Evolving in Ecuador

ECUADOR (SANTA CRUZ-GALAPAGOS, GUAYAQUIL)

OVERVIEW

  • When: 27 December 2022 – 2 January 2023
  • Where (accommodations): Santa Cruz, Galapagos: La Casa de Judy; Guayaquil: Holiday Inn Airport Hotel, Hotel Del Parque
  • Transportation: LATAM airlines from Santiago de Chile to Guayaquil; LATAM airlines from Guayaquil to Baltra, Galapagos; Airport pick up/Highlands tour booked through Galapagos Low Cost; LATAM airlines Baltra to Guayaquil; LATAM/Delta airlines Guayaquil to Quito, to Atlanta and then to Boston
  • Sights/attractions: Galapagos: Highlands Tour- (Los Gemelos, El Chato Ranch- Giant Tortoise Reserve), Puerto Ayora Fish Market, Charles Darwin Research Station, Daphne island excursion, Bartolomé island excursion (both booked through Magical Trip travel agency, Stalin Peña WhatsApp +593 98 883 3358, Tortuga Bay (Santa Cruz), Zenia Spa; Guayaquil: Metropolitan Cathedral Guayaquil, Malecón 2000, La Perla, Las Peñas, Faro Cerro Santa Ana
  • Food/drinks: Galapagos: 1835 Coffee Lab, Al Mar restaurant (Puerto Ayora), Midori, Bowl Acai Bar, Finch Bay Galapagos hotel restaurant ; Guayaquil: Casa Julián, Mikka Restaurante

Ecuador- this is the last country on our South American adventure. We usually try to end our vacation with some beach time whenever possible, especially coming back to Boston in the winter. For this trip, we did not focus so much on the tropical beaches, but went with intention on getting to see more nature and wildlife.

Whenever I heard “Galapagos” I always associated it with a super expensive cruise, so for the longest time these islands were not on our radar. When planning this Christmas/New Year’s trip, I was looking for places to end it that it would be warm and near the water. After a little bit of reading, I found out that you CAN see Galapagos without being on a cruise and it’s really not that complicated. It does require a little bit of planning, but if there is a will, there is a way.

For New Year’s we returned to Guayaquil and spent two nights there before flying back to Boston. I would not say it’s a super popular destination and we would not normally choose Guayaquil, but that’s how the best flight schedule worked out. Despite several people warning about the safety (or lack thereof) in this city, we had a good time, did some sightseeing and had a relaxing end of the trip without any issues.

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS

GETTING THERE

There are at least two islands that I know of in Galapagos that you can fly into- Baltra and San Cristobal. Flights go from Quito and Guayaquil (most of them stop in Guayaquil even coming from Quito). The way our schedule worked out was that we flew from Santiago de Chile to Guayaquil late in the evening, slept a few hours at the Holiday Inn Airport hotel, and early in the morning flew from Guayaquil to Baltra.

There is nothing else in Baltra, except for the airport. 15 minute bus ride (tickets are sold at the window as soon as you exit the airport) and a few minutes boat ride ($1 cash) gets you from Baltra to Santa Cruz. Then it’s 45min drive to Puerto Ayora town. Instead of taking a taxi, we booked a Highlands tour with a final drop off at the hotel. You are driving across the island anyway, so instead of seeing nothing, the tour makes the drive a lot more interesting, and you don’t need to make a special trip from town.

How to decide which island to stay on? It depends which tours you want to do, because some only leave from Santa Cruz, while others only go from San Cristobal as these islands are not close to each other.

Santa Cruz has a well developed Puerto Ayora town and beautiful Tortuga Bay beaches. El Chato Ranch– Giant Tortoise Reserve and Charles Darwin Research Station is on this island as well. Also, most importantly, tours to a famous Bartolomé island leave from Santa Cruz. I really wanted to visit this island, so this was a determining factor- we settled on Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz as our base in Galapagos.

ACCOMMODATIONS

La Casa de Judy

There is only one high end hotel- Finch Bay Galapagos. All other places are a lot less pricey and not as fancy. We looked into it, but they did not have availability for all four nights and we did not want to move- it’s been a lot of hopping around on this trip. We also did not want to pay $600+ per night, I think it was actually close to 1k per night right before New Year’s. The place we ended up booking – La Casa de Judy was simple, but very clean and comfortable. Hotel manager and part owner Carlos was super helpful before and during our stay. When one of the excursions driver was late to pick us up, Carlos drove us to the meeting point, so that we didn’t miss the boat. Hotel room that we chose had a view of the ocean (distant view, but still a nice one), there was a pool (we did not swim, it’s not heated) and a simple breakfast was included in the cost (total just over $558 USD for four nights).

Our friends stayed at La Fortaleza De Haro and also liked it.

It’s not the Ritz, but there are a lot of nice simple accommodations to choose from in Galapagos.

TOURS AND BEACHES

Galapagos is all about nature, so to come here means very little time in the hotel and most of the time outdoors. That was another reason we did not mind simple accommodations- we only went back to the hotel to sleep. If you are on a Galapagos cruise, then I assume you are seeing different island every day and there is no need to plan any excursions. From that perspective it’s a lot easier. We had to put a little bit of effort to plan ahead.

There are a LOT of travel agencies in Puerto Ayora town. If time is not an issue, it’s probably very easy to score some great deals and last minute excursions or even cruises by showing up and booking directly. Because we only had four nights here (and it was right before the New Year, which is a busy season), we wanted to book everything as much in advance as possible.

Highlands Tour

I came across this tour while browsing Galapagos tours online and booked it while we were still in Boston. It was $75pp through Galapagos Low Cost website. What we liked about it was that we were greeted at the airport in Baltra, then the person showed us where to get the bus tickets that took us all to the boat. After a brief boat ride a driver was waiting to take us on a tour/to the hotel. We did not get much sleep before this flight, so not having to think was very relaxing. The drive from the port to Puerto Ayora goes through the highlands and we wanted to visit the El Chato Ranch- Giant Tortoise Reserve anyway, so it made sense to do it on the way from the airport. We could not check into the hotel until 3pm, so it was a perfect time to do this tour. First stop was Los Gemelos– collapsed craters.

We walked around for a bit, but did not stay very long. I wanted to see the giant tortoises! El Chato Ranch- Giant Tortoise Reserve was not that far away and the driver left us there for a little over an hour. He had to go back to pick up more people, so we had some tea, empanadas, bought a few souvenirs and did a tour with a ranch guide. Our Highlands tour did not include entrance to the ranch, we had to pay them directly.

Giant tortoises were all over – walking around, enjoying a mud bath- sharing the grass with the cows. All of them are free, this is not a zoo and most of them are over 100 yrs old.

Part of the tour was entrance to the lava tunnels right near the ranch.

You probably could do this tour cheaper by simply taking a taxi from town but because we saved time we were glad we did it this way. The Highlands are typically rainy, it started sprinkling as we were finishing the tour. The weather was very different from one end of the island to the next- sun near the airport, rain in the Highlands and mostly cloudy in Puerto Ayora.

Daphne Island Tour

We booked this tour directly at the Magical Trip agency in Puerto Ayora. Carlos from our hotel recommended Stalin Peña (we did not even know the name of the agency until we arrived to Galapagos). We were messaging Stalin on WhatsApp for about a month prior to the trip, because we were not able to find any tour to Bartolomé island online. I’ve contacted several places and all of them said it’s sold out. Stalin told us that cancellations happen, so we kept in touch and a few days before the trip he confirmed us on the tour on December 29th! We arrived on the 27th, so we had the next day free for another excursion.

There are a lot of islands with different wildlife and Stalin went over all of the available options for the tours he had. Eventually we chose Daphne, because we hoped to see manta rays (spoiler alert- we did not see them). It’s a small island, less popular than say Isabella or Seymour, but we have zero regrets.

It was a pretty small group of really nice people, which I think made this excursion so much more fun. I don’t think I’ve laughed as much on any other tours ever. We had an 11yr old Hendrick traveling with his parents and the kid was basically our comedian/entertainer. The bus and the boat ride flew by playing “Would you rather.. or..this?” Hendrick never ran out of scenarios and created just overall a great atmosphere throughout the whole day.

As far as the tour goes- we stopped at two places for snorkeling. First one was pretty wavy, but we got to see white tip sharks and turtles.

After lunch (delicious) we came to another snorkeling spot and here the visibility was MUCH better. We swam with the current along the island and saw beautiful fish, coral and several sea lions playing right near us! Pictures do not do it justice, I’ve got videos to prove it, it was a great place to see Galapagos underwater world.

Something to mention- Galapagos water at least in December is COLD. We were given wet suits and initially were hesitant, but at the end we were so glad we wore them! Even with the suit, after about 45 min of snorkeling I was shivering, and had to get back on the boat to warm up. We’ve heard that in January/February warm current comes to Galapagos, but at least at the end of December it was far from the Caribbean.

Lastly on this tour we went to relax on the beach (unfortunately I do not know the name of it) and that’s where I took the pictures I am most proud of on this trip! We got to see blue footed boobies- super cute birds that mate for life and have bright blue feet that are so unmistakably blue, they reflect of their white bellies.

When we got to this island we walked around the beach and saw that the birds are quite far away on the rock. Hendrick’s mom had a nice camera with a great zoom, so she took some photos. We thought we’ll just get some pictures from her later on. Sean decided to take a nap on the beach and I walked around and took in the surroundings.

Then I think it was our guide that said- look, the boobies are now on the rock closer to us! They were still a bit away, separated by a body of water on a pile of volcanic rocks, but not so far that I could not swim across. So I lifted my phone in one hand and walked/swam to this little rock island where the birds were just chilling not scared of me at all.

Hendrick’s mom cheered me on from the shore (she started swimming, but changed her mind) and I got all the pictures and videos I wanted (definitely went overboard, but aren’t they SO cute?!). I think it was worth doing this tour for this close encounter with the blue footed boobies alone. For the rest of the trip we saw these birds flying and diving into the ocean to catch fish, but we never were able to see them this close up. I think Sean will regret that beach nap forever 🙂 .

This was almost an all day tour- from 7.30 am to around 4pm when we were brought back to Puerto Ayora. Awesome sights, fun company, it was a really good day.

Bartolomé Island Tour

Located in the center of the archipelago, just off the coast of Santiago island, Bartolomé is one of the most photographed islands in the Galapagos.

Iconic Pinnacle Rock, incredible view from the top (involves climbing 600 m trail and 114m summit), this uninhabited island is worth a full day travel. I believe there is a limit of tours per day, because it was really hard to book it, but after pestering Stalin for a month, he finally came through and we got this tour confirmed. It was not cheap (no tours were cheap in Galapagos), it cost us $280 USD per person, but because we paid by card, it was 12% more… Almost everything would’ve been a lot cheaper if we had paid it in cash while in Ecuador.

This tour was with a a pretty large group- we had a bus full of people and just as the previous day, it was a 45 min ride to the port (close to the airport). From there we boarded a big boat and went on a 2+ hour journey (luckily nobody was seasick, myself included). There were multiple snacks and lunch provided as well as the snorkeling equipment and the wet suits.

The group was divided in two and with the guides we went up to the top to see this incredible view. Along the way the guide told us about the plants, the history, answered any questions we had about the animals- he clearly has done this tour many times before.

The climb was not hard, we wore our water shoes and were comfortable.

Afterwards we took the small dingy boat near the rock to see Galapagos penguins- there were 3 of them relaxing there.

And lastly we went snorkeling. There were sea lions, sharks and A LOT of various kinds of star fish.

We swam to the beach, but did not have time to sunbathe- it was time to go back. This was even a longer tour than yesterday- it started at 6.30am and we were back after 5pm. Excellent excursion though- very different from Daphne, but that’s what was great about these islands- they each have their own landscape and a different wildlife.

Tortuga Bay/Playa Brava/Playa Mansa (Santa Cruz)

On our last full day in Galapagos we remained on Santa Cruz, had breakfast in Puerto Ayora town and walked over to Tortuga Bay. It would be a shame to stay on this island and miss this gem. Also, previous days were overcast and for this one beach day we finally got sun!

From the center of town it’s an easy walk (around 30-40 min). Alternatively you can take a boat which runs every hour or so from Puerto Ayora port. We decided to walk to the beach and take the boat back (or that was the plan).

First beach you will reach is Playa Brava– gorgeous white sand, wide and long, but strong rip currents and big waves. Swimming is not recommended there and we did not even attempt it.

Playa Mansa is just a short walk away through the mangrove path and is completely sheltered from the waves. There were iguanas everywhere (mainly on Playa Brava) and a sea lion was playing in the waters of Playa Mansa. Eventually he (or she:) ) laid down behind us in the sand and took a long nap. We know it was sleeping, because we heard the snores.

Up until visiting Tortuga Bay I thought Galapagos does not really have beaches. I don’t know why I thought that, but maybe because the water was cold while snorkeling, I thought nobody goes to the beach to swim either. Well, surprise surprise- Playa Mansa water was very warm, calm and Playa Brava for sure is one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve seen to date.

It was a perfect afternoon relaxing and when we were ready to go back for lunch, we figured we’ll take the boat. We came at the spot where we saw it arriving every hour previously and waited. And waited. Another couple came and we soon found out that the boat is not coming for ANOTHER hour. So we all walked back. Well, you know how they say ‘everything happens for a reason’? Had this boat showed up we probably would’ve talked to the travelers from Kenya for a short time and parted separate ways. But as we started walking together we talked and talked and never ran out of topics. Forty minute walk back to town seemed a lot shorter while walking with the new friends. Then we all decided to take a boat to Isla Grill restaurant for lunch. We’ve heard it’s great, but by the time we arrived they closed, so we ended up having a bite at the Finch Bay hotel (the very expensive one, that was sold out).

Lunch was good and their pool is heated, but after seeing it we were glad we did not end up staying there. In order to go to town you have to take a boat each time, it’s a bit isolated, though of course it looked nice from what we could tell. Still no regrets on our La Casa de Judy accommodations 🙂 . We took a boat back to town together and later on met up for dinner. It was such a great time, so many similar interests- we REALLY hope to see them again in Kenya (or anywhere else in the world). They actually went to Isabella island afterwards for another few nights and said that it had even more amazing beaches and a lot more sunshine- something to keep in mind when planning Galapagos trip.

PUERTO AYORA

The main town and port in Santa Cruz island is super charming- lots of little boutiques, souvenir shops and cafes. We walked around the first and the last day of our stay in Galapagos and had dinner in a few good restaurants. Charles Darwin Research Station is short walk from the main street and we visited the first afternoon of our arrival. You need a guide, which gets assigned when you come to the entrance and pay the fee. They do tours I believe every 30 minutes, so we had to wait a little bit until the small group of visitors formed and we started the tour.

While we waited, we checked out near by beach- Playa de La Estación. There were people snorkeling, but we did not have the time and it was not warm or sunny, plus the tour was about to start.

Charles Darwin visited Galapagos in 1835. Even though he spent only five weeks on the islands, the wildlife he saw in Galapagos inspired him to develop his Theory of Evolution. He was the first geologist on the islands and his legacy here is very strong.

The tour was about 50 minutes long, we heard a lot about the plants, wildlife, saw the tortoise breeding center and the taxidermied Lonesome George– the last known Pinta Island tortoise that passed away in 2012 at the estimated age of 100 yrs old.

Darwin is everywhere in Puerto Ayora- streets named after him, wall art, even one of our favorite lunch spots was called 1835 Coffee Lab. We really liked the shrimp burger there and everything else was delicious too.

Talking about food- we went to Bowl Acai caffe twice for breakfast- excellent bowls and coffee.

Our favorite dinner was at Al Mar– the restaurant with the view of the water. Great drinks and the lobster- it was better than in Boston and we have wonderful lobsters here!

Our second favorite was Midori – sushi restaurant with a very interesting drink and maki rolls options.

We also tried Bahia Mar for dinner- it was ok, but the service was extremely slow- took them almost an hour to bring our dinner and I was too hungry to bother with the photos.

While in Puerto Ayora you cannot miss their Fish Market– right in front of the water, basically in the middle of the town. It’s impossible to miss, because it’s always surrounded by pelicans (and other birds) and even sea lions waiting for fish scraps. It was very entertaining to watch the animals beg just like dogs near the table.

Nature and people share the space here and it’s so unique and at the same time so natural.

We really liked Puerto Ayora and were glad we stayed here.

On our last morning, before taking a taxi back to the airport we booked massages at the Zenia Spa– very close to our hotel and right near the Bar Acai- clean, simple but very good massages! Once again, if paid by cash it’s 12% cheaper than using the card…

I don’t think I mentioned this, but in Ecuador the currency is USD. There is no exchange, conversion, nothing- just bring the good old American dollars (plenty of them, Galapagos aren’t cheap).

For the last two days of our trip we went to Guayaquil- we wanted to be on the mainland Ecuador before the long flights home, so that’s where we met the New Year 2023!

GUAYAQUIL

We were leaving the islands on December 31st and were met (literally) by a very interesting Ecuadorian tradition. On the last day of the year, grown men dress up as women (very sexy women) and pretend to be ‘viudas‘ or widows. They block the road and ask for money (you don’t need to give much, some coins is enough). We had a few of such ‘road blocks’ before getting to the airport and found it very funny.

Another interesting tradition- burning the paper dolls ‘viejos‘. They can be any character- from politicians, to sports figures, to any famous people. We only saw some near the port before leaving Galapagos and hoped to see more in Guayaquil. Unfortunately, when we landed the Uber driver told us that most of the doll burnings will be happening in the gated communities, and overall we should not be walking around in the dark unless we are near the hotel. Several people warned us that Guayaquil crime rate is high and to be careful. Not exactly the New Year’s we were hoping for, but at least it’s warm!

Hotel Del Parque

One of the best rated hotels in Guayaquil (that’s the reason Sean booked it), old historical building and in a safe, somewhat secluded area of Parque Histórico Guayaquil. It really is a beautiful property and a very pleasant, accommodating staff.

It was an interesting start though.

When we arrived in the evening of the New Year’s Eve we had dinner booked at the adjacent restaurant Casa Julián (it was excellent multi course meal) and asked if hotel has anything special going on for the actual New Year’s party.

According to our Uber driver every hotel was having a party, music, entertainment etc. We were told ‘no,’ there is no party because the hotel is in the park/there are birds in the gardens, and they cannot be disturbed by the noise. Sounds super weird, but sure, protecting nature. I wonder what those birds thought about the fireworks 🙂 .

We did not look up in advance (our bad), but for some reason we thought they had a pool (it is VERY hot in Guayaquil and most hotels have pools). No, they do not have a pool. How about massages on the last day, before we go to the airport? Yes, we can arrange it, but the shower would be at the gym, there is no actual spa area. That’s just odd for a 5 star property that costs 3 times more per room than any other hotel in the city.

I think I actually asked Sean: “Why are we staying here?” The front desk girl I am sure saw my face and was super nice. She upgraded us to the Presidential Suite (the place was bigger than our apartment by a lot), she told us that we can have late check out and have shower in the room after the massages on our last day, AND she let us use their Oro Verde property pool in another location. We were very grateful and even though there was no New Year party, it ended up being a good evening and a nice stay at this hotel.

We dressed up, enjoyed dinner, and got our 12 grapes ready for midnight. Another Ecuadorian tradition is to eat 12 grapes (one for each month of the year). We ate them at midnight while watching the fireworks off the pier near the hotel.

I guess we had to do it when it was one minute left until the new year, but nobody explained it to us as tourists ;). Oh well, hopefully we still have a successful year ahead.

Guayaquil sights

We knew it’s not a safe city, so the sightseeing was fairly minimal. We went mid day and I did not wear any jewelry to not look flashy just in case. I don’t know if there was any real danger, we did not have anyone trying to grab a phone when I was taking photos and we saw a lot of police in all of the popular spots, but after all the warnings I think we were just a little on edge.

Our first stop on the New Year’s day was Metropolitan Cathedral Guayaquil and we happened to arrive just as the Mass started, so we stayed until the end.

Beautiful church, it was nice to visit.

From there we walked towards Malecón 2000– a popular boardwalk. We saw these fun installations and a beautiful plaza along the way.

Malecón 2000 was lively, clean with lots of security and we definitely felt safe. It’s a pretty long walk with food and souvenir stands, Torre Morisca (Clock Tower) and La Perla– the largest Ferris Wheel in Latin America!

This area was really nice and reminded me of Europe a bit. From there we walked toward Las Peñas historical neighborhood and climbed the 456 steps to the top of Santa Ana Hill and even more steps to Faro Cerro Santa Ana (lighthouse).

It’s a very nice colorful neighborhood, but it was a hot day, so all these steps did not feel super charming at the moment.

Great views from the top though!

I am glad we brought the bathing suits, because we were beyond ready for the Oro Verde pool after this afternoon of sightseeing. We grabbed the Uber and spent the rest of the day relaxing by the pool. We grabbed lunch at their bar and had one of the best soups on this trip- traditional Ecuadorian potato soup. It was delicious!

For our last dinner we went to Mikka– sushi & Peruvian restaurant in sort of an open mall area called Plaza Lagos. AMAZING food and one of the staff members gave us a ride back to the hotel, because there were no Ubers to be found after we finished dinner. We really met super nice people on this trip.

On our last day we enjoyed the 1.5 hr massages, had lunch at Casa Julián (in the top 100 South American restaurants, just like Mikka!) went back to the pool and then the long travel home began.

Guayaquil- Quito- Atlanta- Boston on the overnight flight. I took the day off, Sean went straight to work, not sure how he managed that.

CONCLUSION

An amazing experience, so many animals, so much incredible food! It was great to know that you can go to Galapagos and not pay thousands of dollars to be on a cruise. That was my main revelation on this Ecuador part of the trip. Would we do something differently? Maybe. We would probably split the time between Santa Cruz and Isabella or another island, just to experience more island vibes. If we had more time, we would have done more excursions. Also, we’d most likely skip Guayaquil and spend a couple of days in Quito instead. But Quito was colder and we were coming back to Boston in winter, so every warm day counts, therefore no regrets. Forever lasting memories, great country to start off the New Year.

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