train journey through the famous switchbacks of the Devil’s Nose. Cuenca is another attraction; often described as Ecuador’s prettiest city, this colonial gem enjoys a year-round Spring-like climate and is the true home of the Panama hat!
If experiencing the Amazon is one of your interests, a gentle introduction to the jungle can be taken without any flights at all, on an overland adventure to Hakuna Matata lodge, a scenic journey which also takes in the hot springs at Papallacta. This part of the country is also malaria-free, making it a great option for families. For a more intense wildlife experience, it is best to take a flight to Coca and transfer to one of the lodges that are deeper in the rainforest. Full travel days on each side will need to be factored into your itinerary if you wish to do this, and Coca is also the gateway for river cruises in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
An even longer Ecuadorian adventure
For those lucky travelers who have no time pressures at all, an itinerary of 2 to 3 weeks offers a whole other world of possibilities! As well as incorporating some of the above suggestions for extensions in the Galapagos and on the mainland, you can also get even further off-the-beaten-track. For bird lovers a visit to Ecuador’s cloud forests around Mindo is essential – edging the renowned Chocó-Andean corridor, this biodiversity hot spot is home to an impressive 20% of the world’s bird species. Another option in this area is to continue on the Macquipucuna for the chance to catch a glimpse of the elusive Andean spectacled bear.
Getting even further off-the-beaten-track, opportunities abound. You can learn more about the traditions of the indigenous Shuar community further south, discover a unique culinary heritage or absorb the dramatic scenery and wildlife along the Spondylus Route on the Pacific Coast. Another popular option is to combine time in Ecuador with a short visit to neighboring Peru, allowing you to include another of South America’s best-known wonders in one trip – Machu Picchu!
However long you have to devote to your trip and whatever your interests are, there is a trip to suit everyone in Ecuador and Galapagos. And organizing your arrangements through a trusted operator who knows the destination well and works only with responsible local partners is the best way to ensure you have a trip to remember, for all the right reasons!
Marcel Perkins is CEO at Latin Trails. Latin Trails is an incoming destination management company specialized in bespoke tours, with a focus on offering unique experiences throughout Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, and Peru.