The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador: Allie Almario of Premier Tours.
Allie’s passion for wildlife conservation, photography, and indigenous cultures helps explain her fascination with Latin America, especially the Galapagos Islands. As the former executive director of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association, Allie has a bead on which ships operate sustainably and support local conservation efforts—and which don’t. She can pinpoint the best luxury ship for your needs, and she can even acquire a private guide (for a price) if you prefer private shore excursions. If you’re spending a few days on Santa Cruz Island, she can arrange for you to interact with the one part of the ecosystem that visitors so often miss—the Galapagos’ human inhabitants. Allie helped edit the bestselling guide to the region, The Galapagos Islands: The Essential Handbook for Exploring, Enjoying and Understanding Darwin’s Enchanted Islands, and she served as location scout for the acclaimed documentary The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best-value splurge hotels
Casa Gangotena, an exquisite mansion in Quito’s Old Town, is one of the city’s two five-star hotels, but its location can’t be beat. It’s right on the lovely Plaza San Francisco and a short walk to other must-see sights, including the Presidential Palace. The service is also top-notch: Where else would you find white-gloved waiters serving breakfast at 3 a.m. for guests with early-morning flights? Book a plaza-view room for that classic panorama of the colonial architecture topped with snow-capped volcanoes. There is nothing like sitting on the rooftop balcony with a drink while watching the glow of the sunset bathe the Plaza San Francisco in soft hues of red and orange.
Hacienda Zuleta, owned by the family of a former Ecuadorian president, is among the highest-rated boutique hotels anywhere in South America. No wonder, since you may be joined at the nightly cheese-and-wine happy hour or courtyard bonfires by the president’s daughter or other family members. (They are fervent supporters of rehabilitating local wildlife like the Andean condor.) Expect hot-water bottles tucked into your bed, fresh roses in your room, and embroidered linens hand-stitched by nearby villagers.
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
In Otavalo—a town about two hours north of Quito made famous by its huge Indian market—stay at Hacienda Cusin. The rates are remarkably reasonable, given how much attention to detail has gone into restoring this seventeenth-century estate and its lovely gardens: The rooms are decorated with museum-quality textiles from the owner’s personal collection, for instance, and dozens of fragrant roses bob gently in the water fountains. (The landscaping also attracts an astounding array of birds.) Don’t be surprised to find a special surprise under your blankets—a toasty hot-water bottle to chase away the chill of the Andes. You could fill several days here with hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and Spanish classes.
Restaurants the locals love
Zazu is an Ecuadorian fusion restaurant that creates modern flavors out of typical local ingredients and dishes. When you dine here, you are treated like you are the favorite guest ever. Save room for the helado de paila; this traditional Ecuadorian sorbet is prepared tableside in a brass pan (called a paila). Even better are its simple and pure ingredients—just fresh fruit and real cane sugar, nothing else.
Dish to try
You don’t want to hear this, but it’s the guinea pig (known as cuy). Get it roasted—al horno. Believe it or not, it tastes just like chicken. Just don’t look at the face or claws. Look for it at a local mom-and-pop restaurant; it’s often promoted heavily on the signage, as it’s an expensive treat (anywhere from $10 to $20) for Ecuadorians.
What to See and Do
La Ronda in the Old City of Quito. What used to be a rambling, dangerous mess of forgotten side streets has been revamped into a pedestrian-only showcase of whitewashed cobblestone alleyways, home to strolling musicians, street art, little restaurants, and craft shops that beckon you in. It’s one of the most pleasant ways to spend an evening in the city.
The equator obelisk, located just outside Quito, seems to make for a great photo op as you straddle both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, but it’s not actually on the equator! The true equatorial line is 300 yards away.
The Inti Nan Museum on the true equator near Quito. This is where you bring your kids to balance an egg on a nail, or watch water swirl in a drain clockwise in one hemisphere and counterclockwise just one step away in the other hemisphere. The cultural exhibits are an added treat: Test your skills at blow darts and get an up-close look at a real shrunken human head from the Amazon.
Quito has more gold-leafed, architecturally stunning churches than you can shake a stick at. But take a closer look at the exterior at the Basilica of the National Vow, perched imperiously above the city. Is that a…marine iguana? Yes, this may be the only basilica in the world decorated with gargoyles of some of the world’s most endangered wildlife. And for just $3, thrill-seekers can climb up a rickety set of steps and ladders to the tower for unobstructed views of the city.
Take a private after-hours tour of Quito’s spectacular Mindalae Ethnographic Museum, known for its collection of indigenous handicrafts and art. In the evening, the lighting in the galleries takes on a different atmosphere, and the hushed hallways bring a sort of reverence to the artwork. After the tour, you’ll have a candlelight dinner at Rumiloma, a luxury hacienda overlooking the Quito Valley, at which Allie always adds a few special touches—perhaps a kitchen tour with the chef or a private wine-tasting.
Have a wander around the Jardin Botanico in Quito, a lovely park that features Ecuador’s astonishing collection of orchids. The rarity, vibrant color, and delicacy of each orchid are just breathtaking. There’s nothing like sleeping in, waking up to a typical Ecuadorian breakfast—strong coffee, fresh watermelon juice, crusty bread slathered in butter, empanadas, and fried sweet plantains—and then spending an afternoon in these gardens.
Any Quito local will tell you never to look at the weather forecast: “They’ll always say it’ll be cloudy and cool. And it will be. Then it will be sunny and hot!” Even so, the weather tends to be consistently pleasant from June to September.
April can be rainy.
No doubt in Quito it’s from the teleferico, the cable-car ride overlooking the city and the endless valleys of the Andes Mountains, dotted with some of the world’s highest and most active volcanoes. If you’re lucky enough to be there just after fresh rain, you might catch a rainbow over the city.
Head to Otavalo, just short of two hours from Quito. This is the epicenter of many of the best artisans in Latin America and home to one of the largest indigenous markets on the continent. While Saturday is the big market day, it’s also the day that is most crowded with busloads of tourists—some call it Gringo Day. On other days, it’s less crowded, which sometimes means you get better bargains; haggling is expected. Must buys: the Panama hat, which actually originated in Ecuador, and hand-loomed weaving, made with centuries-old designs. You can also pick up inexpensive long strands of red-beaded necklaces that are hand-strung and traditionally worn by the Otavalo women.
Be careful if you get offered a last-minute “bargain Galapagos cruise.” You may think you’re scoring a deal from a friendly local—except the Galapagos ship you just paid for doesn’t even exist.
If you want to see both the Galapagos and northern Ecuador (including Quito and Otavalo): Start with a cruise to the Galapagos, flying directly into Guayaquil (GYE) from Miami. Most hotels are just a few minutes away from the airport, and most departures to the Galapagos are nonstop, lasting 90 minutes. Then book your return flight from the Galapagos into Quito.
If you’re flying to Quito (UIO) from the United States, try to arrive no later than 10pm. The airport is roughly 45 minutes from downtown, and it will take you at least an hour to collect your luggage and go through customs. Note that many Galapagos flights originate in Quito before stopping in Guayaquil, so you may have a pre-dawn pick-up if you’re headed to the islands; the night before that flight, stay at an airport hotel.
On your way home: The Quito airport doesn’t have any airline-specific VIP lounges, but you can use the airport’s private lounge for about $35 per person. This is a comfortable way to kill a few hours if you are flying back from the Galapagos around dinnertime but have to check in at 9pm for your midnight flight home. Those with longer layovers, or who need to overnight for a morning flight, should consider the Wyndham Gran Condor, just five minutes away.
Here’s something not to pack: Ecuador is one of the few “plug and play” countries for Americans—the electrical voltage and outlets are the same as ours, so you don’t need to bring plug adapters or expensive converters with you.