Make the volcanic island of Santa Cruz your base for up-close encounters with sea lions, land iguanas, giant tortoises and many more charismatic creatures
Beneath the rich glow of a tropical sunset, a group of taxi drivers face off in a game of volleyball. Little kids shriek with excitement and popcorn is eaten in immense quantities, as some unusual visitors join the cheering crowd. A Galápagos sea lion nudges its way onto a bench by the harbourside of Puerto Ayora, draping its flippers over the edge and pretending to sleep – one eye open in search of a snack. From a fast-rising tide pours a horde of Sally Lightfoot crabs, their scarlet claws probing the rocks for food. They are joined by marine iguanas, with snouts wrinkling as they sneeze out the salt absorbed during dives for seaweed.
The Galápagos were known as Las Islas Encantadas – The Enchanted Islands – by the first explorers to come here in the 16th century, and certain myths about them endure. Not everyone realises that this archipelago of 19 islands is part of Ecuador, the country’s mainland lying 600 miles across the Pacific. And although the often unique and strangely bold wildlife captures all attention, a human population of 30,000 lives alongside – half in the town of Puerto Ayora, on the central island of Santa Cruz.
Many of the Galápagos’s classic wildlife encounters can be had on Santa Cruz rather than by swiftly embarking on a cruise, as most visitors do. ‘Everybody is happy now, there is so much food’, says Ramiro Jácome Baño, a naturalist guide officially sanctioned by the Galápagos National Park – this is the hot and wet season, a time of plenty. He points to the thickets of herbs that have sprouted around Cerro Dragón, a fang-like volcanic peak that rises from ancient lava flows on the northwestern tip of Santa Cruz. ‘Stop! ’ Ramiro warns dramatically as a male land iguana swaggers on to the path ahead, with skin a resplendent yellow. The endemic land iguanas and marine iguanas of the Galápagos are believed to have shared ancestors that came here on a great sea journey. They have evolved from the green iguanas you will find on the Ecuadorian mainland,’ says Ramiro. ‘These will either have swum all the way across, or more likely drifted over on vegetation.’
At the Charles Darwin Research Station, a conservation success story is playing out. Over 3,000 giant tortoises have been raised from hatchlings to a size where they can resist attack from invasive species like cats, pigs or dogs introduced by passing mariners. The adolescent tortoises are released into the wild, and can live to an age of 200. Today, in the noon heat, they lounge like majestic boulders in the El Chato Tortoise Reserve’s mud pools. Creatures with faster-paced lives bustle about them: Darwin’s finches, displaying to one another, as short-eared owls keep watch from above.
The diverse birdlife of Santa Cruz can also be observed at the Finch Bay Eco Hotel, a brief taxi boat ride from Puerto Ayora. Guests share the open-air bar with Galápagos mockingbirds hunting tiny geckos, and the pool with a family of white-cheeked pintail ducks. Puerto Ayora’s beach lies just beyond, where locals cool down by splashing on lilos, or attach snorkels to search for creatures every bit as remarkable as the land-based wildlife. Within a short paddle, a Pacific green sea turtle can be seen grazing on algae, a trio of eagle rays glide in perfect formation, and bullseye puffer fish nibble at the toes of anyone stood still long enough to let them.
The sealife of the Galápagos still surprises Ramiro Jácome Baño, 20 years into his time as a guide here. ‘Recently I was approached by a manta ray,’ he says. ‘She had some fishing net caught around her horns. She allowed me to lift it off, before disappearing into the deep.’
Finch Bay Eco Hotel has views across Puerto Ayora’s beach and an excellent restaurant serving Ecuadorian dishes. Staff can arrange guided excursions on Santa Cruz, scuba diving and cruises to the surrounding islands (from US$454).
The Charles Darwin Research Station is near Puerto Ayora. Take a taxi to El Chato Tortoise Reserve in the highlands (entrance US$3).
The Tren de la Libertad is in no hurry to leave. A team of brakemen uniformed in double denim check the train’s two jolly red carriages, preparing for a sharp descent through the Andes. The morning rush hour has never quite arrived in Ibarra, the largest city north of Quito. Wooden stools are set at the edge of the rails, coffees are shared, and papayas, newspapers and boiled sweets are hawked to the passengers who mill about nearby.
This former colonial mountain outpost has a troubled history. Imbabura volcano is said to be the sacred protector of the region, but an earthquake in 1868 devastated Ibarra. At the base of the volcano is Yahuarcocha lake – its name means ‘Lake of Blood’, in memory of 30,000 indigenous Caranqui warriors killed here in the 15th century by forces of Incan emperor Huayna Capac.
Bells clonk and horns blare as a squall of activity erupts. Children are pulled from staring into the driver’s cabin, and bags are loaded. The ceremony of departure gains drama with the arrival of two motorbike outriders, dressed like superheroes in boiler suits and body armour.
They ride ahead of the train for the first half of its route, grandly shooing livestock off the tracks and forcing trucks laden with sugarcane to halt at level crossings. The train slowly clanks through the suburbs, palms swaying overhead. Its journey is to be brief but scenic. Over the couple of hours taken to cover 20 or so miles, the train enters five tunnels cut by hand in the early 20th century, and crosses two bridges spanning deep canyons.
As the altitude drops from 2,200m to 1,600m, the route passes swamps, arid plains, forests of cacti and lonesome giant bromeliads, with the temperature rising from 15°C to 30°C.
The occupants of the train roughly reflect Ecuador’s population: 3% Afro-Ecuadorian, 25% indigenous and the majority, known as mestizos, with a mix of Spanish and indigenous ancestry.The route levels out and the train passes through horizon-to- horizon fields of sugarcane, here since Jesuit priests first established sprawling haciendas in the 16th century, not long after the arrival of the conquistadors. The Jesuits soon realised that slaves from Africa could be forced to gather the cane more efficiently than the often smaller indigenous workers. The name of today’s train service recognises the liberty finally given to those slaves in the mid-19th century.
Milena Espinoza is a descendant of the slaves who chose to remain in the quiet town of Salinas, the furthest point on the train’s route. Milena and her friends perform a bomba dance for the disembarking passengers, one traditional to Afro-Ecuadorians – its party music suited to a scorching day, with an easy rhythm like the shimmering of a mirage. ‘I would dance bomba all the time if I could,’ she says. ‘We are glad to rescue the old traditions. These cotton petticoats are like what maids once would have worn, and we dance with bottles on our heads as our ancestors would have – they kept them there to prevent the slave owners from taking their alcohol.’
When asked what the lyrics to the songs mean, Milena says: They are always the same. They say this woman is black and happy. She makes these movements, then gives a kiss to her friends.’
An easy 3-hour, 70-mile drive (partly via the Pan-American Highway) takes you back to Quito. From there, jump on a 3.5-hour flight bound for the Galapagos Islands.
Festooned with bougainvillea and pelargoniums, Hacienda Piman is a former sugarcane plantation and donkey farm with origins dating to 1680; its ornate entrance archway was one of few structures to survive the earthquake of 1868. Most rooms have antique beds, monsoon showers, and a terrace overlooking the garden (from US$264).
Allow six hours for the full Ibarra-Salinas- Ibarra round trip on the Tren de la Libertad, including a bomba performance and guided walk in Salinas (US$27).
The road towards Otavalo bounces up into the Andes, past black pigs lolling in the dust and squat cows grazing on knee-deep grass. Fields of broad beans, lupins and corn are close to harvest, bordered by fiercely-spiked agave plants with their alien blooms sprouting skywards. Where the terrain becomes too steep for agriculture, pumas, spectacled bears and condors still live.
As in Quito, the markets of Otavalo are a gathering point for inhabitants of the surrounding countryside. Mass today in the main church is being said in Kichwa, the indigenous language evolved from that spoken by Incas from Peru – invaders who then succumbed to the conquistadors. Outside, local Imbaya people are quietly searching for custom, the men mostly wearing tautly sculpted felt trilbies over a single long, plaited ponytail; the women with necklaces of glass beads wrapped in gold leaf, navy blue ponchos and white blouses exquisitely hand-embroidered with flowers.
The daily food market is filled with produce carted down from the fertile volcanic soils of the Andes – blackberries and tree tomatoes; plantains and alfalfa; all manner of corn and beans. In the market’s central corridor, lunch is beginning to be served.
Locals tuck into steaming bowls of clams, chicken soup, black pudding mixed with popcorn, and hornado – whole roasted pig. Rosario Tabango proudly displays the certificate that declares her hornado the best in all Ecuador, presented by the country’s president. It is at turns crisp and chewy, and intense with salt, garlic and smoke from the wood it has been roasted over – gathered by Rosario on trips into the mountains.
Although Imbaya dress is mostly worn by the stallholders in Otavalo’s handicrafts market next door, it is hard to find for sale here. Since pre-Columbian times their forebears will have precisely fed the demands of their consumers, and right now that means offering neon polyester ponchos, Che Guevara T-shirts and Bob Marley bobble hats to tourists who are briefly passing through.
Traditional crafts are far better preserved in villages northeast of Otavalo. In Agato is a low stone workshop crammed with simple looms, baskets of alpaca wool and a hutch of squeaking guinea pigs. Here, Luz Maria Andrango is weaving a guagua chumbi – a ‘baby belt’ used to tighten an Imbaya woman’s blouse. It is coloured with natural dyes made from yellow lichen, red cochineal beetles, indigo and rich brown walnuts, and will take her 10 days to finish.
In nearby Peguche is the flute workshop of José Luis Fichamba, established for 46 years. ‘I made my first pipes at the age of 10, and soon gave them to my friends so we could form a band,’ he says. The son of a weaver and grandson of a musician, José Luis still makes the paya (small panpipes), the rondador (larger panpipes that play two notes at once), and the gaita (a long wooden flute typical of Otavalo, most frequently played at the Inti Raymi festival).
As he offers a tune on a rondador, he says, ‘When I play these, I feel like a very special man – there are not too many people who play the rondador in Ecuador now. Once they were heard all over the Andes.’ José Luis’s music is exceptionally heart-felt, all the more softly beautiful for its village setting with snow-capped volcanoes beyond – and far removed from the tune most commonly played on panpipes in bars back in Quito, Abba’s Dancing Queen.
The drive is short but jarring between Otavalo and Hacienda Piman, in high country northeast of Ibarra – much of the 1.5 hours and 22 miles is over ancient cobbled roads.
Log fires crackle away alongside rustic antiques and family portraits in Hacienda Zuleta, a working farm.
Explore surrounding villages on horseback or visit the nearby breeding centre for endangered condors, before enjoying a meal prepared with milk, cheese and organic vegetables from the farm (from US$247).
Call 00 593 999 57 45 67 to visit to the Andrango workshop (US$5 donation). Jose Luis Fichamba’s flute-making workshop is signed from the road through Peguche (paila pipes, US$5).
Jungle music is playing 1,200m up in the Choco-Andean cloud forest. Rolling thunder sets the bassline. Pelting gobs of rain increase the rhythm, splashing against creepers, tree ferns and thick, languid arms of moss. The chirruping of insects hurtles wildly up and down in pitch and pace. And then, once the squelch of boots against red mud comes to a halt, the air fills with an unfamiliar whirring.
‘White-whiskered hermit,’ whispers guide José Napa. ‘Violet-tailed sylph’, he says, more excitedly. ‘Hmmm, brown Inca. Purple-bibbed whitetip! Empress brilliant!’
José is now surrounded by an emerald, ruby and sapphire blur of hummingbirds, together rising boldly from the mists to approach the feeder he has just topped up with sugar syrup. A pecking order is quickly established, literally with a nip to the head for a bee-sized green thorntail that tries to push before a larger cousin. ‘They are so aggressive because they need to feed constantly,’ says José. ‘They have such a high metabolism, and the flowers they prefer to feed from can be surprisingly scarce in the forest.’ One proves its eagerness by hovering within a couple of centimetres of a floral pattern on a T-shirt, taking a close look on the off-chance.
Alongside the Amazon, the Choco is Ecuador’s other form of rainforest, watered by up to 6m of rainfall each year as clouds barrel off the Pacific and break against the lower slopes of the Andes. It is one of the dampest and most biodiverse environments on Earth, one threatened by the pollution of waterways, slash-and-bum farming and illegal logging.
José used to be a subsistence farmer, growing peanuts, cassava and bananas. He then joined the logging trade. Fourteen years ago a private lodge was built on the site of the local sawmill, so Jose came to work here instead. This became an eco-hotel, Mashpi, sitting in a 1,200 hectare wildlife reserve where once there was a logging concession.
The reserve is set within a 17,000 hectare buffer zone for sustainable development, aimed at offering animals the corridors to migrate between pockets of rainforest.
José has an intimate knowledge of this forest that comes from having spent much of his life wandering through it. He predicts the clattering rush of a rufous-breasted wood quail by the slightest rustle of a leaf in the undergrowth. He reveals a glade beneath a fast-tumbling waterfall where fireflies like to gather at night. He points to a fruit loved by Choco toucans – one that sends them a little high – and a fungus known as dead man’s fingers, that can be snapped open to release an antibiotic ointment used by local people as a cure for infected eyes. At a vantage point looking across a valley, with mists hanging low, José makes a whooping call, and from far away comes the response. ‘Howler monkeys’, he says.
Teams of scientists are now permanently based in Mashpi’s reserve, researching its many butterfly species, planning to reintroduce critically endangered brown-headed spider monkeys, and using camera traps to film the mammals that stay so well hidden in the dense forest. Recent footage shows just how close a guest came to a rare encounter. First it reveals the man out for a casual morning stroll, minutes from the lodge. Unbeknown to him, a predator’s eyes are watching – soon after, a large, inquisitive male puma stalks close behind.
Prepare for a dramatic change of scenery and climate as you drive much higher into the Andes, passing indigenous farming communities. After 5 hours and 140 miles you’ll approach Otavalo.
The contemporary rooms at Mashpi Lodge overlook the jungle canopy. Be sure to climb the lodge’s observation tower and ride a ‘sky bike’ hung from cables 60m up in the trees (from US$1160, incl full board and guide services for two).
Nearby Bellavista Lodge offers a good range of tours and more rustic, affordable accommodation options (dorm bed in research station from US$21pp, double private room from US$131).
The piercing blue light of a high altitude dawn breaks over the old town of Quito, as dogs chase pick-up trucks carrying produce to market. The trucks clatter over rambling streets cobbled with stones taken from the slopes of the Pichincha volcano looming above. Shopkeepers lift shutters, waving to one another as their wares are set out: sackfuls of cumin and cinnamon; aluminium pans; teetering piles of cows’ hooves; piñatas in the shapes of unicorns, Minnie Mouse and SpongeBob SquarePants.
Layers of commerce take place on these steep, narrow backstreets. In front of the shops, ladies in felt trilbies and woollen ponchos roll mats across pavements. From these they offer corn on the cobs, potatoes and avocados grown in the villages they commute in from each day.
‘All around us you can hear chismes,’ says Paola Carrera, a guide to the San Roque neighbourhood. ‘This is our word for the secrets – the news and the gossip – shared by these vendors, brought to our capital from across Ecuador.’
Paola’s mother runs a shop here selling agua de vida, the water of life. This intensely sweet tonic is made from 25 plants, including the amaranth flowers that give its bright pink colour, and herbs from as far away as the Amazon.
‘I’ve always enjoyed living here, above the shop,’ says Paola. ‘The buildings in the neighbourhood are so traditional, they have such character. The people who belong to San Roque have strong ties to it, and it has always drawn visitors.’
Like most locals who pass the imposing whitewashed church of San Francisco nearby, Paola crosses herself beneath its massive wooden doors; some also touch the sculptures of sun gods at its entrance, an action said to give energy.
The church’s foundation stone was laid in 1535, soon after Spanish conquistadors arrived here from Andalucía. In a pragmatic move to win local support, Franciscan monks allowed religious symbols familiar to the indigenous Quitu people to blend with the Catholicism of the invading forces. The conquistadors also brought with them a Moorish architectural style from Islamic North Africa, and saw their wealth reflected in the spectacular gilding of the interior; for the people of Quito, the gold reflected the ever-lasting power of their sun god.
Bagan – Mandalay, Burma (Myanmar)
Visitors Per Year: Around 2.1 million
Among the plains of central Burma lies ancient Bagan, the remains of a kingdom comprising some 2,000 Buddhist temples. Until recently, visitors were scarce but now the secret’s out…
Front Door: A fee (25,000MMK/£14.44) is charged upon entering the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Most visitors arrive via a short-hop flight at Bagan Nyaung U Airport. From there, the town of Nyaung U is a ten-minute taxi away, but the majority stay in the resorts scattered among the temples of Old Bagan.
Back Door: Stay in Nyaung U for more of a local feel; it’s also not far from the Irrawaddy River, so end your day with a quiet cruise. Rent an E-bike to explore the temples of Old Bagan away from the tours, while hot-air balloon flights are also a good way to skip the crowds. Be sure to book at least a month in advance; it’s also worth paying extra for the smallest (four-person) basket. Bear in mind also that access to the upper levels of temples is now banned in all but five pagodas.
For the most popular temples (Dhammayangyi, Shwesandaw, Ananda), arrive just after sunrise. The tours leave shortly after the sun comes up and the touts are too drowsy to bother you. After, rent an E-bike and head into the plains to discover smaller sites such as the Nandapyinnya, near Minanthu village, which has some of the best-preserved wall paintings in Bagan and is usually empty.
Head down to the jetty in Nyaung U and hire a boat (from 150,000MMK/£9) to take you up the river to a pair of temples (Thetkyamuni and Kondawgyi) not easily accessed by land. Plan this as an afternoon excursion and you can spend the sunset on the Irrawaddy as well.
“Thisawadi (near New Bagan) is a quiet alternative to catch sunrise/sunset. There are several levels on the way up it, but the highest offers the best shots. This is also one of the few temples still open for visitors to ascend, but less popular than the likes of Shwesandaw.”
The old market town of Riobamba, four hours south of Quito, is itself a destination worthy of a trip, but the rail ride that begins there continues on to Guayaquil or Cuenca quadruples the fun. Travel on antique refitted trains is an option, though perhaps not as memorable as the autoferro bus-on-rails, where you can sit on top of the train to take in the dramatic view of the highlands, the active Cotopaxi volcano, and Mount Chimborazo. The rails follow the Avenue of the Volcanoes before reaching the legendary Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose), a hair-raising engineering marvel that follows a series of switchback turns before delivering you to Riobamba safe and sound.
Riobamba’s important Saturday Indian market sprawls across the town’s eleven squares; you can identify the various communities of Indians who converge here by the different hats the women wear. The city’s unrivaled Museo de Arte Religioso displays a remarkable collection of art and gold objects in a restored convent and cloisters.
The oldest, best-known, and most important Indian market in South America takes place every Saturday high in the Andes. For 4,000 years, Otavalo’s market has served as the social and economic heartbeat of the northern highlands; today it is Ecuador’s most popular destination after the Galápagos Islands. The otherwise sleepy town awakens at dawn to a cacophony of chickens, cows, and sheep and the trading of hemp, saddles, vegetables, grain, and textiles – bartering being the traditional livelihood of brightly dressed otavaleños who have converged from near and far away. There are tourist trinkets galore – pottery, weavings, jewelry, carved wooden animals – but visitors really come for the authentic local atmosphere, and the Indian population is here to swap livestock, provisions, and news.
Early birds will want to arrive before the animal market bedlam winds down around 8 A.M., and before the bedlam of day- trippers winds up with the arrival of buses that roll in from Quito around 10 A.M. Spend Friday night at the nearby Hacienda Cusin, a 16th-century colonial plantation reincarnated as a first-class rural inn, or stay fifteen minutes (and as many light-years) away at La Mirage, a lush flower- and vine- draped oasis perched high on an Andean hillside. Just two hours by car from Quito, and one of the most casually elegant country hideaways on the continent, this contemporary inn was built to look like a traditional, centuries-old hacienda.
La Mirage combines the best of local culture and artistry with the owners’ love of European aesthetics and luxury; the result is a high-altitude, impeccably run haven. Horses from the inn’s working farm transport you through ancient Indian towns, unspoiled high country, and a volcanic lake. Dining at La Mirage is as memorable for the view of the snow-capped Cotacachi and Imbabura mountains as it is for the excellent menu, enhanced by local Ecuadorian wines and served by beautiful young Otavalo Indian girls in traditional embroidered dress. After dinner, guests wander through luxuriant gardens back to their suites, where fireplaces have thoughtfully been lit to dispel the nighttime Andean chill.
Set on its own spread of 3,000 acres, amid hundreds of species of birds, fish, and mammals, the Sacha Lodge provides a unique base from which to explore the world’s largest and most biologically diverse rain forest, located in the steamy tropical lowlands of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Local Quechua- and English-speaking naturalists will lead you on daily, varied jungle walks – getting you back to the lodge’s stunning lakeside location in time for some great (if basic) Ecuadorian cuisine. Dugout canoes take guests on river and lake safaris, past local communities of Quechua Indians and salt licks that attract hundreds of vivid parrots and parakeets in a whirl of color and noise.
The breadth of the virgin property encompasses a variety of habitats, and a 135-foot observation tower has made the forest canopy accessible as well. From the tower you can discover a world of treetop bromeliads and orchids and the exotic birds they attract; the view stretches to the snow-topped peak of Sumaco, an extinct volcano 100 miles away. All this, and hot showers and electricity, too.
A modern-day traveler’s rules of thumb: Visit the most fragile places first; stay on the trails; disturb nothing. Nowhere does this apply more than to the fifty-eight fascinating islands and cays of the Galápagos archipelago, essentially unknown until Charles Darwin’s arrival 150 years ago. Here, straddling the Equator 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, Darwin developed his theory of evolution among an amazing roster of all-but-tame wildlife that thrived in an eerie, moonlike landscape.
The islands – each remarkably individual in its topography, flora, and fauna – are still home to the highest proportion of endemic species in the world; 400- pound land tortoises, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, and thirteen species of finches are peculiar to these islands. The Galápagos and their inhabitants continue to enchant nature buffs and adventurers who visit the twelve large (and dozens of smaller) islands; cruising the pristine and gorgeous waters separating what has been called a living laboratory of evolution. The animals have no instinctive fear of man – if anything, their curiosity will surpass your own.
The Galápagos Islands also offer an experience that is as stunning underwater as it is topside. This enchanted archipelago hosts an astonishing variety of marine life: Scuba divers i will see penguins (the hemisphere’s northernmost community lives here, thanks to the cooling Humboldt Current), marine iguanas, or dolphins – even the odd migrating whale. Certain departures of the fully equipped Reina Silvia live-aboards head for the remote and completely uninhabited islands of Wolf and Darwin. There, expect to be surrounded by the enormous schools of pelagics that populate these waters – hundreds of hammerheads and manta rays for which the Galápagos are famous.
Landlubbers can now forgo a stay on a pitching boat in favor of the pristine islands’ first luxury resort, the Royal Palm Hotel, occupying a 400-acre site on the island of Santa Cruz. The resort’s private boat ships guests off for wildlife-viewing day trips, but delivers them back to terra firma in time for a spa treatment before their candlelight dinner.