Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands — the ultimate photo-op trip

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“There’s one!” Our local guide ecstatically pointed out a sight guaranteed to generate a sense of awe in the most jaded traveler. Standing erect on a rock protruding from the bay near our landing site on Bartolomé Island in the Galápagos was an honest-to-goodness penguin, saluting our arrival. We were sweating in the sea-level equatorial heat while the polar seabird looked calm, cool and definitely out of place.

Refugees from the extreme southern part of South America, where they lived during the last Ice Age before the waters warmed again and cut them off from the continent of Antarctica, the penguins followed the cold Humboldt Current north and, over thousands of years, adapted to life in the Galápagos.

Our sighting was even more unusual in that the penguin colony on Bartolomé Island is the smallest in the Galápagos, since they prefer the cooler waters of the western islands of Fernandina and Isabela. Unfortunately, only a few thousand remain after two devastating El Niños decimated their numbers.

Surrounded by wildlife

My trip to the Galápagos Islands in May ’06 was proving to be as enjoyable and educational as I had hoped it might be when I asked Judy Martin of Latin America Reservation Center (LARC) for a proposal.

Although LARC (Dundee, FL; phone 800/327-3573, www.larc1.com) can book a variety of Galápagos cruises of varying lengths, I decided that I wanted to stay on land, take day trips and leave the shipboard experiences to others. However, giving up the mobility of the cruise ships limited my wildlife viewing to the area close enough to the main island of Santa Cruz to be reached by boat, with return, in an 8- to 12-hour day.

I chose South Plaza and Bartolomé islands for my two day trips by boat and toured the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz on another day. I was not disappointed.

I stumbled over land iguanas and sat next to baby sea lions sunning on the rocks of South Plaza, photographed pelicans up close and personal on the boat trip, watched sharks silently patrol the shallow waters off the nonswimming beach of Bartolomé Island, followed the flights of the frigate birds, tropic birds, swallowtail gulls, blue-footed and Nazca boobies, Darwin finches and others as we circled Daphne and toured the other islands, photographed giant tortoises in their breeding pens at Charles Darwin Station, identified various fish and crabs, enjoyed the company of several marine iguanas lazing in the sun on the deck of a local bar and, with amazing luck, was present for the hatching of Pacific green turtles (marine turtles) on Bartolomé Island. We cheered them as they awkwardly waddled to the sea in an attempt to escape predators.

Santa Cruz

The island of Santa Cruz has the largest population of any of the Galápagos Islands and offers a variety of dining, shopping and lodging experiences to appeal to all tastes and budgets. From the main commercial airport on the island of Baltra, an airport bus takes arriving passengers to the Itabaca Canal, where barges move them and their luggage across the narrow waterway to Santa Cruz.

There, a variety of transport options is available for the 45-minute ride across the island to the main town of Puerto Ayora. Travelers booked by agencies can opt to have their hotel send a taxi to pick them up.

In Puerto Ayora, the Red Mangrove Adventure Inn (Av. Charles Darwin y Las Fragatas; www.redmangrove.com) is located on the water, has charming rooms and offers everything from a sushi restaurant to day tours and massages. The nearby Hotel Silberstein (also known as Hotel Angermeyer) feels more like a divers’ hotel — casual and low key — with an excellent outdoor restaurant offering a delicious grilled fish lunch and glass of wine for $11.

While in town, don’t miss a chance to tour the Charles Darwin Research Station, located at the end of the same-named street. There is no charge (you have already paid the national park fee of $100 on entry to the Galápagos), and you don’t need to book it in advance.

The distances on Santa Cruz are short enough that you can wander through the Van Straelen Visitor’s Center to view exhibits and a short film, then check out the giant tortoise breeding center and the small land iguana breeding center. The research station is attempting to reintroduce these endangered species back into the wild on various islands.

LARC booked me into the Royal Palm Hotel (www.royalpalmgalapagos.com), a member of the Millennium Hotel Group, which is about 20 minutes (or a $7 taxi ride) away from Puerto Ayora. This 5-star highlands resort, with 10 villas and three suites, offers tennis courts, a pool, a business center with free Internet access and a library with two telescopes, in addition to a fine restaurant which stays open all day. If requested, the staff will provide golf cart service to and from the villas — especially helpful on rainy days.

In addition to fine dining, elegant surroundings and impeccable service, the Royal Palm provides a first-class lounge at the Baltra Airport for their guests to enjoy a refreshing glass of iced tea in air-conditioned comfort while luggage is being retrieved. If you like being spoiled, this is the place to be!

A bit of indulgence

For me, a trip to Ecuador is not complete without a visit to my favorite small hotel, La Mirage Garden Hotel & Spa (www.mirage.com.ec), located a short walk from the small leatherworking village of Cotacachi. Approximately two hours north of Quito in the Imbabura Province, La Mirage is the only representative in Ecuador of the Relais & Chateaux chain of international luxury hotels and is booked exclusively by LARC.

From the warm welcome to the departing waves, a quiet professionalism pervades every area of the resort. A complimentary glass of champagne can be delivered to your suite on arrival. A fire is lit in your fireplace every evening just prior to your return from dinner while a hot water bottle is being tucked into your bed (even at the equator, nights are cool at 7,500 feet).

Simultaneous serving of all diners at the dinner table provides a display of subdued showmanship and ensures that each dish arrives at its optimal temperature. Additionally, the spa is unparalleled in its offerings and staff.

Lest you think that this is a boring place for oldsters, the hotel caters to all ages and types of travelers, from couples to families and even the occasional single traveler.

Each evening on my table set for one was a goldfish peering myopically at me from the safety of his bowl. Adjacent was a card that read, “Hello, my name is Juan and I’ll be your dinner companion, but please don’t feed me.”

One of my La Mirage indulgences was the Purification Treatment by Esthela, a female shaman from the area. It incorporated centuries-old indigenous healing practices for the body, soul and spirit with relaxation in the floating tub, topped off by an aromatherapy spiritual massage.

All traditional spa treatments, such as facials, massages and wraps, are available, but I like to sample new offerings, so I chose an Equatorial Energy Bath performed by Esthela with crystals, herbs and mineral salts followed by a full-body massage with solar-energized stones. It relaxed and energized me simultaneously.

If the spa, tennis or horseback riding is not your thing, you might enjoy a stroll in the five acres of landscaped gardens, walking into the village to enjoy shopping for leather goods of all kinds or taking a day trip to Otavalo, the world-famous indigenous market located about 30 minutes away. Though the Otavalo market is largest on Saturday, I found plenty of art, crafts and jewelry to shop for on weekdays.

Other day-trip possibilities include shopping in San Antonio de Ibarra for wood carvings and in Calderón for massapan (hardened dough) figures. Nearby areas attract bird-watchers. You may spot a condor!

If relaxing is your primary goal, just sit and watch the peacocks wander the grounds; perhaps they will sit on your windowsill or patio, too.

Quito

While local hotel and airline bookings are the foundation of any well-planned trip, as a single traveler I really appreciated not having to worry about my transfers. I was pleased to find that LARC chooses its support staff carefully. Kind and shy Rafael drove me in a comfortable vehicle to and from La Mirage, while good-humored Monica and Luis handled four airport transfers in Quito, some at decidedly unappealing times of the day.

As flights from the U.S. typically arrive in Quito in the evening hours and depart in the early morning hours, travelers may overnight there many times in one trip. How fortunate for me that the owners of La Mirage also own an elegant small hotel in Quito, Mansion del Angel (www.larc1.com/ecuador/angel), located in a fun, eclectic shopping and dining area of the city.

Though dinner is not served at the mansion, a delightful breakfast can be enjoyed on the third-floor terrace every morning, and afternoon tea is available. Most thoughtfully, on mornings of scheduled early departures a small table was set for me in the living room, where I was served toast and coffee.

All the details

Judy proposed this 10-day trip for late May to maximize my chances for good weather and to obtain the best hotel prices. This package included 10 nights in the finest hotels in Ecuador; the Quito-Galápagos-Quito flights; breakfasts at Royal Palm Hotel and Mansion del Angel; breakfasts and 4-course gourmet dinners at La Mirage, and all airport and hotel transfers (including the 2-hour drive to La Mirage and back), and it cost less than $3,000. International airfare was not included.

The Galápagos day trips cost $90 each and included a grilled fish lunch, and each spa treatment at La Mirage was priced at $65 (plus tips, of course).

Additionally, I spent an extra day in Quito, where Judy arranged a full-day tour (about $130) with a private car and driver/guide to the Mindo area to visit a butterfly farm and an orchid preserve, with lunch provided for me at a charming highland hotel.

This was a luxurious, stress-free and relatively inexpensive way to enjoy the diversity of the Galápagos, Quito and Ecuador’s highlands.

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“There’s one!” Our local guide ecstatically pointed out a sight guaranteed to generate a sense of awe in the most jaded traveler. Standing erect on a rock protruding from the bay near our landing site on Bartolomé Island in the Galápagos was an honest-to-goodness penguin, saluting our arrival. We were sweating in the sea-level equatorial heat while the polar seabird looked calm, cool and definitely out of place.

Refugees from the extreme southern part of South America, where they lived during the last Ice Age before the waters warmed again and cut them off from the continent of Antarctica, the penguins followed the cold Humboldt Current north and, over thousands of years, adapted to life in the Galápagos.

Our sighting was even more unusual in that the penguin colony on Bartolomé Island is the smallest in the Galápagos, since they prefer the cooler waters of the western islands of Fernandina and Isabela. Unfortunately, only a few thousand remain after two devastating El Niños decimated their numbers.

Surrounded by wildlife

My trip to the Galápagos Islands in May ’06 was proving to be as enjoyable and educational as I had hoped it might be when I asked Judy Martin of Latin America Reservation Center (LARC) for a proposal.

Although LARC (Dundee, FL; phone 800/327-3573, www.larc1.com) can book a variety of Galápagos cruises of varying lengths, I decided that I wanted to stay on land, take day trips and leave the shipboard experiences to others. However, giving up the mobility of the cruise ships limited my wildlife viewing to the area close enough to the main island of Santa Cruz to be reached by boat, with return, in an 8- to 12-hour day.

I chose South Plaza and Bartolomé islands for my two day trips by boat and toured the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz on another day. I was not disappointed.

I stumbled over land iguanas and sat next to baby sea lions sunning on the rocks of South Plaza, photographed pelicans up close and personal on the boat trip, watched sharks silently patrol the shallow waters off the nonswimming beach of Bartolomé Island, followed the flights of the frigate birds, tropic birds, swallowtail gulls, blue-footed and Nazca boobies, Darwin finches and others as we circled Daphne and toured the other islands, photographed giant tortoises in their breeding pens at Charles Darwin Station, identified various fish and crabs, enjoyed the company of several marine iguanas lazing in the sun on the deck of a local bar and, with amazing luck, was present for the hatching of Pacific green turtles (marine turtles) on Bartolomé Island. We cheered them as they awkwardly waddled to the sea in an attempt to escape predators.

Santa Cruz

The island of Santa Cruz has the largest population of any of the Galápagos Islands and offers a variety of dining, shopping and lodging experiences to appeal to all tastes and budgets. From the main commercial airport on the island of Baltra, an airport bus takes arriving passengers to the Itabaca Canal, where barges move them and their luggage across the narrow waterway to Santa Cruz.

There, a variety of transport options is available for the 45-minute ride across the island to the main town of Puerto Ayora. Travelers booked by agencies can opt to have their hotel send a taxi to pick them up.

In Puerto Ayora, the Red Mangrove Adventure Inn (Av. Charles Darwin y Las Fragatas; www.redmangrove.com) is located on the water, has charming rooms and offers everything from a sushi restaurant to day tours and massages. The nearby Hotel Silberstein (also known as Hotel Angermeyer) feels more like a divers’ hotel — casual and low key — with an excellent outdoor restaurant offering a delicious grilled fish lunch and glass of wine for $11.

While in town, don’t miss a chance to tour the Charles Darwin Research Station, located at the end of the same-named street. There is no charge (you have already paid the national park fee of $100 on entry to the Galápagos), and you don’t need to book it in advance.

The distances on Santa Cruz are short enough that you can wander through the Van Straelen Visitor’s Center to view exhibits and a short film, then check out the giant tortoise breeding center and the small land iguana breeding center. The research station is attempting to reintroduce these endangered species back into the wild on various islands.

LARC booked me into the Royal Palm Hotel (www.royalpalmgalapagos.com), a member of the Millennium Hotel Group, which is about 20 minutes (or a $7 taxi ride) away from Puerto Ayora. This 5-star highlands resort, with 10 villas and three suites, offers tennis courts, a pool, a business center with free Internet access and a library with two telescopes, in addition to a fine restaurant which stays open all day. If requested, the staff will provide golf cart service to and from the villas — especially helpful on rainy days.

In addition to fine dining, elegant surroundings and impeccable service, the Royal Palm provides a first-class lounge at the Baltra Airport for their guests to enjoy a refreshing glass of iced tea in air-conditioned comfort while luggage is being retrieved. If you like being spoiled, this is the place to be!

A bit of indulgence

For me, a trip to Ecuador is not complete without a visit to my favorite small hotel, La Mirage Garden Hotel & Spa (www.mirage.com.ec), located a short walk from the small leatherworking village of Cotacachi. Approximately two hours north of Quito in the Imbabura Province, La Mirage is the only representative in Ecuador of the Relais & Chateaux chain of international luxury hotels and is booked exclusively by LARC.

From the warm welcome to the departing waves, a quiet professionalism pervades every area of the resort. A complimentary glass of champagne can be delivered to your suite on arrival. A fire is lit in your fireplace every evening just prior to your return from dinner while a hot water bottle is being tucked into your bed (even at the equator, nights are cool at 7,500 feet).

Simultaneous serving of all diners at the dinner table provides a display of subdued showmanship and ensures that each dish arrives at its optimal temperature. Additionally, the spa is unparalleled in its offerings and staff.

Lest you think that this is a boring place for oldsters, the hotel caters to all ages and types of travelers, from couples to families and even the occasional single traveler.

Each evening on my table set for one was a goldfish peering myopically at me from the safety of his bowl. Adjacent was a card that read, “Hello, my name is Juan and I’ll be your dinner companion, but please don’t feed me.”

One of my La Mirage indulgences was the Purification Treatment by Esthela, a female shaman from the area. It incorporated centuries-old indigenous healing practices for the body, soul and spirit with relaxation in the floating tub, topped off by an aromatherapy spiritual massage.

All traditional spa treatments, such as facials, massages and wraps, are available, but I like to sample new offerings, so I chose an Equatorial Energy Bath performed by Esthela with crystals, herbs and mineral salts followed by a full-body massage with solar-energized stones. It relaxed and energized me simultaneously.

If the spa, tennis or horseback riding is not your thing, you might enjoy a stroll in the five acres of landscaped gardens, walking into the village to enjoy shopping for leather goods of all kinds or taking a day trip to Otavalo, the world-famous indigenous market located about 30 minutes away. Though the Otavalo market is largest on Saturday, I found plenty of art, crafts and jewelry to shop for on weekdays.

Other day-trip possibilities include shopping in San Antonio de Ibarra for wood carvings and in Calderón for massapan (hardened dough) figures. Nearby areas attract bird-watchers. You may spot a condor!

If relaxing is your primary goal, just sit and watch the peacocks wander the grounds; perhaps they will sit on your windowsill or patio, too.

Quito

While local hotel and airline bookings are the foundation of any well-planned trip, as a single traveler I really appreciated not having to worry about my transfers. I was pleased to find that LARC chooses its support staff carefully. Kind and shy Rafael drove me in a comfortable vehicle to and from La Mirage, while good-humored Monica and Luis handled four airport transfers in Quito, some at decidedly unappealing times of the day.

As flights from the U.S. typically arrive in Quito in the evening hours and depart in the early morning hours, travelers may overnight there many times in one trip. How fortunate for me that the owners of La Mirage also own an elegant small hotel in Quito, Mansion del Angel (www.larc1.com/ecuador/angel), located in a fun, eclectic shopping and dining area of the city.

Though dinner is not served at the mansion, a delightful breakfast can be enjoyed on the third-floor terrace every morning, and afternoon tea is available. Most thoughtfully, on mornings of scheduled early departures a small table was set for me in the living room, where I was served toast and coffee.

All the details

Judy proposed this 10-day trip for late May to maximize my chances for good weather and to obtain the best hotel prices. This package included 10 nights in the finest hotels in Ecuador; the Quito-Galápagos-Quito flights; breakfasts at Royal Palm Hotel and Mansion del Angel; breakfasts and 4-course gourmet dinners at La Mirage, and all airport and hotel transfers (including the 2-hour drive to La Mirage and back), and it cost less than $3,000. International airfare was not included.

The Galápagos day trips cost $90 each and included a grilled fish lunch, and each spa treatment at La Mirage was priced at $65 (plus tips, of course).

Additionally, I spent an extra day in Quito, where Judy arranged a full-day tour (about $130) with a private car and driver/guide to the Mindo area to visit a butterfly farm and an orchid preserve, with lunch provided for me at a charming highland hotel.

This was a luxurious, stress-free and relatively inexpensive way to enjoy the diversity of the Galápagos, Quito and Ecuador’s highlands.