Charles Darwin once said “A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the true value of life.” Michael McQuarn takes this advice to heart on his journey from the Galápagos Islands to the cloud forest of Ecuador.
As I board the plane those words from Darwin echo within my head. Ecuador has always been a country on my short list of places to visit with the Galápagos Islands being the crowning gem. I make my way to my seat, put on my headphones and drift into a higher state of consciousness.
I awake to the wheels touching down in Quito, Ecuador. After a quick jog through customs, I meet my guide and I’m quickly whisked into an awaiting Sprinter. We start our journey through the bustling city streets of Quito, the capital of Ecuador, named for the region’s original inhabitants—the Quitus. A little over 9,350 feet above sea level, Quito has a population of more than 2.6 million people. And it seems all of them have descended on the various array of outdoor markets, town squares and outdoor parks that align the winding road we travel. The guide hands me a gift bag that contains a fine selection of local chocolates and fresh local fruits, which makes the drive much more pleasant. After about an hour, I notice the architecture of the buildings have changed from newer, more modern designs to Old World charm with some dating back to the 15th century. Built upon ancient Inca ruins, the city of Quito in Pinchinada Province was established some time later, in the 16th century, and survived a cataclysmic earthquake in 1917. Still, the city survives as one of the best-preserved colonial cities in Latin America, which earned it a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list with outstanding sites such as the lavish La Compañía Church and Jesuit College and the Santo Domingo and San Francisco monasteries, with their intricate carvings, symbolism and secrets.
My first stop is the 31-room boutique hotel Casa Gangotena, a neo-colonial mansion surrounded by cobblestone streets, and sitting directly across from the historic Plaza San Francisco. The epitome of upscale opulence in the historic center, Quito’s finest luxury hotel was once home to several presidents. Meticulously designed by interior guru Diego Arteta, the hotel offers a sophisticated blend of Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles. My travel-weary body is welcomed by Mario, the attentive concierge, who greets me warmly as though I am an old friend who has been gone a while, and personally escorts me to my room. Through the hotel, I am awestruck by the antique chandeliers, beautiful mirrors, Egyptian marble and the perfect use of glass that brings the outside in. Pure elegance, the walls and ceiling in my guest room are hand painted and the décor is Art Deco. Long curtains dress towering, oversized windows that open up to a spectacular view overlooking the Plaza San Francisco. The buildings in the plaza exemplify the Baroque School of Quito, which fused European and indigenous styles—Spanish, Flemish, Moorish, Italian and Inca—in the architecture and distinct rectangular square layout of the streets. Even the bathroom boasts considered beauty with all-white marble, Art Deco mirrors and oversized towels. I open the large windows in the bathroom, allowing in the fresh air along with the sound of Pasillo, music that is being played in the plaza below to accompany me while I relax and soak in my oversized tile tub, and visualize the adventures that lay ahead. I opt for a relaxing night in for I have an early departure for the Galápagos.
After a short hour and 40 minute flight, I land in the Galápagos on the island of Baltra. A tall man with a bright smile greets me named Raul, my guide and driver for the next few days. We take a short ferry ride to Santa Cruz Island and board the private transport to the hotel—the just-opened Pikaia Lodge. On a drive through the countryside Raul provides a quick lesson on everything from the history of the islands, to Darwin’s theory of evolution, to wildlife, the type of sharks and marine life I will encounter on my upcoming dives. After about 40 minutes, we approach the final stretch of the red clay road leading to the state-of-the-art eco-lodge that I will call home for the next three days. I am told I am the first guest to stay at Pikaia.
Pikaia Lodge, the brainchild of Ecuadorian environmentalist and entrepreneur Herbert Frei, is changing the concept of high-end luxury travel in Galápagos from “glamping” to a standard one would expect from a chic boutique resort. Located on 77 acres of pristine private land and perched atop two extinct volcano craters lies the beautiful and masterfully designed eco-hotel. Pikaia is the first hotel to open in the Galápagos in over 15 years and, due to extremely strict conservation laws, it will probably be the last. According to Frei, “Pikaia is the most advanced eco-lodge in the world and leaves a neutral carbon footprint.” Paying its homage to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the hotel masterfully uses this ethos in the design, artwork and mission. The 14 rooms are contemporary consisting of bamboo floors, Ecuadorian teak and Cuban cedar, grown in Ecuador—although no wood used in the hotel was from deforestation. The guest rooms are oriented to face northeast, not only to obstruct the sun’s heat but also to maximize the breathtaking views. On a clear day you can see no less than 10 islands. All the high-level comforts and services to be expected by any five-star hotel are available here, including private guided tours of the island and access to its own 100-foot yacht, the Pikaia 1, which can be used to cruise neighboring islands and experience things such as sightseeing, swimming, kayaking or snorkeling in one of the Seven Underwater Wonders of the World. Unlike most Galápagos resorts for the adventure obsessed, if sightseeing and watersports aren’t your thing, you can spend the day lounging by Pikaia’s infinity pool, drinking Mojitos or indulging in an array of services at the Sumaq Spa & Wellness Center—massage, infrared sauna or gym—or taking a relaxing break in the whirlpool. Private trails for walking, jogging or biking (the hotel provides TREK mountain bikes) and 3.5km of paths wind around the lodge. Venturing out, you are likely to encounter several species of birds and wild giant tortoises that graze on the property.
There are several dining options at Pikaia, but all working off the same menu. You can dine in the comfort of your room, alfresco under the stars by the infinity pool or in the contemporary designed Evolution Restaurant, which offers stunning vistas of the Galápagos National Park. Executive Chef Norman Brandt has combined a unique fusion of Peruvian and Ecuadorian cuisine. Local products, such as organic beef, catch of the day fish, lobster and jumbo prawns, are the key ingredients used in making these delicacies. The restaurant has a spectacular walk-in wine cellar, which offers a fine selection of South American wines. I highly suggest trying the Chilean Malbecs.
Staying at the Pikaia Lodge was an amazing experience and one that I shall cherish for a lifetime, but it is now time for me to explore the islands outside of Santa Cruz, so I pack my bags and I’m greeted by a smiling Raul and transported to the luxury cruise La Pinta.
Aboard the luxury yacht La Pinta, a friendly staff greets me and I immediately feel at home. After a short safety briefing and tour of the exquisite vessel, I am escorted to my luxury cabin, which is quite large and has floor-to-ceiling windows providing me a sense of one with the ocean. Designed for the ultimate luxury adventurer, La Pinta is a 207-foot 48-guest luxury cruiser, housing 24 spacious cabins with large picture windows. Common areas include a reception lounge, a lounge bar flanked by windows, a formal dining room, an outdoor Jacuzzi located on the sundeck a gym, library with 60-inch TV and outdoor bar and, of course, a sundeck. Guests can pack light thanks to available equipment such as kayaks, snorkeling gear and wetsuits. In-house, naturalist guides make for an exciting and educational experience.
With a quick change of clothes, I go upstairs to the Sun Deck Bar, have a glass of wine and strike up a conversation with a couple from the Italian Coast. We share stories about our love of travel and most of all our love of diving. An archipelago of volcanic islands (18 main islands, three smaller islands, as well 107 islets and rocks) in the Pacific Ocean off of Ecuador’s western coast, the Galápagos Islands straddle the equator. Scientists believe some of the region’s first islands date back possibly as far as 90 million years. Charles Darwin sailed here on the Voyage of the Beagle in 1831, and launched a series of famous studies that lead to his theories of evolution and natural selection. The inspiration for our own adventures, as it was for Darwin, is the vast array of endemic species.
Offering a choice of three-, four- and seven-night stays, the days on La Pinta start early, due to the exciting daily itineraries, which incorporate a full immersion into this unique ocean environment. We travel to North Seymour Island where we encounter various bird colonies, my favorite being the blue-footed boobies, sea lions and various species of land iguanas. Then it’s off to Isabela Island, famous for its dramatic lava flow remains and the abundance of wildlife. During a few hours snorkeling in the surprisingly warm waters, we see an assortment of sea lions, nurse sharks, amberjacks, and a wonderland of underwater creatures. Isabela, the largest in the archipelago, was once a favorite anchorage for pirates. Today colorful land iguanas and giant tortoises heavily populate it. Depending on the time of year, it is also a great spot for whale watching. Here, the highlight is taking a challenging hike to Darwin’s Crater—which is filled with water twice as salty as the ocean next to it—and diving in for a bracing, quick dip. Stretched over the equator, the island was created by a combination of six volcanoes (five still active) and remains one of the earth’s most volatile places. It is believed that Darwin’s close proximity to the sea, combined with tidal waves caused by other volcanic eruptions, formed this natural salt lake near Tagus Cove. Water flowing in through porous rock keeps it replenished. We eagerly anticipate the adventure below the water’s surface.
On mangrove forest-packed Fernandina Island, the most pristine island of the archipelago, highlights include hawks, penguins and astounding topographical views. Considered the Galápagos’ youngest island, this shield volcano has been active and erupting since 2009. As a result, the mostly rock surface doesn’t support much plant life. No mammals have been introduced here. But many small animals and bird species have adapted well, including the populous flightless cormorant.
The last island I visit with La Pinta is Santa Cruz Island, which is my favorite. With red sand beaches and an array of wildlife exclusive to this island, I observe mockingbirds, yellow warblers and Darwin finches and have the once-in-a-lifetime experience of swimming with black marine iguanas. I had grown quite fond of my new friends, but with my time up at La Pinta, I have to say goodbye. We dock back at Baltra Island and head into town and meet up with a local dive buddy of mine and organize plans to go diving for hammerhead sharks, which heavily populate the waters around the Galápagos. I stay the night at the Finch Bay Hotel and embark early the next morning for my dive trip.
The next day we head out to Roca Redonda, an underwater volcano located off of Isabela Island. As the cold salt water hits my mask, I am truly home, diving down about 60 feet and happy to meet a school of barracudas that immediately surround me. It is a clear day, so the sunlight shining off their bodies reminds me of twinkling stars. I soon encounter a lone sea turtle, and as I swim with him, the ocean darkens. Off in the near distance, a school of what seemed like hundreds of hammerhead sharks glide serenely, unencumbered. After checking my tank for air, my buddy and I dive down to the bottom and watch the prehistoric images of the hammerheads slowly swimming above us. This very scene is why I came to the Galápagos, and I was like a kid in a candy store.
With the Galápagos behind me, it’s now time for me to explore the higher terrain of Ecuador. Three hours outside of Quito, Mashpi Lodge is fantastical, modern escape that sits 3,116 feet above sea level in the Ecuadorian Andes cloud forest and is located in the 3,200-acre Mashpi Rainforest Biodiversity Reserve. Distinguished in the dense, green jungle by towering walls of glass and steel, this 22-room architectural masterpiece feels like a luxurious cocoon that overlooks the forest canopy and allows for breathtaking views and nature watching out of any available window.
The rooms at Mashpi are quite large and have an open and natural light-filled design. The décor is minimalistic and the slate floors, glass walls and Philippe Starck bathtubs make the rooms more than satisfying for the five-star traveler. Meals take place in the two-story dining room with floor-to-ceiling glass windows and sparse design. It’s a sleek counterbalance to the warmth and comfort of traditional Ecuadorean cuisine, which is served buffet style.
Despite the seclusion, Mashpi Lodge, designed to entertain the worldliest nature lover, is teeming with neighbors—over 500 species of birds including 36 endemics, some 200 species of butterflies, monkeys, peccaries and even pumas. The hotel is an immersion in the cloud forest, imparting the sense of being aloft. Private, guided tours take us through two main trails Howler Monkey and Cucharillo. Along these trails, I learn about the various plants, animals and insects that inhabit this reserve. I also have the opportunity to climb the eight-story metallic structure known as the Observation Tower, giving me a birds-eye view ideal for spotting toucans, woodpeckers, barbets, tanagers and parrots, along with providing one of the best photo opportunities the reserve has to offer. About a 10-minute hike from the hotel, the Sky Bike provides an amazing experience and unique vantage point for sightseeing over the canopy, at a slow and considered pace. I pedal the bike along a cable that’s stretched hundreds of feet about the forest floor. At the end of the hike, a refreshing dip in one of the many cascades and pools formed by several small surrounding waterfalls remedies any sweat I’ve worked up. With all of the available luxuries and high-flying adventure, Ecuador’s natural beauty always draws you back in. A diamond both refined and in the rough, this country is still an untapped naturalist’s dream.
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