I spent 12 days in Ecuador in May 2016, where I visited the Galapagos Islands and Quito.  In the Galapagos, I visited Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabella Islands.  I have an overnight stopover in Panama en route to the Ecuador.  After Ecuador, I spent 4 nights in Mexico (Mexico City and Puebla), but that is in a separate trip report here.

WHY?
Last fall, a friend and I were comparing bucket lists and the one place that we both wanted to visit was the Galapagos Islands, so we started planning it. I will admit, Ecuador wasn’t high on my travel list. Generally, I prefer landscapes to wildlife and the limited research I had done on Galapagos Islands led me to believe I would have to take a cruise to see anything of interest.  I suffer from serious seasickness, so being on a small boat for 7 nights didn’t appeal to me. After more extensive research I found out that I could visit a few of the inhabited islands with minimal time on boats.  So we set a plan in motion to visit mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.

PLAN
Day 1: fly from NYC to Panama City
Day 2: fly from Panama City to Santa Cruz Island via Quito, overnight on Santa Cruz Island
Day 3: explore Charles Darwin Center and nearby attractions, visit Tortuga Bay, overnight on Santa Cruz Island
Day 4: Bay Tour and visit to local beach, overnight on Santa Cruz Island
Day 5: early morning ferry to Isabella Island, relax, afternoon tour to Las Tintoreras, overnight on Isabella Island
Day 6: walk to Turtle Breeding Center, Los Tunneles tour, overnight on Isabella Island
Day 7: Wall of Tears bike ride, midday flight from Isabella Island to San Cristobal Island, overnight on San Cristobal Island
Day 8: morning Highlands tour, afternoon visit to Interpretation Center and beach, overnight on San Cristobal Island
Day 9: morning visit to La Loberia beach, midday flight to Quito via Guayaquil, overnight in Quito
Day 10: explore historic Old Town Quito, overnight in Quito
Day 11: Cotopaxi tour with mountain biking, overnight in Quito
Day 12: Teleforica for view over Quito and Guayasamin Museum
Day 13: free day to relax
Day 14: morning flight to Mexico City

FLIGHTS
Copa Airlines  (business): JFK-PTY-UIO-GPS
When I was United Gold, I was upgraded to business class on every Copa flight I took.  Sadly, I no longer have status with United, so I burned 35k United miles to fly business class from NYC to the Galapagos via Panama City and Quito.  Copa business class is just large recliner seat, but the food is good and the 5 hour flight is comfortable. The flight to Quito was 2 hours in same plane and the final flight to the Galapagos was on AeroGal (Avianca Ecuador).

Comair (economy) : Isabella Island to San Cristobal Island
We splurged on this flight to save time and potential seasickness.  The only other way to get from Isabella Island to San Cristobal Island is to take a 2 hour ferry to Santa Cruz Island and wait for 5 hours for the next 2 hour ferry to San Cristobal Island.  We figured we would have great views from the small plane and we were not disappointed.

LAN (economy):SCY-GYE-UIO
I used 2.5k British Airways Avios points to reduce the cost of this flight to $100 from $250.

Aeromexico (economy): UIO-MEX-JFK
I redeemed 20k Alaska miles to flight from Quito to NYC with a 5 day stopover in Mexico City.  Sadly, Aeromexico and Alaska Air are no longer partners.

HOTELS
Waldorf Astoria Panama City – luxury
I redeemed 16k Hilton points plus $65 copay for this hotel.  This hotel is still new and is an amazing value.  Even the cash rate is often around $150.  The hotel is located in the heart of downtown and very close to activities and nightlife.  I was upgraded to a suite and it was the largest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in.
Recommend: Yes

Hospedale Vista del Mar, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos – budget
There are not a ton of midrange hotel options on Santa Cruz.  In the end we choose to Hospedale Vista del Mar due to its location and the possibility of seafront rooms.  Unfortunately, we did not get one.
Recommend: No

Hotel Albermarle, Isabella Island, Galapagos – moderate
For the rest of our time in Galapagos, we choose nicer hotels since we knew we wanted good amenities and beds after long days snorkeling and exploring.  This hotel is located on the main beach in Puerto Villamil and we had an oceanfront room.
Recommend: Yes

La Zayapa, San Cristobal Island, Galapagos – moderate
La Zayapa is located along the harbor and is in the central part of town for access to tours and restaurants. Once again, we choose a room on the waterfront and overlooking the ocean.
Recommend: Yes

Edificio Torre Seis, Quito – moderate
My friend and I shared an apartment for the first two nights in Quito, so we got a 2-bedroom unit.  The apartment was very cheap for a lot of space and conveniently located near Parque El Ejido.
Recommend: Yes

Holiday Inn Quito – moderate
I choose the Holiday Inn because it was the best use of hotel points to cover my last two nights solo in Quito.  I used 30k IHG points to cover 2 nights at the hotel. In the end, I wasn’t charged any points for the room, so the stay was free.
Recommend: Yes

TRANSPORTATION
We took the 2-hour ferry from Santa Cruz to Isabella Island.  The water wasn’t particularly rough, but I’m prone to seasickness.  I didn’t get sick, but I was definitely ready for the ride to end after the first 15 minutes. I’m glad we opted to fly from Isabella Island to San Cristobal Island.

On the islands, most of our excursions included all transportation. In Quito, we used taxis and Uber to get around.

 

HIGHLIGHTS
La Loberia Beach, San Cristobal Island
Unintentionally, we saved the best for last.  On our last day in the Galapagos Islands we woke up early to go to La Loberia to swim with sea lions.  There was only one family at the beach that early and they were not swimming.  It was just us and the sea lions, sea turtles, and fish.  It was incredible! The sea lion pups are very curious and will swim right up to you and get almost too close to your face. We spend a few hours snorkelling and swimming before walking back to town.

Los Tunneles, Isabella Island
This is one of highest rated snorkelling trips in the Galapagos and now I know why.  Five minutes after putting on our wetsuits at Los Tunneles, we saw a giant sea turtle a few feet away.  We spent the next 2 hours swimming around with a guide and spotting tons of turtle, sharks, rays, and fish. Afterwards, we visited a small rock island surrounded by rough seas and full of penguins.  I was very glad that I choose to wear a life vest. The last stop we docked and walked on lava rock to spot blue-footed boobies and admire the marine life from above.

Fundación Guayasamín, Quito
I had never heard of Oswaldo Guayasamín before this trip.  His work is incredible and reminds me of a more macabre version of Picasso.  The museum has two parts: the art museum and Guayasamín’s house and studio. Both parts require a guide, but it’s included with admission and provide interesting insight into the artist’s  life and work.

Las Grietas, Santa Cruz Island
We did a Bay Tour on Santa Cruz Island.  The tour was a nice introduction to the Galapagos.  We didn’t see a lot of animals, but we did see a variety of natural landscapes. Las Grietas was the highlight of the tour. These volcanic crevices are filled with clear water.  Swimming is the only way to access the entire site.

Historic Quito
Quito was the first UNESCO World Heritage Site. The historic center is full of magnificent buildings (mostly religious).  There are also a few very good museums.  We had rainy weather when we visited, but I enjoyed walking around.  We even caught a special celebrations happening in front of Plaza San Francisco.

WHAT I MISSED
Sierra Negra volcano hike, Isabella Island
This full-day hike travels along the caldera of a giant volcano.  We missed this tour because of logistics and limited time on Isabella Island. I would recommend visitors spend at least 3 full days on Isabella Island.

Quilotoa Crater, Ecuador
After our rainy adventures at Cotopaxi, we decided to cancel our excursion to Quilotoa Crater and spent the day around Quito instead.

Mindo rainforest, Ecuador
Mindo Rainforest was another casualty of the rainy weather we experienced in Quito.

Bartholomew Island, Galapagos Islands
Bartholomew is one of the iconic pictures of Galapagos Islands. The island is mostly for the views and has little wildlife. We debated whether to do the all-day tour to Bartholomew Island from Santa Cruz and in the end decided against it due to the high costs, long boat ride, and limited wildlife.

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