Visiting only the Galápagos Islands and skipping the rest of Ecuador seems a shame, especially now that the mainland has several world-class properties. The itinerary below combines my favorite properties in the country into an enviable vacation incorporating vastly different natural environments as well as some appealing urban attractions like museums, churches and art galleries in Quito.
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Spend a full day exploring Quito, which has a large and well-preserved colonial center. Ornate homes and shops line the narrow, sloping streets, which periodically open onto plazas fronted by grand municipal buildings and elaborately decorated churches.
Start in the impressive Plaza Grande (also known as Plaza de la Independencia) and walk to the nearby 17th-century Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús. The interior is a riot of gold, with golden Moorish-style latticework encrusting the nave’s barrel vault and golden grapevine-clad columns framing niches with life-size statues of saints.
Afterward, perhaps visit the newly renovated National Museum, rich with pre-colonial and Quito School art. The Gold Room is especially memorable.
Alternatively, continue farther north into La Mariscal, a neighborhood with a wealth of upscale art galleries.
You could also visit the Casa Museo Guayasamín, the former home of Ecuador’s most important modern painter, Oswaldo Guayasamín, and the adjacent Capilla de Hombre, a grand gallery housing many of his large-format works.
Dine tonight at Zazu, Quito’s best restaurant, which serves beautifully presented versions of Ecuadorian dishes.
After breakfast, meet your driver and transfer three and a half hours to Mashpi Lodge, a property set in a vast protected reserve of pristine cloud forest. This is part of the larger Chocó region, which ranks among the world’s biodiversity hot spots.
After you have lunch and settle in, hike through the forest to a waterfall. On our first hike, our guide pointed out brown dwarf iguanas, red lady’s slipper flowers and a rare black umbrellabird, the latter resting on a branch not 50 feet away.
Spend two full days at the lodge (three is even better, if you have time). A new cable car affords spectacular views over a series of valleys, and a well-priced spa is available for relaxing after your adventures. Try pedaling the unique “Sky Bike,” which follows a cable through the forest canopy; observe a multitude of jewel-toned hummingbirds at a designated feeding area; or visit a butterfly house and go on a night hike.
After one more excursion and lunch, return to Quito. Relax at your hotel, or take a walk in the historic center before dinner.
This morning, transfer 90 minutes to Hacienda San Agustín de Callo, driving along the Avenue of the Volcanoes. The most remarkable phase of the hacienda’s history preceded the Spanish conquest: At that time, the site was occupied by an Incan palace constructed in the 15th century by one of two emperors in the waning days of the era of Incan dominance. The hacienda contains a dining room and chapel that are complete Incan structures, and several bedrooms have sections of Inca wall.
In the afternoon, visit a nearby rose plantation.
Overnight at the Hacienda San Agustín de Callo. Note that this property is not a luxury hotel but a private house, though one where you are treated as an honored guest.
Make an excursion into Cotopaxi National Park. An almost perfectly symmetrical 19,348-foot snow cone, Cotopaxi could well be the world’s most beautiful volcano. It stands in majestic and solitary splendor, surrounded by the tawny and windswept páramo (highlands).
The hacienda can also arrange for excursions to Laguna Quilotoa, a magnificent crater lake, as well as the nearby markets run by the indigenous people.
After breakfast, transfer 90 minutes to Quito’s airport, and then fly out to the Galápagos Islands (there are now nonstop flights most days of the week).
Meet a representative from one of my two recommended properties on Santa Cruz Island: either the overtly luxurious Pikaia Lodge or the more expeditionary (but still exceedingly comfortable) Galapagos Safari Camp.
This luxurious, sculpture-filled resort on the island of Santa Cruz is set on a hilltop amid 75 acres that have been replanted with some 9,000 native trees.
This property, featuring a stylish central lodge and nine safari tents, is located in a transition zone between cultivated land and the national park.
Take a minimum of three full days to explore the Galápagos from your chosen base. Both properties include excursions to nearby islands on two separate days, giving you the chance to see a wide variety of animal species on both guided hikes and snorkeling outings.
You also have the option, without having to get into a boat, to visit attractions on Santa Cruz Island, where you can see massive sinkholes surrounded by endemic scalesia forest and a ranch that is home to dozens of giant tortoises.
Fly back to Quito, arriving in the mid-afternoon. Check into a day room at your chosen hotel, and if time and energy permit, do a little souvenir shopping at the Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal, an ideal place to bargain for inexpensive alpaca scarves and blankets.
Have dinner at your hotel’s restaurant, and take a late flight out of Quito.
Arrive back home this morning.
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