I’m indecisive, I want it all, and I want it now. So, when choosing where to travel this winter, I knew I wanted to escape to somewhere warm but I didn’t just want a beach, I also wanted to go scuba diving or snorkeling. I also wanted to bike around cities and mountains, hang out in forests, and maybe even spend some time on a river. COVID had me stir-crazy and I knew I’d only get one big winter trip so I wanted to do EVERYTHING.
My previous landlord of 13 years is Ecuadorian and he always told me how beautiful his country is and how it has pretty much everything I wanted: beaches, mountains, forests, jungles, big cities, cycling, great food, and lots of culture. I kind of thought he was being overly sentimental about the home he’d left 30 years previously but after only 48 hours in Ecuador, I knew he hadn’t exaggerated one bit.
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I originally just planned to visit Quito and Galápagos but the day I flew into Quito, I learned that the city is within driving distance from the Amazon rainforest. In fact, Ecuador has the most accessible section of the Amazon, so I began researching how I could get there and what there was to do. Wait, there’s an Amazonian lodge run by Indigenous women? Yes, please!
The next day, I learned about mountain biking in nearby Cotopaxi, which, apparently, isn’t just a more affordable version of Patagonia (the brand, not the destination); it’s an active volcano in the Andes and the second highest peak in Ecuador. How did I not know Ecuador had so much going on? I felt embarrassed to have been so clueless but also lucky to learn so much early on in my trip. I quickly switched my flight and extended my 10-day trip to spend nearly a month in the country—gotta love those COVID-flexible flight changing policies!
Ecuador is about the size of Colorado but it has the diversity of the entire continent of South America. Capital city Quito receives direct flights from across the U.S. (and routes even more through another fab city, Bogotá, Colombia) and Quito is both an amazing destination in its own right and also a centralized base for other adventures. From Quito, it’s 90 minutes to the Andes Mountains, four hours to the Amazon rainforest, four hours to the cloud forest, and five hours to the beach.
My digs while in Quito were an elegant suite in Casa Gangotena, a Relais & Châteaux (in other words, fairly fancy-pants) mansion-turned-hotel overlooking the lively Plaza San Francisco, smack-dab in the middle of Quito’s Old Town. The hotel was so gorgeous that I didn’t want to leave my room the first day but eventually managed to pry myself out of bed to ride 30 miles of Quito’s car-free Sunday Ciclovia bike ride. I was smitten with Casa Gangotena but I’m not sure I left the same impression on the hotel that it left on me, as I don’t think management was pleased that I left my sweaty cycling clothes hanging over the sun-drenched balcony for the whole plaza to see.
My bike ride left me too tired to participate in the hotel’s complimentary chocolate-tasting activity but I didn’t feel too bad since their “Live Quito Like a Local” walking tour included an extensive chocolate demonstration at the nearby Indemini-Baez chocolate shop. Now, I’m not sure spending a week’s worth of rent on a giant bag of hand-made chocolate is exactly “living like a local” in Quito but that’s basically what I did. Ecuadorian chocolate is consistently ranked as some of the world’s best so it’s also possible I visited other chocolate shops on my own to add to my already-sagging bag of confections.
Another highlight of the hotel’s walking tour was visiting the old San Francisco Market and chatting with a woman who performs energy equilibrium treatments, or “limpias.” I returned to the market on my own to purchase a bunch of nettles, herbs, and flowers from her to make a cleansing bath at the hotel. It was relaxing, rejuvenating, refreshing, and everything I had hoped it would be. It was also very messy. Despite my best efforts to clean the tub, there were still leaves and petals everywhere (I swear, I left a great tip for housekeeping!), but combined with the balcony bike shorts incident, I’m hoping I haven’t been added to the hotel’s blacklist since I definitely hope to return.
The enormous diversity of land, sea, and air animals in Galápagos is what initially drew me to Ecuador. Like many travelers, Ecuador’s famous archipelago was on my bucket list so I jumped at the opportunity to visit. Darwin’s dearest islands are a quick four-hour flight from Quito and are best explored by ship. Sure, you could book a room on Santa Cruz island (the largest in the Galápagos) and plan day trips to a few different islands but the only way to get to further islands and see the most animals is to join a multi-day cruise.
Initially, I was a bit nervous since this was my first cruise experience during the pandemic but after reviewing the safety measures Metropolitan Touring (the oldest tour operator in Ecuador) had put in place, I decided the risk was minimal. A negative PCR test is required within 72 hours of entering Galápagos (same goes for Ecuador as a whole), the small ship only had a few dozen passengers, and virtually all activities were outdoors. It also doesn’t hurt that 99 percent of Galapageños are now vaccinated.
Though we were able to see quite a few animals from the yacht, the best opportunities for wildlife-watching presented themselves off the ship. Every day, at least two activities were scheduled, typically hiking, snorkeling, paddle-boarding, kayaking, and small boat tours. Land hikes were the best opportunities to see blue-footed boobies bouncing around in trees, lizards stretched out in the sun, and sea lions sprawled out, barking on beaches. Snorkeling trips got us up close and personal with giant sea turtles, colorful fish, and even more sea lions. Fun fact: When gathered on land, sea lions are referred to as a “colony” but when in the water, they’re a “raft.” I’m pleased to have encountered both colonies and rafts of sea lions.
Though it’s hard to pick a single moment, I think the highlight of my Galápagos trip came on a small boat tour, when we rounded a corner and saw a group of Galápagos penguins hanging out on a rock formation. As the smallest South American penguin and the only one to live north of the equator, pretty much everyone began freaking out, scrambling to grab their cameras, as the guide politely asked us to calm down.
My original itinerary had me flying back to Quito directly after the cruise but I also wound up switching that (I’m a big fan of booking flights further out than necessary then filling in the details as opportunities present themselves). Though Galápagos is certainly best explored by cruise or yacht, I wanted to get to know it a bit on foot. I spent two nights at the Finch Bay Galápagos Hotel, which was named by National Geographic as “one of the most unique lodges in the world” and is the only hotel in Santa Cruz with beach access. From the hotel, I walked to some short hikes and swimming holes and I caught the ferry to town to explore fish markets and street art and to get a better sense of daily life in Puerto Ayora, the largest city on the largest island in Galápagos.
As an avid hiker and birder who is slowly becoming more comfortable with the label “birder”, I knew that I had to visit Mashpi Lodge. Nestled into the biologically-diverse Chocó-Andean forest along the western flanks of the Ecuadorian Andes, Mashpi feels worlds away even though it’s only a four-hour drive from Quito (the lodge operates a shuttle service to bring you to/from the capital). Because the reserve’s area is so large, part of it is considered a cloud forest, while another part of it qualifies as a rainforest.
Considering all of the rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows that look directly out onto the dense cloud forest (there are no access paths in front of the windows so there’s full privacy), one could easily spend their entire stay relaxing in their room. I’m not great at relaxing so I pretty much scheduled every minute of my trip, including forced relaxation time with the first waterfall massage of my life (best $100 I’ve ever spent!).
After getting settled in my uber-Instagrammable room, I took a quick walk to the on-site butterfly farm and wildlife viewing platform, where I watched toucans and tayras (South American weasels) compete for strategically-placed bananas. Next, I took ride on the sky bike, which is a sort of two-seater, open-air aerial gondola that allows the person in the rear to pedal while the person in the front enjoys the view of the forest below their feet. I noticed that all the other guests just had their guides pedal but I was in an overachieving mood so I decided to give my guide, Anderson, a break so I did the pedaling. The next day, still in an overachiever mood, I asked Anderson to take me on one of the more challenging hikes so we trekked nine miles (with nearly 3,200 feet of elevation) to visit some of the most stunning waterfalls on the reserve. Though certain sites are only accessible by strenuous full-day hikes, every single trail is gorgeous so you don’t need to break a sweat if you don’t want to.
On my final day at the lodge, I had one goal: to see the cock of the rock bird in its habitat. Yes, you read that correctly, the bird is called “cock of the rock.” My alarm went off at 3am (and Anderson kindly called me as well to ensure I didn’t sleep through my alarm) and we met outside on a cool, damp, pitch-black morning to go see these stunning South American birds as they performed their daily dance at dawn. Though this hike was half as long and half as steep as the previous day’s hike, it was twice as hard, as the early morning rain made the muddy mountain trails incredibly slippery. My reward for the treacherous trek was half a dozen bright red birds singing, calling, and flying around my head. It was the perfect way to end my forest foray.
The Amazon Rainforest
The Amazon has its fair share of luxury lodges but I had my fill of fabulousness at Mashpi Lodge so I arranged to stay at a community tourism center called Sinchi Warmi, which means “Strong Women” in Quechua. The rustic lodge is run by local Quechua women whose goal is to create educational and professional opportunities for Indigenous women. They do this by preserving and sharing traditional practices with their guests like harvesting cacao and weaving bracelets out of plant fibers sourced from their own gardens.
I did just about every activity the lodge offers, including making jewelry out of plants I helped harvest, river tubing, visiting a rainforest animal rescue, and taking a guided gondola boat tour through a quiet back river. I also helped harvest cacao then tried out my first chocolate therapy session, which consisted of a hand scrub and facial using cacao harvested from behind the lodge. I spent four nights here and easily could have stayed longer. While there’s surprisingly strong Wi-Fi in the main lodge, it doesn’t reach the rooms so I was forced to disconnect and spent several lazy afternoons reading in my hammock.
Pro tip: Don’t leave any food in your room! These are very rustic rooms so there’s lots of cracks and gaps under the doors and windows so you don’t want to do anything to invite in rainforest critters. I accidentally left a bag of cookies in my backpack the first day and when I returned from dinner in the main building, I found a dozen enormous jungle cockroaches crawling all over my stuff. One of the strong women helped me get rid of the bugs and I didn’t have any other roach problems during my stay but, as a resident of roach-infested New York city, I really should have known better.
While Ecuador has its fair share of beaches and I spent much of my time in Galápagos in a bikini (well, more like a sensible, not-quite-an-old-lady two-piece bathing suit), know that the country has widely varying landscapes and temperatures. Just because Ecuador is on the equator (“Ecuador” means “Equator”, after all), doesn’t mean that the entire country is a hot box. Quito is nearly 10,000 feet above sea level and Cotopaxi is another 10,000 feet higher. While I usually got by in long-sleeve T-shirts and light windbreakers during my December visit to Quito, it was straight-up cold in Cotopaxi—quite the contrast to the semi-sauna that was the Amazon. Pack accordingly, people!
For the last few days of my trip, I headed 90 minutes south of Quito to explore Cotopaxi National Park, which is named after its main attraction, the not-so-dormant Cotopaxi volcano. I didn’t have time for a multi-day backpacking trip (though I hope to go back for this someday), so I stayed at dairy farm-turned-B&B, Hacienda El Porvenir, which offers bike rentals and has all levels of mountain-biking trails on site. One of the B&B’s guides got me warmed up on some super beginner trails on the property then set me up for some beginner mountain biking around Cotopaxi.
Mountain biking within the National Park was my favorite activity in the region, and one of my top experiences of the entire trip, but a close second was hiking to several waterfalls at the nearby Santa Rita Ecological Reserve. Note that if you don’t rent a car in Quito (and you don’t have to, it’s not at all necessary), you can work with the hacienda to arrange transportation to, from, and around the hotel. Before hopping in the car to head back to Quito to catch my flight, I continued with the theme of my Ecuador trip – new experiences – and agreed to a horse therapy session with one of the hacienda’s owners.
Maria Jose guided me around the stables, walking with me from horse to horse, introducing me to a form of therapy that dates back to the ancient Greeks. Equine therapy, as it’s known, is said to support mental health by having the person assist in activities such as grooming, feeding, and leading a horse around (while supervised by a professional, of course). I’ll admit that the horses made me nervous; they were big, loud, and strong and I’d never been so close to them. That said, there was something comforting about connecting with them and the somewhat subdued experience was a splendid way to wrap up my trip.
I’ve found that, in general, Latin America takes the pandemic much more seriously than the United States does, so I’ve felt quite safe there. Social distancing is enforced, people voluntarily wear masks even when it’s not required, and temperatures are taken during group visits. Also, since much of Ecuador is a relatively warmer climate, many businesses that are usually fully enclosed in the United States (like supermarkets and pharmacies) are more open-air so there’s much better ventilation.
All visitors to Ecuador must show they have completed a full series of the vaccine at least 14 days prior to entering the country, or a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of their flight departure to Ecuador. As of February 11, a negative PCR test is no longer required for visitors to Galápagos who are over the age of 12 but proof of vaccination is still required. Children ages 2-11 (who may not be vaccinated) must show proof of a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of their flight departure to Galápagos. All visitors to Ecuador, regardless of their final destination, must fill out a Traveler’s Health Declaration. As always, entry requirements could (and probably will) change so check the Ecuadorian Ministry of Tourism’s website for details.
Getting Around Ecuador
Renting a car in Ecuador is entirely optional and, personally, I think it’s totally unnecessary. Higher-end hotels like Mashpi Lodge operate their own shuttles so it’s easy to catch a ride to more remote regions where your cellphone signal is likely to be non-existent. Within Quito, I walked quite a bit and took Uber for longer distances, including to the airport. Ecuador also has good public transportation and shared express taxis that work well between cities.
You can also ask your hotel or host to help you order a ride with Taxi Express, which makes runs in 4-person cars between major cities for about $20-$30 each way (everyone is required to wear a mask). Because my schedule was tight, I paid for a private taxi to the Amazon (about $100) but opted for the shared option back to Quito. Why am I quoting prices in U.S. dollars? Because Ecuador uses U.S. dollars, how convenient!
Ecuador is easy to get to, easy to get around, it’s beautiful, diverse, the people are friendly, the food is fabulous, there’s a great mix of metropolitan cities and varied natural landscapes and a seemingly endless assortment of things to do. It’s quite possible the next piece I write for The Daily Beast will be “Why I Moved to Ecuador.”