Christmas in Ecuador and the Galapagos

For many tourists, Ecuador travel means only one thing: the Galapagos Islands. They say the island are being overrun with people. I being one of them. But the time that I was on the islands I did not see many people because all the rules that you must be with a certified guide has truly made the Galapagos an experience that should be on every ones list of places to see. I will talk more about the Galapagos later. The rest of the country really deserves more than a quick stopover on the way in or out and I wanted to see why this county has a two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The cultural heritage of Quito was so important that it was the first city in the world to be declared World Heritage Cultural Site by UNESCO in 1978. The other UNESCO World Heritage Site is of course is the Galapagos.  It was during Christmas vacation that we visited and I am glad we came during this time the city churches, hotels and squares were beautifully decorated. When we arrived late in the evening we were greeted by the worst rain the city has experienced in many years and to our surprise it was very cold. Even though Quito is on the equator, it can get quite chilly. If you are headed to Quito, don’t forget to bring a jacket! Many Quiteños brag that you can experience all four seasons in one day! We were freezing and our minds were thinking that place was supposed to be warm. I was relieved to see our luggage and as we went through customs is was also nice to see our driver with our name on a sign.. Whenever I am in a foreign country I always hire someone to greet us and take us to our hotel. The people who I booked our Galapagos trip through was the Red Mangrove Hotel Group. This company took care of everything. But they also want you to be able to personalize your trip and I picked the Hotel LeParc in Quito for our first night. The first night you must stay in Quito to be up early for the flight to the Galapagos. IMG_6789The LeParc was a very edgy, upscale boutique hotel. This hotel is ultra-modern and extremely comfortable. The lobby bathroom was filled with roses! It was just me and my two kids traveling and we each wanted our own bed. When they took us to our room it was very nice to see a huge room with three beds. The beds were super comfortable. The hotel itself could easily be in SoHo NY. More later about my trip to the Galapagos.

Ecuador is the home of the Panama Hat, impressive Andean peaks, quiet beaches, a dense jungle and a city worth the time to explore. Quito is the capital of Ecuador and of Pichincha Province. The city is situated on the lower slopes of Pichincha volcano in a narrow, fertile valley of the Andes Mountains at an elevation of 2850m (9350 ft) above sea level. I was surprised to know how high we were. We did not notice the altitude I guess we were too excited just to be here. The city is divided in two parts. The amazing historical center is called The Old City and is located in the North. In the South, The New City boasts with modern buildings, broad avenues and urban parks. Both parts live together in perfect harmony. The old city offers the must see historical buildings, the new city displays an array of restaurants, language schools, movie theaters and discotheques. I found the city to be very clean. Ecuador is blessed with an impressive variety of natural attractions. Massive mountains and volcanoes that attract casual hikers and here you will find one of the highest concentrations of volcanoes in the world. Near by the Amazonian jungle and rainforest attract a different kind of explorer. (more about our trip to the Amazon later) Ecuador is a Spanish-speaking country about the size of Colorado. What I enjoyed is being able to use the my American dollar.  Ecuador has used the U.S. dollar as its official currency since 2000. Both U.S. coins and Ecuadorian coins, which are equivalent to the value of the U.S. coins. This made purchasing items very simple. On one of our tourist days in Quito we went to the Equatorial Monument (LaMitad del Mundo)( meaing center of the earth) straddling the Equator and located approximately fifteen miles north of Quito, this monument marks the exact line dividing the northern and southern hemispheres. This trip to us was a must see if you want to Quito, Ecuador. We took some really fun photos. 

Although Quito is a vibrant city with plenty of attractions, I wanted to see this city but my main goal was to explore the city and to get an in-depth overview of the town and experience gourmet dining and see what type of fine boutique hotels they had to offer. I hired a guide to drive us to all the must see’s of Ecuador. Juan Fernando Rueda was quite a character.  Tall and lean, he seems to tower over most of the locals.  But with his sparkling greens eyes, gentle manner and impish smile he wins everybody over quickly.  Dubbed the “flying cat” by his friends in the Galapagos.  A native of Ecuador, his background is a chef and historian. He was a wealth of information.

I also wanted to journey out to the rural markets of Otovolo and see the swirl of color and varying costumes and to watch the beautiful people of Ecuador making handicrafts. Apart from a trip to the Galapagos Islands, almost everything you would spend money on in Ecuador is a terrific value.  Ecuador doesn’t get all that much press as a place to retire or live abroad for a while, but it offers one of the best payoffs on the planet in terms of what you can get for your money as a resident. We found the city to be inexpensive. Juan was able to take us places that he likes to go to as a local. Time to go to the Galapagos.

Most of the travel to that island is self-contained: there are (thankfully) no large hotels on the islands that would suck up lots of resources and add to the already worrisome degradation. For now, the top hotels and lodges are all focused in the two largest cities and the jungle. On my trip to the Galapagos I choose not to be on a yacht. I am traveling to three islands and staying at different eco lodges and taking boats out for day trips. I wanted to explore the islands at the end of the day and not be on a rocking boat. I wanted to wake up to the animals on the land.

Established in 1959, the Galapagos National Park is the oldest National Park in Ecuador. About 97% of the entire area of the Galapagos Islands are part of the National Park system and remain uninhabited. The other 3% of the Islands are the inhabited areas of Santa Cruz Island,San Cristobal Island, Isabela Islandand Floreana Island. In 1967, the first park service was created, but it took about 4 years for the Galapagos National Park to assign its first Superintendent and first set of park rangers as part of the National Park System. Today the Park has a complex management system and hundreds of Park Rangers.
In 1979, the Galapagos National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This meant that the Park’s management and staff were responsible for performing permanent conservation efforts and guarding the islands according to UNESCO’s standards and regulations. However, in 2007, as a result of the fast growing human development and poorly controlled immigration, tourism and trade, UNESCO added the Galapagos to its List of World Heritage Sites in Danger. Since 2007, strict measures were put in place by the Galapagos National Park to control tourism, immigration and the development of existing communities in Galapagos.

Since its existence, the Galapagos National Park has developed a series of rules and regulations to protect the Islands and minimize the impact of tourists on the Islands. All tourists who visit the islands on a cruise, or who take daily tours out to the islands, must be accompanied by Galapagos National Park certified guide on every visit.
In addition, the Galapagos National Park collects an entrance fee of $100 per person from all those who wish to visit the Galapagos Park and the Galapagos Marine Reserve either by staying at a hotel in the islands or by taking a Galapagos Cruise. I am really glad I read about this cost before I left. The ATM was out of money when I was in line to pay my fee.

IMG_6798We were met at the airport by our guide who would stay with us the entire time we were on the islands. We took a 10 minute ferry ride to get to Santa Cruz Island. We arrived at our first hotel Red Mangrove Aventura Lodge (Santa Cruz Island). It was beautiful we were greeted at the desk and told to have lunch. The organic vegetables and fresh caught fish was excellent. Our table outside overlooked the swimming Iguanas and seals. It was a beautiful moment to know that we had made the right decision to stay at a hotel then on a boat. Watching the wildlifeIMG_6802 was the reason we came here and the variety of people that would come and go was great to. We were never without conversation of, ” where are you from”?. After lunch they gave us each a bag of snorkel gear, a fanny pack with a metal bottle to fill with water for the hikes. Our luggage was already in the room and the room was huge and very nice. The view was of the bay and a great place to sit after a day of exploring. Our first tour was to a cove where we snorkeled. When we got in the water we noticed the ocean floor had a lot of sleeping sharks. I was told they wereIMG_6807 not the man eating kind but still the word shark is scary. I must say the water was not clear and it was uneventful but I was in the water, in the Galapagos and I was happy. After swimming we took a short hike to the marine iguana nesting site. The walk back was through a prickly pear forest. All the time the guide was telling us any and everything about what we were looking at. It was fascinating.

We enjoyed going back to our hotel room to shower and go explore around the hotel. Dinner was magnificent with choices for any palette. IMG_6801

Up early for breakfast to get a start on our adventures. We went to the lava chambers a breath taking visual reminder of the power of nature. The vegetation was thick and it was green. Next stop was the 600 acre private reserve where the giant Galapagos tortoises freely roam, graze, and sleep. These gigantic creatures were amazing. Back to the hotel for lunch and then a two hour boat ride to our next island Floreana. IMG_6996 - Copy

The trip was fast and fun. When we arrived to the island it was not inhabited at all. We saw no one around. We were taken to a beach to swim with the Giant Sea Turtles. The water was freezing but the kids and I had brought our own wetsuits and we were glad we did the water took are breath away but we were going in no matter what. When you hit the water you look under and there were Sea Turtles everywhere. The water was not clear but to see these huge turtles up close was surreal. IMG_7066The guide wanted him to follow him to the area they were all located. Then he told us to take our heads out of the water and look at our hotel that we are going to swim to. This was so much fun. It was in the evening and the sun was going down while we were in the water. It was beautiful. Then while I was swimming with my camera in my hands a seal came to look at me. The seal came up from my chest to my face within inches. It scared me until I realized you’re in the Galapagos it’s ok the seal is friendly. Then I sat back and just enjoyed them swimming around me. Time to go in and we swam to the black beach. We arrived to our really cute small cabins to stay the night. For dinner we took an open air bus to a local restaurant to enjoy Galapagos food and visit with one of the first families to live on Florena.

It was a nice evening with new friends. IMG_7083This part of the trip was a total of 12 people, just enough! Back to are cabin for an evening of fun. We all sat around a fire and the guides made really good drinks with sugar lime and for the adventures local liquor. Mine was just lime, sugar and lemonade with a sprig of local mint. YUM! We went to sleep to the sound of the waves pounding and it was glorious.

Breakfast at a local restaurant and a day full of exploring the highlands of Floreana. Our Naturalist Guide tells us stories of pirates, whalers, and settlers of Floreana. We explore another turtle habitat and see why this is the best place for these slow-moving huge animals to live their slow-moving life.

NexIMG_7154t island, Isabela Lodge this is where we saw the blue-footed boobies and Galapagos penguins sharing the same rocks with the huge iguanas. We hiked on a smooth path over a over a jagged lava field. Between the lava fields were shallow pools full of white-tipped reef sharks. I am glad I was on the land even if they are not dangerous. The views from here are something you will take with you for the rest of your life! The black, treacherous lava field, the emerald green sea, the forest green mangrove, and the cloud-capped volcanoes of Isla Isabela create a postcard in your mind to take home. In the water we saw turtles mating in the water. It was interesting see them stacked on top of each other floating in the water. The rest of the afternoon our guide took us to a snorkel spot in the middle of the lagoon. The water was warm in the lagoon. While we were swimming with the turtles and see a lot of fish. Annie grabs my camera, grabs by arm and says LOOOOOKKKKK through her snorkel real loud. Right over Michael’s shoulder was a very large great white that swims by very slowly. Annie snaps a photo of it swimming over Michael. Our guide said to us in a very calm voice, “it is time to get out of the water now”, ” OK”, we said. Back to our hotel to shower. When we arrived at the hotel they had cups of hot chocolate for us. A nice touch. Another wonderful meal with a new group that just came in. We again had the wonderful sound of the ocean to put us to sleep after an amazing day in the Galapagos. IMG_7190

We had a tour of the beaches where we saw wild flamingos. The beaches were full of lizards, iguanas and seals. Tonight we go back to the main island. The boat ride was perfect. We went through a huge school of dolphin and they swam with the boat for quite a while. Back to the exquisite Aventura Lodge on Santa Cruz to take a guided tour of the fascinating Charles Darwin Research Station and meet one of the oldest turtles Old Lonesome George who used to live at the San Diego Zoo and was sent to the Charles Darwin research center to live out his life as an extinct Pinta Island tortoise. Charles Darwin, visited the islands in 1835, saw that the tortoises on each island were different although they had obviously descended from a common stock which was now extinct on the mainland. This observation formed part of his world-changing Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. The Charles Darwin Research Station was opened on Santa Cruz Island in 1962 with the objective of protecting the remaining animals. After our tour of the Charles Darwin research center we went downtown. The fishing boats were cleaning fish on the docks and the docks had huge hungry pelicans eating anything they could get in their mouth. This was fascinating to see. After our time in the town we knew it was time to go on to our next adventure. Back to Quito and then on to the Amazon. Five days 4 nights IS NOT ENOUGH! IMG_7204

IMG_7036I really enjoyed the Red Mangrove lodges on the islands.  The hotels each boast unrivalled locations perched overlooking the sea. Rooms vary in style and standard and all are equipped with private bathrooms and ceiling fans. The waterfront terrace is the perfect place to soak up some sun, and the hotel also offer a range of day trips to keep you fully occupied. So if you go to all the islands or just one I recommend the Red Mangrove hotels in the Galapagos.

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