Galápagos
Latin America

Ecuador & Galápagos Islands

Itinerary: Quito – Parque Nacional Cotopaxi – Laguna Quilotoa – Cuenca – Parque Nacional Cajas – Isla Santa Cruz – Isla Bartolomé – Isla Seymour Norte

Ecuador is located on the northwest coast of Latin America, on the Pacific Ocean, south of Colombia and north of Peru. The equator runs straight through the country, hence the name. Ecuador is modest in size, but has great biodiversity and a varied landscape. In the center of the country the Andes mountains run from north to south (the Sierra). To the east of the Andes lies the jungle of the Amazon region (the Oriente) and to the west a low-lying coastal strip. And of course, a thousand kilometers off the coast lie the world-famous Galápagos Islands.

Ecuador was a stable and safe travel destination for many years. But in recent years the economic situation in the country has deteriorated and the influence and violence of criminal networks has increased. Early 2024 Ecuador witnessed a period of unrest and since then the government of Ecuador has taken strict security measures. When I travel to the Latin American country (June 2024), the situation has somewhat normalized, however, a state of emergency and a curfew are still in force.

Quito

After a flight of more than eleven hours, I land at Mariscal Sucre international airport near the Ecuadorian capital Quito on Saturday, June 15 around 3 PM local time. There’s a long line at customs, almost an hour later I am finally in a taxi. It’s an hour’s drive from the airport to the center of Quito. The city, which has approximately two million inhabitants, is located in the middle of the Andes mountains. In all directions there are mountain peaks on the horizon.

Quito, named after the historic Quitu people, is located at 2,850 meters above sea level, making it the highest capital in the world. In the middle of the modern city is the Centro Histórico (aka Old Town), which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Where Quito is now was once an important Inca city. The Incas did not arrive in what is now Ecuador from Peru until the fifteenth century, and their stay was short, as the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the early sixteenth century. In 1534, the Spanish took what is now Quito, but not before the Incas destroyed the entire city. Partly because of this, nothing remains of the old Inca city.

quito ecuador
Quito

When we drive into the city, the enormous height differences are striking. The city is built on, between and against the mountain slopes. The access roads wind between rocks and cliffs and in the city itself most streets run steeply up (or down, depending on your perspective). I stay in the Mariscal neighborhood, north of the Centro Histórico in the modern part of the city, where I check into my hostel around 5 PM. Due to the seven-hour time difference with the Netherlands, my biological clock is at midnight.

On my first day in Quito I explore the Centro Histórico. To get there, I use the brand new metro line that has been connecting various neighborhoods of Quito since 2023. I ride three stops and get off at Plaza San Francisco, right in the historic center. When I look up, I see blue sky interspersed with some clouds, and it is about fifteen degrees, perfect weather for exploring the city.

Plaza San Francisco is a large square with cobblestones and along the entire west side of the square the white plastered facade of the Iglesia de San Francisco, the oldest church in Ecuador, built between 1534 and 1604. It is also the largest colonial building in Quito. On the south side of the square, El Panecillo rises above the buildings, a hill with the 41-meter-high aluminum statue La Virgen de Quito on top.

quito ecuador
Quito

From the Plaza de San Francisco I walk to the central square of the historic center of Quito: Plaza de la Independencia. This green and lively square, originally called Plaza Grande, has (palm) trees, benches, fountains and the independence monument in the middle. There are a number of important monumental buildings from colonial times surrounding the square. On the northeast side is the white-plastered Palacio Arzobispal, a former episcopal palace. The white building on the northwest side of the square is the heavily secured Palacio de Carondelet, the residence and workplace of the President of Ecuador. On the southwest side of the square is the Catedral Metropolitana de Quito.

I walk through the atmospheric colonial streets around Plaza de la Independencia, where the street scene is determined by restored colonial buildings with balconies and plastered facades in different pastel colors. Via (the slightly less beautiful) Plaza Santo Domingo I pass La Ronda, a narrow cobblestone street with restored seventeenth-century buildings. Via the Arco de la Reina I arrive at the Museo de la Cuidad, located in a hospital built in 1563. The museum appears to be closed, the nearby Museo de Arte Colonial is in a beautiful old building, but is otherwise quite disappointing.

Then I walk to Mirador Itchimbia in the San Blas district. The streets run up the hill and after the last part via a staircase I arrive at the top. From here you have a beautiful view of Quito. I walk back to Mariscal in ‘New Town’ via the San Blas district. Unlike the Centro Histórico, New Town is not really a beautiful or attractive part of the city. The small La Alameda park contains the old Quito Observatory from 1864. The park also has a large statue of the Venezuelan freedom fighter Simón Bolívar. The Ecuadorians owe their independence to him, because it was Bolívar who defeated the Spanish in 1822. Bolívar wanted to merge Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador into one country, Grand Colombia, but that was not a success and Ecuador has been independent since 1830.

I return to my hostel via the green Parque El Ejido. At the end of the afternoon I will have dinner at a good restaurant near my hotel. I order cuy, or guinea pig. Just like in Peru, this is a popular dish in Ecuador, only at this restaurant they do not serve the guinea pig in its entirety, as is often the case when you order cuy (and which has always been a reason for me not to order it), instead the meat is filleted, rolled up like a roulade and then roasted. The dish is very good and guinea pig turns out to be quite greasy and tastes a bit like a mix between duck and pork.

Parque Nacional Cotopaxi

Ecuador has no fewer than 84 volcanoes within its borders, the largest number after Indonesia and Chile. Of those 84 volcanoes, 24 are active; the Chimborazo volcano is the highest mountain in the country at 6,310 meters. Quito lies in a valley between two mountain ranges of the Andes that run from north to south and both include a series of volcanoes. Five of them are located in the Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, which I visit with a group of five travelers plus a guide and driver.

parque nacional cotopaxi
Parque Nacional Cotopaxi

We drive out of Quito towards the south, on the Panamericana, the main road that runs from Alaska in the north of North America across the entire American continent to the south of Chile. The road here is called the ‘Avenue of the Volcanoes’ and that is an appropriate name, because from the road one volcano after another looms in the distance. From the road you can also clearly see that the valley is located between two mountain ranges. The environment is greener than I expected in the sierra.

After a coffee stop we drive into Parque Nacional Cotopaxi. This large national park covers 334 square kilometers and is located about fifty kilometers south of Quito. In addition to the Cotopaxi volcano, the volcanoes Morurco (4,880m), the Rumiñahui (4,722m) and the Sinchologua (4,899m) are also within the park’s boundaries. There is a small museum, with explanations about the three ecosystems in the area: the subpáramo from 3,400 to 3,900 meters above sea level, the páramo from 3,900 to 4,400 meters and the superpáramo from 4,400 to 4,900 meters above sea level. Before we continue, we drink coca tea (tea made from coca leaves) against altitude sickness.

The Cotopaxi volcano is 5,897 meters high, making it the second highest volcano in Ecuador after Chimborazo. It’s a huge free-standing volcano with a snow-capped peak and an almost perfectly symmetrical shape, which rises majestically above the surroundings. It’s an impressive mountain both from a distance and up close. That is, if the Cotopaxi is visible. At this altitude in the Andes the weather is unpredictable and very changeable. One moment you see a volcano, the next moment it has disappeared into the clouds. At first we drive through a gray fog, but as we get closer to the Cotopaxi, the sky opens and we see the impressive volcano. During the time we are here, fog/clouds will shroud the volcano in mist several more times, only to reveal it again.

parque nacional cotopaxi
Parque Nacional Cotopaxi

At the end of the bumpy road is an unpaved parking lot. From here it’s a half-mile walk to the Refugio José Rivas, at 4,864 meters above sea level. This may sound like a simple short walk, but then you are forgetting that the unpaved path goes up the slope and you are at more than 4,800 meters. At this height you get out of breath very quickly, so you have to walk up at a very slow pace. Step by step I walk up the fairly steep slope, over volcanic ash and stone, and I often have to stop to catch my breath. After a few minutes I also start to feel dizzy, the world spins as if I’ve had too much to drink. According to the guide this is normal… The short distance of just one kilometer takes us almost an hour!

I arrive at the refugio exhausted and panting heavily. On a clear day you have a wide view of the surroundings, with a number of other volcanoes in the distance, but the fog/clouds that are continuously brought in by the strong wind mean that we cannot see that far. However, some view regularly appears. In any case, the tough climb has been worth it; I’m glad I did it – and survived it 🙂 We descent slowly as well, but this is a lot easier.

The páramo that makes up the vast environment of the Cotopaxi is mainly grassland. There are various wild animals, including wild horses (which we also encounter along the way), llamas (we see just one), caracaras (a bird species of which I also spot one), and foxes (I find one curious specimen on the parking lot at the Cotopaxi). After a quick stop at the Laguna Limpiopungo, a somewhat underwhelming lake at the foot of the Rumiñahui volcano, and a late lunch we drive back to Quito.

Laguna Quilotoa

For Wednesday I have booked a tour to the Laguna Quilotoa. With a small group (four travelers plus guide and driver) we first drive south on the Panamericana again. At the town of Latacunga we turn right into the mountainous interior of the province of Cotopaxi. This area is mainly inhabited by the indigenous people of Ecuador, who speak Quechua (called Kichwa in Ecuador) and whose agricultural lifestyle has changed little in recent centuries, apart from some modern conveniences. The indigenous population makes up a quarter of the population of Ecuador (the rest consists of mestizos, a mix of indigenous and Spanish) and are at the bottom of the social ladder in the Ecuadorian society, which is strongly divided into social classes; more than eighty percent of them live in poverty.

andes mountains
Andes Mountains

We drive through the beautiful mountainous area of ​​the Andes with small villages and many panoramic views. Along the way we stop at a thatched hut that shows how people lived here for centuries and what crops they still grow to this day. They also breed guinea pigs, which are served as cuy in restaurants. We also stop briefly in the hamlet of Tigua, where locals create colorful paintings depicting local life and ancient legends. Before we arrive at the Laguna Quilotoa, we also stop at the Toachi River Canyon, a thirty kilometer long crack in the ground (to put it a bit disrespectfully), which was created as a result of one of the eruptions of the Quilotoa volcano. After driving for almost three hours through the beautiful landscape of the Andes, we arrive at the Laguna Quilotoa.

The Laguna Quilotoa is a large crater lake in the Quilotoa volcano, which was probably formed in the year 1280 after a major eruption of the volcano. During that eruption, the top of the volcano imploded and the crater lake was created. The Laguna Quilotoa is located 3,915 meters above sea level and has a diameter of three kilometers and is approximately 250 meters deep. From the edge of the volcano you have a wide view of the large crater lake, about four hundred meters lower. When the sun shines the water of the lake is turquoise, but today clouds block the sun and the water is a deep dark blue. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful place, which reminds me of Crater Lake in Oregon, USA.

laguna quilotoa
Laguna Quilotoa

An unpaved path leads down from the crater rim. I walk a bit down the path, past two points with beautiful views over the crater lake. I don’t walk all the way down, because that also means going back up via the steep path, a literally breathtaking climb comparable to the walk on the Cotopaxi volcano, which I’m not planning on doing again. After another late lunch we drive back to Quito in three hours. Why all the activities on tours like this are scheduled before lunch is beyond me…

Cuenca

On Thursday morning I can take it easy, because I won’t be picked up by a taxi until ten AM to go to the airport. It’s not very busy there and I get through baggage control in no time. At one PM my flight of about an hour leaves to the city of Cuenca in the south of Ecuador. Cuenca’s small airport is located in the middle of the city and the taxi ride to my hostel in the center of Cuenca only takes a few minutes.

After checking in to my hostel I walk to the nearby Plaza de San Sebastián, an attractive square with a small park in the middle, some cafes and restaurants and the inevitable church with the same name as the square. Soon the clouds increase and afternoon showers roll in. I sit under a parasol at a Belgian bistro on Plaza de San Sebastián and order a Belgian craft beer. The snacks menu also includes ‘bitterballen’ (a Dutch snack); of course I have to try that, if only because it is quite bizarre to eat bitterballen in Ecuador. It turns out that they are not really ‘authentic’ Dutch bitterballen, but something remotely similar.

cuenca ecuador
Cuenca

Cuenca is located at 2,530 meters above sea level, slightly lower than Quito, and, like the Ecuadorian capital, it has a well-preserved colonial center from the sixteenth century, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Cuenca was founded by the Spanish in 1557 on the site of the Inca city of Tomebamba. The Cañari lived here even earlier, but virtually nothing of either civilization can be found anymore.

On Sunday I have all day to explore Cuenca. The city, which has approximately 330,000 inhabitants, feels less busy and more laid-back than Quito. The largest square in the historic center is Parque Calderón, named after the Ecuadorian freedom fighter whose statue stands in the middle of an attractive green square with trees and benches. There are no fewer than two cathedrals on the square, the old white-plastered one from 1557, and the ‘new’ one made of red brick from 1885, with four enormous domes covered with blue tiles. A little further on is another square, Plaza de San Francisco, surrounded by colonial buildings, the inevitable church and market stalls.

cuenca ecuador
Cuenca

I walk through the atmospheric streets with old colonial buildings and here and there I also come across beautiful street art. The historic center of Cuenca is bordered on the south by the Tomebamba river, which flows through the city like a green border, with the newer part of the city on the other side. The Paseo 3 de Noviembre runs along the green-lined water. Museo Pumapungo is located on the east side of the old center. This modern museum has an exhibition about Ecuador’s indigenous cultures. At the back there is an ‘archaeological park’, where the foundations of what was once the Inca city of Tomebamba lie. Nearby, between Calle Larga and Aavenida Todos los Santos, you can also see some remains of the Inca city.

Parque Nacional Cajas

From Cuenca I do a tour to Parque Nacional Cajas. This national park is located about thirty kilometers west of Cuenca and consists of more than 2,800 square kilometers of protected nature reserve. The area is dominated by the mountains of the Andes and high-altitude páramo (grassland), but what makes Parque Nacional Cajas special are the more than two hundred small lakes that dot the páramo. There is a lot of rain here, which makes the ground spongy and fills the lakes, water that flows to Cuenca via the Tomebamba river.

In Parque Nacional Cajas we visit two places. First the lower area around Laguna Llaviucu, at an altitude of 3,000 meters. There we take a walk of one and a half hours around the lake, which is an important migration area for birds. The surroundings are beautiful, the mountains reflect in the water of the lake. We don’t see any birds, but we do see many special flowers and plants, and a group of wild llamas. After this walk we go to a higher location, at 4,300 meters above sea level. Mirador Tres Cruces is one of the highest spots in Parque Nacional Cajas, right on the Continental Divide. You have a fantastic panoramic view over the páramo, with mountains as far as the eye can see and lakes in the depths sparkling in the sun. The guide takes us a bit further from the mirador, along a narrow trail over a ridge/ridge, with even more fantastic views. An amazing environment.

parque nacional cajas
Parque Nacional Cajas

In addition to mainland Ecuador, I will also visit the Galápagos Islands during my trip. To get there, I travel from Cuenca in a shared van to the second largest city in Ecuador, the port city of Guayaquil. The drive takes three and a half hours, of which the first three quarters goes through the mountains of the Andes. Then the road descends to sea level and the last part to Guayaquil is flat. The end point of the transfer turns out to be two hundred meters from my hotel, so I walk the last part. The hotel is close to Guayaquil airport, where my flight to the Galápagos Islands departs the next morning.

Galápagos Islands

The Galápagos Islands are located in the Pacific Ocean, near the equator and about a thousand kilometers off the coast of South America. The archipelago consists of thirteen larger and 115 smaller islands, five of which are inhabited by humans, and is named after the giant tortoises that live there (Galápago is an old Spanish word for turtle).

The islands were formed four to five million years ago by underwater volcanic eruptions. And volcanic activity continues to this day, with the islands in the northwest of the archipelago in particular having active volcanoes. In 1535, the islands were discovered accidentally by Tomás de Berlanga, whose boat had drifted off course. It was not until the eighteenth century that the Galápagos Islands were further explored and from the nineteenth century the islands were widely used as a stop for fishermen and sealers. In 1832 the islands were claimed by Ecuador. The Galápagos Islands have been a national park since 1959 and have been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1978.

galápagos giant tortoise
Galápagos Giant Tortoise

The Galápagos Islands are inextricably linked to the name Charles Darwin, who visited the islands in 1835. He collected specimens there and made notes about both the landscape and the animal species that lived there. The insights Darwin gained on the Galápagos Islands contributed to his later theory of evolution.
The islands have never been connected to the mainland of South America. This means that all plants and animal species found on the islands must have somehow reached the initially lifeless islands via water or air. The species that reached the islands adapted to the harsh conditions on the islands. The best adapted survived – the essence of Darwin’s theory of evolution – and formed new species found only on the Galápagos Islands.

The arrival of humans has changed the situation, because humans brought with them animals and plants that were not endemic and that now pose a threat to the survival of certain endemic animal and plant species, thereby endangering the unique biodiversity of the Galápagos Islands. The ecosystem on the islands is vulnerable and half of all animal and plant species on the islands are threatened with extinction.

Isla Santa Cruz

You can visit the Galápagos Islands in two ways: by booking a cruise where you stay day and night on a boat that visits various islands (the expensive option), or by staying on one (or more) of the islands and do day tours from there (the cheaper option). I chose the latter option. I stay on Isla Santa Cruz (aka Indefatigable), in the middle of the archipelago, in the village of Puerto Ayora.

On Tuesday morning I fly in two hours from Guayaquil to Isla Baltra, where one of the two modest airports of the Galápagos Islands is located. From the airport a bus runs to Canal Itabaca, the canal that separates Baltra from Santa Cruz. After a short ferry crossing, I take the bus to Puerto Ayora, a ride of about 45 minutes. Puerto Ayora’s main street is Avenida Charles Darwin, which runs along the bay. Here you will find numerous shops and restaurants. At the Muelle de Los Pescadores (fishing piers) pelicans and sea lions are sleeping. A little further on, black marine iguanas and orange crabs sit on the black basalt rocks at the water’s edge.

galápagos marine iguana
Galápagos Marine Iguana

After lunch I take a taxi to El Chato Tortoise Reserve, about twenty kilometers north of Puerto Ayora. In El Chato you can view the famous giant tortoises in their natural habitat. They walk freely in a park-like environment and you can get quite close (although the guide recommends keeping a distance of about two meters). They look prehistoric and in a sense they are: the species is two to three million years old. Some large specimens are more than a hundred years old, the smaller ones about twenty or fifty years old. Giant tortoises weigh an average of 250 kilos and are one to one and a half meters long.

The next day it is a bright sunny day and at 24 degrees it is significantly warmer than it was in the Ecuadorian highlands. After breakfast I walk to the Laguna de las Ninfas, on the outskirts of Puerto Ayora. The Laguna de las Ninfas is an emerald green lake surrounded by mangroves. A serene place. Then I walk to Tortuga Bay, which is located southeast of Puerto Ayora. Tortuga Bay is at the end of a more than two kilometer long hiking trail, where you regularly encounter small lava lizards. These 15 to 20 centimeters long lizards are only found on the Galápagos Islands and are green/grayish and the females have a red neck. There are also many endemic candelabra cactuses along the path.

The path ends at a vast beach with white sand, on a bay with clear blue water. There are no palm trees, but otherwise Tortuga Bay resembles a tropical island. With the nice weather it is a wonderful place. Pelicans rest on lava rocks, which are also home to dozens of black crabs, and some bright orange Sally Lightfoot crabs. A sea lion is sleeping under the mangroves, further along I see black marine iguanas, which are hardly noticeable because of their color when they sit on the lava rocks. These marine iguanas, which can grow to about seventy centimeters in length, are also endemic and are the only iguanas in the world that can swim in the sea.

On the lava rocks by the water I also see my first blue footed boobie. 🙂 He (or she?) sits quietly on the rocks looking ahead, with a mischievous look and of course his bright blue feet. The blue footed boobie was one of the animals I hoped to see in the Galápagos Islands. (To be clear: the name blue footed boobie has nothing to do with boobies, but comes from the Spanish bobo, which means foolish/clownish.)

blue footed boobie
Galápagos Blue Footed Boobie

If you walk all the way to the one kilometer long beach of Tortuga Bay you will arrive at Playa Mansa. This beach is also located on a bay with clear blue water and mangroves. Playa Mansa is a popular beach and while the beach along Tortuga Bay was wide and quiet, Playa Mansa is busy with bathers.

Isla Bartolomé

On Thursday morning I get up early, because I am picked up at a quarter to five for a day tour to Isla Bartolomé, a small island off the coast of a larger island (Isla Santiago) and said to be one of the most beautiful islands in the Galápagos archipelago. The boat leaves from the north side of Isla Santa Cruz and takes two and a half hours to get to Isla Bartolomé. The weather is nice and sunny and the water is calm, so I have plenty of time to relax and look out over the water.

Isla Bartolomé is a barren and rugged volcanic island of dark gray and reddish brown lava rock. When you arrive you will immediately see Bartolomé’s signature Pinnacle Rock. A path leads up to the highest peak of the island. From 114 meters above sea level you have a beautiful panoramic view. Below are two bays with small white sandy beaches and on the right you see Pinnacle Rock, now from above. As we sail further we see Galápagos penguins, a small species of penguin (about forty to fifty centimeters in size) that only live in the Galápagos archipelago. We also see blue footed boobies, sea lions and frigate birds.

Galápagos sea lion
Galápagos Sea Lions

On the other side of Sullivan Bay, which separates Isla Bartolomé from Isla Santiago, is a white sand beach. Sea lions swim in the water. A little later they arrive at the coastline and it turns out to be a mother with two cubs. They are playing in the water, just a few meters away from us. The young come towards us every now and then, but mother keeps a close eye on them and makes it very clear that we must keep our distance.

The only disadvantage of a day tour to Bartolomé is the distance, which means it will take you six to seven hours to get there and sail back. The return journey in particular is long and quite boring; after a few hours, looking out over the water is no longer that interesting… But the landscape and the special animals make Isla Bartolomé absolutely worth the journey.

Isla Seymour Norte

My last day tour of the Galápagos Islands is on Friday and goes to Isla Seymour Norte. This small island is only two square kilometers in size, and has only low vegetation (which is bare in the dry season). But the island is home to a large number of birds. You will find many blue footed boobies there, which are breeding or have just become parents of baby boobies when I visit the island (June). They build their nests on the ground, which is possible because there are no natural enemies on the island. There are also many frigatebirds on Seymour Norte, black with white females and black with red males.

Galápagos iguana
Galápagos Land Iguana

We walk around the island via a marked trail and get very close to the birds, which do not seem particularly concerned about our presence. Among the low vegetation we encounter several land iguanas, some colorful, lava lizards, pelicans and a single sea lion. Seymour Norte is also very worthwhile, especially because you can get so close to the animals.

Back at Isla Santa Cruz we moor at a beach with white sand and azure blue water. Here too there are plenty of orange crabs on the black basalt rocks. A single black marine iguana stands out sharply against the white sand. Sometimes flamingos can also be seen here, but unfortunately not today.

With this day tour to Seymour Norte my trip to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands comes to an end. On Saturday morning I take a taxi from Puerto Ayora to the Itabaca Canal and, after the short ferry crossing, continue by bus to the airport. In an hour and forty-five minutes we fly to Guayaquil airport, where I have a few hours of transfer time before my almost twelve-hour flight to Amsterdam departs.

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