Ecuador South America

Gorgeous Galápagos

The Galápagos Islands are magical. I’ve known about their existence since biology class in my sophomore year of high school. We talked about evolution and Darwin and the finches, but nothing really prepared me for seeing sea lions lounging on the beach and watching the blue footed booby do its mating dance. The animal encounters were unreal!

We started on San Cristobal. Within twenty minutes of getting out of the airport, we had already seen marine iguanas and sea lions and blue footed boobies on the island. What’s really surprising is how used to people the animals are – it doesn’t phase them at all when you walk by, and most of them are just curious. That baby sea lion in the picture above came over and sniffed my leg as I tried to be as still as humanly possible. It was adorable! All of the Galápagos Islands are considered a national park, and are under strict protections. When we ferried between the islands, we would have our bags checked each time to make sure we weren’t transporting anything organic.

We snorkeled twice on San Cristobal. Once was at a beach, where we got in the water with sea lions. They’re so playful, swimming circles around us and twisting themselves around! It’s hard to believe they even have bones when they swim. They’re incredibly graceful under water, and then they get on land and sort of lumber around. The second time was at Kicker Rock. It’s sort of out in the middle of the ocean. We saw a whole pod of dolphins as we were going out there, which was amazing. Once we arrived, we swam around the rock and through this channel! There were less animals generally at Kicker Rock than other swims we did, but I did have this incredible moment where the sun’s rays were going through the water and I was swimming alongside a school of fish.

Our next island was Santa Cruz, which is known for the giant tortoises. We saw them both in a breeding center and in the wild, which is an incredible experience! The breeding center talked about how they actually raise them there for about the first twenty years of their lives. At that point, their shells haven’t fully hardened yet, and so they’re still vulnerable to predators, so the island takes care of them until they’re old enough to live on their own. We also saw a tortoise mausoleum for Lonesome George, who made headlines for being the last of his kind and being unable to breed and keep his species alive.

I also went kayaking for the first time on Santa Cruz! We went to a lagoon, and saw tortoises and even a ray leaping out of the water. Side note, didn’t know they could do that, and it was somewhat alarming. But kayaking was fun and super relaxing.

Our third and last island was Isabela. This was the source of our best bird encounters! I saw a flamingo in the wild for the first time, and we also went to a nesting site for the blue footed boobies. I even got to see them do their mating dance! It’s amazing to watch. The whole thing is focused on how blue their feet are, and they pick up their feet and shake them at potential mates. One also picked up a stick and started whistling. Their feet really are shockingly blue. It doesn’t look like something that should be possible in nature.

The place we snorkeled here had so many sea turtles, and we got to swim right next to them. We also saw quite a few reef sharks. They’re mostly very shy, and wanted to swim by us very quickly to get to their caves. I did get a video of one though!

We also went hiking into a volcano, the Sierra Negra. Once again I regretted my lack of hiking boots on this trip as I slipped through the mud. But it was so cool to go through the volcanic rock and see all of the rock formations down at the bottom. I got extremely sunburned on this day but it was still a great hike.

I didn’t want to go home at the end of our week there. I just wanted to stay and sit on the beach and watch sea lions sunbathe on rocks, but all good things must come to an end. If you’re going to Ecuador, be sure to visit the Galápagos!

Ecuador South America

Quito: The Middle of the World

Quito is a much larger city than I’d expected. It’s also as hilly as San Francisco, except it’s at 9,300 feet so going up those hills feels much more exhausting. Still, after Cotopaxi, it was actually a decrease in elevation for me!

I got the chance to explore it for a few days before and after my Galápagos tour, and I had a great time. Becca and I climbed to the top of the Basilica del Voto Nacional, which had some stunning views of the city, and we also went to this amazing chocolate place called Indemini Baez where they showed us the whole process and let us try cacao at various stages in the process. I left with a lighter wallet and a lot of artisanal bars of chocolate, which was a good trade!

We did a fantastic day trip to Papallacta, which are these hot springs up in the mountains. There were hardly any tourists; only locals, which is how you know it’s a good find. Our friends from our Galápagos tour found out about it and let Becca and I tag along, and it was an incredibly relaxing day toward the end of our trip.

We also went to the equator monuments! Yes, I know they’re touristy, and I don’t care. Honestly, I really enjoyed the fact that they had dueling monuments. The one in the picture above is the big fancy one, that the government funded and they spent a lot of money on. And they set it all up there, and then they used GPS to figure out that the equator wasn’t actually there. Oops.

So they created this second monument and museum, which is at the site of the “real” equator, and advertises that in a delightfully passive aggressive manner. They also have experiments where they show you the differences of water going down the drain on each side of the equator and other similar scientific effects. They also have a fairly campy museum about Ecuador and the different regions, and it has what is truly the worst taxidermy I have ever seen.

Quito was an unexpected delight. I was so focused on the other parts of my trip that I overlooked it a bit, but I have some great memories from my time there! There are of course many wonderful parts of Ecuador to visit, but Quito is worth exploring.

Ecuador South America

A Hobbit House in Cotopaxi

As I planned my international travel for the year, I looked for countries that were accepting proof of vaccines without requiring additional testing and where I could do lots of outdoor activities. It led me to Ecuador! This wasn’t initially the first place I was planning to go in South America, but it was absolutely incredible and makes me so excited to explore more of the continent.

I started my trip with four days at the Secret Garden Cotopaxi, which is a beautiful hostel near Cotopaxi National Park. They had amazing reviews online, and after spending time there, I can see why! It’s possible to book it as a shared dorm, but they also have hobbit houses that you can book. That’s what I went with, and the views were absolutely incredible. In the photo above, it’s a bit cloudy, but on a clear day it’s possible to see the full volcano from the bed.

They have a few included activities, like the waterfall hike above (the water was frigid!) and another hike that we didn’t do. Then they help set up other activities, like horseback riding through Cotopaxi National Park and a hike on Cotopaxi. The meals are all included as well and then there’s alcohol for purchase. We played a lot of drunk Uno and sat around the fire and had an amazing time.

Horseback riding was an adventure, mostly because I hadn’t been in over ten years and when our guide asked if we had experience, Brooke and Christine happily said yes. Let’s just say my horse wanted to go faster than I wanted to go for almost the entirety of the outing, but the scenery was absolutely stunning. Throughout the trip, I was impressed time and time again with Ecuador’s commitment to preserving their nature. I never saw a single piece of litter. Cotopaxi National Park was immaculate.

Our next day was our hike on Cotopaxi! We met other people who were hiking all the way to the top, which is a crazy endeavor that requires ice climbing and starting the ascent at midnight, but we just spent a few hours on the mountain. We started at 15,000 feet, which was already a higher elevation than I had ever been at, and hiked up to 16,000. The air was so thin up there. I should’ve brought hiking boots, as my sneakers were entirely inappropriate (especially for the descent), but live and learn. It was some of the coolest views I’ve ever seen. Truly, if you’re in Ecuador, I can’t recommend the Secret Garden Cotopaxi highly enough!