Come face to face with playful sea lions, dine farm-to-table in a presidential hacienda, and take a spa treatment surrounded by the sounds of the Amazon rainforest on a deeply experiential trip to Ecuador and the Galápagos. Our South America expert, Olivia is just back with this bespoke itinerary.
With the Galápagos Islands, the Amazon rainforest, and the highlands of Quito, this trip encompasses three very different—all very special—destinations. The thing that ties them together is their unfiltered nature. In the Galápagos, giant tortoises roam free, and friendly sea lions swim right up to you as you snorkel. At dusk, the Amazon comes alive with noise and movement as you glide through its waters by canoe. The mountains around Quito are crisscrossed with epic hiking, and the skies are home to graceful condors.
In and among the great outdoors, there are historic haciendas tucked away in the Andes, elegant spas surrounded by rainforests, age-old caves forged by lava flow, and local-led tours of Quito’s colorful streets. This all-encompassing itinerary is designed to show you the best of the Galápagos and Ecuador.
Days One to Three: Quito
It really is worth stopping for a few days in Quito at some point during your trip. Its historic center was one of the first UNESCO Heritage Sites, and you can easily spend an afternoon wandering through its colonial-era streets. Drop your bags at the elegant Casa Gangotena boutique hotel and head out on foot into the city. Climb the towers of San Francisco for panoramic views of Quito, and then make your way to the Casa Agave Experience, a museum-factory-distillery with tours and tastings of miske—an Ecuadorean distilled alcoholic beverage made from the distinctive sweet sap of blue agave plants. If you’ve never tried it, think tequila or mezcal, but the Ecuadorian drink utilizes the nectar from the center of the living plant.
On your second day, sample Ecuador’s famous chocolate with a tasting before a visit to the Middle of the World monument to see the exact point where the equator divides the southern and northern hemispheres for an obligatory photo op. For dinner, reserve a table at Somos, where chef Alejandra Espinoza’s colorful, creative take on Ecuadorian food will have you dreaming of peanut ceviche for months. Before you leave for wilder parts, enjoy a custom cocktail (the Ecuadorian Sour is a personal favorite) with a 360-degree city view at the Hotel Mama Chuchara rooftop bar.
Days Three to Five: Otavalo and the highlands of Quito
Leave the city behind for crisp Andean air and check in at Hacienda Zuleta, a 17th-century farmhouse with links to former Ecuadorian president Galo Plaza Lasso. The hacienda is the heart of the community, with a cheese factory, dairy farm, organic garden, and embroidery workshop, and everything you eat here comes from the farm or the immediate area—so it’s about as authentic of a farm-to-table experience you’re likely to find. When you’re not feasting on the spoils of the land, head out on foot to explore the area’s many hiking trails, such as the Bear Trail and the Karanqui Nan Trail. One afternoon, take a trip to the nearby town of Otavalo. Famed for its colorful, geometric textiles, you’ll find people from the surrounding areas selling their handmade garments and crafts at El Mercado Artesanal.
Days Five to Eight: The Amazon
Head back to Quito, where you’ll transfer by air to Coca, a small city that acts as a gateway to the Amazon rainforest. After a two-hour motorized canoe ride along the river, check in at La Selva, an eco-lodge and wellness retreat on the banks of the river. Before you do anything, treat yourself to a one-of-a-kind wellness experience at La Selva’s spa. Surrounded by the sights and sounds of the rainforest, the spa takes tranquility to a new level—the perfect way to shake off any travel fatigue after your transfer. Spend the rest of your time being led through the wilderness of the forest by an expert naturalist and local guide from a nearby community. Take a rainforest tour at night, when the wildlife is most active, and a cacophony of natural noise fills the canopy; take canoe trips at dusk when the caimans raise their reptilian eyes above water and the jungle birds begin their evening song. With kayaks for private exploration and trials surrounding the lodge, there’s plenty to keep you busy at this immersive forest retreat.
Days Eight to 10: Highlands around Cotopaxi National Park
From dense jungle canopies to snow-covered peaks, transfer to the mighty highlands around Cotopaxi National Park for epic views, spectacular stargazing, and endless hiking trails. Family-owned Chilcabamba Lodge makes the perfect base, with a wood-burning stove in each room and cozy ponchos to keep you warm on a chilly mountain night. This part of Ecuador is all about walking, so pack your hiking boots and spend a day in Cotopaxi National Park, just six kilometers from the lodge, exploring its forests, lakes, and peaks. Mix it up and spend an afternoon horseback riding or mountain biking with a local guide.
Days 10-13: Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos
Fly to Santa Cruz Island and begin your Galápagos adventure, where it’s all about wildlife; one of the best ways to experience this is in the water with a snorkel. On your first day, set sail on a tour out into the deep blue of the Pacific, where sea lions, turtles, and sharks await. The animals here are inquisitive because predators are few and far between—it makes for some very special and very personal wildlife encounters. The same goes on land, where the Galapagos’ iconic giant tortoises roam free. Some of these wise-looking creatures are well over a hundred years old, and you’ll find them slowly ambling pretty much anywhere they please. The best place to see them is the lush highlands at the island’s center. Cloaked in dense Scalesia forest—home to the Darwin’s Flycatcher—this misty expanse of green is the complete opposite of the more arid lowlands, and it’s here you’ll find some of the Galapagos’ largest lava tubes. Head to Bellavista and explore over a kilometer of underground tunnels caused by ancient lava flow.
Days 13-15: Isabela Island, Galápagos
Isabela has a much more bohemian feel than Santa Cruz, with no paved roads and a vibe similar to the Caribbean. The interior of the island has some excellent walking trails, with some of the best found at the Sierra Negra volcano. At almost 3,700 feet high and six miles across, it’s one of the biggest craters in the world and the perfect adventure for keen hikers. After a day of pumping the trails, head to the west coast of the island, where the wildlife is richest. The Cromwell Current is bursting with nutrients and feeds a staggering array of fauna, including the ultra-rare Galápagos penguin, the only kind in the northern hemisphere. We can arrange a boat tour where you’ll see the penguins, marine iguanas, and flightless cormorants, all endemic to the islands. If you didn’t see any wild giant tortoises in Santa Cruz, you can’t miss them at Isabela’s tortoise breeding center, where conservationists work to regenerate the island’s population. An expert guide will walk you through the process, from breeding to the tortoises’ release into the wild.
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