Animal magic on the holiday of a lifetime

Watching television one winter’s evening I was transfixed by a programme showing sea lions playing on a beach alongside humans. From that day onwards it was my dream to visit the Galapagos – two weeks after I retired it was my turn to share my beach space with these wonderful creatures.

My holiday involved so much more exploring Ecuador en route. It was perfect for me as a solo traveller with a dislike of organised groups. There was always someone discreetly on hand to drive me to my next destination, get me on the right boat or negotiate my way through airport bureaucracy.

Quito, the capital of Ecuador, was my first stop. I stayed at the Renaissance-style Casa Hotel Las Plazas in the Old Town just 200 metres from the Plaza de la Independencia. The area, one of the first World Cultural Heritage Sites declared by UNESCO, boasts a plethora of well-preserved colonial buildings, squares and churches.

High on a hill overlooking Quito’s streets is the statue of the Virgin on the Panecillo made from 7,400 pieces of aluminium. It’s worth a taxi ride up there to see it. The way to explore Quito is by taxi – some areas are not safe and the advice is to go out with as few valuables as possible and keep your phone and cash close.  Taxis tend to cost around five dollars with most of the journey spent in traffic.

From Quito I headed for Cotopaxi National Park, an hour and a half drive along the Avenue of the Volcanoes, home to wild horses and deer.

I stayed at the Hacienda El Porvenir ranch, 3,600 meters above sea level, surrounded by four volcanoes in the Andes.  My spacious room, with views of grazing horses and llamas on the slopes of the Rumiñahui volcano, boasted a bed large enough for four which staff considerately put a hot water bottle in before bedtime. It must get very cold up there as farmers strap empty feed bags on the backs of calves to keep them warm. Activities included horse riding. We headed up the mountains into the clouds to get a view of the snow-capped Cotopaxi volcano. We were kitted out with ponchos and riding chaps and looked the real deal sat in our western-style saddles.

My next visit was to Banos, the adventure capital of Ecuador. It is the place to admire waterfalls, go mountain biking, hiking, rafting, canyoning, jumping off bridges and zip wiring. At a centre offering zip wiring, a video revealed the options which included riding the lines upside down and a couple zip wiring alongside their husky harnessed onto its own wire – a step too far I thought – not sure what the RSPCA would think. I opted for a walk across a gorge on a glass bridge and a speedy ride over a canyon in a tiny cable car.

An unusually decorated tour bus in Banos

From Banos I travelled to the Napo River in the Amazon Rainforest – my journey concluded with a 15 minute canoe ride to La Casa del Suizo jungle lodge. The spacious bedroom boasted a balcony sporting a comfortable hammock overlooking the fast-flowing river and lush jungle.  A guide took me on a canoe trip to meet a multi-generational indigenous family in their wooden house on stilts in the jungle.  I was shown how cocoa beans are extracted from the fruit and turned into the most delicious chocolate, which is a major export for Ecuador. A nearby lake was home to caimans tempted out of their nocturnal habits by my guide who just happened to have some meat to feed them. On my jungle walk I encountered a small snake swimming in the water on the path and a tiny red frog – the highly poisonous dart frog – luckily I had been supplied with wellingtons. I was persuaded to go river tubing which I was a bit dubious about but glad I did – it was fun riding down rapids in a rubber tube.

After a couple of days in the jungle, it was a four hour drive to Quito airport for a two hour flight to the Galapagos – 1000 kms from the mainland. Visitors need to buy a 100 dollar pass at the airport to get on the islands and luggage goes through environmental checks to ensure it contains nothing which will damage the biodiversity of the islands. Baltra island accommodates the airport and here I was joined by yet another guide on the bus which takes travellers to the Baltra strait for a short ferry trip across to Santa Cruz.

You can’t visit the Galapagos without learning more about their famous tortoises. I was shown around centres where they breed and care for these ancient creatures. The best was the ranch Hacienda Primicias where the enormous Galapagos tortoise lives freely alongside grazing cattle. They can live for up to 125 years and weigh up to 250 kg.

I stayed in Puerto Ayora where I visited the fish market I had seen on television where hungry pelicans eye up the produce while sleepy sea lions laze around.

My holiday included pre-paid tours and the most memorable was a boat trip to North Seymour Island – a birdwatchers’ paradise. Home to blue footed boobies and frigate birds, it reminded me of a scene from Jurassic Park with giant iguanas sleeping in the trees and lurking in the rocks and large, long-tailed frigate birds hovering overhead. The most impressive thing about these birds is how the male attracts a mate by inflating a red sac on its throat into a bright red balloon. Also highly coloured and beautiful were the bright orange and blue Sally Lightfoot crabs which contrast with the black volcanic rock of the Galapagos.

A trip to Pinzon Island turned out to be the best snorkelling I have ever experienced. After a two hour boat ride we jumped overboard to follow the leader who certainly knew where to go. We swam with a family of playful sea lions splashing and turning circles right in front of me, a giant turtle swam up to me and put its nose on my face mask – there is a rule in the Galapagos that you must not get closer than two metres to the wildlife or touch them – a rule these creatures definitely ignored. I inadvertently swam over a group of white tipped reef sharks and admired the most beautiful fish I had ever swam with including luminous blue and pink Bluechin Parrotfish. But sometimes there is no gain without pain and I was stung by bright orange jellyfish leaving marks on my arms and legs for weeks after. It was worth it.

It was an early morning start to get to the next island, Isabela. A trusty guide put me on the right ferry – it was chaos with hundreds queuing to get on dozens of boats heading to various islands. Billed as a two hour speed boat ride – it was a boat ride from hell as the boat banged into the waves.

As we docked, I spotted sea lions on the beach alongside ugly black iguanas merging into the black rock – you had to watch where you walked to avoid standing on them. The beach by the pier was the beach of my dreams – the one which had attracted me to the Galapagos and I couldn’t wait to get on it to become further acquainted with these amazing creatures. As I lay on the sand sea lions strolled within feet of me to head into the sea to cool off. I waded in with them and was delighted to see turtles and rays swimming over my feet. The benches on the beach were constantly occupied by large sleeping sea lions and if any of their mates wanted to join them there would be an almighty fight with a lot of shouting and grunting. Definitely no room for humans.

My departure from Isabela was as memorable as my arrival witnessing the vivid red sky as the sun rose above these glorious islands which are so precious and unspoilt.

My 18-day adventure took me on seven planes, four ferries, two canoes and numerous car rides – I didn’t get lost once and neither did my suitcase – thanks for organising it Llamatours.

FACTFILE

  • My holiday was Llamatours.co.uk Ecuador with the Amazon and island hopping in Galapagos.
  • Prices start from £4709 pp including flights with single room supplements from £439 and twice weekly departures
  • Hotels in the Galapagos are basic
  • The price includes drivers between destinations and ferries, all breakfasts and some lunches and dinners
  • The tour guides speak good English

Next Steps

Our Silver Travel Advisors can help you plan a cruise to the Galapagos and trips around South America, call 0800 412 5678.

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Debbie Pugh-Jones

Freelance travel writer & member of International Travel Writers’ Alliance

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