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  • Dave Philbrick

Ecuador & Galapagos

Tocan sitting on a tree branch

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Truly a spectacular vacation destination with world-class special places to stay; unique Galapagos animals that have no fear of people, allowing you to get very close; four dramatically different climates (tropical islands, high Andes, cloud rainforest, Amazon basin); Equator line; unique experiences.

Hot Tips

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March and the rainy season is the best time to go to Galapagos and Ecuador. You get calmer seas (Galapagos can have very rough seas), warm water, green and lush foliage, mating season for frigate birds and sea turtles, baby season for sea lions and iguanas, and despite its ‘rainy’ moniker it is actually the sunniest time of the year.


The closer to the Equator, the more hummingbird diversity. Ecuador has the greatest population of beautiful hummingbirds that will drink nectar sitting on your hand!


If you’re interested in an authentic ‘Panama’ hat (actually from Ecuador – Panama doesn’t even grow the traditional toquilla straw material), the Homero Ortega store sells beautiful handmade toquilla straw hats in its upscale store for men and women in many different styles including the classic fedora style. They are much less expensive than the famous brand Montecristi hats, which can cost thousands!


Rodrigo Morejon is an absolute rock star, the guide you want in Ecuador in a country where your guide makes all the difference. His personal connections get you in museums that are closed but open only for him, in-demand dinner reservations when they’re not available even for their hotel guests, special guarded convenient parking lots, the best insider stops – and advice on how to pose in them! We’re convinced he brought the rare good weather that allowed us to see Cotopaxi’s peak because we wouldn’t put any travel miracle past him! His warm personality and humor will also be a treasured memory of your trip.


If you visit the market in Otavalo, Saturday is the best day, and avoid Mondays as on that day there are no indigenous crafts for sale.


The Endemic luxury yacht is the newest and best cruise experience in the Galapagos and is well worth the splurge. Not only do you get a wall of pure window in your spacious stateroom, hotel-sized shower, a pretty balcony where you will want to sit and dry your bathing suit, cold towels after hikes and hot towels after snorkeling, importantly wetsuits, and exquisite food – on every excursion the outstanding naturalist Morris will deliver the best land and sea animals. The crew were always smiling, laughing, and joking around with each other and us – you’ve never seen people happier with their job! We can’t recommend it highly enough.


Use a travel agent that has local experts. As very experienced travel do-it-yourselfers, it is very rare that we need the help of a travel agent. However, for this trip to Ecuador & Galapagos we used Travel Sommelier who did an outstanding job lining up the best itinerary, tour guide, driver, hotels, and ideal cruise ship, and not only handled all logistics for the entire trip from start to finish but also while we were on the trip were an ongoing resource and monitored us which is helpful as we were not in a tour group.

Your Itinerary


Spectacular rose bouquets
Spectacular rose bouquets are a common sight in Ecuador.

Arrive in Quito, the world’s 2nd highest capital city at over 9,000 feet, and meet your driver at the airport who will take about 1 hour to bring you to your Quito hotel. We recommend the Casa Gangotena Hotel on the Plaza de San Francisco in the heart of the old town, which has more than 120 old buildings. Enjoy the stunning hotel with oversized rose bouquets in every public room, an atmospheric rooftop bar, a wood-paneled bar near the dining room, cathedral ceilings, and exquisite period detail in your plaza view rooms and settle in for the night.


After a great breakfast, admire San Francisco Plaza and Our Lady of Panecillo that overlooks the cobblestoned city from behind the hotel. To take advantage of mornings that have clearer skies, take a car service to the Teleferico Quito cable car. At the top of the gondola (walking slowly and taking breaks!) head up the Pichincha Volcano slopes to the double swings at the top. Enjoy swinging out over the city more than 1,000 feet below! It’s easy to take cute pictures here, throwing your head back on the upswing, looking at the camera over your shoulder, or kissing your partner You could continue to more hiking trails, but as you will still be acclimating to the altitude which has 30% less oxygen, you probably won’t have much ability to do it yet. Back in the city, be prepared to be awestruck by the Basilica and Convent of San Francisco and its beautiful courtyard. The best view is perhaps from its choir loft. Be warned that that stunning church is only the appetizer!

Inside St. Francis Basilica, Quito
Quito churches are among the most magnificent in the world (St. Francis Basilica)

The “Disneyland of churches,” the Fundacion Iglesia da la Compania, is overwhelming and magnificent. You will need time to absorb all that you are seeing, with its artistic influences from Islam as well as Christian imagery. The Basilica del Voto Nacional, by contrast, has a much plainer interior and is more famous for its exterior and bell tower that can be climbed for great views of the city. If you have time (our guide got us in after hours), the Alabado Museum’s presentation of pre-Columbian artifacts is excellent. If you have time and it’s open that day, the Casa Maria Augusta Urrutia is also excellent. We highly recommend lunch inside the Hotel Plaza Grande Quito at Café Plaza Grande (and its special smoking dessert served by a waiter in a purple monk’s shroud!), and dinner at La Gloria, in the new part of Quito, which serves traditional Ecuadorian food including guinea pig and poached veal brains!


After the fabulous free hotel breakfast, take your car service to the airport to fly to Baltra Island, Galapagos via Guayaquil Airport (all planes must refuel there as the Islands have no plane fuel). Bring a book to read in line, as there is often a long wait to get through the Baltra customs and passport entry, though the good news is that they have bathrooms available for people in the queue – which also have long lines. After finally exiting the airport, you will be met by a representative of your cruise ship who will then shuttle you in a bus to a pier to board your ship. Don’t be surprised if upon finally getting on board you immediately go on a hiking or snorkeling excursion! If on the Endemic, your first stop will be Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island to walk over the liquid-looking lava that flowed only 100 years ago, and to spot lava cactus and Sally Lightfoot crabs. The snorkeling expedition trip to follow will be off Bartolome’s Pinnacle Rock where you have a good chance to swim with lots of penguins!

Rope-style lava
Hiking the dramatic rope-style lava at Sullivan Bay


The ship will next stop in Isabela, where you can see lots of sea lions comically hanging out on park benches and beaches with fishermen and other people. Marine iguanas will also be sunning themselves next to busy sidewalks and swimming next to the active boat pier. The land expedition that day will be a hike to the crater of the Sierra Negra which is the second largest caldera in the world and last erupted in 2018. On this island look for cotton nesting material hung in trees, which is a clever solution to kill the nest parasites that were threatening the rare Darwin finch: the cotton is infused with poison to the parasites. You will see many blue-footed boobies on rocks on your way back to the boat. Back on Isabela for the afternoon, you will visit the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center where tortoises are grouped by age from the newly hatched to hundreds of years old. Galapagos Giant Tortoises can be 175 years old and weigh more than 900 pounds! You are likely to even see (and hear!) them breeding. At the Center you will learn about Diego who saved his species and fathered more than 900 offspring! Your second stop will be to see the flamingos at the Laguna Salinas, though when we were there we could hear (and smell!) them but they were too far away to see. You’ll be taken to the lovely beach of Playa Puerto Villamil, with big waves and iguana tracks, where you can swim and hang out at the quintessential beach bar – the Bar de Beto.


This morning you will explore a mangrove cove in Isabela’s Elizabeth Bay from the pangeas, or zodiacs. There are many spotted eagle rays and golden rays here, and other birds and animals such as pelicans and sea lions. The zodiacs will then head out to rocky islands in the sea called the Marielas islets to spot more sea birds such as blue-footed boobies, nocturnal seagulls, flightless cormorants, herons, and penguins. At one rock here a sea lion playfully swam around our boats! In the afternoon you will pull up to Urbina Bay where you can walk among large yellow land iguanas, roaming Galapagos tortoises, and large (4”) hermit crabs. While usually when people walked by the tortoises would retreat into their shell, there was a giant tortoise that was determined to keep walking and 16 of us stood unmoving while it walked by us with only inches to spare! A true hold-your-breath and only-in-Galapagos moment!


Piles of iguanas at Espinosa Point
Piles of iguanas everywhere at Espinosa Point

In the morning you will visit Isabela’s Tagus Cove and do a steep hike to view Darwin Lake, where he visited in 1835. Going further past the lake you will reach the highest point where you can get an amazing vista over the other side of the island. Try to spot vermilion flycatchers on the hike down – they are like small cardinals. It’s worth spending some time topside of the Endemic, as not only are the views the best and you can sometimes spot whales or dolphins, but frigate birds will draft near the boat – especially if there is food! Our favorite stop is where you will be going this afternoon - Espinoza Point on Fernandina Island. It has the largest marine iguana colony with piles of iguanas everywhere – you have to try not to step on them! They have a large nesting nearby that is fenced off, and sea lions and their pups often visit the several small sandy coves there. We saw 3 pups playing with a bull, a mom nursing her pup, and an oystercatcher with its dramatic coloring of black body and bright orange eye and beak just lay an egg! You will snorkel here among many marine iguanas, sea lions, and sea turtles. The rule is to stay 6 feet away, but they didn’t get the memo and will be inches from you!


Sea lions resting on Rabida's red sand beach
Sea Lions on Rabida's red sand beach

Today you will visit Santiago Island’s Buccaneer Cove (which really was a frequent stop for 18th century pirates) and Espumilla Beach to snorkel in crystal clear water, including swimming and boating in a sea cave. There are lots of boobies, sea lions, fur seals, 4-foot sharks(!), and colorful fish especially blue tangs here. In the afternoon you will go to Rabid, an Island which is famous for its red sand beach, many sea lions, and flamingos in a salty lagoon flanked by green hills. An absolutely idyllic spot. Then you will snorkel off Mosquera Island in the hopes of seeing sea lions that often come to play there. There is also a chance to see orcas – which feed on the sea lions!


The last, sadly, activity is in the early morning and well worth getting up for. In the pangas you will be taken to Norte Seymour Island to view the unique mating rituals of a large frigatebird colony. The male frigatebirds blow up a large red pouch on their throat to attract the females, and to see them flying back and forth with a scarlet pouch almost bigger than they are is both bizarre and magnificent! The pangas will then take you back to the pier and Baltra Airport, where you will fly back to Quito. Take private transfer the 2.5 hours to Hacienda Zuleta in time for a wonderful homecooked meal in their dining room in front of the fire.


This morning wake to the Spanish/South American ranch of your dreams! Except it is authentic and historic, from the 17th century, and encompassing 4,000 acres of gorgeous green hill country. The Plaza family that owns it warmly greets their guests, creating the feeling that you are there as a personal friend. There is so much to do in their peaceful world, and it all starts with a delicious breakfast served in their dining room with the best yogurt and cream you’ve ever had. For your daily 2-hour horseback ride that is included in your stay, ride out to their Condor Rescue and Breeding Center. You will pass many Pre-Inca pyramids made by the Caranqui along the way – there are 130 on the ranch grounds! We saw rare wild condors in flight, as they are attracted by the ones in the Center. These magnificent birds have an 11-foot wingspan and can live to be 50-60 years old! Be sure to tour their beautiful gardens, including the “secret” organic garden which has a charming duck-your-head entrance through a flowering hedge. We also highly recommend visiting the spa and relaxing in the heated pool under skylights to restore your horse-riding muscles. Before dinner there will be wine and the hacienda’s cheese along with some appetizers laid out for you in front of a roaring fire in the library. It is extremely cozy and pleasant to sit and recount the adventures of the day, and if you’re lucky Margarita, who grew up at the hacienda, will join you to share stories and lively conversation. She is absolutely delightful! After dinner, you will return to your room that has a bubble bath drawn for you with floating rose petals and a fire in your woodstove to lull you to sleep. And hot water bottles in your bed! Truly the hacienda of dreams!


View of Hacienda Zuleta landscape on horseback.
The best way to view the gorgeous Hacienda Zuleta landscape is between the ears of a horse.

It’s worth getting up by 7:00 am to watch for the cows that walk by every morning on their way to the fields and to watch the active hummingbirds on your patio or in the gardens. After breakfast visit the hacienda dairy that produces the cheese you have been enjoying. You will have noticed stunning large rose bouquets at the hacienda and in your hotel in Quito. Ecuador is one of the top rose producers in the world, and you will enjoy visiting one of their many rose producers and learning about the growing process. Famosa is a large rose grower that is a short but scenic drive from the ranch and produces 3,000 roses a week. In Ecuador, they sell for only 40 to 60 cents each! If traveling on or near the Equinox (around March 21st), and since you are very close to the Equator, have fun with a noon-day trick of taking a photo of yourself casting no shadow! In the afternoon use your daily 2-hour ride to a waterfall looking for spectacle bears in their hills as you go. Near the end of the ride you will get off and walk through an adventurous-looking foliage tunnel, having to duck your heads occasionally, to get to the powerful waterfall which is well worth the muddy trail! If you have the energy (Zuleta is at 9,600 feet!) you could also choose to go on one of their many hikes.


On your last day you will want to roam the beautiful property one last time, admiring the family’s extensive art collection throughout the hacienda, walking the largest plaza courtyard of a private hacienda in Ecuador, and taking note of the exposed beams in the ceilings that were made in the local tradition with ties rather than nails. Be sure to stop at the hacienda gift shop which has an excellent curated collection of locally crafted goods. The hacienda will provide a boxed lunch for the 4-hour drive to Mashpi Lodge. On the way you will pass by the dramatic Volcano Cayambe, which is the only permanently snow-clad mountain on the Equator.

Group posing by Cayambe volcano
Glorious Cayambe volcano scenery!

You will also pass by a canyon with a river running through it and overlooking the canyon is the snowy peak of Cotopaxi, the 2nd highest peak in Ecuador. Look for the parking lot next to the large Mirador Elpisque letters. You will be passing many towns that have their name in large colorful letters that make for a cute photo by posing inside the letters!

Group of people posing at the Equator line at Mitad del Mundo
Having a bit of fun with the Equator line at Mitad del Mundo

A must-stop on the way is the ‘middle of the earth’ or Ciudad Mitad del Mundo where there is a large Equator monument. It is also a pretty and festive park with nice shops and restaurants and a colorful shuttle “train”. Have fun posing on the Equator line and watching others do the same! Next door is the Intinan Museum, which has Equator-related interactive exhibits such as balancing an egg on a nail, Cariolis force effects, how the Incasdetermined the middle of the earth, and buildings from different points of Ecuador. Also en route is Sendero Ventanillas, one of only 13 communities in the world that live in an active caldera. It’s only 1 mile down and back to get to the village, but due to its steep staircase it takes 90 minutes! Next door to its rim is an artist’s studio that is in a reproduction of an Incan temple which is interesting to observe. This will be a full day, because upon arriving at Mashpi Lodge they will give you an introductory speech – and will immediately send you out on a hike! You are in for a treat for dinner, because despite its remote destination the food here is exquisite and the service is excellent. Due to its location in the middle of the rainforest employees spend 20 days working and then 10 days at home!


Woman resting at Magnolia Falls (Mashpi Lodge)
Elaine taking a hiking break at Magnolia Falls (Mashpi Lodge).

Mashpi Lodge is one of the special places in the world. They make the cloud rainforest accessible and fun. Our favorite hikes were to waterfalls, since surprisingly you aren’t likely to see any birds or animals on your 2-3 hour hikes as the dense foliage hides them so well. We enjoyed the hike to Magnolia Falls which includes a ride on the Dragonfly gondola ride that is high over the canopy.

Another highlight was the afternoon activity of going to the Life Center which attracts lots of toucans, hummingbirds, cute tayras (jungle weasel), adorable agoutis (jungle capybara), howler monkeys, and a butterfly house with lots of blue morphos. The Lodge helpfully provides rain ponchos, walking sticks, and wellies which are all necessary for the hikes. They also provide free clothes drying as well as walk-in doctor services along with the meds he prescribes!

Green toucan sitting on a branch at Mashpi Lodge's Life Center
Stunning green toucan at Mashpi Lodge's Life Center


Since we turned down the 6-hour hike that started at 3:00 am(!), we instead chose what without question will be one of the highlights of your stay: the dramatic SkyBike. Race your friend suspended over the canopy, but choose the black bike which is much easier to pedal than the silver bike! Next to the SkyBike is an 85-foot observation tower that allows you to see the Pacific Ocean and fully appreciate how much Mashpi Lodge is in the middle of the rainforest wilderness! After that excitement, we recommend a short and easy waterfall hike that is charmingly through a shallow stream to Mashpi Torrenteer Lagoon and its ‘cascada’.

Hummingbirds at birdfeeder (Mashpi Lodge Hummingbird Center)
So. Many. Hummingbirds!!! (Mashpi Lodge Hummingbird Center)

If it’s raining as it often does in the afternoon, a great activity is the drive to the Hummingbird Garden Center. Even in the rain, the number and variety of hummingbirds is impressive. They will come to you and sit right on your hand, even without a feeder! They pass out single feeders and feeders with multiple drinking ports for guests to hold. At one point Dave had 7 hummingbirds on the feeder in his hand! A much appreciated amenity is Mashpi’s hot tub which you can reserve in a private contemporary luxury building, as well as massages at their spa. By the way, we heard about some of the celebrity A-listers who have stayed here, and were assured that they had to make the long bumpy drive here too!


On your private transfer back to Quito which takes about 5.5 hours, a great stop for nice bathrooms, organic coffee, to eat the lunch that Mashpi Lodge packed for you at picnic tables, and to see even many more hummingbirds, is the Alambi Reserve Center. You can’t believe that anything could top the hummingbird experience at Mashpi, but this place does. It’s nonstop action of several dozen at a time and even more kinds of hummingbirds – 30 different species and we think we saw them all! – and with fewer people. The day we went we had the place to all to ourselves. Upon arriving in Quito, a great and also convenient stop in San Francisco Plaza is at the beautiful offices of Yumbos for their chocolate tasting and presentation in one of their several chocolate tasting rooms. You will want to load up on their artisanal chocolate bars made from the world’s best cacao – Ecuador’s Arriba Nacional beans.


Arrange for private transport to the airport and catch your flight home.

Please note that if you have more time than 2 weeks off work, you may want to consider an extra day in Quito to acclimate, 1-2 more days at the hacienda to do more of their special activities including cooking or embroidering classes, and 1-2 more days at Mashpi to relax or do the more ambitious hikes.

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