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TravelAt Rainbow’s End: 3 Ways To Have An Exotic Experience In Ecuador

At Rainbow’s End: 3 Ways To Have An Exotic Experience In Ecuador

Writer Iroshini Chua retraced the path of Charles Darwin on a trip to the Galápagos Islands
By Iroshini Chua
August 10, 2019
Discover colonial architecture, savour Andean culture and cuisine, and witness the exotic wildlife of the Amazon jungle and Galápagos Islands—there’s plenty to keep you busy in Ecuador

By any measure, the Republic of Ecuador, located on the west coast of the South American continent, is not a large country. While its geographic footprint may be small compared to its Latin American neighbours, it is brimming with unique experiences that one can only find in this country situated squarely on the equator.

The diversity of landscapes required us to plan our trip with military precision—a task we entrusted to travel experts A2A Safaris and Journeys. The company carefully curated an itinerary that combined relaxation and exertion in equal measure, which allowed us to have an authentic and immersive experience in this dynamic and beautiful country.

Walk through the well-preserved colonial architecture in Quito
Walk through the well-preserved colonial architecture in Quito

1/3A colourful history in Quito and Northern Sierra

Like most travellers, we began our Ecuadorian sojourn in Quito, the country’s capital. When we arrived in December, the city was celebrating Founders Day. Music soared above the colonial centre, which is dotted with supremely well‑preserved examples of 16th and 17th-century architecture.

The storied interiors of Casa Gangotena, located within the historic centre
The storied interiors of Casa Gangotena, located within the historic centre (Image courtesy of Casa Gangotena)

We checked into Casa Gangotena, a restored mansion that served as our stylish abode. Here, we had a birds-eye view of the festivities from the vantage of our third-floor roof terrace. Canelazo, a hot, local alcoholic beverage, flowed at 2,850m high, and the dancing endured until midnight in the centre of the world’s first Unesco World Heritage Site.

After a brief stop in Quito, we travelled through mountain passes towards the Northern Sierra, known as the country’s cultural heart. Apart from magnificent peaks, this area is also characterised by quaint towns with picturesque squares and colourful markets that display embroidery, handicrafts, and the ubiquitous “panama hat”, which in fact originates from Montecristi in Ecuador.

And who doesn’t love dining with a panoramic view? There’s nothing like being high up in the Andean plains to make you fall in love with the country’s cuisine. What surprised us most is how much Ecuadorians love soup—you could feasibly have soup for all three meals of the day for an entire year and never repeat a single dish.

(Related: 7 Natural Wonders Of The World To See Before They Disappear)

Live the pastoral life at the grand farmhouse, Hacienda Zuleta
Live the pastoral life at the grand farmhouse, Hacienda Zuleta (Image courtesy of Hacienda Zulueta)

After a visit to the equator line, the San Pablo Lake and the Otavalo Market, we arrived at one of the absolute highlights of our journey—Hacienda Zuleta. It is a charming 4,000-acre colonial-era working farm owned by the family of Ecuador’s former president, Galo Plaza Lasso. This expansive property features a cheese factory, trout farm, condor conservation project, cattle and its own breed of horses, making the grand farmhouse a destination in itself. It may very well have the best Ecuadorian cuisine, owing to the fact that the produce doesn’t travel far to get to the plate.

The rustic yet elegant interiors immediately make you feel at home (Image courtesy of Hacienda Zulueta)
The rustic yet elegant interiors immediately make you feel at home (Image courtesy of Hacienda Zulueta)

Sipping wine by the fireplace, Margarita Plaza Lasso, one of the five daughters of the former president, explained that the spectacular dishes we sampled, namely the locro de papa as well as the trout and passion fruit pie, were faithfully created from family recipes. The hacienda’s interiors are also a sight to behold with antiques taking pride of place, ensuring that the spaces are infused with a touch of history. In fact, Margarita shared that our room (which was named after her) was where she slept as a child with her pet donkey that would wake her up every day.

The lush Amazon forest is the world’s most diverse biological reservoir
The lush Amazon forest is the world’s most diverse biological reservoir (Image: 123rf)

2/3A wild spectacle at the Amazon jungle

In the middle of the Amazon jungle, we sat in utter silence. Waiting. A single leaf fell and swayed downward towards the thick vines, and our eyes immediately locked on it. We were acutely aware of any movement in our strange, new surroundings. A bee buzzed close to my ear, drowning out the distant noises of howler monkeys, birds and insects that flooded the rainforest.
 
Suddenly, a flash of bright colours fluttered across our line of vision. The birds crisscrossed each other in mid‑air with their wings spread out to reveal a kaleidoscope of colours. We were sitting inside a concrete bind at the Yasuni National Park, which allowed us to be unseen spectators of these scarlet macaws. Later, they perched on the rocks to drink the mineral-rich water that our guide said would help neutralise the toxic seeds they would have devoured throughout the day.

Witness an avian spectacle, including these spectacular scarlet macaws, in the Amazon jungle
Witness an avian spectacle, including these spectacular scarlet macaws in the Amazon jungle (Image: 123rf)

The parrots and parakeets that followed took their time to descend onto the canopy, their chorus getting louder and louder. It was only after nearly three hours that we were rewarded with a sight of hundreds of them diving to the surface of the water. The incredible avian spectacle came to a sudden end when a fer de lance, one of the world’s most poisonous snakes, appeared and the birds took to the air in clear panic.

The Amazon rainforest is the world’s richest and most diverse biological reservoir, and we discovered just a tiny fraction of it on a four-day discovery programme arranged by La Selva Amazon Eco Lodge and Spa. Apart from bird‑viewing, we had guided hikes, night walks and dug‑out canoe rides that allowed us to encounter tiny monkeys, poisonous ants, colourful frogs and giant spiders.

We also got up-close to some spine-chilling sets of teeth while participating in piranha catching and releasing. There was time for respite and fun in the jungle, too. We enjoyed the jacuzzi and hammock in La Selva’s family suite, which was also equipped with a Tarzan-esque vine that allowed one swing through the canopy.

(Related: 5 Bucket List-Worthy Travel Experiences)

Writer Iroshini Chua retraced the path of Charles Darwin on a trip to the Galápagos Islands
The writer retraced the path of Charles Darwin on a trip to the Galápagos Islands (Image: 123rf)

3/3Cruise of a lifetime at the Galápagos Islands

The Galápagos Islands, situated off Ecuador’s coast, is made up of 19 volcanic islands scattered in the Pacific Ocean and is considered a “double” Unesco World Heritage Site (both land and sea are protected). Due to a lack of natural predators, there are some species thriving here that cannot be found anywhere else on earth. We were about to get up-close and personal with the wildlife as we retraced the footsteps of Charles Darwin—Galápagos was the place that inspired Darwin’s Theory of Evolution—on an eight-day itinerary that would bring us from Baltra to San Cristobal island.

The most efficient way of exploring Galápagos is by boat. Therefore, choosing the vessel (and booking it a year in advance) remains the most important pre-trip task. Our choice was Quasar Expeditions, which has a deep, intimate history with the islands having operated in the region for more than 30 years. Their proven model of “immersive travel”, along with the fact that the M/V Evolution vessel was recently completely refurbished, won us over.

Blue-footed boobies
The adorable blue-footed boobies (Image: 123rf)

As we expected, our cabins and the vessel’s facilities were the epitome of modern luxury and were impeccably spotless. Even before unpacking, we spotted the very bird that tops the must-see list of all 32 guests onboard—blue‑footed boobies—on Daphne Major Islet.

Every day, I got up at quarter to seven and quickly developed a habit of heading to the deck first thing in the morning. With an Ecuadorian hot chocolate in hand, I revelled in taking in the approach to our newest destination. On most days, male frigate birds (recognised by their bright red throat pouch) would glide along with the boat. On others, dolphins and hammerhead sharks approached our vessel seemingly greeting or guiding us.

(Related: Here's The Best Way To Plan Your Trip To Galapagos)

The storied interiors of Casa Gangotena, located within the historic centre
The Galápagos Islands are considered "double" Unesco heritage sites as both land and sea are protected (Image: 123rf)

Twice a day, everyone disembarked by panga boats for a range of excursions. The land excursions took us hiking through lava fields full of jagged rocks, as well as scaling heights for rewarding views of the surrounding bays and cliffs including the iconic Pinnacle Rock.

We got close to the “locals” of each island—200-year-old giant tortoises who craned their necks inquisitively, land iguanas sunbathing in the hundreds, colourful crabs that scurried upon lava rocks, as well as baby sea lions that sniffed and even followed us. We also got to witness love and war in the animal kingdom in the form of an albatross duo performing an elegant mating dance, while another attacked a juvenile hawk with gusto.

(Related: What It's Really Like On An Ultra-Luxury Cruise)

Water excursions offered another perspective of the Galápagos Islands. On a kayak, we saw flightless cormorants and pelicans dive for their feed just steps away from us. Snorkelling was perhaps the most fascinating of all. Sea lions, penguins and iguanas plunged into the water all around us, and we literally swam with white-tipped sharks, manta rays, seahorses and giant sea turtles. One turtle, measuring roughly my size, glided so close that I found myself desperately trying to suck in my belly to avoid collision. It was incredible to see tropical fish swimming alongside penguins—something I have never seen before. Aboard the M/V Evolution, the professors explained the scientific side of it in detail, as we recall these once in a lifetime encounters with the wild. 

  • Photography Kevin and Iroshini Chua, A2A Safaris and Journeys, 123RF

Tags

TravelTravelCultureEcuadorAmazonGalápagos IslandsArchitectureSouth America

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