Quito & The Galapagos Islands Trip Report

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Ecuador is all about history, fascinating indigenous cultures, slow winding rivers and lush tropical forests, spectacular snowcapped volcanoes, and some of the most exciting wildlife on earth. In September of 2023, GrassTrack Safaris hosted a 10-day, privately- guided journey where we visited historic Quito and the unique wildlife and surreal landscapes of the Galapagos Islands.

Galapagos is a natural paradise, the site of the largest number of active volcanoes on the planet and the first whale sanctuary in the world. On the archipelago it is possible to see the animals up close, swim with turtles and sea lions or sunbathe with iguanas. The combination of fish, mammals and reptiles makes the Galapagos one of the most unique and fascinating experiences in the world.

Although Galapagos is renowned for its Marine Reserve, the islands offer other options for those who like to walk, enjoy beautiful landscapes and for anyone wanting to get to know and experience island life. One of the great attractions of getting to know the Galapagos by land is becoming involved with the local people, and that money spent there, stays there: a great benefit for the islanders who make their living through tourism. The inhabitants of the islands are the true guardians of Galapagos, helping to promote the responsible tourism that is such a crucial factor in the conservation of the archipelago’s ecosystems.

Read on to learn more about our amazing journey!

 

WE HAVE SPACE ON ANOTHER GALAPAGOS TRIP FROM JUNE 27-JULY 6, 2024

You can see the detailed itinerary here:  Quito & The Galapagos Islands

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Street Art, Quito
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Frigate Bird, Galapagos

Historic Quito

The Ecuadorian capital, Quito, is situated at 9,350 feet above sea level and just south of the equator. Founded in 1534, the city sits in a high Andean valley on the slopes of the active Pichincha Volcano.  The place to start exploring Ecuador is Colonial Quito: a city of narrow cobblestone streets lined with whitewashed walls and, rising above, the steeples and cupolas of the city's many spectacularly decorated historic churches. The city has one of the best-preserved colonial centers in all South America, and its integrity was assured in 1978 when the United Nations declared Quito a World Cultural Heritage site.

Our morning started with a trip up to the Panecillo, the hill that dominates the southern end of the city.  This is the perfect place for sweeping views of the city and surrounding mountains.  We had a clear, sunny day and could see the glacier covered cone of Cotopaxi (over 19,000 ft) to the south and the snowy peak of Cayambe (18,990 ft) to the northeast.  At the top of this hill sits a 635-foot-tall aluminum statue of Our Lady of the Panecillo.  This is a replica of the famous Winged Virgin of Quito, a small wooden sculpture created by Bernardo de Legarda in 1734.  The statue was inaugurated in 1975 and is made of 7400 sheets of aluminum.  After admiring the statue and enjoying the views, we headed down to the historic center of Quito for a walking tour of the streets, museums, and churches.

We walked through the Plaza Grande, a large, bustling space full of people sitting along the many statues under the palm trees and space surrounded by the Government Palace, churches, old colonial buildings.  The Government Palace dates to the 1740’s and is the seat of the government and official residence of the President of Ecuador.  We wandered in a few of the old buildings that were homes to wealthy citizens in colonial times but now converted to shops and restaurants.

Quito has many churches but perhaps none as ornate and impressive as the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús.  Though construction began in 1605 the church wasn’t finished until 1765, it’s considered one of the finest examples of Spanish Baroque architecture.  Almost every surface is covered in gold leaf, wooden sculptures, and paintings and the domed ceiling rised over 90 feet above it all.  We also visited the San Francisco Church and Convent, the oldest in Ecuador, with construction beginning in 1534.  This churches also houses the original wooden statue of the Winged Virgin. Our guide took us through the ornate church, the convent areas, to the top of the domes for great views of old Quito.

We stayed at the Casona de la Ronda, a boutique hotel, in one of the oldest houses in Quito, built in 1738.  It’s a quick walk to the historic center and also located on La Ronda street, a colorful colonial street with great restaurants and shops.  The hotel also had a free chocolate demonstration where we learned all about the process of making Ecuadorian chocolate.

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Our Lady of the Panecillo
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Quito from San Francisco Church
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Plaza Grande, Quito
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Church Interior
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San Francisco Church, Quito

Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

Our first stop in the Galapagos was Santa Cruz Island.  This is the most populous of all the islands with farms and ranches scattered across the southern slopes of the island.  Puerto Ayoroa is a large town with many shops, restaurants, hotels and is home to the Charles Darwin Research Center.  We flew from Quito (with a quick stop in Guayaquil) and landed at the airport located just north of Santa Cruz on the island of Baltra.

We spent two nights at the Galapagos Magic Tented Camp located in the highlands of Santa Cruz and far from the hustle and noise of Puerto Ayora.  As you move higher up the slopes of the island, the weather becomes cooler and wetter.  This is perfect habitat for tortoises.  In fact, Galapagos Magic is also a giant tortoise reserve.  We saw many of these giants slowly wandering the property as they fed on the abundant grass.  Galapagos Magic has always been on the forefront of the effort to protect this unique and endemic species. For over a decade the camp has removed invasive plants and has planted native trees to create a reserve for the giant tortoises.

The next day we explored some of the smaller islands around Santa Cruz aboard the beautiful Windrose yacht.  We hiked and snorkeled while enjoying the great food and hospitality of the Windrose crew members.  On our first excursion we hiked the rocky paths and sandy beaches around North Seymour Island.  This island has breeding colonies of blue-footed boobies and frigatebird birds, and it was amazing how close you’d get to the adults and chicks.  We also saw many land iguanas, finches, and a few sea lions in the surf.  It was a warm, clear day and we could see the neighboring islands of Daphne Major, Isabela (way off on the horizon), and top of Santa Cruz covered in clouds. 

Following the hike, we snorkeled along the shoreline of the island.  The crew took us in motorized dinghies from the yacht to the snorkeling site and we jumped in the warm water with our guide.  The water was fantastic, full of tropical fish, turtles, and rays.   We then motored down the east side of Santa Cruz for hike on South Plazas Island.  This was my favorite hike.  After stepping over the sea lions lounging on the boat dock, we walked through tall stands of cactus to reach the summit of the island.  At the top, a steep cliff plunged to the ocean below and we could see a huge school of large fish feeding on the surface.  Our guide spotted an enormous ray slowly gliding below the schooling fish.

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The Windrose Yacht
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South Plazas Island

The next day, our last on Santa Cruz, we headed back to the north end of the island for a little hiking and to explore its spectacular turquoise waters of the Itabaca Channel.  We first stopped at the crest of the misty highlands for an easy walk through the native forests to see “Los Gemelos”, two large craters that were once underground magma chambers.  Along the way we learned about the native and invasive plants and had a few glimpses of two species of Darwin’s Finches that live in these wet forests.  From the highlands it was a quick drive to the arid, hot coast along the Itabaca Channel.

Once at the water, we hopped in our ocean kayaks hoping to find some of the famous Galapagos wildlife such as blue-footed boobies, sea lions, brown pelicans, a variety of herons, and white-tipped reef sharks.  A support boat escorted us as we kayaked to ensure safety and also provided water, snacks, and towels between activities.  As we glided through the beautiful red mangrove forests and along the lava rock cliffs, the water was so clear we could see turtles, sharks, and fish swimming below our kayak.  At one point we found ourselves in the middle of a pelican feeding frenzy.  The huge birds would dive from a great height, plunge into the water, and emerge with their enormous bills full of water and fish.  Smaller terns would gather to collect any small fish that the pelicans missed.  After a quick lunch, we said our goodbyes to the crew and boarded our private speed boat to Floreana Island.

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Kayaking the Itabaca Channel
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Giant Tortoise, Galapagos Magic Camp
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North Seymour Island
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Blue-Footed Booby
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Native Forest of Santa Cruz

Floreana Island

Floreana Island is surrounded by mystery and enchantment and one of only four inhabited islands in the Galapagos.  While the old Galapagos way of life has been slowly disappearing, Floreana’s small population of fewer than 150 people has fought to keep the special character of their island intact. This is the least developed and most natural of the four inhabited islands. It was the first inhabited island in the Galapagos, and descendants of the original population still live here. Once a pirates’ lair, the island’s history is full of mystery and legends about its first inhabitants. Floreana is a place from another age – quiet, undisturbed, undeveloped, and utterly peaceful. There’s no other place like it in the Galapagos.

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Floreana Island
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View from the Lava Lodge
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Floreana Giant Tortoise
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Claudio Cruz
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Floreana Island with the Lava Lodge on the Beach

The speed boat ride took about 2.5 hours and was a little rough at the beginning.  But we finally arrived and checked into the Lava Lodge, a series of small, wooden cabins overlooking the ocean.  The lodge is operated by Claudio Cruz, a descendant of one of the Island’s original inhabitants.  We are lucky to be hosted by Claudio and he shared his deep knowledge of the Island and its history with us as he showed us around the island.  During dinner our guide told us all about the strange history of Floreana and the disappearance of 3 locals back in the 1930’s (watch the movie “The Galapagos Affair” for all the details).

The morning we walked down the beach over the lava rocks for a few hours of snorkeling in a nearby bay then hopped in the chiva bus for a drive up into the highlands.  We explored the caves that were used by the first settlers, and you could still see the rough shelves they carved in the lava to use as beds.  The caves also had great views out to the ocean and it’s here the settlers would watch for boats arriving at the famous Post Office Bay.  We also visited a tortoise breeding center which is trying to re-establish populations of Floreana’s species of giant tortoise.  Perhaps the highlight of our day was spending time at Claudio’s farm, La Primavera.  They grow almost all their food and the lunch we enjoyed was very special - made entirely from their local produce.

Unfortunately, our time on this quiet island passed too quickly and we were soon off to our final stop on Isabela Island.

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On the Speed Boat to Floreana
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Floreana Caves

Isabela Island

The speed boat trip from Floreana took about 2 hours but along the way a huge pod of dolphins joined us and swan in front of the bow.  Since we had a private boat, the captain stopped so we could all enjoy this unique experience.

Isabela is the largest and most volcanically active island in the Galapagos archipelago. Here, you can observe the source of the Islands’ spectacular genesis - five active volcanoes and the second largest volcanic crater in the world, Sierra Negra.  Puerto Villamil is the main settlement on the island and small enough to wander the dirt streets and enjoy the local shops and restaurants.  We stayed at the Isamar Hotel in town which was located right on a sandy beach that that stretched for miles.  

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Make Way for Sea Lions!
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Sierra Negra Caldera
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Galapagos Penguins
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One of Darwin's Finches
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Marine Iguanas on the Lava

There is lots to do and see on Isabela and we started out with kayaking around the bay.  During our paddle we encountered sea lions, pelicans, frigate birds and one of the most famous birds here-the Galapagos penguin.  It’s almost surreal to be sitting at the equator with little penguins swimming around you kayak.  On one of our snorkeling excursions, we actually had a penguin swim with us for a few minutes, only about 10 feet from our faces!

We also spent some time snorkeling and walking around the site called Las Tintoreras.  This is a series of small islands close to shore made entirely of lava.  In fact, the lava flows haven’t been colonized by plants due to the proximity to salt water, so the landscape is like walking on the moon. However, part of Las Tintoreras is a breeding ground for marine iguanas.  These are the only ocean dwelling iguanas in the world, and they swim out to sea to feed on algae growing on rocks up to 30 feet below the surface.  They are cold blooded reptiles, so they bask on the black lava to absorb heat from the sun.  During our walk we probably saw a hundred or so iguanas, mostly small, young ones.  As is typical of the Galapagos we often had to step over them as they sat in the trail.  There are also very narrow channels between the lava and white tipped reef sharks would rest here in the calm water.  We could stand on the ledges above and did see several sharks resting. 

Besides water sports, we also did a little biking and hiking.  Our hike took us up to the edge of the Sierra Negra caldera, the second largest in the world (after Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater) with a width of about 5 miles x 4 miles and an elevation of 3,600 feet. As is common in the Galapagos, as you move higher in elevation the wetter it becomes.  As we drove from the coast to the trailhead, the clouds lowered, and a little rain stared.  We began the hike in drizzle and not very hopeful we see the caldera.  However, the hike up was interesting.  The trail followed an old road at a very mild incline, so the walking was easy.  Along the way our guide identified some of Darwin’s Finches and we had a great view of a Vermillion Flycatcher.  Once we reached the rim of the crater the wind picked up, the rain stopped, and the clouds lifted just enough to give us a partial view.  We could probably only see about half the caldera, but the scale was impressive.  The clouds quickly dropped once again and totally obscured the view, so headed back the car.

We only scratched the surface of what the Galapagos Islands have to offer but in our short time here we encountered most of its iconic wildlife, learned and experience the culture of the islands, and saw first-hand all the important conservation work being done to preserve these fascinating islands for future generations.

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Kayaking around Isabela Island
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Juan Carlos, our guide, explaining Galapagos geology
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Isamar Hotel

You can see our detailed itinerary here: 

Quito & The Galapagos Islands

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