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Active Ecuador and Galapagos: Hiking, cycling and horse riding

11 days from £4609pp

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Active Ecuador and Galapagos: Hiking, cycling and horse riding:
Trip Dossier

Sitting at the crossroads of the equator and the high Andes, Ecuador encompasses an extraordinary diversity of geography and climate. The country is compact and easy to get around, so journeys tend to be short and scenic, leaving you plenty of time to explore.

It’s an ideal destination too for lovers of active adventures, and gradually excellent services are being introduced, using reliable equipment and qualified guides. Let your spirit fly with an exhilarating downhill bike ride through cloud forest, a hike around a glacial volcanic lake and maybe a horse ride across wind-buffeted steppe with a rim of snowy volcanoes beyond.

Fly to the Galápagos Islands and hop by motor-launch between 3 of the most interesting and diverse islands, Santa Cruz, Floreana and Isabela. Hike a volcano, kayak around white-sand beaches, swim and snorkel with sea-lions. and eyeball  iguanas.

Short itinerary

Holiday itinerary

Day 1

Arrive in Quito and transfer to hotel in a rural location outside the city.

Day 2

A biking descent to Mindo cloud forest.

Day 3

Observe cock-of-the-rock birds; by road to Otavalo area and hike round volcanic lake Cuicocha.

Day 4

Visit Otavalo market; mountain biking in Cotapaxi National Park.

Day 5

Horse riding.

Day 6

Fly to the Galápagos Islands, visit Santa Cruz highlands, boat to Floreana Island.

Day 7

Explore Floreana; hiking and kayaking.

Day 8

Boat to Isabela Island, explore.

Day 9

Hike to Sierra Negra volcano.

Day 10

Speedboat to Santa Cruz Island, transfer to Baltra, fly to Guayaquil.

Day 11

Transfer to airport for flight home.

Detailed itinerary

Day 1

Arrive in Quito and transfer to hotel in a rural location outside the city.
 
Transfer to your hotel outside Quito, the Andean capital of Ecuador. It sits at the edge of the crater of Pululahua volcano, the only inhabited active volcano in the world. At 2,830, the crater has a diameter of 7km.

Day 2

A biking descent to Mindo cloud forest.
 
Depart  for the drive uphill to the Bellavista Reserve. The highway begins to descend; the air becomes balmy and the vegetation changes from high altitude altiplano to lush cloud forest as the road descends from 2,800m to just 1,500m at Tandayapa where the dirt road begins. You may choose to start biking here to tackle the uphill section.

If you elect to stay in the vehicle you’ll continue driving along the dirt road, which climbs 800m up into the forested reserve to Bellavista Lodge (2,260m)

From Bellavista, after a brief uphill section it’s all downhill, a whole hour spent biking your way 9km down from 2,300m to 1,700m along a rough,winding jungle road through dripping cloud forest and pastures.  The route follows a paved highway for 1km before the thrilling, fast and final 11km descent along a smooth curvy paved route into the laid-back village of Mindo. You ride through the centre of this sleepy small town to El Monte Lodge (1,300m). The ride from Bellavista to El Monte is 26km and takes 2hrs.

The Mindo region, set in cloud forest, is renowned for its excellent bird-watching opportunities, as well as being rich in flora and fauna. Improbable egg-shaped mountains rise above a cauldron of mist and cloud, vistas open and close in the blink of an eye to reveal pencil-thin waterfalls spouting from impenetrable cloud forest.

Amazon Cloud Forest

Day 3

Observe cock-of-the-rock birds; by road to Otavalo area and hike round volcanic lake Cuicocha.
 

Set out on a nature walk before dawn to visit the cock (or coq)-of-the-rock lek, an area of trees and rocks which the birds frequent.. It’s a 20min drive to the reserve where there’s a short walk to the lek. Here the cocks-of-the-rock congregate at daybreak. The species can be seen here year round, but May-September is best for viewing.

Bird-watchers may proceed to other parts of the reserve by vehicle and on foot. It’s optional, but if you want to go, a fair amount of walking along forest trails is to be anticipated.

Later return eastwards before heading north through rolling hills towards the highland market town Otavalo. (2.5-3hrs with a stop for lunch en route).

Arrive at the Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve for the start of a 4hr hike around Cuicocha lake. The deep-blue crater lagoon, with an island in the centre, is set on the southern flanks of Mount Cotacachi. Enjoy views of the surrounding volcanoes Cayambe, Imbabura and Cuicocha. Birdlife includes Ruddy ducks, giant hummingbirds and silvery grebes.

cock of the rock

Day 4

Visit Otavalo market; mountain biking in Cotapaxi National Park.
 

Walk to Otavalo on a mountain plain dotted with highland lakes. The town is famous for its indian market which dates back to pre-Inca times. The Otavalan indians are famed for their weaving, not to mention their business acumen, and the market is open throughout the week. However, it's on Saturdays that things really start to get lively with everything on sale from cuy (guinea pigs) - live and roasted - to ponchos and jewellery.

Drive south to Cotopaxi National Park (2.5-3hrs) down the Avenue of the Volcanoes, one of the most scenic routes in Latin America. As its name implies, the route passes an imperial guard of conical snow-draped volcanic cones, surrounded by lush pastures pitted with colonial market towns and tiny indigenous villages. You’ll be staying at a rural hacienda.

After lunch, gear up for the afternoon’s mountain bike ride from Lake Limpiopungo to El Porvenir, where you are staying for the night. It's a 19km ride to the park’s northern border followed by a further 4km ride to the hacienda for dinner in front of a roaring open fire.

Cotopaxi

Day 5

Horse riding.
 
The grassland steppes are ideal horse riding country and if you like the idea of enjoying unimpeded views of the remote wilderness landscapes from the saddle, an exhilarating hack can be arranged.

The ride will take you along mountain trails from which you can observe wild bulls and horses roaming free, Andean birds and endemic plants, many with medicinal properties. Your mount will be a criollo horse, adapted to the rigours of the local environment and climate; while your guide will be a chagra, or Andean cowboy, certified by the World Equestrian Organisation. During the ride this local guide will share his knowledge of the historical lore and myths of the region.

You'll feel the part as well, as you'll be provided with the cowboy riding gear, consisting of a woollen poncho and leather chaps. You'll also be furnished with a safety riding hat.

Return to Quito. The active volcano Guagua Pichincha, to the east, glowers over the dynamic city which, at 2,850m, is one of highest capital cities in the world. Quito is divided into two contrasting districts. The modern zone has glass sky-scrapers and houses banks, international companies, hotels, shops and restaurants, while the central colonial area (your hotel is here) has well-conserved and recently spruced-up white-washed architecture, open air markets and graceful Spanish-style mansions and churches.

Horse riding at El Provenir

Day 6

Fly to the Galápagos Islands, visit Santa Cruz highlands, boat to Floreana Island.
 

Fly to the Galápagos islands. 1,000km off the coast of Ecuador, one of the world's most famous archipelagos, the Galápagos Islands lie in splendid isolation.

They emerged 6 million years ago from a spate of volcanic activity and are home to animal and plant species not found anywhere else on earth. The islands were the inspiration for Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which formed the basis of his book 'On the Origin of Species'. They are home to giant tortoises, iguanas, penguins, frigate-birds, waved albatrosses and blue-footed boobies as well as a wealth of rare flora.

We think that the freedom and flexibility of a land-based adventure will suit sport-loving visitors very well. You will visit 3 very different islands, hopping from one to the other by speedboat: an exhilarating experience in itself. For land-based travellers, the fascinating and unique wildlife and natural beauty of the islands are matched by the thrill of taking part in active adventures: hiking, kayaking, snorkelling and stand-up paddling (SUP), the latest trend in water sports: it's a lot of fun and ease of learning is the key to its popularity.

Upon your arrival in Baltra, your guide will accompany you to Santa Cruz Island, where you’ll journey up into the highlands to visit Los Gemelos (the Twins), two deep pit craters at 600m in the Salesia Forest, where you can observe Darwin's finches. Later, visit a reserve where Giant tortoises breed in natural surroundings. Continue to Puerto Ayora, where you speed boat will be waiting to take you to the island of Floreana.

Floreana is known for its colourful history of pirates, whalers, convicts and colonists. Punta Cormorant has a golden beach which is a nesting site for green turtles (Dec-May). It’s adjacent to a salt lagoon favoured by wading birds (Pink flamingoes, pintails). Having checked in at your lodge there’s time to stroll to La Lobería. Watch the island’s famous sea lions in their natural habitat. Then, if the water’s warm enough there’s time for snorkelling and swimming in the calm waters, accompanied by sea turtles, rays and an array of colourful fish species.

Galapagos beach

Day 7

Explore Floreana; hiking and kayaking.
 
Today you will explore the Floreana highlands by chiva, a small open-sided bus common in small Ecuadorian towns.

On the way your naturalist guide will point out the wildlife and regale you with Floreana's eventful history, from the pirates and whalers to the first settlers on Floreana and a self-proclaimed baroness, who had 3 lovers (who mysteriously disappeared).

Hike to the pirate caves then continue walking to La Primavera, where you can watch Magnificent frigate birds 'dancing'.You may see males as they inflate their red throat pouches to attract females. From here, board the chiva once more and head down to Las Palmas with views of the Floreana shoreline where a barbecue will be waiting for you. Return to the lodge to gather your swimming costumes, followed by an afternoon spent with more marine exploration, snorkelling, kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding.

Kayaking with sea lions in the Galápagos Islands

Day 8

Boat to Isabela Island, explore.
 
Travel by speedboat to Isabela Island, the largest, comprising 5 active volcanoes linked by lava flows. Tagus Cove is a natural harbour where pirates and whalers carved their ships’ names on the rocks.

The coral reef at Urbina Bay is home to Land and Marine iguanas, Giant tortoises, Flightless cormorants, Blue-footed boobies and pelicans. At Punta Vicente Roca, whale-sightings are common the year round.

Take a 10min dinghy ride near the village of Puerto Villamil to Las Tintoreras, a group of small islands named after the White-tip reef sharks which can be seen here. Other wildlife includes sea-lions, penguins, turtles, rays, pelicans and the iconic Blue-footed booby.

There is also an opportunity to snorkel in the clear turquoise waters of the bay where you may be joined by inquisitive sea-lions and penguins which come to play.

Visit the Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre, passing salt water mangrove lagoons inhabited by flamingoes and Marine iguanas. The distances between the volcanoes and the different environments have allowed 5 different species of tortoise to evolve. At the breeding centre you can see them up close: hatchlings, juveniles, young adults. When mature they are introduced to the wild, where they can live to be over 100 years old and weigh a hefty 200kg.

Tortoises

Day 9

Hike to Sierra Negra volcano.
 
Embark on a 16km hike to the rim of the Sierra Negra Volcano. This vast crater, which is one of the largest in the world with a diameter of nearly 10km, is one of the most active volcanoes in the Galápagos, last erupting in 2005.

Head towards the volcano Chico through a Martian landscape of black and pinkish rock desolate of vegetation and at first appearance void of all life, though on closer inspection reveals small lizards scurrying amongst the rocks. Enjoy a picnic lunch with panoramic views: central and northern Isabela, the islands of Fernandina to the west and Santa Cruz to the east. Return to your hotel.

Sierra Negra, Galapagos

Day 10

Speedboat to Santa Cruz Island, transfer to Baltra, fly to Guayaquil.
 
It’s another speedboat ride back to the Island of Santa Cruz.  It’s the most populated island, hosting the main town Puerto Ayora, and the Charles Darwin Research Centre.

Travel back to Baltra Island and the airport to fly to Guayaquil, on Ecuador’s Pacific coast.. Vibrant seaport and powerhouse behind the Ecuadorian economy, the city still has something of the edgy rawness born from its isolation.

The city is rapidly growing, being upgraded and renovated. You might visit the newly refurbished malecón (promenade) which stretches for 2km along the fast flowing Río Guayas and has an exuberant and bustling atmosphere.

Giant tortoise-spotting

Day 11

Transfer to airport for flight home.
 

Essential information

Transport

2 flights (longest 2hrs); 3 motor-launch rides.

Accommodation

This holiday incorporates small mid-range hotels with character and some history and special features, and countryside haciendas and lodges.

Meals

Breakfast daily, lunch day 9; full board days 2-4; 6-8. Some lunches are packed lunches.

Guides

We carefully select our local partners, some of whom we have worked with for over 25 years. Their English-speaking guides understand the expectations of our clients very well, and are consistently singled out for praise by the latter on their return.

Included excursions

• Mindo: Biking to Mindo cloud forest. 
• Mindo: Visit to cock-of-the-rock lek.
• Otavalo: Hiking round volcanic crater-lake Cuicocha.
• Otavalo: Guided excursion to market.
• Mountain biking in Cotapaxi National Park.
• Riding at Rumiñahui volcano.
• Mountain biking around Pasachoa.
• Galápagos Islands: Hiking, biking, “SUP” and kayaking activities.
• Galápagos Islands: Swimming and snorkelling.
• Galápagos Islands: Tortoise breeding centre.

Summary of nights

11 days, 10 nights: Quito area 1; Mindo 1; Otavalo 1;  Cotapaxi 1; Quito 1; Galápagos: Floreana Island 2, Isabela Island 2, Guayaquil 1.

Included in the journey price

• Services of our team of experts in our London office.
• Services of Journey Latin America local representatives and guides.
• All land and air transport within Latin America.
• Accommodation as specified.
• Meals as specified.
• Ingala fee.
• Excursions as specified.

Not included in the journey price

• Tips and gratuities.
• Meals other than specified.
• International flights to Latin America.
• Airport taxes, when not included in the ticket.
• Optional excursions.
• Galápagos National Park entry fee.

Currency

The unit of currency in Ecuador and in the Galápagos is the US dollar.

Daily spend

It is very difficult to give a guideline for essential expenses but a budget of around US$20 per day pp should cover the cost of the few meals which are not included,any bottled drinks and the odd souvenir. 

How to take it

Cash machines are available in Quito. Taking a debit or credit card with a PIN number is the most convenient way of withdrawing money while on your trip, and in some shops and restaurants you can also pay by card. However, since cards can get lost, damaged, withheld or blocked, you should not rely exclusively on a card to access funds. 

We recommend that you take a reasonable quantity of US dollars cash (no more than is covered by your insurance), which you can spend as the dollar is the local currency, and possibly some travellers’ cheques (American Express are the most widely accepted), though these are gradually falling out of use. Dollar bills should be in good condition, soiled or torn bills may be refused. You can take sterling, but the exchange rate is not always competitive or even available, restricting the number of places where you can change money.

Tipping

Tips are expected and local guides often rely on their tip as a significant proportion of their income.

Most service industry workers will expect a tip of some kind and so it is useful to have spare change for hotel porters, taxi drivers and the like. It is common to leave 10 - 12% in restaurants.

Tipping guidelines can be found in our Briefing Dossier.

Insurance

Travel insurance is essential. 

Details of our recommended policy can be found on our Travel Insurance page.

Airport taxes

If you have purchased your flights through Journey Latin America, the international departure tax is usually included in the ticket.

Journey grade

This holiday is suitable for all able, fit visitors who are used to an active lifestyle at home. Some of the days involve quite a few hours of fairly strenuous activity. 

A support vehicle will accompany bike riders.

The sea can be choppy around the Galápagos islands during your speedboat trips.

Climate

The rainy season in the Andes runs between January and April when there are showers most afternoons. The dry season is June, July and August when the sun is strong during the day, but at night the temperature drops dramatically (maybe as low as freezing point). May, September and October are less predictable, with both rainy and sunny spells. Given the proximity to the equator, altitude is the determining factor with regard to temperature.

In the mountains at any time of year you should expect a variation between 15°C and 25°C.

In the Galápagos, from January to April it’s hot and the sun is relentless, with some sudden showers. May to July, and October to December is cloudier; August and September it’s often cloudy and cool, and a stiff breeze makes the waters choppier for your speedboat transfers. High and Low seasons reflect demand rather than the best time to go.

Altitude

Several days are spent at high altitude (over 2.500m). You may notice the effect of high altitude; symptoms vary: most common are mild headaches and breathlessness. If you drink plenty of water and allow your body to acclimatise (don’t exert yourself or drink alcohol) in the first couple of days after arrival, you will minimise your chances of being adversely affected.

Please refer to our Briefing Dossier for further information.

Clothing and special equipment

For day-to-day wear you should go prepared to encounter all seasons. A light fleece jacket and a waterproof/breathable outer shell makes a good combination for the highland regions. Trousers, skirt or shorts made from light, quick-drying synthetic materials work well on the Galápagos Islands. 

Biking to Mindo:
The bikes used are 27-speed Scott bikes with comfortable saddles. Helmets are provided.  
You should bring a pair of cycling gloves and a (small) backpack in which to carry essentials, camera etc. Lightweight clothing is recommended. Cycling shorts (you’ll use them in the Galápagos as well) are best, T-shirt, trainers, sunglasses and a light breathable waterproof since it is common for the weather to be drizzly.

Cotopaxi has its own micro-climate and the weather in the area is unpredictable, so warm clothing, a waterproof jacket, sun screen and sunglasses are recommended.

Strong, comfortable footwear is essential and you should bring insect repellent, sun block, hat and sun glasses. You should take swimwear for ocean swimming (Galápagos). You can hire snorkelling equipment but may prefer to bring your own. Aqua-socks or rubber sandals are useful for swimming among the rocks. For June to November departures, wetsuits are recommended (can be hired locally, but not on Floreana), as the waters can be chilly for snorkelling. 

Don’t forget your binoculars, camera, charger and cards.

Please get in touch with the office before departure if you have any doubts. Good equipment is very important and hard to come by in South America and Galápagos.

Vaccinations

Preventative vaccinations are recommended against the following: typhoid; polio; tetanus; hepatitis A. You should consult your GP for specific requirements.

For admission to the Galápagos a yellow fever certificate is required for anyone over 1 year old coming from an area with risk of yellow fever transmission. 

You can also find helpful information on the Masta Travel Health website. 

Visas

Holders of a full British passport do not require a visa, although passports must be valid for at least 6 months after the trip begins.  Anyone with a different nationality should enquire with us or check with the relevant consulate.

APIS and ESTA - important flight information:

ESTA - if flying to the US, or via the US you will need to fill in your application to ESTA online.
This costs $14 per person, and must be done by you personally.
Passports must also be machine-readable (MRP). Avoid locking suitcases if transiting the USA, as their customs authorities retain the right to break into them.

APIS - Many countries now oblige airlines to provide additional information about passengers prior to the flight departure. This Advance Passenger Information (APIS) must be supplied to us promptly in order to issue tickets and avoid fare increases. We will provide the airlines with the relevant details if we are booking your international flights. If the information is not provided you may be denied boarding.

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