Ecuador and Galapagos to suit every time scale


Visiting the Galapagos Islands is on the bucket-list of many traveling to South America, and rightly so! Visiting Darwin’s ‘living laboratory’ and witnessing the extraordinary flora and fauna who make the islands their home really is an experience like no other. The logistics of arranging a trip here can sometimes be overwhelming for potential travelers however. Where do I even start? How can I visit in a sustainable way? Where does a cruise fit in? How long should I spend in mainland Ecuador?

While all of these aspects are important to address, one should never let the involved logistics put you off visiting a place such as this marvelous destination, even if you just have a short amount of time. Seeking expert advice and booking your arrangements through a reputable and environmentally responsible tour operator will ensure the best experiences. Whilst a longer trip of around two weeks will of course, allow to see and do more, some people simply do not have this much time. Here we have suggested some of the best itinerary ideas to maximize your experience, no matter what time-scale you have to work with!

One-week wonder

If you just have one week to spend, an itinerary combining Quito with a shorter Galapagos cruise is perfectly possible and a very good approach. The arrival airport for the majority of visitors will be Quito anyway, so it would be a real shame to just pick an airport hotel for the night and not spend any time here. Ecuador’s colonial capital city with its backdrop of volcanic peaks has many attractions that merit at least a 2-night stay.

Basing yourself somewhere in the heart of Quito for the first couple of nights will offer the perfect introduction to the city. Illa Experience Hotel, located in the San Marcos neighborhood is a great option, not just because its unique approach focused on experiences, also because its close location to the historic district, the best preserved of the continent. A short walk of less than 10 minutes takes you to the main sights of the city, yet rest is guaranteed in a peaceful area of artisans and local families. Visitors can build upon this introduction to local traditions by taking advantage the daily cultural ‘experiences’ on offer at Illa. As part of the hotel’s wider focus of involving the local community in all their endeavors, they invite local artisans, confectioners and artists to the hotel to demonstrate a skill. This could be gold leaf painting, traditional chocolate making, wooden toy making for children or any number of typical local crafts.   These activities are all free of charge to hotel guests, and perfectly timed to be later in the afternoon so one can still include an experience after a city tour of Quito during the day.

Moving on to Galapagos, logistics for travelling to the islands and joining a cruise later the same day tend to work very smoothly. A morning flight of just under 2 hours from Quito will bring travelers to one of the two airports and one will be on board the cruise generally for lunch time and an afternoon activity before the cruise sets sail that evening.

The final day of a cruise generally involves one final morning excursion followed by disembarkation after breakfast. This means you can generally fly back to mainland Ecuador in plenty of time to take an overnight flight back to Europe or the United States. Your perfect overview of Quito and the Galapagos Islands, all within the space of a week!

Ten days to two weeks

This extra time will allow you to see a little more of the many attractions of mainland Ecuador, as well as of course spending more time in the Galapagos. A 7-night cruise on board the Sea Star Journey’s sister vessel – the Galapagos Seaman Journey – would offer an incredible comprehensive experience of the islands and is a very popular option. Not everyone necessarily wants to spend this much time at sea however. A good compromise can therefore be a 4 or 5 night cruise on the Sea Star Journey either as a stand-alone experience or combined with a couple of days ‘on dry land’ in Galapagos. There are a number of very good hotels to be found on both Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal Islands where you can end your cruise with a couple of days relaxation, enjoying the beaches and small towns which still have a very distinctive Galapagos feel.

With extra time on mainland Ecuador too the opportunities are endless! Ecuador encompasses some of the most authentic experiences that people associate with South America – traditional markets, the imposing Andes, dramatic train journeys and the lush Amazon rainforest – but in a compact country with good infrastructure, excellent cuisine and exceptionally friendly people. 2 or 3 day extensions from Quito will allow you to visit the picturesque highlands and the atmospheric indigenous market at Otavalo, or take a scenic journey through the Avenue of the Volcanoes including a train journey through the famous switchbacks of the Devil’s Nose. Cuenca is another attraction; often described as Ecuador’s prettiest city, this colonial gem enjoys a year-round Spring-like climate and is the true home of the Panama hat!

If experiencing the Amazon is one of your interests, a gentle introduction to the jungle can be taken without any flights at all, on an overland adventure to Hakuna Matata lodge, a scenic journey which also takes in the hot springs at Papallacta. This part of the country is also malaria-free, making it a great option for families. For a more intense wildlife experience, it is best to take a flight to Coca and transfer to one of the lodges that are deeper in the rainforest. Full travel days on each side will need to be factored into your itinerary if you wish to do this, and Coca is also the gateway for river cruises in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

An even longer Ecuadorian adventure

For those lucky travelers who have no time pressures at all, an itinerary of 2 to 3 weeks offers a whole other world of possibilities! As well as incorporating some of the above suggestions for extensions in the Galapagos and on the mainland, you can also get even further off-the-beaten-track. For bird lovers a visit to Ecuador’s cloud forests around Mindo is essential – edging the renowned Chocó-Andean corridor, this biodiversity hot spot is home to an impressive 20% of the world’s bird species. Another option in this area is to continue on the Macquipucuna for the chance to catch a glimpse of the elusive Andean spectacled bear.

Getting even further off-the-beaten-track, opportunities abound. You can learn more about the traditions of the indigenous Shuar community further south, discover a unique culinary heritage or absorb the dramatic scenery and wildlife along the Spondylus Route on the Pacific Coast. Another popular option is to combine time in Ecuador with a short visit to neighboring Peru, allowing you to include another of South America’s best-known wonders in one trip – Machu Picchu!

However long you have to devote to your trip and whatever your interests are, there is a trip to suit everyone in Ecuador and Galapagos. And organizing your arrangements through a trusted operator who knows the destination well and works only with responsible local partners is the best way to ensure you have a trip to remember, for all the right reasons!

Marcel Perkins is CEO at Latin Trails. Latin Trails is an incoming destination management company specialized in bespoke tours, with a focus on offering unique experiences throughout Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, and Peru.

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Comments (13)

  1. Beth says:

    Although I think the best way of dealing with jet-lag is to deny that it exists, I would want a few days to chill in Quito after the long flight from London. It always takes me a day or two to switch off and get out of a work mindset. It’s good to know that the transfer to your Galapagos Cruise is only a couple of hours flight. Though I think by the time I’d done Quito and built in time for the return journey I doubt that I could fit in anything more than a week’s cruise.

    • Marcel Perkins says:

      Dear Beth,

      Do not fear jet lag, I travel back and forth between London and Quito a few times each year, it hits you the first day and then you do not even remember the time diference (the good thing about having fun). A weeklong cruise in Galapagos is the perfect amount of time to enjoy the variety of wildlife… and if you crave for more you can always come back and add the Amazon into the mix.

  2. Mike Watkins says:

    There’s no doubt that when I make it to Quito which I hope will be within the next couple of years that the Experience hotel will be the place for me.

    I’d like to have a go at the chocolate making and making a toy for my godson would be the perfect birthday or Christmas present for him.

    • Marcel Perkins says:

      Dear Mike,

      Sounds like a plan. Really hope you can come to Ecuador in the near future. You might even think of comming with your Godson. Galapagos is perfect for children.

  3. Michelle Burton says:

    I love how you’ve described the areas as “Darwin’s ‘living laboratory’”, that’s such a good way of putting it! There’s increasing focus on the environment and quite rightly so, so I’d definitely want to put some focus on conservation if I ever went and, as you say, choosing an eco friendly operator. It’s good to know you can stick pack a heck of a lot in and get some amazing experiences even in as little as a week. I think that’s great for those on a tighter budget because it would be a shame to feel like you’re missing out on a lot if you can’t afford a lengthier stay.

    • Marcel Perkins says:

      Dear Michelle,

      Sustainability is key not only in Galapagos but anywhere you go. Of course travelers become more aware when it is in such a beautiful yet fragile place.

      My suggestion when you are short on budget is to compromise a bit on hotel or boat category and go all out on the experiences. And in Galapagos the wildlife do not care which boat you are on, they are there for all visitors.

  4. Jim says:

    Part of my problem and why I never have any money in my bank account is that once I hear about a new part of the world I want to go there.

    Also, there are so many parts of the world that are over run and spoilt with over-tourism that I’m always keen to discover the unspoilt world. I’m going to go away and investigate the Shuar community. Nor have I ever heard of the Spondylus Route another one to dig into. Many thanks for the inspiration.

    • Kim Clarke says:

      Hah, you and me both! Not enough time or money to do it all so it’s good to get tips to make the most of your trips. Definitely agree on how commercialised and over crowded a lot of places are becoming so exploring more natural, unspoilt parts of the world is incredibly appealing. It’s more meaningful and emotional too than going somewhere too touristy.

    • Marcel Perkins says:

      Dear Jim and Kim,

      Sounds amazing. The Shuar and Spondylus route, two great places in Ecuador. I wouldnt worry so much about budget, but more about time. These off the beaten path locations are not so expensive and there is more comfort than you can imagine.

  5. Jen says:

    I’ve heard so much lately about Ecuador and the Galapagos that they have to be two of the coming destinations for 2020.

    I think as people become more and more wildlife conscious and interested in understanding the natural world, interest in the Galapagos is likely to grow and grow.

    Recently, two of my friends have returned from the Galapagos – they travelled independently from each other – and both reported that the Galápagos Islands exceeded their expectations.

    I suppose it’s no surprise that they both travelled via Quito, neither one them was quite as enthusiastic about Quito, but I get the impression that both of them wished that they had a day or two longer there.

    Hopefully my turn next!

    • Marcel Perkins says:

      Dear Jen,

      Galapagos always surpasses expectations, but it is good to come with an open mind and heart and be surprised.

      Quito is beautiful, yet it needs a bit of time and I recommend taking a guided trip. Many experiences are hidden and in diferent areas of the city, a guide will help make the most of your time.

  6. Jessie Greer says:

    What a great article! Having a sample itinerary for whatever length of time you might be in one place is fantastic. The suggestions are very detailed and give you an idea of what to expect when in the city for the first time. Or gives you a jump-off point from which to expand your own itinerary.

    • Marcel Perkins says:

      1 week itinerary:

      Day 1 Quito, arrival transfer. Hotel stay
      Day 2 Quito, Guided city tour and visit to the middle of the world monument. Hotel stay
      Day 3 Visit the Otavalo market on a day tour. Hotel stay by the airport
      Day 4-7 Quito to Galapagos. Take a 4 day cruise.
      Day 7 Fly back to Quito, if short on time connect directly to your international flight.
      Day 8 Fly back home.

      2 Weeks.
      Ad an extra 1, 2 or 4 nights in Galapagos on your cruise or take a roadtrip from Quito to Cuenca (have the train ride added in).

      3 Weeks
      Explore the Amazon rainforest, 3 or 4 night lodge stay near Yasuni or Archidona area.

      Hope this helps.

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