In September I spent almost three weeks exploring the Ecuadorean mainland and Galapagos islands. Having spent a few months in Quito on my pre-university gap year back in 2005, I was interested to see the changes (of which there were plenty), visit old haunts and discover the new.
Despite the same breathtaking back-drop of the Andes, Quito felt in many ways like a different city to my first visit: certainly bigger, but also cleaner, fresher and safer. It was a pleasure to spend a few days reacquainting myself with the old town, which boasts some of the best-preserved colonial architecture in Latin America. My hotel La Casona de la Ronda, is a lovely, friendly boutique hotel on the once infamous Calle la Ronda, now a wonderful, pedestrianized, cobbled street which comes alive in the early evenings when it fills with local families, musicians and street vendors.
Next stop was Galapagos and five nights aboard the Evolution – absolutely wonderful and a million miles from my first Galapagos experience on board a small tourist-class boat! We started the itinerary in Baltra - following 'In the steps of pirates and Darwin'. It was six fantastic days and we were incredibly lucky to find clear skies greeted us every morning, as opposed to the persistant garúa (mist) for which September is known - the misty shroud which earned Galapagos the 'Enchanted Isles' name. Whilst no day could be described as a low point, my absolute highlights were snorkelling with turtles, spotting penguins for the first time, kayaking at Isabela Island and climbing Bartolomé Island for the spectacular view of Pinnacle Rock from the summit.
Evolution is a beautiful boat with the classic looks of a 1920's yacht, incredibly spacious in terms of deck space and very generous cabin sizes. The guides were both extremely knowledgeable and passionate, each with their own special interests and perspectives, it was a good mix. The crew were very accommodating - eggs to order for breakfast and last minute changes to allow us to eat al fresco whenever blustery winds allowed! The boat has a capacity for 32 passengers, which I found to be the perfect compromise between the smaller, more intimate boats and larger vessels with important perks such as two naturalist guides. I was sad to leave the ship and new-found friends early to continue on my adventures (well, and to miss the most southerly island of Española with its waved albatross and the famous blue-footed booby mating dance...).
The cloud forest
Back on the mainland I headed north to the private reserve of Mashpi in the Andean cloud forest. The property itself is a high-end ecolodge set in 3,212 acres of protected cloud forest, a very impressive almost entirely glass building of high ceilings and designer, minimalist décor. The experience is unique, the combination of a protective five-star bubble and complete immersion into the surroundings - the suites have two complete-wall windows and offer the most fantastic views into the forest. There are several biologists who work on site studying the flora and fauna of the area and who are developing a butterfly project. A biodiversity hotspot, the reserve is home to a whole host of insect, mammal, amphibian and birdlife, although as the name would suggest the misty cloud forest does not always make wildlife easy to spot!
Ecuador's Avenue of the Volcanoes
A quick whisk round the northern and southern sierras (down the wonderful and aptly named Avenue of Volcanoes) meant I was able to visit some Last Frontiers' favourites. To the north of Quito, Hacienda Cusin, a wonderful English-owned country house near Otavalo, where individual cabins dot the lovely, peaceful gardens. To the south, Hacienda Porvenir, in the foothills of Rumiñahui volcano, offers incredible views and excellent riding four kilometres from Cotopaxi National Park.
The steamy Amazon
Final stop on my Andes to Amazon exploration was of course, the steamy jungle. A short flight to Coca and journey by boat and dug-out canoe took me to Napo Wildlife Centre. Not only is this one of the few community-owned lodges in the area but also the only one actually within Yasuní National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and the largest tract of intact rain forest in Ecuador. Napo is owned 100% by the Añangu Kichwa community, not only providing jobs for them but meaning profits go back into the local community and protection of the area. Furthermore it was wildlife-tastic, we saw five different species of monkey just on our initial journey to the lodge!
Almost three weeks travelling and it was time to head home - I could easily have stayed for another three within Ecuador alone.