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Trip Report Quito, Galapagos and Otavalo

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Since 2000, I have been a frequent poster on the Fodor’s forums, especially the Asia Board. However, this is my first trip report on this forum. My wife Jeane and I have travelled all over Asia and have recently branched out to other continents with trips to South Africa and Australia in the past two years. We are a 60+/-ish couple from Connecticut, for those of you that are not familiar with us.

The Galápagos Islands have been on Jeane’s bucket list for a long time and so we decided to make Ecuador our destination for this year’s 15 day trip. Early on, I decided that we needed to do an 8-day Galapagos cruise sandwiched in between time in Quito and another destination. We both agreed that attempting to do the Galapagos and Machu Picchu in the time allotted would be too much, so we decided to end our trip in Ecuador by staying at a hacienda near Otavalo, the location of the largest market in South America in the scenic Andes mountains.

We booked our flights and our cruise concurrently and filled in the rest afterward. We booked the cruise through Vaya Adventures, a California company that specializes in Ecuador and South America. We are not big fans of travel agencies and found out later that we could have booked directly with the cruise line. However, booking with Vaya actually worked to our advantage as they were attentive, helpful and gave us a free upgrade to business class for our domestic connections from Quito to and from the cruise departure and arrival airports.

I booked our International flights on American as it had the most convenient departure and arrival times to and from Quito. Since we booked well in advance, the cost for Business Class seats was not that much more than Economy. We prefer United and the Star Alliance airlines, but the connections did not work well. Flying out of Hartford, we had to connect through Charlotte and Miami. We had 2 hours between flights outbound and 3 hours inbound. Delta had a direct connection through Atlanta, but required an overnight flight without “lie flat” seats, so that was not a good option either.

With flights booked, we had 3 nights in Quito to allow for weather delays, lost luggage etc. After much research, we chose the Sheraton Quito. While there are more charming places in the old town area of Quito, they all seemed to have their quirks. Having experienced “charm” in Central America, we decided that a modern hotel would award us with more services and a better night’s sleep as well as being easy to find for the taxi drivers. This turned out to be a very good decision on many levels. Anyway, we booked a room on the club floor at the advance rate with no deposit and much later when the rates dropped, we rebooked with a full 100% deposit.

For the back end of our trip, we booked Hacienda Cusin for 4 nights because it had great reviews on TA and had horse riding from its own stables. Vaya had proposed a whirlwind tour of the Ecuadorian Andes, but it was too fast paced for our needs with too much moving around.

So, with all of our plans in place, this is how the trip evolved:

Things did not get off to a smooth start. No sooner had we boarded our initial flight to Charlotte that we were told to deplane. There was a shortage of oxygen tanks for this flight and there would be a 3-hour delay so that spares could be brought in from Boston. So we headed directly to the Admirals Club to see if we couldn’t rebook our flights. Because of the planned layovers between our originally scheduled flights, we had a couple of options for getting to Miami for our international flight. We chose to risk short connections at Washington Reagan National as well as at Miami. I was concerned about our bags, but was assured that they would get to Miami. From that point on, everything went smoothly until after we got through a quick immigration check at Quito Airport. We had made it, but our bags were still in Miami. The clerk at the Quito Airport baggage desk assured me that bags would arrive on the next night’s flight. Fortunately, we always pack a couple of days worth of clothing in our carry-on bags and were prepared for our first day in Quito.

We had waited quite a while to find out that our bags had not arrived and then we had to file a claim. A driver was supposed to meet us and I was wondering if he would still be around when we exited the baggage area. Fortunately he was and about 50 minutes later, we arrived at the Quito Sheraton. Upon arrival, we were offered an upgrade to a club floor suite which I gratefully accepted. Our suite was fine - with most all of the modern amenities (2 flat screen TV’s, coffee maker, large electronic safe, rain shower in the bath, etc.) but somewhat tired, with little character. We would have liked double sinks in the bath, but that is really my only complaint. We settled in quickly and were in bed by half past midnight.

Thankfully, there was no pressure to rise early the next morning as we had a light agenda and breakfast in the club lounge was served until 10:30AM. The lounge was on the 12th (top) floor of the hotel and had a nice view of the new part of town, with the mountains in the distance. The breakfast buffet was fine with an omelet station and all of the usual stuff, including a selection of local fruits and juices. The staff were friendly, but didn’t speak much English.

Our plan for our first day in Quito was to take the hop-on, hop-off Quito Tour Bus. The first stop as well as the ticket sales kiosk was a 5-10 minute walk from the Sheraton. We boarded at 11AM. Tickets are $15 per person and the money was well spent. There is an ongoing commentary on the bus in English and Spanish, giving a very basic explanation of the various sites en route. Each stop allows an hour for exploring before the next bus arrives. Our stops included the Iglesia La Basilica, the beautiful Gothic church where you can climb (on stairs and ladders) to the top of its towers, the main square and the Iglesia La Compania with its gold interior (no photos allowed), and a half hour stop at the Mirador El Panecillo (statue of Virgin Mary with views of the city).

At the end of day, we chose to have “dinner” in the club lounge. There were empanadas and some other appetizers which were filling enough to constitute a meal. We were disappointed that they were not particularly warm both from a taste and hygiene point of view. The wine and beer selection was limited, but adequate. We enjoyed talking with several other guests that were staying there and wound up staying until closing time.

For our second day, our bags had arrived very early in the morning, so we were able to unpack them and get settled before the day started. Then, it was breakfast again at a leisurely pace and a taxi to the Community Hostel for our “free” 10:30AM walking tour of the Old Town. We had to provide specific directions to the doorman and then to our taxi driver for our destination. The Community Hostel was actually quite nice by hostel standards, and we were able to use the restroom while waiting for the tour to start. It was a fairly big group, but our guide projected well, so the tour was interesting and educational. We highly recommend this tour. We did not go inside any of the sites but did cover a fairly large area in about 3 hours. We tipped our wonderful guide generously at the end. Afterwards, we shopped for crafts in the basement of the Iglesia De San Francisco and took a taxi (because it was raining) back to the Iglesia La Basilica which had a shop inside that Jeane wanted to revisit to purchase a scarf for her assistant.

At the club lounge that evening, the food was similar to the night before. We had noticed that a microwave oven was available and chose to heat our lukewarm food from the buffet. This really helped, as it tasted much better from the night before. Afterward, we returned to our room to get packed and ready for our flights to the Galapagos.

Next: The Galapagos Islands.

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    Glad your bags arrived! On my first trip to Quito there was a free opera performance at La Companía so I was able to take photos along with all the Ecuadorians,

    The HoHo bus has a Senior discount btw. Another good stop is for the Central Bank Musem. I do recommend the Hoho bus and a walking tour is a good idea. Quito does have a petty crime problem so it's wise not to just wander.

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    8-Day Galapagos Cruise on the Haugan “Petrel”

    As is common for Galapagos itineraries, our cruise line, Haugan Cruises, arranged our flights to and from Quito. On the outbound leg, their representative met us at the airport, helped us with the check-in process, which included screening for seeds and plant material, and informed us that our flight would be delayed. As it turned out, we were ultimately bumped from that flight and rebooked on another one. Fortunately 11 of the 13 passengers on our same cruise were bumped from that same Avianca flight and rebooked. In the meantime, Avianca gave us all vouchers for lunch, which gave us passengers time to get to know one another. Jeane and I were booked in business class on our Avianca flights, courtesy of our travel agency, Vaya Travels, and while the seats are bigger and there was more legroom, the food and beverage service left much to be desired. The food offerings were pretty much inedible and the wines offered were of low quality.

    Like all ships in the Galapagos, the Petrel alternates weekly between two itineraries. We had Haugan’s “Itinerary A” which originates at Baltra and North Seymour Island, spends several days at various spots on Isabela Island, stops at Fernandina, Santa Cruz, South Plaza, Santa Fe and Lobos Islands, and departs at San Cristobal. I will attempt to cover our specific experience on the Petrel cruise and point out some important tips that apply to all cruises.

    The Petrel sleeps 16 and as mentioned above, we had 13 aboard - everyone for the full 8 days. We were a very congenial group, almost all from the USA and almost all in our late 50’s to late 60’s. Our tour guide was Harry Jimenez and we were in unanimous agreement that he made the trip very special. Eduardo, the ship’s chief steward, kept things running smoothly and attended to the passengers’ every need.

    Our ship was about one year old, the newest in Haugan’s fleet of three ships and probably the newest in the Galapagos. The staterooms were huge by cruise ship standards. Each had a private deck with two chairs, a king bed, a large bath with a stand-up rain/handheld combo shower and plenty of storage space. The sink was situated outside of the toilet/shower room and was appointed with quality toiletries. The Petrel also offered two enormous suites with separate sitting areas. In spite of its youth, the Petrel, like most vessels, required constant attention from the engineering staff. Issues like lack of A/C and inadequate hot water were mentioned by some of the guests. These were minor issues however, as the rooms were spotlessly clean, the furnishings all new and the lighting designed for practical as well as esthetic purposes.

    There was no wifi on the cruise ship, but from time to time, the ship was near islands with cellular service. We also had the opportunity to use the wifi available in the restaurants in some of the small towns on the islands.

    Since it was a February cruise, the waters were calmer and warmer than they are during the dry season, which runs from May to November. The only time the waters seemed rough was on the long overnight sail on the first night to get us to our initial destination on Isabela Island. After that, the ship only moved a few hours at a time, so the rocking of the boat barely affected us. Water temperature varied significantly, depending on where we were, with the waters around the southeast islands being the warmest. Wet suits on the ship were plentiful. They were definitely needed for the cooler waters, but were not necessary for the warmer tropical waters.

    It is important to understand that the National Park sets all landing times, snorkeling times, and times for panga boat rides with no landing. Neither the ship crew nor the guide has any say in this. While most days feature a combination of three distinct activities (hiking, snorkeling and/or panga riding), the timing of these is predetermined and will often not provide spare time for a needed shower or even a break. On the other hand, there are occasional unexpected longer periods of down time. So it is important to be flexible, open-minded and go with the flow. Breakfast, lunch and dinner times are set around the activities. For our itinerary, breakfast was usually at 7:30 AM, but sometimes earlier. A wake-up call came 1/2 hour before breakfast. Lunches were usually between noon and 1PM, with an hour or two rest period afterward. Dinners were generally at 7 PM with a briefing on the next day’s activities a half hour prior. Between activities and/or meals, we usually had about 45 minutes, but not always. There was usually an announcement over the PA system a few minutes before activities were to begin.

    We had a couple of wet landings which in my opinion, were just as easy or easier than dry landings. Since they are basically just beach landings, it is best to ride barefoot in the panga and put on shoes and socks on the beach. There is no need for water shoes and no need to pack them. Towels are generally provided to clean the sand off one’s feet after dry land is reached.

    Water shoes are not needed for snorkeling either, as it is quickest to go barefoot in the pangas and just slip on flippers before going into the water. While we brought our own snorkels and masks (a good idea, especially if you are nearsighted and require a prescription mask), everything we needed for snorkeling was provided on the ship, including wet suits. I wore a rash guard for comfort with the wet suit and for sun protection without it. We found that a dry bag was useful when snorkeling as the floor of the panga gets quite wet. Bring an underwater camera if taking photos while snorkeling is important.

    Separate footwear is required on board the ship, as the shoes worn on landings (wet or dry) should only be used on the islands. This is to prevent foul-smelling sea lion poop that becomes attached to one’s shoes from being brought aboard. Most in our group wore Tevas or sandals on the decks of the ship. Ankle-high hiking boots are not necessary for the islands but sturdy shoes with good traction make walking on the sharp and irregular volcanic rock a lot easier.

    Dress for activities should be oriented towards sun protection and for keeping cool,especially during the rainy season. I brought eight days worth of quick-drying long and short sleeve shirts with UV protection, plus quick-drying hiking socks, undershorts, and shorts. I also brought a sun hat with a large brim which ties to keep it from blowing off. Lastly, I applied sunscreen on every exposed area before all activities. Don’t underestimate the power of the sun at the equator! My dermatologist recommended the “Coolibar” brand of clothing for UV protection. Their products are stylish and practical, albeit pricey. There was a clothes line attached to the railing of our deck that was useful for quickly drying swimwear and other wet clothing unless it was raining.

    The food and beverage service on board the Petrel was excellent. We were given two bottles of water at the beginning of the cruise and two empty flasks for hiking. There was a large water cooler for filling and refilling the bottles. For coffee drinkers, a coffee/espresso/cappuccino maker was available 24/7 and welcome upon waking in the morning. Breakfasts were hearty and included omelets, bacon or sausage, toast and jams, a selection of cereals, a selection of deli meats and cheeses, fresh fruits and a fresh fruit juice that changed daily. Lunches were substantial, varied and delicious. Twice during the cruise, a barbecue spread of seafood and meats was offered outside on the top deck. Dinners were equally substantial. All lunches and dinners included a selection of meats, vegetables and salads plus a dessert. We had impeccably fresh fried calamari served to us one day at lunch. Vegetarian options were always available. The bar was well stocked with local beers, mostly average to good Chilean wines and premium spirits. Prices were steep, especially for the wines, at $50 and up per bottle. Portion sizes for spirits were generous.

    The passengers on the Petrel dressed a bit for dinner. A couple of the men wore shorts, which was fine. T-shirts were worn at lunch but polo or other dressier shirts were the norm at dinner time.

    I won’t go into all the wildlife we saw as it varies by island and by season. Needless to say, over 8 days, we saw our share of tortoises, iguanas, lizards, penguins, sea lions, boobies, hawks, cormorants and a wide variety of fish. There was a bit of repetition, as several species are found throughout the islands.

    For our trip, it was always humid. The sky was frequently overcast, which kept the temperature tolerable, but was not ideal for photos. The sun would often break through the clouds though, bringing high heat with it. We had some short periods of heavy rain, but never while we were out on activities. Be sure to keep an eye on the skies if you put clothes out to dry.

    In preparing for our trip, we read “The Galapagos, a Natural History” by Henry Nicholls and watched the DVD “Galapagos, the Islands that Changed the World”, produced by the BBC. Both provided an excellent introduction to the islands and their history.

    While this was not a “trip of a lifetime” for us, it was an enjoyable and relaxing cruise to a very unique place on our planet.

    After an early morning walk and a 10AM check-out, our return to Quito went smoothly. However the transfers, wait times and flights pretty much killed the remainder of the day.

    Next: Otavalo and the Volcanos of Ecuador

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    Otavalo

    On arrival in Quito, we were greeted by Hacienda Cusin's driver and its spacious mini-van. The trip, promoted as 70 minutes, dragged on to more than an hour and a half due to heavy trucks and buses slowing traffic on the hilly, modern highway that connects the airport and Otavalo. It was worth the nominal fee, however.

    Hacienda Cusin is a 17th estate with a minimum of those "quirks" that would otherwise prevent us from staying there. When we arrived, it was rather late, but we were able to order room service for $10 extra and split an okay club sandwich, carafe of wine and dessert. Note that one liter carafes of reasonable quality house wine (red or white) are a good value at $18.

    We stayed in a Garden Cottage (#25), one of three free-standing units. All-in-all, there are 43 rooms in the complex - some quite modest. Our cottage was located in a very quiet area on the edge of the property. It had a very comfortable but somewhat saggy king bed with layers of heavy wool blankets and a wonderful wood-burning fireplace that was lit for us each night. When the fire went out there was a portable electric heater to keep us warm, if needed. Lighting was adequate as there are lamps throughout. There was a small desk and chair plus two larger chairs for relaxing by the fireplace. A walk-in closet offered plenty of storage space for our bags. There was a small safe, but it was inoperable so we had to store our passports and extra cash at reception.

    The bath had a large stand-up shower and a single sink with storage on shelving beneath. Toiletries were replaced every day, but were not of high quality. The bath and hand towels varied - sometimes thin, sometimes plush. No wash cloths were provided. Our unit had its own water heater which was good for two consecutive showers, providing we did not linger. Water pressure was generous.

    Note that prices quoted for your room and transfers may be more than quoted on Cusin’s website. Just ask before arrival and they will adjust.

    Free wifi was available at reception and in all of the common areas, including the library, the bar and the restaurant. There was no wifi in the rooms.

    Throughout the complex there were pretty flowers and plantings. While none of the gardens are particularly well-groomed, they did add to the charm of the place. There were four resident llamas that grazed on the lawns of the complex.

    While most of the staff speak little English, the three ladies that alternate at reception were quite fluent. Their friendliness and helpfulness greatly added to the Hacienda Cusin experience.

    A decent hot breakfast is included in the room rate with choices of eggs, pancakes, bacon, ham, muesli and fresh fruit. A different fruit juice is offered each day. We took advantage of the restaurant’s prix fix menu one night. I had a pork chop with blackberry sauce accompanied by mashed purple potatoes and vegetables. While that was quite tasty, my wife did not enjoy her langoustine with tomato sauce. If you want to try guinea pig, an Ecuadorean delicacy, you can order it one day in advance.

    There are a couple of good restaurants at nearby hotels that are reachable by taxi for $5 more or less. Most notable are Puerto Lago where the steak and local beers are of high quality and Cafe Pachamama which was good for an early dinner the night before our departure.

    Prior to arrival, we reserved the driver and guide services of Christian Palomeque through Hacienda Cusin. Christian has been recommended in other reviews and while pricey at $22/hour, he spoke excellent English. On our 6-hour tour, he took us to the Saturday animal market, a private weaver’s factory and home, the woodworking town, the leather shops in Cotacachi, and the Otavalo market, the largest in South America. Jeane did most of her shopping for this trip in Cotacachi, as the shops were very upscale in contrast to Quito and elsewhere.

    There are several recommended walks from Hacienda Cusin. We did two of them at about 2 hours each, which provided an opportunity to see some of the local farms and the countryside on foot.

    The hacienda also has stables with several horses and a choice of 1 to 3 hour rides, ranging in difficulty from easy to hard. We did a 2 hour “moderate” ride which took us up into the hills past indigenous people’s homes and through a forest of eucalyptus trees. Our guide spoke no English, but he did make sure we were comfortable and that the horses were cooperating. The horses seemed to be well-cared for and well-groomed.

    If there is a downside to Hacienda Cusin, it is that there has been some wear and tear on the premises since the restoration several years ago. Most of the furnishings seemed a bit “tired” and the daily use and the soot of the fireplaces has also taken its toll. For some though, that may be part of the charm and I would certainly recommend it to others, with that caveat.

    We checked out the night prior to our departure as we needed to get going at 4:30AM for an 8AM airport departure. It took about an hour to get to the airport at that time of day and our flights home all went smoothly.

    All-in-all, a great trip.

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    Thanks for sharing, Craig. Happy to hear that you and Jeani enjoyed yourselves although it sounds like the trip flew by. Your description of Otavalo reminds me of the highlands of Peru.

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    Thanks for all the detail. The ship you chose sounds fantastic. I have three kids and the Galapagos Islands are on our list. I need to research a ship conducive to kids though. Looking forward to the next installment.

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    mlgb - perhaps I made those issues on the Petrel sound worse than they were. They were resolved promptly, in any case. Glad to hear that your Galapagos trip on the similar-sized Angelito was perfect. This was our first trip to South America, so my own expertise is limited, compared to yours. Thank you for your contributions to this thread.

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    It pretty much was perfect, thanks. I liked my itinerary which included the albatross colony at Espanola. In the end it was fortunate that my planned trip on the Seaman Journey was cancelled and I wound up on Angelito. Getting the right combination of time of year, itinerary guide and a compatible group is so much more important than how big your suite is!

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    Not sure that a good guide and compatible group are things you can plan for, although I've heard that the better guides prefer the smaller ships. We are not retired, so February was the month that worked best for us. We liked that it was warm and the seas were relatively calm. Not sure if our photos would have turned out better if we had gone during the sunnier dry season, although we did get plenty of excellent shots. We didn't debate a lot about which itinerary to take as the overall experience (including our accommodations) was more important to us than seeing specific types of wildlife. Everyone's travel priorities are different :-).

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    Yes of course everyone's priorities are different.

    In a case such as a family-owned boat such as Angelito I think you can plan for a particular guide, in particular Maja, since she is married to the owners and caters to a population of Swiss or German travelers, so they know her schedule. I'm glad I got her before she retires as she is by far the best nature guide I've ever had. She's also a photo buff so plans the itinerary to take advantage of the best light for photography (eg on Rabida to get the red soil an turquoise water we went at midday). At Bartoleme we went in the afgternoon so we could see the penguins coming in to their nests. One interesting thing I learned is that because they have been at it for so long, they have a sort of priority in designing their itinerary.

    I think hopefulist went with them and had as great a time as I did.

    I'm glad you had a good enough time even though it wasn't "PERFECT".

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    I just have to chime in and say that we had a 2 night stay at Hacienda Cusin right before our trip to the Galapagos Islands last summer. We were in room 17, across the courtyard from the bar, and managed to find the wifi signal from the nearby reading room. We too found the food to be rather mediocre, and opted for sandwiches rather than the full meal on the second night. The grounds were charming and the enormous retablo on display in our room was magnificent.

    Guiding on Galapagos cruises really does make a difference. I was disappointed by the guide (not Maja) on the Angelito, comparing unfavorably to the guide we had on the Galaxy II two years ago (now working on another ship.) However, the crew on the Angelito were congenial and my daughter remains in touch with a few of them.

    We hired Lincoln Jabra as a guide for three days, going to Mindo for the cloud forest, ziplining, orchid and hummingbird viewing and chocolate factory!... and then the 2 days in the Otovalo region. Spectacular 3 days. He can be reached at LincolnJabra at hotmail dot com. Highly recommended.

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    Hi Craig - Thanks for this TR. Brings back memories. We went in '09 - same drill: 2 nights Quito, 7 nights cruise, 2 nights Hacienda Cusin. Your mention of footwear made me laugh. We took every kind of outdoor shoe sold by REI (and we travel with just carry on), yet used only our Keens and regular sneakers.

    We chose a larger boat (the Explorer II) because one of my sons gets seasick and Mr. Crosscheck was afraid he'd have to be too social if we were with only 26 fellow passengers (however he got over his shyness and ended up playing a Greek goddess in a skit as we crossed the equator :) We got an incredible deal because we booked less than a month before our trip. As a sailor at heart, I think I would have preferred a smaller boat, but for the others our vessel was ideal. The seas were calm in early June and the light was perfect for photography, but water temps were very cold - wetsuits were essential.

    Cusin was slightly funky in a good way, but not run down, but I can imagine how it would be now if they haven't renovated.

    Although the Galapagos are supposed to be a once in a lifetime trip, I want to go back. I found it very zenlike/relaxing and loved the combo of pristine landscape, surreal wildlife, lots of exercise (not strenuous, but constant), along with unplugged family time.

    Your TR was not as effusive as your Asian reports - I know that the Galapagos itineraries are more restricted now... wondering if that and the humidity might have affected your experience.

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