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Ecuador & The Galapagos Islands – The Middle of Earth, by Mary Levine

Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands – The Middle of the Earth

My journey to Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands began in 2020, pre-pandemic. But you guessed it, as was most of life as we knew it, the trip was canceled. Flash ahead to February 2022, I received a phone call from one of the sponsors, Lynne Partridge from The Waterstone Collection. Lynne called to ask if I was still interested in a Fam trip to Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands. It took me all of 30 seconds to say yes and then she said I could bring a +1, bonus!

On May 14, 2022, my husband and I boarded the first of two flights to take us to Quito where our experience begins. The flights from Chicago to Miami and then to Quito were on time and pleasant. Quito is in the same time zone which reduces the amount of time it takes to acclimate. However, the altitude is 9300’ could take some getting used to.

The in-country tour company hosting us was Metropolitan Tours. MT is a leading tour company for most of South America. They’ve been in business since 1953, and they are well respected and trusted to travel advisors and the general travel industry. We were greeted after customs and immigration, which went very smoothly and escorted to our hotel, the JW Marriott Quito for one night. During the 30-minute. transfer, our guide Giovanni reviewed our entire trip as well as local customs and general information. I learned that Ecuador uses the US Dollar as the currency, we share the same electrical voltage so no need for converters, and when traveling domestically (from Quito to Baltra to board our ship for the Galapagos), liquids are allowed and because Ecuador is on the equator, the sun rises each day at 6 am and sets each evening at 6 pm. Equal daylight vs. nighttime.

The next morning, we are met by our Metropolitan Tours driver and Lynne Partridge of The Waterstone Collection, and her husband Paul. The four of us chose to add on 2 nights at Mashpi Lodge, a rainforest hotel in the clouds. Mashpi Lodge is pure nature. The drive from Quito is roughly 3.5 hours depending on road conditions. The main road is 2 lanes for all practical purposes but, if there are heavy rains, it’s likely the road reduces to 1 lane. Once you leave the main road and enter the Mashpi Reserve, the last 30 mins or so are bumpy, and narrow, and require the expertise of an experienced driver from Metropolitan Tours to get you to the reception area safely.

Mashpi Lodge became our home in the clouds for two and a half days/nights. I never felt so at peace on arrival before. The staff was both calming and exuberant, and the surroundings were luxurious in a sustainable and eco-centric way. Never once did I feel like I was compromising on luxury or were we imposing on the natural beauty of mother nature. Mashpi Lodge combines mother nature, and the creature comforts we all enjoy in peaceful harmony.

Our room was spacious with a full wall of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out into the rainforest. They do provide blinds for guests but, waking up to the forest is a treat that you should not miss. There is no T.V. in the rooms, but, wi-fi connectivity is plentiful. The bed is super comfy, and the shower is refreshing.
After we checked in and unpacked, we met in the exploration lounge for a briefing on what to expect and how the rest of the day would play out. From there we went to the dining room for lunch before meeting our guide for our afternoon activity.

One of the best features of Mashpi Lodge is how they provide each guest(s) with dedicated staff for their entire stay. Because of the remoteness of Mashpi Lodge and for ease of taking care of the guests, the staff is ‘on’ for x number of weeks and off for x. This allows the staff to learn the likes and dislikes of the guest. It also provides camaraderie amongst the staff and gives the feel of a big family. There is always a manager of the lodge in the house as well as a paramedic and staff manager.

In the dining room, our waiter, Daniel was assigned to the 4 of us at every meal. Even if the two couples decided to dine separately, Daniel took care of all of us. The maitre’d overseen the entire dining room as did the bartender. The food at Mashpi is wonderful! The variety, always a vegan option, as well as meat and non-meat never disappoint. The presentation and quality of the food are amazing. Much of the produce and agriculture in Ecuador is organic without much effort. Because Ecuador imports very little in the way of food, most of it is local, too. I liked that the kitchen mixed in local dishes and cooking techniques wherever possible which gave the overall menu an exotic flare.

Our guide for the next 2 ½ days was Santiago. What a gem! Santiago was a guide in the Amazon and has studied Environmental Sciences at the university in Quito as well as continuing his
education (required by Mashpi Lodge) regularly. He said he studied plants for 2 years, birds, and animals for 2 years, and is focusing now on insects and fauna. He has a natural sense of what is interesting and makes learning fun. He shares that the importance of flora and fauna is the basis of our existence. How mother nature provides security to all plant life and wildlife to exist side by side. And, how food for one sector of nature comes from the demise of another.

Included in your stay are activities that keep guests busy morning, afternoon, and into the evening. They have two spa treatment rooms, as well as a jacuzzi and an outdoor studio area for yoga. Some of the experiences are complimentary and others will have a charge. Also, the lodge provides each guest with rubber boots, ponchos and/or raincoats, and walking sticks.
They have “sky bikes” and a Dragonfly Canopy Gondola for a birds-eye view of the rainforest. The guided hikes are offered throughout the day and at night. Our night hike had the challenge of being in complete darkness with only a headlamp. Santiago is masterful at finding the tiniest frog, spider, or night creature for us to marvel at while playing explorers.
One day we hiked in a river for 2 hours which included a swim in a waterfall pool. Then went to a lookout point to view the wildlife that makes their home in the rainforest. Including hummingbirds, magnificent butterflies like you’ve never seen before, and many colorful and interesting birds.

On the 3rd day, we said goodbye to Masphi Lodge and drove back to Quito to meet up with the rest of our group. We stayed two nights at Casa Gangotena Hotel, located in the heart of the Old Town. Casa Gangotena is the Grand Dame of hotels with old-world charm and ambiance. The hotel has a classic European bar and a lovely dining room. Accommodations vary in size and layout because the original building was a mansion in a previous life. The rooms are spacious with high ceilings and plenty of natural light.

In the morning we met our private guide for the day, Marco. Our tour began with a walking tour of the old city, including the Cathedral, and a history lesson about the important buildings in Independence Plaza. Next, we drove to the middle of the earth, latitude 0, where the northern and southern hemispheres meet. Marco is an excellent guide, and his knowledge and enthusiasm for Ecuador were impressive and interesting.

The next morning, we departed very early to the airport for our flight to Guayaquil and onto Baltra Island where we boarded La Pinta Yacht, our home for the next several days.

La Pinta Yacht is an expedition vessel with 24 cabins, spacious cabins, and many of the amenities found on larger ships. Meals, non-alcoholic beverages, and all activities are included. There is a full bar with a talented bartender to round out the food & beverage. The yacht provides many of the comforts of an island cruise, and each cabin is well-appointed with space to relax. The size of the yacht enables us to get closer to the individual islands with more ease. Shortly after boarding, we have an all-hands-on-deck meeting where the captain and crew are introduced and explain the nuances of the yacht to the guests and what to expect for the next 4 days.

Our first island expedition is the same afternoon to South Plaza Island. Getting to the islands is by way of a Panga Boat (the local name for a Zodiac boat) that holds 10 passengers plus 2 crew members. As we approach the island, the wildlife is in full view, including Iguanas, sea turtles, Sea Lions, and bright red crabs. The landscape of the island was perfectly described by a member of our group as “A cross between an Arizona desert, a Dali painting, and the surface of Mars – stunning . . . spectacular . . . otherworldly. Seeing the Galapagos in person vs. in books is like seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert vs. listening to his albums.”

We arrived near Santa Fe Island. Different than South Plaza, because of the landscape and the inhabitants, no humans, only flora and fauna. The La Pinta guides are all extremely knowledgeable of the islands and take the time to explain the Galapagos’ unique landscapes, ecosystems, and wildlife. All questions are welcomed and make learning fun. After hiking around the island, we get to meet some of the underwater life face-to-face. The ship provides snorkeling gear, and the islands provide entertainment, which is captivating.

The next day is San Cristobal Island for a morning exploration. The landscape is more challenging, with elevation which is different than the previous islands. The rewards are stunning views and different wildlife unique to San Cristobal. Again, we have the chance to kayak, snorkel or go for a swim. Enjoying the marine wildlife in their home, the sea.

 

The sunset sail to Isla Espanola is Happy Hour on the yacht. Just before the sun sets, someone spots an orca whale off in the distance. And, then the sky provides a stunning backdrop to close out our day. Espanola Island is the southernmost island of the Galapagos. If you want to see Boobies, Punta Suarez on Espanola Island is the place to be. They come in 3 varieties, Blue-footed, red-footed, and Nazca, and they love to ‘dance’. Let’s not forget about the other birdlife on this flat island covered in lava and boulders, including frigatebirds, albatrosses, mockingbirds, the Galapagos hawk, finches, gulls, and doves. And the Christmas Iguana has nothing to do with the holiday but, is all about its colors.

The following day, our last and before we fly back to the mainland, we get to see the Giant Tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station. We walk the grounds in search of the tortoises, which move rather slowly. And age does not make much of a difference with some being over 80 years old.

Our flight back to Guayaquil and on to Quito was time to reflect on the amazing exploration of the Galapagos Islands. Many wildlife enthusiasts will visit the islands several times in order to see each island and learn about the inhabitants that are unique to that specific location. It’s not so easy to “check the Galapagos box” without at least a 2nd visit.

I want to Thank Metropolitan Tours for sharing the Wonder of Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands and making my journey a ‘once-in-a-lifetime experience. I hope to come back soon.

Cheers,
Mary Levine

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