My husband and I love to travel in the month of January. There are great deals, the holiday crowds have all gone home, and we can enjoy a new place. We also tend to book these trips quite last-minute, making things extra interesting.
Several years ago, we were wrapping up a Christmas trip to Denver, staying at the lovely Brown Palace Hotel. We still hadn’t figured out our travels for the following month, so I was puttering around online when I stumbled upon ridiculously low airfare to Ecuador.
That hatched an outlandish plan for a trip that was so over the top it’s become one of my favorite vacations. Here’s how we did it.
Destination: Quito, And…?
We snapped up those tickets as soon as we found them and immediately started planning the rest of the trip. We were just 3 weeks out and really knew nothing about Ecuador, or its capital city. But I did know we’d be just 2 hours from the Galápagos Islands.
Wait, what? People spend years planning for their trip to this bucket-list destination. It usually includes an expensive cruise and much more time than the meager week we had to spare. We had zero idea about accommodations. It would be impossible to put this together, right?
Wrong. We immediately got to work online and made the trip of a lifetime come to life in just a few days. I’m still amazed we pulled it off!
We knew we needed to move fast and book things even faster. We decided we’d spend 3 days in Quito, fly to the islands, spend 3 days there, and then head home. We kept things light — literally and figuratively. We quickly found outfitters and accommodations that suited our style and went about reserving tours and finding places to stay nailed down. Once the big things fell into place, we filled in the blanks from there.
We also made sure we packed well, embracing a capsule wardrobe philosophy. We knew we’d be at high altitude one day and swimming in the ocean the next. I wore my heavy hiking boots and jacket on the plane and crammed everything else into a small carry-on, plus a backpack.
What, Where, How?
We flew into Quito late at night, took a couple of Advil to fight off altitude sickness, got to our hotel as quickly as we could, and conked out. The next day, we filled up our water bottles, chewed coca leaf gum, and took a free walking tour of the historic city center to acclimate and orient ourselves.
It was a great opportunity to ask questions, get more details about where we might want to come back to, and get a local perspective on things. We hit the covered markets, strolled along the plazas and colonial architecture, and found small cafés and pubs where we could take our meals with a dash of local ambiance.
We also reserved time for high adventure. Our last day in Quito, we arranged a trip to Cotopaxi. We were part of a small, curated tour with a guide who took us up to the active volcano in a sturdy pick-up truck loaded with sporting supplies. We hiked to base camp, huffing and puffing as we went, and then rode mountain bikes back down part of the way. It was a lot of fun, and the tour was easily booked since our visit took place in the off-season.
The next day, we hopped a regional jet for our 2-hour flight to Baltra Island in the Galápagos. Fortunately, we’d read ahead and were prepared for the $100 cash national park entry fee! From the tiny airport, we first got on a bus to the canal, then hopped on a water taxi that took us to nearby Santa Cruz Island. After that, we hailed a pick-up truck to take us through the highlands to Puerto Ayora, where we’d booked our hotel.
They say getting there is half the fun, right?
Once we got to our hotel, we dropped off our bags and immediately hit the harbor to see about the next couple of days. We were able to score full-day snorkel trips to two nearby islands: Santa Fe and Bartolomé. Once we paid — again, in cash — we headed out to the Charles Darwin Research Station to take a look at its famous resident tortoises, wandered to Charles Binford Street for a lovely open-air dinner, and hit the hay!
Our two snorkel experiences were incredible; we saw so many different kinds of fish, turtles, and even a couple of sharks! A young sea lion swam with us for a while, and on our second snorkel, we caught a fleeting glimpse of the elusive Galápagos penguins. What a treat!
Our last day, we went to a tortoise reserve to see the creatures in a wild but protected space. I kept pinching myself as we cruised through the azure Pacific waters and tromped through the forests. I couldn’t believe we were actually there and that we’d planned everything — on a whim — in less than a month!
How It Went…
Truly, this was the trip of a lifetime. The key to it all coming together was staying flexible and nimble, while doing as much research as we could beforehand. It paid off with a best-of-both-worlds-type trip: We were able to explore a major city, loaded with culture and history, and then check out some of the world’s most incredible wildlife, all in the same week.
It was remarkable. We left nothing on the table and came home exhausted but amazed by all we had experienced.
Surprises Along The Way
Yes, there were a few surprises, despite our best research efforts. First, the altitude in Quito is a real thing and can be debilitating if you don’t take steps to address it. We chugged tons of water, but thankfully, our guides recommended and supplied us with coca leaf gum and tea. I swear it made a difference!
Another thing that I didn’t initially factor in was the extreme sun. Of course, we brought 50 SPF sunscreen and applied in all the usual spots. But I didn’t think about the part line in my hair, nor did I wear a cap. That was a painful rookie mistake!
Next Time Around…
Without question, if we were to return to Quito and the Galápagos, I would budget much more time to the trip. It’s what we had to spare at the time, and I’m a big believer in the notion that a little bit is better than none at all. But it seemed each island in the Galápagos was more special than the last, and I would have loved to have seen more of them.
If Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands are on your bucket list, find a way to make it happen, even if you have to go DIY like we did. Don’t wait! I’m so thankful we got there when we did, while we were both still healthy enough to take full advantage of the climbing, hiking, and snorkeling.