Follow Latin America expert Jacob as he sets off to discover the treasures of Ecuador and its Enchanted Isles…
Though the Avianca flight from London to Quito dawdles a little on its layover in Bogota, this route is worth it in order to arrive in Ecuador first thing in the morning and head straight out of the city and into the rolling highlands.
The first port of call is the stunning Hacienda Zuleta, about an hour and a half up the Pan American highway on a drive that offers stunning views of the endless rose fields (for which the region is famed), the rolling green Andean foothills, and the staggering snow-capped Volcan Cayambe. This 17th-century working hacienda (complete with its own artisan cheese factory!) was once owned by the president of Ecuador and, to this day, is still run by his descendants. Some of these fascinating characters will chat with you fireside of an evening with a glass of Ecuadorian wine, some of the famous cheese, and more than a few tales from their lives, histories, and the stories of the Ecuador they know so well.
Besides the chance to see the mysterious and mystical spectacled bear, majestic condors could soar above you as you take to the hacienda’s winding trails by foot or on horseback. Tranquillity is the feather in the cap, or rather Panama Hat, of Zuleta. Amid the excitement of exploring a new country, there are blissful moments of stillness to be found, whether you sit and listen to the thrum of hummingbird wings in the bushes around you or simply watch the stars gather in the clear Andean night. Although the perfect place to start our adventure, any trip to Ecuador could be perfectly bookended by a couple of nights here.
Photographs, and especially my photographs, hardly do justice to the beauty of Hacienda Zuleta, but it is something that no camera can capture that makes this place special; there is an atmosphere here beyond fresh air and exquisite food, a sensation of being lost in the history of the world while also feeling entirely at home.
After time in the highlands, our journey took us out of mainland Ecuador and out over the Pacific Ocean to one of the most magical places on the planet, the Galapagos Islands. Flying out from Quito Airport, you don’t know what to expect from the Enchanted Isles, being that they are the subjects of a thousand documentaries and stories, the islands differ so much, and they are such a fragile gift to the world. But nothing prepares you for this part of Earth, even the depths of the wildest imagination. I was overwhelmed by the power of this place despite the fact that (full disclosure) I’d been before!
Setting sail aboard the Theory, we began a seven-night cruise of the Southern and Eastern Isles and were treated to greater luxury than most hotels can provide. It’s no surprise that Relais & Châteaux have deemed Ecoventura’s three vessels (also sailing are the Origin and Evolve) worthy of bearing its esteemed crest when chefs like Cristhian Murrieta can cook up lobster, fresh sushi, exquisite cuts of beef, Ecuadorian staples, European-style breakfasts, delicate Guariche crabcakes and everything in between in a galley kitchen with barely enough room to swing a blue-footed booby. (Note: at no point attempt to swing a blue-footed booby because a: it’s cruel and unusual, and b: they are vengeful and equipped with large piercing beaks).
There’s no denying that, despite what Herman Melville claims, the Galapagos would be a stunning place to visit even if one were to be shipwrecked there in the 19th century. Still, there is equally no doubt that travelling in style aboard a luxury yacht like this makes a trip truly special. From the fantastic standard of guiding from Antonio and Cecibel to the cocktail expertise of barman Farley, to the sight of the Captain greeting you with a salute as you return from snorkelling with playful sea lions, there truly is no better way of exploring the archipelago. And as you drift between islands of an evening, what better way to watch the sunset and the magnificent frigate birds wheel through the sky than from the comfort of the sundeck with a traditional Ecuadorean cocktail!
Bidding our fond farewell to the Galapagos, we headed to the cloud forest and Mashpi Lodge. For such a small country, Ecuador has a diversity of landscapes and geography matched by few places. There are Andean plateaux studded with towering smoking volcanos, dense Amazon jungle, rugged coastline, and sweeping cloud forest. It was this last one that we delved into, the long and bumpy road from Quito (about 3 hours drive for a total distance, as the crow flies, of only about 60 miles) leading us through the mountains and rural villages. And as we bore down on the forests, the mists bore up, and soon we had left the arid scrubland of the higher altitudes and plunged into an emerald sea.
The private reserve in which the lodge lies is a vast sweep of green dipping and breaking through the hills, 1,200 hectares of jungle forest, waterfalls, embankments, birds, reptiles, and frogs all clamouring for attention in the dark spaces between the trees. If you seek nature for silence, this is perhaps not the destination for you, but if you seek nature for solitude, the endless forest with its mystical encroaching mist is the perfect place. It feels almost as if the Earth has left the world behind.
Amazingly, to build this stunning luxury lodge in the Cloud Forest, the architects actually created a net gain of trees. By securing land from former loggers, they built on cleared land – lugging all the materials they needed from Quito – and then proceeded to plant tens of thousands of trees around the property, creating what is now a new habitat for thousands of animals and another airway for the lungs of the Earth. This secondary forest surrounds the lodge closely; it’s what you will look out on from the magnificent floor-to-ceiling windows in each room. Keep a careful eye out for tanagers, toucans, squirrels, and perhaps even the spectacular spectacled owl.
Staying at Mashpi is a luxurious experience, even with the 6:00 a.m. alarm going off so I could go out and spot birds with a joyously enthusiastic guide (who was also able to let me know I’d been using my binoculars incorrectly!). The lodge attended to every detail – including setting out coffee and pastries for those who chose to watch the tropical kingbirds and moss-backed tanagers greeting the dawn. Meals are a sumptuous three-course affair for lunch and dinner, and even deep in the forest, the food is magnificent.
Each excursion is carefully planned with a guide, from hiking the forest trails to soaring above them on the Sky Bike, to whispering in the midnight jungle as the shier creatures of the dark begin to appear. At the end of a long day of adventures, nothing is better than sitting out in the garden listening to the forest with one of Mashpi’s signature cocktails. Be careful of the mosquitos, but Mashpi provides mosquito repellent in rooms and outside areas that, in our experience, must have been made by magic – fewer bites than the Galapagos!
Three hours from Quito Airport, it’s possible to end your trip at Mashpi and catch the evening flights back to London, and this is just what we did, returning to London by the Avianca flight via Bogota. The Iberia/British Airways route via Madrid also tends to depart in the evening and provides the perfect opportunity to stay at Mashpi or Zuleta as your final stop before you say your fond farewell to Ecuador – you’ll even be able to squeeze in some last-minute excursions too. We managed to hike to the butterfly sanctuary before our departure, which houses an owl butterfly so believable it had me rethinking my prized spectacled owl sighting the night before!
Logistical Stops in Quito
Musicians use the word “accidentals” to describe sporadic notes that are not in the key they are playing but enhance the piece of music as a whole. Spending odd logistical nights in Quito can often feel out of place, but they certainly enhance the trip. First, they ensure that everything runs smoothly: if your international flight is delayed and you were supposed to connect directly to the Galapagos for a cruise, the boat would sail without you! Secondly, Quito is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the joint first in fact, and it is a beautiful city full of history, culture, fine food, and wonderful hotels, so it certainly merits exploration. Because of this, we often include nights like these here and there between destinations in Ecuador to enhance your trip and ensure that it is perfect. And it may be like those little musical accidentals, but it’s no accident.
Our personal favourite destination in Quito is the Capilla del Hombre site of the museum and former home of Ecuadorean national artist, visionary, and human rights activities Oswaldo Guayasamin. There is no painter quite like Guayasamin, whose bold and brutal strokes – almost as though he were attacking the canvas – are used to depict both the rage and pain of Latin American history and the serenity and tenderness of the people of the continent. A must-see for anyone interested in art, culture, or simply the identity of the nation of Ecuador.