When you travel in Ecuador, be sure to take in everything from the islands to the mainland to see all this amazing place has to offer including the diverse wildlife. In the world of birds, there are no more unlikely cousins than the Andean condor and the blue-footed booby. One surfs towering thermals in South America’s highest mountains. The other dances on Galápagos beaches. A condor is bald, and a booby has electric blue feet. One is a little comical. The other is as stern as a bird can be. About the only thing they really agree on is calling Ecuador home.
As the unofficial mascots of the newest Classic Journey, they capture the mind-boggling diversity in culture, environment and history that you encounter when you split your visit between the Galápagos Islands and the Ecuadorian highlands.
ISLANDS OF A FEATHER
Chances are, you’re acquainted already with the idea of the Galápagos. Marooned on their remote islands, spiny iguanas and giant land tortoises defy time. Sea-lion pups glide up to us in our snorkel masks, not quite sure just what or who are — but totally unafraid of finding out. There are bays to kayak, lava trails to walk and a coffee plantation where we can always score a sip of something freshly roasted. While cruise ships prowl the coast and stage their daily invasions, we settle into boutique hotels with pools and room to knock around. Of an evening, you can walk barefoot into town on streets paved in sand.
But get ready for a real re-boot when you fly back to Quito and head two hours north into the highlands. We base our time here at Hacienda Zuleta, a 4,000-acre working family farm. In a way, the hacienda is an island, too, afloat in a sea of Andean peaks. But the fittest survivors here are direct descendants of a past Ecuadorian president or two. The old family spread, parts of which date back to the 17th century, is as cordial an inn as you could imagine. Sprawling organic gardens feed the workers and guests. A 300-cow herd supplies a creamery with all the butterfat it needs to create great cheeses.
Life here is rooted in human history, traced back through the Spanish conquistadores, the Incas and even earlier pre-Columbian people. Oblivious to the wars and crumbling civilizations below, Andean condors soared over them all. They are too rare these days, but the hacienda’s Condor Huasi Project fights for their preservation. On foot or horseback, we follow a trail up a valley lined with steep slopes and semi-tropical rainforest to reach one of the only places in the Andes where you can see these great birds today.
Other symbols of Ecuadorian culture thrive. Take the Otavalo Market. It’s an organized riot of ancient crafts with beadwork and textiles, as well as produce, fish and great baskets of quinoa. The local currency is now the U.S. dollar, but everything else about the scene is utterly Andean: the women in embroidered blouses with their heads wrapped in fachalinas, the suckling pigs with roasted smiles, the mix of ancient languages.
Even if the people and places of Ecuador aren’t exactly birds of a feather that is fine by us. Nothing beats a week of travel in Ecuador that lets us do a deep dive into natural history and get a taste of high-altitude Andean culture — all inside the borders of a single country.