Read about Carol’s experiences on her recent South American educational.
BUNNIKS TOURS EDUCATIONAL TOUR TO ECUADOR & THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS
11-26 OCTOBER, 2014
It was with great pleasure that I accepted the invitation to join the Bunniks Famil trip to Ecuador. This was my first trip to South America and it certainly left me wanting more.
We flew with LAN Airlines in economy class from Sydney to Santiago via Auckland. The flights were on schedule and the service and food were both good. There were seat back screens and a good selection of movies. We were served one main meal after departure and another prior to landing. During the ‘night’ there were snacks available for self-service at the rear of the cabin. We then flew with LAN to and from the Galapagos and within Ecuador. All flights were good and only one was delayed.
We arrived in Santiago at 11am and the transfer to our hotel took 30 minutes. We stayed in the Hotel Gallerias which is centrally located in the downtown area on San Antonio St. We could walk to the main markets and river. The hotel is a good 3.5-4 star hotel and the rooms were clean and comfortable. They even have a pool.
There is only one five star hotel in the downtown area as most of the five star hotels are in the ElGolf area. This is a very nice part of town, with lots of shopping and art galleries. There is also art in the streets. Several first class hotel chains have properties in El Golf.
We had dinner in a restaurant called Bocanariz which is in Lastarias. This is a short walk from downtown and is a trendy area with lots of bars and restaurants. Our mini-degustation meal was excellent. You can easily access Lastarias from either downtown or El Golf.
The next morning we enjoyed a half day city tour which was very interesting. We walked through the city and learnt some of the history of Chile and drove up San Christobal hill to see the posh part of town, and the view. We headed off in the afternoon, but if clients have more time, they can do an afternoon winery tour or visit the Pre-Colombian Art Museum. The flight from Sydney is long, so a 2 night stop in Santiago would be good prior to a busy South American itinerary.
We took an evening flight to Guayaquil, Ecuador.
Guayaquil (pronounced Wy-a-kill) is the largest city in Ecuador (popn 2.7million), even though Quito is the capital. It is named after a tribal chief, Guaya and his wife Quil. Rather than be ruled by the Spanish, they committed suicide together.
On this occasion, we arrived late and left early the next morning so did not see much. We stayed in the Hilton Hampton Suites which is a good central hotel.
Our 2 hour flight from Guayaquil arrived in the Galapagos by noon. There are two airports in the Galapagos, but the main one in at Baltra Island which is separated from the island of Santa Cruz by a canal. On arrival it is necessary to pay USD$100 per person National Park fee in cash. The islands belong to Ecuador, but are 926km west, in the Pacific Ocean.
There are about 30 islands, but only 4 are inhabited. These are Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana. Tourism is very strictly controlled to preserve the natural integrity of the islands. If you are doing a land itinerary, the final destinations may not be confirmed until very close to your arrival as tourist numbers are constantly monitored. Your itinerary may state that you will visit 2 islands, but not confirm which 2 as this can change.
All tours must be led by a certified Galapagos National Park guide. All of our guides were very knowledgeable and spoke very good English.
When you arrive on Baltra, everyone is taken by public bus to the canal. A ferry takes you across to Santa Cruz, where a private transfer can be arranged. Bunniks groups are met at the airport and guided through this process.
Santa Cruz is the most populated island with 12000 people. It is a large island and has some agriculture in the hinterland. The main town is Puerto Ayora. This is a port town with many souvenir shops and bars and restaurants. Whilst it seemed busy, it was not crowded. We stayed in the Silberstein Hotel which was very nice. The rooms were small, but good. There was a nice restaurant and a small pool.
After our arrival we went straight out the inspect the cruise ship MV Legend.
This is a 3 star cruise ship with a capacity of 100 guests. The ship offers 3, 4, and 7 night itineraries. The cabins were small, but well appointed. In this standard of ship, I thought it was very nice as everything was very clean and well maintained.
We then returned to Santa Cruz Island to visit the tortoises at Primicias. Here the tortoises walk around at leisure as they move from the sea to the highlands to nest. The journey takes about 3 months each way. It was wonderful to get so close to these great animals.
Today we took a day trip to the island of Bartholome. This tour (and many others) departs from the canal which is at the north of Santa Cruz, whereas Puerto Ayore is in the south. The drive to the canal takes 1 hour, so this journey can get tedious if you are doing several day trips.
The island of Bartholome is uninhabited, with an area of 1.2 sq. km. We walked to the highest peak at 114m, to get a spectacular view of Pinnacle Rock and the surrounding lava rock and volcanoes. We also snorkelled here and saw many beautiful fish, sea lions and a turtle.
It was then back to Puerto Ayora and the Hotel Silberstein.
This morning it was back up to the canal to inspect another ship, the MV Santa Cruz. This is a 4 star ship with a capacity of 90 guests. Again the cabins were small, but very nice. There are some balcony cabins and also several Darwin Elite cabins which have better facilities and other benefits. The ship also has a glass bottom boat. The Santa Cruz offers 4 and 5 night itineraries.
Then it was back to the port at Puerto Ayora to catch the speedboat to Isabela Island. It is necessary to take a tender out to the speedboat and a tender at the other end, so minimal luggage is an advantage. The journey takes 2 hours and is very fast and bumpy. This is not a pleasant cruise.
We arrived on Isabela in the late afternoon and went straight to our hotel, the Abermarle. The Hotel Abermarle (4 star) is right on the beautiful beach of Isabela. With only 10 rooms, it a lovely, intimate hotel. Several rooms have a sea view and we also had a balcony. The rooms were very nice.
Isabela is the only island where the town and hotels are right on a beautiful sandy beach. You can also snorkel off the beach near the harbour where there are many sea lions. There is also a white sand beach on San Cristobal, but the town is not close.
The main street of Isabela has several cafes and the bars come alive during happy hour. This island is very popular with backpackers who give the island and vibrant feel. The beautiful beach would make it possible to enjoy an extended stay here. It is a very pretty place.
This morning we took a tour to Tintoreras Islet, which is a short boat trip from the pier at Isabela. Our guide led us on a nature walk around the islet to see marine iguanas (tons of them!), sea lions and many white tipped reef sharks in a narrow canal. We also saw a couple of penguins and blue footed boobies. After the walk we had time to snorkel and we saw colourful fish and sea lions. Our guide took those interested to snorkel near the sharks, but I declined.
In the afternoon we took a tour to the Wetlands of Isabela. Isabela is a large island and there used to be a prison there. In the wetlands is the Wall of Tears, which is the only remnant of the prison. The wetlands are also full of birdlife and mangroves. The best way to see the wetlands is by bicycle, so you can take the time to really explore. Our brief visit by car was interesting, none the less.
In the late afternoon, we boarded the speedboat once again for the 2 hour rush back to Santa Cruz Island. We stayed our last night in the Galapagos at the Hotel Fernandina and enjoyed at lovely dinner at the Red Mangrove Restaurant.
Food in the Galapagos features seafood heavily, as you would expect. The Ecuadorian cuisine is simple home-style cooking. Fish and rice was a popular dish. At local cafes you could get the lunch of the day for $5, which was typically chicken soup followed by fish and rice. Whilst all of our meals were good, the food should not be a feature of your travels here
General Travel Tips for the Galapagos
Take cash – Using ATM’s and credit cards was not always successful, even in restaurants. Prepay as much as you can and take cash for the rest. All hotels rooms we stayed in had safes.
Take your own snorkel gear – If you like to snorkel, and then take your own gear. The gear provided by tour operators was often sub-standard and a foggy or leaking mask can ruin the experience.
Travel light – If it is possible to leave big luggage at a hotel in Santa Cruz or mainland Ecuador, then do so, but this may not always be possible.
Cruise or Land – Ideally, if you have enough time, a combination of both would be great. Perhaps a 3-4 night cruise and the same time on land. You will have more time for water activities on a cruise, but you get to experience ‘town life’ on land.
This morning it was back up to the canal by bus, across on the ferry, then bus to the airport for our flight to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. On arrival we were met by our guide, Carlos, who stayed with us for the rest of our trip, together with our driver Juan. Carlos and Juan are regulars with Bunniks Tours.
We did not stay in Quito at this time, but drove straight up to Otavalo in the Andean highlands of Northern Ecuador. The nearby volcanoes are the highest points of the region, Cotopaxi 5897m and Cayambe 5790m.
We stayed the night in Hacienda Pinsaqui. Haciendas were built by the Spanish when they took over farmlands from the indigenous people. The Spanish arrived on South America in the 1500s and much of South America was under Spanish rule until the 1800’s. Many haciendas are now used for tourism. The Hacienda Pinsaqui was built in 1790, then re-built in the 1800s after an earthquake. The region is famous for its textiles. The gardens at this Hacienda very lovely. We were not that far from Quito, but it felt like being in remote countryside. The rooms were spacious with dark woods and exposed beams.
The next day we visited two markets. The first was a typical Ecuadorian animal market. People from surrounding areas bring their animals to sell and come to buy animals also. Many people were in traditional indigenous dress, and some were with their teenage children who wore jeans and t-shirts and were on their mobile phones. Lots of bartering and bargaining was going on over the animals.
The second market was the famous native Otavalo market. With the region known for textiles, this market was alive with bright colours of the fabrics. The market was huge and we had a great time buying scarves, clothes, napery, hats, belts, braids, all made locally.
In the afternoon we drove to Cuicocha lake which is inside the crater of the Cuicocha volcano. It is at an altitude of 3064m. The lake sits in the caldera of the volcano.
Next we continued on to the town of Cotocachi which is famous for its leather. More shopping ensued. For lunch we tasted the local speciality of guinea pig. It was very boney with not much meat and not very tasty. Luckily they also sold burgers and chips.
Our day ended at the town of Ibarra, at the Hacienda Piman. This hacienda was on a 9km rough road out of town, but was worth the bumpy ride. The rooms were set in the hillside and were huge. The restaurant overlooked the valley below and our 3 course dinner and was excellent (no guinea pig on the menu here).
The next morning we went back into Ibarra to board the train, Tren de la Libertad. This is tourist train and the 2 hour journey ended in Salinas. The town of Salinas used to thrive on the surrounding salt mines, but now is very small and quiet. In this area there are many descendants of African slaves who were bought by the Spanish. Our trains were greeted by a group of Afro-Ecuadorian dances performing their native dance, La Bomba. The African-Ecuadorian people were popular in the national soccer team, because Ecuadorian people are generally short, but the African people were much taller and stronger.
In the afternoon we continued on to Cayambe where we visited a rose farm at the Hacienda La Compania. The chapel here was built in 1767, but the house is quite new (1920) as the original house was destroyed. The Jarrin family has lived here for 5 generations and it is still live on the property and run the rose farm. They sell roses to USA, Europe, and Russia and the roses are considered some of the best in the world. Cut flowers are the 6th biggest industry in Ecuador. We had a lovely afternoon tea at the Hacienda sitting amongst enormous pots of roses.
It was then on to Quito, after a quick photo stop at the equator. We did not arrive until late, and our hotel was a very welcome site. The Casona de la Ronda is a gorgeous hotel, very centrally located in this busy city. The foyer felt like a country house and the rooms were spacious, well-appointed with great bathrooms. Some had a view of the street and some of an inner courtyard. There is also a communal lounge area upstairs with a view of the Madonna statue.
The next morning we had a very interesting walking tour of Quito. We even got to see the President who greets the people every Monday (when he is home) at the changing of the guard ceremony. We drive up to the statue La Virgin de Quito who stands on a hill overlooking the city and visited the San Francisco church.
For lunch we had a little surprise as we had to make some of it ourselves. At the Hotel Plaza Grand, we donned chef’s hats and made our own Cerviche. Most of the hard work was done, but it was certainly fun. The main course came without any effort and we had the opportunity to help the chef make the local specialty ice-cream for dessert.
After lunch we drove east to Papallacta. We are now coming in to central Ecuador and still in the Andies. (Quito is at 2800m) On the drive we had a good view of the volcanoes Cotopaxi and Cayambe which are both active. On side effect of the volcanoes is hot springs. Our stop this evening was at the Hotel Termas de Papallacta. Right outside our rooms were hot spring baths. So relaxing after a long day in the coach. The hotel also has a spa centre so we also enjoyed a massage.
The next day we drove over the volcano avenue and reached the highest point of our trip at 4069m. We had a nice lunch at the 300 year old Hacienda la Cienega in the small village of Lasso. During lunch we were entertained by a traditional music group. After lunch, Carlos even sang a song for us.
In the afternoon we headed south to subtropical the town of Banos (1800m alt). Banos attracts many tourists because of the climate, nearby thermal springs and spectacular waterfalls. They also offer several adventure activities like bungy jumping and zip-lining. At night Banos is a fun town with many bars and restaurants.
The next morning we drove the Waterfall Route. You can stop along the way and walk to get up close with the waterfalls. The afternoon was a long drive to Riobamba where we stayed at the beautiful Hacienda Andaluza. The hacienda was full of antiques and meandering corridors. I was lucky to be upgraded to a suite which had a sitting room and enormous bathroom. Our dinner in the hacienda was again wonderful.
Most of the haciendas are in rural locations, often away from town. Now that they are run as hotels, the restaurant is an important feature as there is often nowhere else to eat. All the meals we had were of a very high standard. Usually there was two choices and special dietary needs were catered for. The other important feature is the grounds. They were also spectacular in all cases.
Our next day was a long travelling day as we headed south-east towards Guayaquil. However, our first stop of the day at Guamote was a real highlight. In this region 90% of the people are indigenous and still dress in traditional clothing on a daily basis. The market here was wonderful and we felt quite out of place being the only apparent tourists. The older people do not like having their photo taken, which we respected, even though we were all dying to get snap-happy. The colors of the women’s clothing, in particular, were so vibrant with lots or red and pinks. The skirts are either straight wrap-around style or gathered and frilly. On top is a coloured shawl and, of course, the hat. In some tribes the men had long plaited hair, but on others they have short hair. There are also rules about whether the man or woman wears a hat, or both.
Also in Guamote, we visited the Intisisa Foundation which is supported by Bunniks Tours and their local operators. This foundation runs a kindergarten and adult classes for the surrounding villages. They teach sewing, language, computers and also have homework classes for teenagers. They run a small hotel to fund the projects and it is possible to stay there and do some community service during your stay. For tourists in Guamote there are nearby national parks which are popular with hikers and cyclists.
After this long day, we headed south, east, back to sea level and the city of Guayaquil. We had time for a quick walking around the city. It is a historic town because it was host to a crucial conference between Jose San Martin of Argentina and Simon Bolivar in 1822 when they planned for the independence of South America from the Spanish. It is also an important port town.
We spent the evening at the Hotel Wyndham, which was very nice. The weather was warm and it was nice to end our tour with dinner outdoors overlooking the harbour. We said a sad goodbye to Carlos as he had an early flight home, but Juan stayed on to take us to the airport in the morning.
Overall, the whole trip was fantastic. Out itinerary was more rushed that those of our clients, but we are used to that, after all, this is not a holiday, we are working! The ground operators used by Bunniks Tours were all so friendly, knowledgeable and spoke excellent English. They did not even complain about my constant questions. I felt that the itinerary was always interesting and fun. It was a great introduction to South America and to Bunniks Tours. I would highly recommend both to our clients.
When traveling at altitude wrap all plastic bottles in your suitcase in zip lock bags as they can explode. Even the ball of a roll-on deodorant popped out.