Explore Ecuador & the Galápagos Islands with Ben Westwood

1. What is transportation like to the Galápagos and what’s the best way to explore the islands?

There are daily flights to the Galapagos from the Ecuadorian cities of Quito and Guayaquil. Exploring the islands can be done in three ways: on a cruise, on a land-based tour, or independently using daily ferries that shuttle between the three populated islands. You will definitely see more on a cruise because boats travel at night to maximize use of time. There are also many islands that are accessible to cruises, and this is the most environmentally friendly way to see the archipelago. However, for those prone to seasickness, you can see plenty on a land-based tour. While traveling independently requires flexibility, you can save a lot of money by doing it yourself.

2. When is the best time to visit?

Ecuador is a year-round destination, but of course the best times to visit Ecuador are during the many boisterous celebrations on national holidays. The locals know how to party and need little excuse to let their hair down. New Year is famous for the effigies of the Año Viejo (Old Year) that are burnt to culminate festivities, and Carnival is famous for parades and water balloons (expect to get wet!). In the mountains, there are many unique indigenous celebrations include Inty Raymi to mark summer solstice and the raucous Mama Negra (Black Mother) festival in Latacunga. It is a sign of how proud Ecuadorians are of their country that there are no less than four separate days set aside to celebrate various aspects of the country’s independence – The Battle of Pichincha, Simon Bolivar’s birthday, the Independence of Ecuador and independence of Guayaquil, all celebrated with gusto.

3. What are the climates like for the four different geographical regions?

On the coast, the hottest season is between December and May. This also coincides with the rainy season when torrential downpours are quickly followed by strong sunshine. Between June and November it is cloudier, cooler and windier, which suits some people.

On the Galapagos, these seasons are broadly similar but rainfall is lower and tends to be on the higher ground of the larger islands. The sea is far warmer in the hot season, but can get very cold between July and October.

In the mountains, the climate is very different, varying between a comfortable spring-like climate and bone-chillingly wintry. It warms up towards the middle of the year with July and August the warmest, driest months. The wettest period is February to April but light rain falls year-round, usually in the afternoons and evening.

The jungle’s climate varies between wet and wetter: it’s not called the rainforest for nothing! The driest period is around December and the wettest June-July. There are no marked high and low seasons in the mountains and jungle.

4. What do you consider the best place to stay on a budget?

Ecuador is a cheap destination and budget travelers can get by on as little as $20 per day by staying in basic lodging, eating set meals and taking local buses. Prices tend to be higher in the cities of Quito, Cuenca and Guayaquil and on the coast in high season. So the smaller Andean towns and the beach resorts out of season are the best bets for budget travelers.

5. What should travelers never forget to pack?

Pack for all climates: Ecuador is only about the size of Colorado but the variation in terrain is huge. If you want to make the most of it, you need good walking boots and winter clothes for the mountains, binoculars for fabulous bird-watching; for the jungle you need insect repellant and for the coast you need sunglasses and a hat. Wherever you are in Ecuador, the sun is very strong so bring plenty of high-factor sunscreen!

6. Where do you find the best beaches?

Ecuador has beaches to cover all tastes: if you want to party with surfers, head to Montañita; to party with locals, visit Atacames further north. If you want to escape the party-goers, stay in quieter fishing villages such as Mompiche, which has great surfing, or Machalilla National Park on the central coast, which is one of the few protected coastal regions with tropical dry forest leading directly onto pristine beaches. For the best of both worlds, Canoa is developing resort that is quite busy in high season and refreshingly quiet out of season.

7. What’s your favorite Ecuadorian cuisine and where do you find it?

Seafood, seafood and more seafood! I never forget the day I had lobster ceviche, followed by fried sea bass with rice and salad on a beach in Ayangue on the southern coast. The entire meal set me back a grand total of $1.50. The food on Ecuador’s coast is mouthwatering: delicious soups, served cold with lemon and coriander as ceviche, and hot with peanut and plantains as biche. White fish, shrimps, lobster, clams—you name it—can all be served grilled, steamed, breaded or fried with garlic. In particular, don’t miss encocado, a delicious sweet coconut sauce—a specialty of the northern coast.

8. How has volcanic activity shaped Ecuador’s landscape?

Volcanoes dominate two of Ecuador’s regions: the mountains and the Galapagos. The country has no less than 10 peaks over 5,000 meters and a further 12 over 4,000 meters. Towering Chimborazo is actually farther from the center of the Earth than Mount Everest due to the Ecuatorial ridge. The country has 30 active or dormant volcanoes, 10 of which have erupted in the past decade. Most active at present is Tungurahua, which stands just eight kilometers south of the little town of Baños, arguably the region’s most idyllic resort. Luckily, the crater is on the opposite side to town so Baños has escaped unscathed so far.

The Galapagos are volcanic islands and the inhospitable landscapes are what make them so unique. Mammals cannot survive in such parched surroundings so the archipelago developed into an ecological Eden with few natural predators and fearless species. A highlight of a Galapagos visit is still the dramatic hike into the Sulfur mines of Sierra Negra, the second largest crater in the world.

The volcanoes have had such a dominant effect on Ecuador’s history that local folklore has even assigned them personalities. Cotopaxi apparently had an affair with the young passionate female peak Tungurahua, but it wasn’t long before she pursued the taller Chimborazo. Their love-child Guagua Pichincha (Guagua means baby in Kichwa) went north to love with his grandfather Rucu Pichincha. Some locals believe that the eruptions of Guagua and Tungurahua in the past decade were the mother and child calling to each other. Let’s hope the family affairs quieten down soon!

9. Where’s the best place to go for bird watchers?

Ecuador has more than 1,676 types of birds, one-fifth of the total species in the world, which is remarkable for such as small country. The Galapagos are best for close-ups of boobies, frigates, albatrosses, finches, penguins, flamingos and flightless cormorants. Mindo in the cloud forest is incomparable for quetzals and hummingbirds, and the Amazon rainforest is the pick of the regions for sheer numbers: Toucans, parrots, parakeets, vultures, and woodpeckers are just a few of the highlights.

10. What’s the best national park to visit in the Amazon region?

The Amazon region contains Ecuador’s largest mainland national park, Yasuni, which spreads over 9,620 square kilometers of upland tropical forest, seasonally flooded forest, marshes, swamps, lakes and rivers. Untouched by the last Ice Age, this park is one of the world’s most biodiverse areas with 500 species of birds, 130 species of amphibians, 100,000 species of insects and more than 60 per cent of Ecuador’s mammals including jaguars, harpy eagles, pumas, giant otters, tapirs, and monkeys. Unfortunately, some sections of the park are currently at risk from oil exploration and the Ecuadorian government is trying to persuade the world to pay to keep the oil underground. Let’s hope they succeed. Visit Yasuní – ITT or SOS Yasuní to find out more.

11. What kind of wildlife can travelers expect to see while touring the Galápagos?

On land, the highlight is the giant tortoise. They can live past aged 150, so perhaps we should all take a cue from them and slow down a little. Land iguanas are equally fascinating, and their marine cousins are living proof of evolution, having adapted to dive to the seabed in search of algae, For birdlife, decide which mating ritual is more entertaining: the blue-footed boobies goose-stepping and showing off their bright feet, the frigates inflating their red chests to the size of a basketball or the clacking albatrosses doing their circular dance. For many people the highlight of the islands are the sea lions – walk among their snoozing colonies on the beaches, and snorkel with the playful pups, but watch out for those grouchy males!

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