First stop Bogota, at 8,500 feet in the cradle of the Andes, where we stop on a quiet Sunday and decide to go into the city for lunch. In a long security lineup we meet a fellow Canadian who is also up for some lunch and we whisk into town in the tiniest, rickety cab. We cannot come to this town and not stop in at the Botero Museum – the famous Bogota native and lover of the chubby naked female form. The museum is in “La Candalaria” – the colonial barrio of the old city, which is not as quaint as expected but doable for 24 hours. By mercy of a cab driver and our 20 words of Spanish we are deposited at “Casa Vieja” for a “real Columbian Sunday Lunch”. It is raining cats and dogs and we are ushered into a small, low ceiling, tiled floor Spanish bodega.
We are the only non-locals and tables full of lovers and families lingering, a fire is roaring and my new lunch companion, the Cigar King of Whistler, and the Toronto “glamazon” (my daughter Maddi who is travelling with me) insists on Sangria …“mucho grande por favour”. Lunch is corn bread, corn soup, corn fritters … and other corn thing that suit the weather. We are the last to leave the restaurant and we head back to the airport – in retrospect we should have stayed the night and taken the funicular to the top of the mountain for dinner … but we are Quito bound.
We fly into Quito in the dark and the seven valleys of the city lie below, ribbons of light, the airport less frenetic, the faces all smiles, and from far and near, church bells. Our driver takes us through San Juan, the working class and incredibly hilly barrio that rises about the centre of the old city. The Basilica stands guard from above. Hotel Casa Gangotena, a restored colonial splendour is exactly as I expected, understated historic perfection – Maddi is suitably impressed, especially by the jug of beautiful pink “altitude” juice that is delivered on a silver platter before we have even checked in. Casa Gongotena is a former private residence with restored painted tin ceilings, sweeping marble staircase and patios located in place of former gardens. We learn all from our dinner companion, Dolores Diez Gongotena, who lived here as a child with her father. The current owner and visionary Rocque Seville bought it, creating a decadent bolt hole overlooking Plaza de San Francisco in the old city. We dine with Dolores at Mea Culpa, close to hotel, and Maddi is loving the wonderful stories of a childhood in Quito and adventures in the Galapagos, where we are going in a couple of days to boat on the “The Grace” (once owned by Grace Kelly).
First day in Quito begins delightfully with breakfast in the dining room overlooking the Church of San Francisco, the Miami Herald in hand, homemade preserves and limitless coffee… heaven! We coin a new phrase “JOMO” (joy of missing out), which unlike FOMO (fear of missing out), is prevalent in places where the Internet has not overtaken all human communication and interaction – I love it – Maddi is not so sure – YOLO! Mission today is shopping for ingredients for all meals at Casa Gangotena for the day. Accompanied by Chef Andreus, we head out to the Plaza de San Francisco full of worshippers leaving services. We head to Roque market, down Cuenca Street, the street of spices, taste 10 fruits we have never seen before, visit with Rosita the medicine woman for herbs and remedies to cure anything … before heading back to Casa Ganotena for lunch with colleagues. Corn soufflé, lamb, shrimp in lime and chili with six hot sauces, fig cake and then much needed post lunch nap.
Morning departure for the Galapagos – San Cristobal here we come! We come in low over the incredibly blue water, Kicker Rock is off in the distance. Within minutes of arriving Maddi is stepping over her first sea lion lolling on the steps of the guesthouse. We walk the boardwalk and are astounded by the sea lions everywhere, pelicans, lava gulls and finches which insist on sharing lunch. I get to work looking at charter boats as they come into San Cristobal – this is one of major stopping and dropping points, so over the next 24 hours, I see five luxury charter yachts as they come in to get provisions for passengers. Using our collective 20 words of Spanish, we manage to enjoy an enticing evening meal – Maddi orders, we get mostly cocktails and a few bar snacks which is probably a good thing given what we have in store for the next day.
It’s sunrise and we are at the dock for a local ferry to Santa Cruz Island, a two and half hour cruise across the open seas. The ferry is actually a speedboat with massive power, such that we are airborne 20% of the journey. Maddi and several others are green about the gills and it’s very rough, very long and a very good lesson – fly whenever you can! We finally arrive at Academy Bay in Puerto Ayora and are met by someone from the Finch Bay Hotel. We “gingerly” ferry across to Angermeyer Point and arrive to dockside sea lions and marine iguanas. At Finch Bay we meet the amazing Tito, the GM, who is full of great recommendations. We head back to town to check out the cafes, gallarias and visit the Charles Darwin Centre. Coffee is consumed at the sweet Red Mangrove which also serves amazing sushi for dinner.
Afternoon is spent on the beach at Finch Bay and then when the tide turns and we are able to get over the reef, Tito convinces us to go to the “amazing” Love Channel … we love – Tito everything is “amazing” to him. Kayak scrapes and turns through reef, thank goodness of all those thousands of dollars spent on summer camp for Maddi as she steers us beautifully. Suddenly giant shadows follow the kayak – turtles! They surface and roll over within touching distance, three of them play and clink shells, following us across the bay in the swells. Love Channel is a surreal lava tunnel on the shore, cliffs rise vertical from the water, crusted in hundreds of crabs, unknown giant birds on the rocks do not even flinch when we swish by. Return via the shoreline to see the famous blue foot boobies, when suddenly Maddi is screeching “shark, shark!!” – the fins of 3 reef sharks are circling the kayak. I may have passed out had I not learned from a previous trip that they are in fact harmless.
Evening meal is at the bar – tuna done three ways – and Tito joins us with more amazing stories. The next few days are spent looking at more beautiful boats both for charter and fixture departure possibilities, hikes to Tortuga Bay with its massive waves and surfers scrambling to get out on them. Maddi goes on day trip to Seymour Island – one of more densely populated islands, tripping over iguanas and smelly Giant Frigate bird nests. I venture to the highlands to check out the new Galapagos Safari Camp, a tented lodge about 30 minutes from town with fabulous family unit and individual tents. The Highland vegetation is spectacular. We visit the tortoises in the wild in the highlands – incredible.
In the evening we drive north to meet our charter boat, “The Grace”, an 18-passenger beautifully restored and impeccably run boat formerly belonging to Grace Kelly. We enjoy a relaxing evening on board and in the morning our visit to the island begins. Our five day cruise into the islands included visits to Santa Cruz Island and Dragon Hill where we see the land iguana nesting site and enjoy the breathtaking views of the bay; Isabella Island, the archipelago’s largest island and where we visit the Tortoise Breeding Center, created to protect animals in their first years of life from the threats of foreign species such as pigs and donkeys; Floreana Island; and Kicker Rock Islet located on the north coast of San Cristobal Island which offers a fantastic landscape as well as a perfect swimming and snorkelling experience.
Finally back on terra firma on the mainland, Fernando from Hacienda Zuleta accompanies us on the drive to his family owned, little slice of heaven. At dusk we pass the snow-topped Cayambe volcano as the hacienda lies in the High Andes. Arriving in the dark along the cobbled courtyard we are whisked from the car to our room at far end of the house – the fire is roaring, bed is turned down, and we change for dinner and meet in living room for drinks. Dinner is family style at long ancient table, where Fernando holds court with stories and recipes of the miraculous dishes emerging from the kitchen in the hands of beautiful Quechua women dressed in their traditional embroidered blouses and colourful skirts. Post meal cheese course is all cheeses made on the farm. Days here pass too quickly, one day we ride to the condor rehabilitation centre; another day we hike to the ride above the hacienda; Maddi learns (sort of) to milk a cow from one of the local ladies; wander the street of the village and visit the embroidery co-op. We learn that Fernando’s grandfather was instrumental in bringing about land-reform rights for indigenous peoples of the Andes. We visit the school where children practice their English, explore the massive gardens and sit for hours in front of the fire reading, contemplating and chatting to Fernando.
Too soon we are on way to next adventure – Mashpi Cloudforest Lodge. Road from Quito climbs through dense vegetation and as we leave main road, we travel along mountainous, hairpins paths through villages with dogs and school children in bright uniforms everywhere. Villages are perched on ridges so narrow the whole village is just one house wide. We continue to climb up and things are getting greener, wetter and more lush with every turn. The final half hour is on muddy single track and finally…we arrive.
Mashpi Lodge is literally a glass box in the sky; clean, modern and serene… and everything maximizes the views. Our room feels as if it is in the clouds, high in the canopy. Our days here are jam packed – a hike with Jose, a local who grew up on the property, his house now a butterfly farm. One night after a hike to waterfalls, we are surprised by the chef with a wonderful setup of chocolate tasting. We ride the “air bike” (I actually refuse at first) but Maddi comes back to get me and makes me do it – says the locals are calling me a wha wha (baby). We climb the lookout tower and hike, hike, hike. All of our meals are well deserved and we are always hungry for all the spectacular meals. We begin to hike just so we can eat more! A giant tarantula decides to join us for lunch one day – outside thankfully – and we are surrounded by frogs in every colour and dripping jungle vegetation. Days are filled with picnics, waterfalls and the constant laughter of our guide, Oscar. We spend our nights in the jewel box dining room with cicadas and other creatures filling the night air. The food at Mashpi is fantastic – seared tuna crusted with snake fruit, candied fig foam, Ecuadorian sea bass in banana leaf with sweet plantains – six homemade ice creams for lunch – banana, gooseberry, guava. Ceviche is spicy with crispy toppings of popcorn, manioc and purple plantain.
Too soon we are on our way back to Quito and then home…