Galapagos - Before, after and other tips
To get to Galapagos you must first go to Ecuador.
After our disastrous experience with BA last year we didn’t want to fly with them again this year, however there are no direct flights to Quito from the UK anyway, and our options were Air France via Paris, KLM via Schiphol and Iberia (a BA code share) via Madrid. The result is a 13/14 hour journey just to Quito. We chose KLM (more about which later). These flights only fly on alternate days, which means we had to fly out on the Friday to join the cruise on the Sunday.
Ecuador’s capital is the second highest in the world after Bolivia’s La Paz. It’s spread out over 50km although is only 8km wide. The Old Town (a UNESCO Heritage site) is best known for its beautiful (well restored) colonial architecture, beautiful art-packed (and in one case gold-covered) churches and monasteries and its cobbled streets. In contrast the New Town and financial district have plenty of international restaurants, hotels and tower blocks.
We both suffered with altitude sickness in Quito, but it passed fairly quickly. As part of our itinerary we were met by David from Abercrombie and Kent at the airport on the Friday evening and he remained our guide for the whole time we were in Quito.
On the Saturday we had a private tour. Our first stop was Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve which is the protected area around Pululahua volcano. The crater is one of only two inhabited craters in the world. The volcanic land is extremely fertile and is farmed by those living there. We observed from the top but you can take steps down into the crater if you wish (it takes about 2 hours to get down and back up again).
After that we spent a while at the Middle of the World museum where you can straddle the equator (and take the obligatory photo with the sign!) and take part in fun science experiments that demonstrate the effect being on the equator can have.
Our last stop before lunch was the incredible view from El Panecillo in the heart of the city and at the feet of the beautiful Virgin of El Panecillo statue. We were also reminded of the time of year as they were erecting giant lit up nativity scenes around the statue to be seen across the city.
Lunch was at Nuema (now situated in the Illa Experience Hotel, a beautiful colonial mansion) and was an amazing tasting menu of local cuisine, every course was interesting and delicious. I highly recommend a visit here if you are in Quito.
After lunch we took a walking tour of the Old Town, including the San Francisco Church and its museum of religious art, La Compañía and the seven tons of gold gilding on its glittering walls, and the busy Independence Plaza, flanked by the Presidential Palace and Quito Cathedral. Another big attraction in Quito is the Telefériqo, a cable car ride that takes you up the slopes of Volcán Pichincha to 4000 meters and a beautiful look out. We didn’t take the trip as the peak was shrouded in cloud, but mainly due to our altitude sickness and our guide said he usually doesn’t recommend it unless you’ve been in Quito a couple of days.
We stayed in the Santa Bárbara suite at the Hotel Villa Colonna in the Old Town. A beautiful old colonial boutique hotel with just 6 suites located in the Old Town, perfect for touring Quito. Essentially a bed and breakfast it has a breakfast room but not a restaurant as such and it doesn’t have a license to serve alcohol. I think it’s possible for them to serve dinner should you wish, and there was a home made soup available on our arrival from Fabrice, the manager. I was sad to refuse but after being up for nearly 24 hours and already feeling the effects of altitude sickness we went straight to bed. The rooms and house are furnished with art and sculptures and the ground floor has a romantic indoor garden area with seating. There is a roof terrace with great views towards El Panecillo
After our day touring Quito we ate out at Theatrum, which had been recommended to us by our Guide. We had assumed we would be able to walk but were advised against this. Instead we were accompanied on the walk to the restaurant by our hotel host and a courtesy car returned us to the hotel afterwards. The restaurant was very quiet, but the food was excellent, especially the empanadas and the ceviche.
Following the cruise with Ecoventura, we flew back to Baltra and returned to Santa Cruz Island for three days of rest and relaxation at Pikaia Lodge Hotel in the highlands.
The Galapagos is obviously an eco-sensitive location and Pikaia Lodge was created to very strict guidelines, achieving a carbon-neutral luxury hotel set in the heart of its very own Giant Tortoise reserve. Perched on the edge of an extinct volcanic crater it offers incredible views across the island. Previously a cattle ranch, all the vegetation had been cut down to make pasture land and the lodge is now engaged in a reforestation program with native, endemic species and have created good conditions for the wild tortoises and birds to return. There are several giant tortoises in the grounds.
The luxury bedrooms all have panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows offering views out over the highlands, with terraces or balconies. Equipped with everything you would imagine a luxury room to have, including bio-degradable toiletries in the sumptuous bathroom, the large rooms have a walk-in dressing room and lounge area.
The social areas are equally as beautifully styled with a large lounge and bar area, and an infinity pool area with views out over the north of the island. You can stay on an all-inclusive package here, but we stayed on a B&B basis and on two nights we went into Puerto Ayora for the evening.
The food was very good although I think the hotel is still relatively new and our only issues with Pikaia Lodge were around the restaurant and the service being a bit hit and miss. The only night we ate in the hotel the food was delicious however my main course was served at the same time as Ian’s starter which kind of spoilt the meal as I ended up eating slowly and waiting for him to catch up. The staff were very friendly but one morning at breakfast our waiter brought our (hot) breakfast and then stayed to chat to us, which would have been fine but our breakfast was getting cold. These are small things, and as usual we fed them back at the end of our stay. Pikaia Lodge definitely deserves its luxury tag.
Unfortunately the weather while we were there put paid to our idea of laying on a sun lounger for three days. It was sunny for the first half day and cloudy and raining for the next two, however we took the opportunity to explore the surrounding park and spent time in the town of Puerto Ayora. The taxi was about £20 and the hotel will arrange that for you. You can also stay at Pikaia Lodge as a base to explore the rest of Galapagos. They have their own fleet which offers day trips and scuba trips, however as we’d already been cruising for 8 days we didn’t really feel the need to do anymore sailing!
From Piakaia Lodge we returned to Quito for our final night in South America at Quito Polo Club. We were there for less than 24 hours, but were disappointed with this hotel and I wouldn’t recommend it particularly, even for an airport stop over. Although it’s near Quito airport as the crow flies, it’s a good 45 minutes drive there and there is actually a brand new Wyndham Hotel right next to the airport that probably would have done us well enough. The Polo Club is stunning to look at, probably an Instagrammers dream but it is a bit of a triumph of style over substance and until their staffing issues are sorted it always will be. I’ve reviewed the Club on Trip Advisor if you’d like to read more.
Tips and Info
We took a long time exploring our options, but we eventually booked our trip with Abercrombie and Kent, who provided us with a completely personalised itinerary, including internal transfers and a guide for our entire time in Quito. The ecological impact and sustainability of this trip was really important to us and we know from travelling with A&K (Kenya and South Africa) previously that their credentials in their area along with their philanthropic ethos are really good. We looked into both Ecoventura and Pikaia Lodge before booking the itinerary.
We flew business class with KLM from Heathrow via Schiphol and they were excellent. So much better than our recent BA experiences. The service was spot on, the food was good (and plentiful!) and the recently refurbished business class section was better by far than BA with only 6 (lie-flat) seats across the cabin, all facing forward.
I would advise caution when visiting Quito and absolutely recommend a proper guided walking tour. Pick pockets and bagsnatchers are a problem in tourist spots, and I would especially advise against taking public transport if you are carrying cameras and valuables. Use a taxi instead - they are cheap! And never get your smart phone out in the street. We were accompanied by our guide and we were still hassled in the street by street sellers and at one point I was almost shoved over. It was exceptionally busy when we were there as it was Festival Week which culminates with the “Founding of Quito” on 6 December.
The Galapagos Archipelago is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is controlled carefully and strictly by the Galapagos National Park. Visitor numbers are restricted (cruise companies may replace their fleet with new boats but not additional ones and the guest numbers must remain the same). All luggage of all travellers is x-rayed and checked throughly to ensure nothing is smuggled in or out, including seeds and wildlife. You can be fined in excess of $20,000 USD for running over an iguana or tortoise. Much is being done to preserve the islands however at least 5% of species have been lost since man first populated the archipelago and things like introduced species (feral goats on Isabela) and of course the environmental impact of man on the land itself have to be corrected. Visitors have an important part to play in this by bringing money to the areas, not only to preserve the islands but to support the local communities.
Both Ecoventura and Pikaia Lodge support the amazing Pack for a Purpose initiative. This is not exclusive to Ecuador or even South America but covers all continents. By working with local hotels and, in our case, cruise companies, as collecting points, Pack for a Purpose is a brilliant organisation collecting specific supplies for local community projects supporting education, health, child and animal welfare and socioeconomic development. Even with our tight luggage allowance we managed to take some chalks, colouring pencils and some book bags for a local school.
All guides are trained by the National Park and must take exams every three years. Top tier guides like Karina and Yvonne will be employed by the luxury tour companies and will be expected to speak more than one language especially English. Both our guides were super passionate about the islands and also about ensuring the “correct” type of tourism, making sure that those who visit feel the same about the islands as they do, and aren’t just ticking them off as part of a back packing tour.
Galapagos still feels like you are 'off the beaten track' especially on a cruise that takes in those Islands that are not open to day trippers. There was only one day where we felt we weren't alone in the archipelago, and that was when we visited one of the islands at the same time as one of the other Ecoventura vessels. One of the biggest advantages of a cruise is that, because you've sailed overnight, you are on and off the islands before the day trippers even turn up. If you choose to do a 'live-on (scuba) dive trip' you can dive off two of the most north-western islands that no one is able to land on.
We chose to go in December as that’s when the seas are generally at their calmest - important for those of us not used to living on a boat but this also meant that the water would be slightly calmer and clearer for snorkelling (and starting to warm up!). December is right on the turn of dry-to-wet season but is one of the warmer times of the year to go, this lasts through to May, with February and March being the warmest and sunnier months. June to November is dry season, but with cooler temperatures and rougher seas. Take travel sickness pills with you whether you think you might need them or not. We both took them every day as a preventative measure and there were a couple of days when we definitely needed them. If you intend to spend more than two days in Quito I recommend you do it all in one hit. It didn’t take long for us to get over our altitude sickness, only to get it again as soon as we landed back in Quito on our way home.
Clothing and Footwear
We took our safari gear (Craghoppers Nosi Life) which has seen us through three trips now and is still going strong. It has built in insect repellent and has solar protection such as specially designed collars. Being equatorial, light long sleeved tops are better than relying on sun block alone (which needs to be Factor 50). Also quick drying, it meant that on wet landings if we got wet we soon dried off.
A wet landing is what it sounds like, when you have to disembark the panga into the sea. This is usually where the landing is a shore. We both wore Merrell Hydrotrekker shoes, which are a waterproof trail shoe created to dry out fast and protect your feet from debris and obstacles getting out of the panga but also have holes for water to exit the shoe which you can then continue your hike in. Some wore diving shoes for wet landings and then changed into sturdier footwear once on the island. On some hikes you could get away with flip-flops but as most landings meant at least some lava rock the trail shoes were spot on. You could definitely wear trainers for the hikes (I did for the dry landings) but ALL footwear is hosed down when you get back on the yacht to prevent cross contamination of islands, so don’t wear your favourites!
Everything you need for snorkelling will be provided onboard. The equipment provided by Ecoventura was of a really good quality and is yours for the week. We took our own snorkels and masks but used their wetsuits and fins, all of which were stored at the back of the boat.
It is no exaggeration to say the animals don’t give a hoot about the humans in the Galapagos. We were very conscious of keeping the six-foot rule, however the animals often had other ideas and you often had to be careful where you were walking. In the inhabited parts of the islands the animals and humans live cheek by jowl. Nowhere is this more evident than Puerto Ayora where the local fish market has a veritable parade of sealions, pelicans and gulls after the titbits that the humans throw to them.
Therefore unless you plan on catching birds in flight you can get away with a “point and shoot” a lot of the time (I’m still not going to recommend an iPhone as your lone photographic tool). We both took a 17-70mm and I took a 70-300mm. Once again we had a limited luggage weight due to internal flights so Ian took his 70-200mm with a 2x extender which together were a lot lighter than his 150-600. I would say take the best equipment you can afford. We also had our Canon Sureshot underwater camera, which is just a ‘point and shoot’ and provided us with perfectly good photos of our underwater adventures. We took mainly video when snorkelling because things tend to move a little faster down there!
Currency is $USD in both Ecuador and Galapagos. Eating out was exceptionally good value in both Quito and Puerto Ayora.