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Gallivanting Around The Galapagos

Jodie Spong, from our head office,  went on a seven-night tour of Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands. Here is how she recounts her memorable trip…

Destination: Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands
Operator/Host: Cox & Kings
Accommodation
(Hotel names/Ship name): 
Hilton Colon, Isabella II
Airline: Iberia Airlines, LAN Airlines
Duration: 7 nights

A Frustrating Start

On a very early morning in Heathrow, I met my group at Iberia’s check-in desk at 5:30am for our flight to Madrid. Cox & Kings had already checked us in and assigned everyone seats, so we only had to drop our bags off. Our luggage was checked all the way through to Quito so we didn’t have to worry about carrying it on and off our connecting flights.

The flight from Heathrow to Madrid with Iberia Airlines was operated in the same way as the low-cost airlines. They do not include any meals or drinks in the original price, but you can buy snacks and refreshments on board if you wish. However, it’s important to bear in mind that they only take Euros or cards on board and won’t accept Sterling or Dollars.

On arriving in Madrid, we cleared passport control and set up camp for our 3-hour wait.

Unfortunately, after an hour and half, we are advised by LAN Airlines that our flight to Guayaquil was delayed by two hours! They didn’t give a reason but did advise that we could all get a free meal at a certain restaurant within the airport. This did start alarm bells ringing for some of the group, as they don’t normally offer free refreshments that early on, but we went with it and went to grab something tom eat.

After they had fed us and kept the locals quiet for a bit, they then advised that there was a further delay and that they couldn’t say at this stage when the aircraft would depart. After this announcement, we decided to vacate the area. The news was not taken very well by the Ecuadorian’s, and I think everyone in Madrid City centre could hear their agitated moans.

Lucky for us, Cox & Kings had paid for us all to go into the airport lounge, so at least the delay was a comfortable wait. After seven hours, we were given the news that we were departing for our trip and were told that we would now arrive in Guayaquil at 3am+4 local time. Not the start to the trip I was anticipating but I was happy that we were finally on our way.

When we finally boarded our LAN flight, the plane was really comfortable and Economy legroom was really good. Everyone gets their own television in the back of the seat in front, and drinks are served as soon as possible. The evening meal came out early on in our flight, because of the delay, but I was asleep before I knew it and so didn’t get a chance to taste it for myself. There was also a business class cabin on board but it only had about 12 to 14 seats.

A Vital Connection

When we finally touched down in Guayaquil, Ecuador, we were all slightly worried that we may have missed our connecting flight to. However, we were all told they had delayed the Quito flight, but we would need to get a move on as it was now departing at half three. Fortunately, we made the flight with no problem and landed in Quito at 4am, before being met by Vanessa from Metropolitan Touring, who was going to be escorting us around Ecuador. As it was still dark and a bit drizzly we can’t see much of Ecuador, but Vanessa advised that the sun would come.

My first impressions of the Hilton Colon hotel were very good. Everyone was very welcoming, even though it was 4:30am, and we all had our own rooms in the hotel, which we were shown to individually. We were allocated the hotel’s standard rooms but they were more than adequate.

They all had a comfortable and inviting queen-sized bed, plenty of space, and a generous bathroom with lots of little complimentary goodies that we were told we could happily keep. All rooms came with a bathrobe to use while you’re staying there, as well as complimentary slippers to take away with you when you leave. We were also given an authentic Panama hat, by the hotel, which was a little extra treat for us and is not part of their normal service.

A Quick Turnaround

So that we didn’t miss out on anything, everyone made the decision to stick with the itinerary that as Cox & Kings had planned for us. So after just two hours sleep, a bit of unpacking and a quick shower, we all headed down to breakfast. The food was really nice. A buffet with an egg station gave us plenty of choice and so we were all pleased that no one would be going hungry.

As Quito is the second highest capital in South America (2,850 Metres), Vanessa advised that we each had a herbal drink called Coca tea which would help with the altitude sickness. She also told us to make sure that we had plenty of sun cream in our backpacks whilst we were in Ecuador, as well as a raincoat, insect repellent and lots of water. She continued to tell us that, due to the fact that Ecuador is so close to the equator, it is known for having four seasons in one day and that we should dress in layers because of this.

Our first excursion is to Otavalo, which is two hours drive from Quito; the scenery en route was amazing so sleep was not on the agenda. To keep us going on the two-hour drive, Vanessa filled us in on Ecuadorian culture and way of life. Once in Otavalo, we visited the famous market town which sells a variety of handcrafts including textiles, woollen goods, paintings, jewellery, ceramics and leather goods. It was very busy, as it was a Saturday, but fascinating to walk round.

Weaving Some Magic

After a couple of hours at the market, we proceeded to Peguche; a small Indian village with traditional weaving workshops. Here we got to try a traditional sweet snack which consisted of a shortbread biscuit with a caramel sauce and cheese, which sounds terrible, but was actually really nice and something that you have to try. Before boarding the coach to make our way to our next stop, San Pablo, we were treated to a traditional song by some local girls and each given a handmade bag.

In San Pablo, we visited a weaver’s workshop, who specialises in fine, back-strap loom-woven textiles. The man who owns the workshop gave us a quick demonstration, which was truly amazing, as it’s all done by hand and on an old, handmade wooden machine.

For lunch we visited Hosteria Hacienda Pinsaqui; a small hotel located 5km north of Otavalo that is perfectly situated for visiting the attractions in the area. Here we got to sample our first traditional Ecuadorian meal. One of the specialities was potato soup with avocado and a locally made cheese, which again sounds strange but was ok. After Lunch we headed back to the Hilton Colon on a journey which Vanessa advised would be the same as the one we travelled earlier. Mercifully, I managed to grab a couple of hours sleep to recharge my batteries.

After a quick turn around at the Hilton to freshen up, we took a 5-minute drive to the Hotel Patio Andaluz, a declared Historical Monument of the City of San Francisco de Quito which has been named a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO. Here we had our evening meal and a tour of the beautiful hotel. It is built around a courtyard, which the government of Ecuador have helped the hotelier restore so that a roof can prevent any damage to the building by the weather. The only downside is that the courtyard is now indoors, but this does make it more useable.

Elusive Wildlife

The next day, after a leisurely breakfast, we left the Hilton for a 2-hour drive to Mindo-Nambillo forest. Once we arrived we were treated to a private tour of the El Pahuma Reserve, which has over 170 species of Orchid and then took a 5-minute walk to the humming bird farm where we tried in vain to get a snapshot of one. Finally, we drove a short way to Mindo Village where we visited a butterfly farm.

As lunchtime rolled around, we arrived at a local Inn where we went on a small hike through the forest before sitting down to eat. Although it was only a small hike, I would not recommend it for everyone. It was very slippery in places on the way down and the ground is very uneven when trying to climb back up.

After our lunch and a cold beer, we head back to the Hilton, to ready ourselves for our hotel Inspection and dinner.

That evening, we visited the Hotel Plaza Grande, which sits on the historic main square of Quito and boasts impressive views of the Government Palace and Cathedral. The hotel itself was an all-suite accommodation and is truly beautiful. We enjoyed our dinner in the hotel’s Café Plaza Grande, a restaurant which customers can use even if they are not staying at the hotel.

The Equatorial Weight-Loss Plan

Middle Of the earth Monument

This next morning we had a scenic tour of Quito, during which we walked around the narrow cobblestone streets and visited the Independence Plaza, Cathedral and Presidential Palace. We also went to the Monastery of San Francisco, which is one of the great religious buildings of the new world. Quito is a lovely city and well worth a visit if you’re in that neck of the woods.

Mid-morning we departed on our coach for a quick 30-minute drive to the monument which marks the Middle of the World. Here you can stand on both hemispheres simultaneously and it’s reported that if you cross from North to South you can lose 4lb (not sure if that’s entirely true, but we all kept crossing it).

Lunch that day was taken high up in the mountains at El Crater Restaurant. The views down were fantastic and, as the name of the restaurant may suggest, you can look right down into a crater which was caused by a volcano when it erupted a good hundred years ago.

Our afternoon excursion took us to the offices of the Metropolitan Touring office, where we met some of the team and had a presentation on Galapagos and how Metropolitan help to preserve the islands.

Our last evening in Ecuador was spent at the Hilton Colon, where we had been staying.

The meal was hosted by the hotel manager who was lovely and so excited for us that we were going on the Galapagos Islands Cruise.

As this was our last night in Ecuador we thought it would be rude not to go out for one night, and sample the nightlife. So a quick taxi ride of 5 minutes took us to the main square, where there were loads of really nice bars and, depending on your taste, you may find that some are livelier than others. One thing I would say is that it’s not recommended that tourists walk around the city too late at night. There are some not so nice areas that you could find yourself in, so taxis are always your best option after dark, and they’re really cheap.

First Glimpse Of The Galapagos

 Blue Footed Boobies

On the morning our cruise of the Galapagos was due to start, we flew from Quito to Baltra, via Guayaquil, with a total flight time two and half hours. On arriving in Baltra, which is the smallest airport I have ever flown into, we pointed out our luggage to the ship's concierge and joined the coach for our 5-minute transfer to the pier. On arrival, we are all given a life vest, for our transfer to the Isabella II via Zodiac.

The Isabella II is a deluxe cruiser, 166 feet long and accommodates 40 passengers and 24 crew. The facilities on board include a dining room, large bar area, library, games room and a large sun deck with a Jacuzzi. The cabins are all a really good size for a small ship, with excellent private facilities. Like any cruise ship, the meals included are on a full board basis and tea and coffee are complimentary; you just pay for your drinks.

Once everyone was on board, we are all given a welcome drink and a safety talk with regards to life aboard our new home for the next 3 nights. During this time the ship departed for our first port of call, North Seymour Island.

Everyone was very excited as this was going to be our first look at the Galapagos Islands. North Seymour is an uninhabited island and its main draw is the abundant wildlife that can be found on its shores. As we arrive on the Zodiac, the very first thing we see is a baby sea lion sleeping on the rocks. It really is a truly amazing sight, and after disembarking and walking for two minutes we are surrounded by sea lions of all ages; they’re very noisy and a bit smelly but beautiful.

The walk that we took with our guide is two and a half hours long and was along a route that was set out with markers by the National Park Society to indicate where you are allowed to walk. En route we see blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, swallow-tailed gulls and marine iguanas. After taking hundreds of photos we had to remind ourselves that it was only the first afternoon and so cameras went away and we headed back to the ship for dinner.

Onboard breakfast and lunch are in the form of a buffet, and dinner is a la carte. On Thursdays and Sundays, lunch is served up on the sun deck but all other times it’s in the restaurant. In the evenings the ship sails to its next point of call and you are free to entertain yourself however you please. The sundeck was our favourite place because we could see the sea lions playing in the wake of the ship as we sailed along.

Glass Bottomed Joy

After breakfast the next day, we disembarked for Hood Island. The plan was to make a wet landing so there was no need for shoes. After a short walk along the white coral beach, where there were hundreds of sea lions all rolling around in the sand and enjoying the sunshine, we had a choice to either go snorkelling or a take a trip on the glass bottom boat. I opted for the glass bottom boat which was really good as we got to see so many different types of fish. We also had sea lions playing underneath the boat and had a glimpse of a white tip Galapagos shark.

Some of our group did do the snorkelling and said that it was really good, but when we compared over lunch, it was clear that we had seen more fish during our activity.

The afternoon took us to Punta Suarez where we had a dry landing and a slight trek over lava terrain to catch sight of a group of waved albatross. These are huge birds and, as we walked along, we saw various egg-filled in nests which, according to our guide, would be hatching soon. We also saw the famous blowhole and, even though we were over a mile from it at one point, we still got wet from the back spray.

The Beauty And Smell Of Floreana Island

Another morning and another wet landing followed, this time onto darker sand which led us on an easy walk along the beach to see the flamingos that inhabit the brackish water lagoon of Point Cormorant (Floreana Island).

Note to all; it really smells.

Some people in the group did look at little green but you soon get used to the smell, and it’s more than worth it to see the bright pink flamingos standing there so nonchalantly. These are the only animals in the Galapagos that you won’t get close to as the lagoon is fenced off to prevent people sinking into the thick mud.

After this, we had a not so easy trek around the area. It was only for about twenty minutes, but it was hard going and so it may not suit everyone. At the end of the trek, it was worth it as we had crossed the island and were met with the brightest white sand I have ever seen, along with the bluest sea. Unfortunately, we were told not to go in the sea on this side of the island because the sting rays were all beached in the shallow water, but we still all enjoyed the magnificent view.

After we regrouped, it was back the way we came. Back to the beach we had landed on that morning. The sand and the sea were much darker here because of the volcanic rock, but it is a good place to try and spot sea turtles and Galapagos penguins. We did a bit of kayaking, which was really good, and were lucky enough to see five sea turtles.

The afternoon brought with it yet another wet landing, this time at the historical Post Office Bay on the other side of Floreana Island. Here our guide told us about the human side of the island, its early inhabitants and the adventures of pirates and whalers.

The name ‘Post office Bay’ is given to this area because,in 1793, British whalers established a post office barrel to send letters to and from England. The tradition has continued on, and we were all given a postcard to write our name and address on and post in the barrel. The guides then read out over 100 addresses and if any of them matched the area where we live, we were asked to take the postcard and deliver it to the person. No-one from my neck of the woods came up, but some of the group picked up some cards. You never know, one day I might even get mine back.

Tortoises And Home

 Galapagos Tortoises

Unfortunately, the arrival of the next day meant that it was home time. But before we left, we had one last excursion to a tortoise farm on Santa Cruz Island. This Island is inhabited and has the feel of a Caribbean Island which unfortunately meant that it didn’t feel as special as the others, but it was still lovely nonetheless. At the tortoise farm, we had a little trek through the forest and managed to see some absolutely huge tortoises which were not that happy to see us. We kept our distance and they were amazing to look at.

After our visit, we took a 5-minute ferry trip over to Baltra to get a coach to take us to the airport. The flights on the return journey were the same route as the outward, but thankfully this time there were no delays!

We landed back at Heathrow on Saturday 4th June, very tired and a little sad, but with some excellent memories.

Thank you to Louise Tweed for giving me the opportunity to go on this magnificent trip; it was truly amazing.

Must see? The various species of exotic wildlife
Must do? Stand at ‘The Middle of the Earth’
Must try? The cheesy, caramel shortbread we had in Peguche

If you would like to take a once-in-a-lifetime trip, just like Jodie’s, we can help you book your Galapagos adventure. We have travel shops all over East Anglia, as well as our brand new travel agents in Westbourne and Lymington, on the south coast.