Best Rated Latin America: Ecuador

Cruising Galapagos with Quasar Expeditions. Photojournalist Mandy Seymour visits with a sea lion.

Best Rated Latin America: Ecuador

Featuring Quito, The Magic Birding Circuit, and Galapagos

By: Mandy Seymour, Best Rated Reviews September 2012

Latin America is a treasure chest for adventurous travelers and Ecuador is its most prized gem.  Nestled between Colombia and Peru, Ecuador is truly the place to have a “best of the best” vacation.  Ecuador’s extensive biodiversity, geography, and rich marine life make it an ideal travel destination for travelers looking for an authentic “all in one” experience.

There is so much to see and do in Ecuador that it is understandable why travel recommendations abound.  Yet there are three attractions you do not want to miss: Quito Old Town, The Magic Birding Circuit, and cruising the Galapagos.  Each of these experiences are truly the “best of the best” of Ecuador and the only one of their kind in Latin America.

Quito and Surrounding Areas

Independence Plaza, Quito

Quito

When flying into Ecuador, you can fly into Quito or Guayaquil.  Quito is the ideal starting point to make the most of your time in Ecuador.

QUITO: Old Town

Quito’s Old Town is quintessentially Quito.  Visiting Quito puts you in the center of the country’s past, present, and future.

To experience the heart of Quito, present and past, visit the Plaza de Independencia (Independence Square).  Since the 16th century, the Plaza de Independencia has retained an important place in the city’s historic district.  The president’s house is located here.  Currently, President Rafael Correa has made significant strides in strengthening Ecuador’s economy and society. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has implemented measures to improve citizens’ daily lives as well, from instituting minimum wage, social security, and taxation.  He has also significantly reduced crime, poverty, and indigence.  He has also made microenterprise development and literacy a priority.

The governmental changes have really made a difference.  We visited ten years ago, and the change is quite noticeable.  Several citizens told us they were quite happy with the changes.  This quality, alone, is worth a visit to Ecuador.  A genuine reform is happening here on a socioeconomic level that is quite remarkable.

For more information on this, read http://jurist.org/thisday/2012/05/ecuador-voters-approved-judicial-and-social-reforms.php

The La Compania Church is also a must-see in Quito.  This church gives a taste of the splendor of Quito Baroque.  It is one of Quito’s most important landmark heritage sites.

The La Ronda Neighborhood has a charm all its own.  Time stands still as you stroll down these quiet streets and envision life as it used to be.

One of Quito’s most unique attractions is the Capilla del Hombre, “the Man’s Chapel”. (www.capilladelhombre.com).  The “Man’s Chapel” is a collection of artistic works by Guayasamin, the “Ibero-American Painter”, depicting the suffering of man.  Guayasamin’s paintings express the anguish of suffering, violence, and injustice in the 20th century.

A visit to Quito’s Middle of the World Monument (www.mitaddelmundo.com)  is a must.

Where to eat:  La Octava de Corpus (http://www.octavadecorpus.com/)  La Octava de Corpus offers elegant Ecuadorean cuisine in a lovely, romantic setting.  It is truly a memorable restaurant with great attention to detail and service.

Where to shop: Otavalo (http://www.otavalo.com/ ).  But if you can’t get there, fortunately, vendors throughout the city and surrounding areas sell many of the handicrafts from Otavalo.

Where to stay:  Old Town: La Casona de La Ronda Hotel  Best of the Best in Quito: San Jorge Ecolodge Quito.  Editor’s Pick: San Jorge de Tandayapas (Just one hour away but worth it!)

La Casona de La Ronda Hotel

 

La Casona de la Ronda Hotel is a quaint, restored mansion located on the most peacefully tranquil street in Quito, La Ronda.  This boutique hotel combines classic colonial charm with modern elegance to create a memorable ambiance and experience.

The hotel serves delicious meals in its intimate dining room.  The hotel also has a lovely courtyard with a unique arrangement of indigenous plants and vegetation covering the wall from ceiling to floor.  This garden display is a living work of art.  The hotel proudly displays the unique artwork of Olga Fisch. (www.olgafisch.com)   The hotel has 22 rooms.  It is in an ideal location for sightseeing, within walking distance of churches, monasteries, museums, plazas and other historic sites.  My stay here was lovely.  It could not have been better.  The staff was polite, friendly, and accommodating.

Best Hotel in Quito: San Jorge Quito Ecolodge  This hotel was rated #1 by TripAdvisor. Read about it here.

When I visited Hosteleria San Jorge de Quito, I was mezmerized by the tranquility and historic feel it has.  San Jorge de Quito is a magnificent hacienda nestled in the mountains overlooking Quito.  Yet it is remarkably quiet and peaceful.  The romantic charm of this hotel is exactly what I believe anyone who is looking for a quintessential Quito and Ecuador experience would want to stay.

The staff and owners are extremely gracious. If you are lucky, you may get to meet Dr. Jorge Cruz, founder and director of the eco-lodge. I had the privilege of meeting him. He is an extremely knowledgeable birding and biodiversity expert.  Although he has an immense responsibility managing his ecolodges and developing his publications, he prizes his guests above all and will give you a warm welcome and make you feel like family.

Naturalist Jorge Garcia, Magic Birding and Hiking Circuit

San Jorge Ecolodges are truly exclusive, hosting 20 guests at a time, so no matter when you go, whether in high season or low season, you will feel like you have a private reserve. This is an unusually wonderful characteristic of these lodges.  San Jorge Ecolodges give you special access to a one-of-a-kind nature experience that is sure to be the memory of a lifetime: the Magic Birding Circuit.

Magic Birding and Hiking Circuit

The Magic Birding Circuit

Travelers find it hard to believe that a pristine natural paradise awaits just one hour outside of Quito, but it does!  In fact, one of Ecuador’s best kept secrets is a multi-biodiversity nature excursion called the Magic Birding Circuit (also known as the Magic Hiking Circuit) which starts in Quito’s foothills.

Stretching from the High Barren Plains to the Subtropical Rainforest The Magic Birding Circuit is the first of its kind in South America, San Jorge owns 4 private exclusive birding reserves in four different eco-systems throughout Ecuador. Kept in their rich, natural state, all of our exclusive reserves offer the chance to fully immerse yourself in all that is Ecuador, mainly the diverse array of flora, fauna, climate regions and hundreds of beautiful species that await you. Over 800 possible bird species may be reached by way of The Magic Birding Circuit, offering the perfect chance to combine nature, culture and birding at its best.

The Magic Birding Circuit of Ecuador incorporates four private birding and hiking reserves with three birding lodges located inside the reserves. Located 20 minutes from Quito Airport, you can start birding as soon as you arrive to Ecuador, birding Tandayapa Valley Cloud Forest, Tropical Rainforest of Milpe, High Barren Plains, Highland Rainforest and Paramo. With 1,000 species of birds, 60 species of Hummingbirds, wildlife, wild orchids, butterflies and diverse flora and fauna, we offer the best options for birdwatchers, photographers and naturalists

The Magic Birding Circuit is truly magical.  It is the most diverse and complete circuit of biodiversity in all of Latin America.  It is the only one of its kind.

You can find out more about the Magic Birding Circuit here.

Whether you would like to stroll through the gardens and watch the hummingbirds gather at the feeders or explore the four climates of Ecuador (High Barren Plains, Highland Rainforest, Cloud Forest and Subtropical Rainforest), San Jorge is the ideal retreat.

 GALAPAGOS WITH QUASAR EXPEDITIONS

Sea Lion in Garner Bay. Hood Island, Galapagos.
Photo: Mandy Seymour

GALAPAGOS

Cruising The Galapagos

Cruising the Galapagos is one of the most unique vacations of a lifetime. There is nothing else like it. The Galapagos isa unique archipelago of prehistoric proportions.

The best way to get there:

Although apt opportunities abound to fly into Baltra or San Cristobal and arrange land-based tours, the best way to go is by private yacht. All yachts follow the same itineraries due to national park regulations. But if you want to experience the “best of the best”, we recommend Quasar Expeditions.

MY Grace. Quasar Expeditions.

Quasar Expeditions

Quasar Expeditions  charters 2 luxury yachts, MY Grace and MY Evolution. (MY stands for Motor Yacht.)  Quasar Expeditions is truly the “best of the best” for cruising the Galapagos.

 

We traveled on Grace. Grace holds 18 passengers and 12 crew. Evolution holds 32 passeners. She is truly a one-of-a-kind yacht with first-class service and accommodations. She offers the combination of both elegant luxury and classic charm while sailing on an expedition of epic proportions.

This historic yacht was given to Grace Kelly for her honeymoon. To learn more about Grace, click here.

Quasar Expeditions is known for superior quality in yachting.  We found all staff to be extremely professional, knowledgeable, courteous, and attentive to all detail.  The cuisine was scrumptious, plentiful, and memorably gourmet.  The captain and his crew were diligent and yet full of grace.  They all treated vessel and guests with great care.

We were privileged to travel under the tutelage of one of Galapagos’ most experienced naturalists, Jorge Garcia.  He gave informative briefings on both land and sea.  He is also an expert photographer.  Jorge Garcia clearly has a passion for his work and it shows.  His dynamic personality combined with his extensive knowledge of the Galapagos to give us a first-rate experience of the Galapagos in every way.

I met many other guides along the way, but Jorge stood out in a class by himself.  I highly recommend him.  Read more about Jorge Garcia here.

We rate Quasar Expeditions as the “best luxury charter” in the Galapagos.

Mandy Seymour swims with sea lions in Gardner Bay. Hood Island, Galapagos, Ecuador.

Galapagos Highlights: The Unnatural Natural

Although all the fauna, flora, and landscapes were mesmerizing, the highlight of a trip to Galapagos is swimming with sea lions.

These tender-faced, friendly, inquisitive creatures greeted, swam, and played with us on most islands and anywhere we found them. The animals here do not know fear of humans. Birds do not fly away when you approach them. Iguanas do not runaway. Nothing engaged in fight or flight. Of course, little tiny creatures like lizards may run, but for the most part, the animals do not fear humans.

The first day I experienced this, I was completely in awe. It was a wonderous sight to behold a sea lion swimming with me, swiming under me and blowing bubbles up at me and circling me doing ballerina spins in the water.

As the days increased, I had to remind myself “This isn’t normal” because the no-fear atmosphere is so unnaturally natural here in the Galapagos.

Sunset Galapagos, Ecuador.
Photo: Mandy Seymour

Galapagos: A Pristine Paradise in A Prehistoric Land

Each island on the archipelago of Galapagos is distinct in geological landscape, flora, and fauna. These distinctions play a large role in what makes taking a private Galapagos voyage so intriguing.

While the Galapagos Islands are teeming with life, several species are endemic, including Blue-Footed Boobies, the Galapagos Tortoise, and others.

Galapagos: Ecotourism At Its Best

I have traveled all over the world, and Galapagos contains the most pristine version of ecotourism I have ever seen.  In most islands around the world, photojournalists are careful to only take photos of the pristine areas.  They steer clear of photographing trash in the water, litter in the streets, and cluttered tourist attractions.  Yet what’s different about Galapagos is they do not have any of that!  Galapagos is truly the most pristine place I have ever seen.  During my 8-day visit, I did not see one piece of trash in the water, one piece of litter on land, or any other debris.  The meaning and goal of ecotourism is truly fulfilled here.

The National Park Service does an incredible job of enacting ecotourism and locals and visitors respectfully comply en masse.  When you see how clear the water is, how healthy the land animals and marine life are, and how timelessly preserved the landscapes are, you want to do your best to keep Galapagos at its best.

Galapagos park rangers do an incredible job of making sure that visitors to the islands are equally dispersed. Each day we disembarked on an island, we felt as if we had it all to ourselves. OFtentimes, we were the only ship in view. Other times, we were accompanied by one or two others. This is a distinct strategy and benefit of the Galapagos National Park regulations. We have not been on a cruise anywhere else in the world that offers this solitary visitation schedule

ECUADOR:  The Best Destination For The Trip Of A Lifetime

In all my travels, I have never met a country like Ecuador.  Ecuador has so much biodiversity in such a small area.  You don’t have to travel for miles to reach an interesting attraction.  In fact, birds, biodiversity, and beauty are so abundant that most Ecuadoreans do not know what a treasure their country is because it seems so normal to them to be surrounded by nature teeming with life!  So I highly advise you go there while this country is still one of Latin America’s best kept secrets.

Visiting an emerging country with ancient roots, exploring its vast biodiversity on land with the Magic Birding Circuit and then yachting in the Galapagos wth Quasar Expeditions is truly the vacation of a lifetime.

Rating: 5 stars! Best!

Planning Your Visit:

Quito Tourism (www.quito.com.ec) is an excellent resource with hospitable staff who are genuinely interested in helping you make the most of your visit.

Magic Birding Circuit (www.magicbirdingcircuit.com) is a unique nature expedition which traverses 5 different regions of biodiversity.  It is the only one of its kind in Latin America.  It is hosted by nature guides in affiliation with San Jorge Ecolodge.

Quasar Expeditions (www.galapagosexpeditions.com) offers the most elegant, luxurious and intimate cruise in the Galapagos with privatized dining and first-class staff as well as the best naturalist guides in Galapagos.

To see a photo gallery of Quasar Expeditions click here.

 

Mandy Seymour, Managing Editor Best Rated Reviews

Mandy Seymour is the managing editor of Best Rated Reviews, an online publication which specializes in the “best of the best” of travel, leisure, and related products.  Learn more about Mandy and visit her blog at www.mandyseymour.com

 

 

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