Spontaneous Travel Filter: A Month in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands
March 16, 2014 1:38 PM   Subscribe

My partner and I would like to spend a month traveling around Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands this upcoming May. We're thinking about renting an apartment and using it as our base of operations during the month. Does anyone have any experience or tips about this? Would Quito be a good option; if so which neighborhoods? What about staying on the islands themselves? Or somewhere else in Ecuador?
posted by ageispolis to Travel & Transportation around Ecuador (7 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Personally--and speaking as someone who usually prefers to just go somewhere and then plan my trip--I'd think it'd be hard to do spontaneous in the Galapagos. It's a lot of islands, many of which have no people on them, and the coolest part is getting to those out-of-the-way islands, which isn't likely to happen if you just show up in a tourist office and see what your options are. YMMV, though, and enjoy your trip!

(Unsolicited book recommendation).
posted by _Silky_ at 1:52 PM on March 16, 2014

I did that same thing with my mom like 10 years ago. We stayed in Quito for part of it and hired a driver. Then, we went to the mountains and the rainforest with separate arrangements (the hotel/apartment in Quito was no longer 'rented'). With the Galapagos: you want to stay on the ship. The ship goes between islands at night, and will take you onto them during the day.
posted by semaphore at 1:53 PM on March 16, 2014

Best answer: You should definitely plan the Galapagos portion of your trip ahead of time. If you book your tour with an Ecuadorian travel agency, you will save a crapload of my money. My friend did a 1 week land-based tour of Galapagos for ~$1200, all inclusive (flight from the mainland, hotels, boats between islands, activities (e.g. snorkeling), food, admission to attractions, everything). That was through www.zenithecuador.com, which is a Quito-based travel agency. I think this is the tour she did: http://www.zenithecuador.com/galapagos-7-days-package.html though there are others. There was a private tour guide (i.e. one guide for the two people traveling) to the various locations and activities.

In thinking about where to base yourself, you should know that the airport in Quito has moved WAY into the outskirts of the city (ok, the airport hasn't moved, they opened a new airport). It's not so easy to get to anymore, so if you're planning on flying to different cities, that would be a bit of a pain as a base. And you should consider flying at least some of the time. Flying is cheap. The roads are stunning but not always super safe.

Definitely go to Quito, though. Also Cuenca, which is (the whole city) a UN World Heritage Site. Go to Cajas, which is a national park you would pass through on the road betwee Guayaquil and Cuenca, if that was a drive you decided to make. Otherwise it's a day trip from Cuenca. Hire a driver. Do not drive it yourself. Talk to your doctor about altitude sickness medication if you are going to Quito or Cajas, for sure, but probably anywhere in the centre of the country (i.e. not the coast and not the amazon), including Cuenca.

Eat roast pork at the market. When you are driving between cities (and by you, I mean the driver you hire) stop at those roadside restaurants where you can have a feast for a couple of dollars.
posted by jb at 3:02 PM on March 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I did something similar very recently. I flew into Quito and stayed in a place on Plaza Sucre in the Old Town. Its a nice place but Quito can be a bit dodgy, especially at night.
While in Quito I booked a land based scuba tour on the Galapagos islands and an eight day cruise too. I had a week by myself in between. I hung out on Isabella island and booked that accommodation when I got to the islands. For the first week I was based on Santa Cruz.

You will save loads of money by booking in Ecuador. There are lots of places to stay on the islands and lots of tour agencies too.

I didn't see much of the rest of Ecuador though, I just went for the islands. Which were awesome, you will have a great time
posted by drugstorefrog at 4:00 PM on March 16, 2014

You should know that INGALA (the Ecuadorian government agency with jurisdiction over the Galapagos Islands) controls movement around the islands very, very tightly. When I went a few years ago, all the guidebooks I read said that the uninhabited islands (which are the ones with the best wildlife) were accessible exclusively with a licensed guide. The guides take people only on designated paths (meaning that all tours visit the same sites), and they were serious, trained conservationists-- all the guides I met had PhDs.

INGALA is concerned about tourist damage to the islands and animals, and about tourists bringing invasive species or foreign diseases. To prevent this, they have their own customs/ immigration procedures for issuing park entrance permits, sort of like getting a visa. I'm not sure if/ how they issue these permits to individuals. INGALA also inspects and fumigates every visitor's luggage before it's allowed off of the plane. (On my AeroGal flight, they actually opened up the overhead bins just before landing and sprayed our carry-ons right in the main cabin-- yuck.)

If you want to do some spontaneous exploring, there are nice rainforests outside Quito. We enjoyed hiking in the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve. But for the Galapagos part of your trip, you should plan on booking with an organized cruise/ tour.
posted by drosophelia at 8:44 AM on March 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

You don't mention what you're interested in seeing other that the Galapagos, but it doesn't make much sense to me to rent an apartment in Quito as your base. Quito is indeed a bit sketchy, even in the tourist areas. More importantly, Quito doesn't really lend itself to daytrips to nearby attractions, except maybe the cloud forests north of the city. If it were me, I'd fly into Quito, then fly to the Galapagos for a cruise. The alternative to a cruise is daytrips from one of the inhabited islands, but I've heard that the experience is much better from a cruise because you can visit a greater number of islands and you maximize the time spent on the islands.

There are lots of other choices for the remaining 2-3 weeks. Some of my favorites are Cuenca, hiking in Quilotoa, Banos, the bike trip from Banos to Shell and bizarre monkey sanctuary, Vilcabamba, and the jungle. But it kind of depends on your interests. Feel free to send me a message if you have more specific questions.
posted by btkuhn at 6:44 PM on March 17, 2014

I don't know if you've finalized your plans, but we just returned from Ecuador, though we are saving the Galapagos for when we can go with our (grown) kids. Obviously, your two main options are to fly to Quito or Guayaquil. Guayquil is a little more accessible, but if you think Quito is sketchy...there are some damn fine hotels there though.

The days of just showing up and booking a trip to the Galapagos are over, as has been said above. That said, once you have your permit (and it is cheaper to arrange when you are in Quito or Guayaquil) and have landed in the islands, there are often charters with certified guides that will take you to areas less populated than the bigger cruise-like operations.

As far as getting around Ecuador while on the mainland, the buses are reliable and quite inexpensive. You will hear this from others, too, so I don't think this should be a surprise--if you travel by bus, make sure the start and end time are during daylight hours. There is a chance of piracy, especially on the route between Quito & Cuenca, after dark. During the day, the bus was the way to go.

We hired a driver to get us from Guayaquil up toward Puerto Lopez. I got a "discounted" fare of $100 for the roughly 100 miles we traveled. This was a competitive price--intercity or interprovince drivers are not quite the bargain they used to be.

That said, Cuenca is a marvelous city, Cajas National Park (mentioned above) is gorgeous, the coast from Salinas to Puerto Lopez was an up and down (mostly up) mix. Also consider Isla La Plata. which is closer and less expensive than Galapagos and has some-not nearly most-of the natural beauty of the Galapagos. It is part of the Machalilla National Park right near Puerto Lopez.

Instead of renting an apartment for a month--because if you are going to see Ecuador, so called "day trips" will take you out of your apartment more than you are in. I recommend checking out the many places for hire through Airbnb and VRBO. Most towns and cities have quite nice and quite cheap hostals (that's how they spell it) which are (in my experience) a cut above a hostel and a cut below most hotels.

Still, the most expensive part of your trip is going to be getting TO Ecuador and your booking to Galapagos--and a driver if you don't take the bus.
posted by beelzbubba at 12:57 PM on April 21, 2014

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