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The countries capital, Quito, is located on a high plateau at the foot of the Pichincha volcano. The old part of the city is adorned with beautiful colonial architecture, gold clad churches and European courtyard mansions. This immediately takes you back to a bygone era of colonial rule and highlights the significance Quito would have played administering the surrounding areas. After having recently gone through an extensive regeneration program the cities streets and squares are clean and safe with an energetic buzz of people and families. Yet the city and its people retain a strong cultural identity with many still wearing the countries distinctive traditional dress and clothing. My personal highlights were strolling around the cities streets on a early Sunday morning and visiting the local market, where herbal healers produce vitalizing potions and perform cleansing rituals. We stayed at the exclusive Casa Gangotena boutique hotel, an old colonial mansion that combines contemporary chic with the neo-classical elegance of the building. It is fantastically located in the center of old Quito, on the Plaza del San Francisco next to the squares famous church, a perfect Launchpad and escape from the bustling city outside. 

From Quito we travelled in to the high altiplano, briefly visiting a hummingbird reserve and enjoying a walk to explore the local forest, before arriving at the Termas de Papallacta Resort and Spa. Here we eagerly took advantage of the numerous thermals baths, fed by local hot springs from the nearby volcanoes, to relax in our beautiful natural surrounding. Separate to the main spa and baths, each room has access to a selection of private baths in front of each room; these were extremely popular for a late night dip! 

The following day we woke early to travel to the Galapagos Islands. This required travelling back to Quito for a flight to Guayaquil and connection onto the Galapagos. Upon arrival we were greeted by the ships staff who escorted us to a nearby pontoon where we boarded zodiacs to reach the Santa Cruz cruise ship. The Santa Cruz is a spacious and well-maintained 90-passenger vessel, supported by a crew of 42 and 7 naturalist guides. Upon arrival on the ship all passengers are given an introductory briefing and divided into groups of up to 15 individuals; each is given a name, ours was the dolphins. This is because group sizes are regulated in the Natural Park so that island excursions have a minimal impact to the local wildlife and environment. Furthermore groups are disembarked from the ship in a staggered process so that island  groups are not together.

The Galapagos are an archipelago of islands located on the Pacific equator, approximately 1000km west of continental Ecuador and occupying a unique position at the interchange between a cold northern and warmer southern current. The islands have inspired botanists and scientists for centuries, most notable of these was Charles Darwin who visited the islands in 1835 and amongst other species used the distinct characteristics of the various islands endemic finches to support his theory of evolution by natural selection. Other commonly found animals include: the blue-footed booby, frigate bird, seals and fur seals, marine and land iguanas, penguins, giant tortoises and marine turtles; what's more each island typically has its own endogenous animal population and contrasting landscape.

A typical day involves a buffet breakfast at 8 and the beginning of morning excursions disembarking at 09:00, these usually last until 11:30 after which a buffet lunch is served at 12:30. There is time to relax in the shade of the sun desk during the hottest part of the day before the afternoon activities begin at 15:00 until 18:00. Upon returning to the ship there is an evening briefing at 7pm where the following days activities are discussed before a served dinner begins at 19:45. There is the flexibility for individuals to only participate in desired activities, with some only disembarking for the morning activity and spending the afternoon relaxing on the boat or take an alternative excursion if available. 

For those with less sturdy sea legs or seeking the greater freedom to explore the small town of Puerto Ayora and its surrounding area, there is the charming Finch Bay Eco hotel. Perfectly located close to town but in a quite and tranquil setting surrounded by mangroves and with access to a small private beach. The nearby town of Puerto Ayora can provide a springboard for excursions to nearby islands and is the location of the Galapagos National Park Headquarters and Charles Darwin Research Station, a restoration project for the islands giant turtle populace as well as the reintroduction of an endemic plant species. 

As with all good this they must eventually come to an end, my time in the Galapagos had been an experience I will remember for the rest of my life. However, Ecuador still had a couple of pleasant surprises. Returning back to Quito, we traveled several hours to the magnificent hacienda Zuleta. Dating from the 16th century this beautiful property is decorated with items from its owner's rich family heritage, which include 2 national presidents! The interior is furnished with ornate antique furniture, large fireplaces and a wealth of historical and personal items. Originally a colonial working farm it covers an area of 4,000 acres and still produces a selection of agricultural products. These include a selection of 17 cheeses, wine and trout as well as having beautiful gardens containing many traditional plants. Guests can visit their Condor preservation project, which is pioneering the repopulation of this magnificent bird back into Ecuador where numbers have dropped to less than 100.

From the hacienda Zuleta we travelled to Mashi Lodge situated at the heart of a 3200-acre plot of pristine tropical cloud forest, which the owners have fortunately saved from destruction by logging. There are a staggering 500 species of bird and rich variety of animals that inhabit the reserve. However, more striking is the sophisticated and contemporary lodge from which to explore the areas astonishing biodiversity. Blending into its surrounding environment the lodge is perched atop a mountain with spectacular forest views and the main building features huge double floor to ceiling height windows that both invites and immerses you with the nature outside. Guests can enjoy the reserves many tails, hummingbird sanctuary, Life Centre and butterfly project, natural waterfall and sky-bike.

The highlight of my trip was our first full day in the Galapagos where we had the opportunity to go snorkeling. This submerged me into a completely new environment just a rich and vibrant as that on land but a lot more exciting. With a group of penguins and a seal hunting a school of fish only a couple of meters from where we were, I took great enjoyment in watching them twist and turn whilst chasing down there supper. We also encountered sea turtles which at one point number in there tens, and found moments of tranquility in watching them lethargically glide through the water. On returning to the ship our group jumped into the sundecks hot tub to have a beer and watch the sun setting on an extremely rewarding and exciting day.

by Felipe Veloso