A first-timer's guide to Ecuador & the Galapagos

Image: Janet Dutton
Image: Janet Dutton

Generally, Janet and her three travel companions embark on one big holiday every two years. This time, they opted for a South America travel experience. For some of them it would be their first time, but none of them had been to Ecuador or the Galapagos Islands before.

Read on to get an idea of what their active trip, that started with a summit of Ecuador’s highest peak and finished in the waters of the Galapagos Islands shared with seals, was like.

How did you prepare for the first part of this trip in Ecuador?

The preparation was interesting and we really did start increasing our activity from about six months before the holiday in South America. Firstly, our daily morning 3-mile run up a substantial hill got longer and longer until we were running 5 or 6 miles a day, 7 days a week. In addition, there were plenty of sessions on the rowing machine or out on the river rowing in the afternoon during the summer months leading up to our Summits of Ecuador and Galapagos - Bike, Hike & Kayak trips. 
To really boost our hill work we took a ten-day break in the Cairngorms to tune up - this was really useful and prepared us for walking six to eight hours per day carrying a backpack. We topped all this off by running the Henley Half Marathon in October.

The best bit was when a seal actually came nose to mask with me; literally touched my mask and then swam around me like a cat winds its way around your legs.

Rewarding walks in Ecuador |  <i>Janet Dutton</i>

What were your expectations of the active part of your South America travel experience? 

Some expectations of the Summits of Ecuador part were exceeded and some were surprising. Everyone knows the weather in the mountains is fickle but it really is fickle in Ecuador, often experiencing four seasons in several hours. 


We did have a lot of mist on the summits which was both a curse and a blessing. Not being a natural at heights and sheer drops I found it quite comforting not to be able to look down some of the drop-offs, but it did not lead to many beautiful shots of the surrounding mountains.  


The accommodation generally exceeded expectations and it felt like the hotels had been handpicked for their location and attractiveness. 

Altitude Sickness & Acclimatisation

As a sufferer of altitude sickness, I was very concerned that I would step off the plane in Quito and 30 minutes later I would be laid up somewhere with a screaming headache. I was very, very surprised that I did not suffer at all until coming down from 4,000 metre on the trek – when I was not 100 per cent for literally one hour or so. Our acclimatisation plan to have a couple of extra days really did pay dividends. That extension was one of the highlights of the trip, we went north to Otovala and onwards to Kilatoa which were both interesting and enjoyable despite the weather (raining). 

The second bout of altitude sickness was at Mt Cotopaxi (5897m) and, in hindsight, if that had been just one or two days later, I would have probably coped much better. As it turned out the weather was horrendous on summit day and most trekkers turned back with just reports of a handful of people actually getting to the summit.  

Grade of the Trek

Generally, the trekking was tough, very tough in parts, and whilst we could keep going I could not meet the deadlines required for both ascent and descent on the mountains over 6,000 metres. I nevertheless enjoyed the trek to the refuge.
You should prepare yourself for conditions outside of your control so don't get wedded to summitting every mountain as health and safety must be the first priority and hopefully some enjoyment too. One member of our party took on another volcano near Banos and perhaps that should be part of the itinerary as either a named trek or a backup if Mt Cotopaxi is not accessible.

The unique coastline of the Galapagos Islands |  <i>Janet Dutton</i> Stunning Ecuador |  <i>Janet Dutton</i> Meet giant tortoises on your Galapagos holiday |  <i>Janet Dutton</i> A misty day in the forest |  <i>Janet Dutton</i>

What is the most memorable moment of your South America tour?

The snorkelling in Galapagos was just amazing and so was the flight between the islands. I was also taken with the giant tortoises, which were unbelievable and the seals sleeping on park benches everywhere. The water was cold, so whilst most people wore short wetsuits, I would recommend either taking your own or hiring a full wetsuit. The snorkelling was not for beginners as you had to be pretty self-sufficient and a competent swimmer. I also enjoyed the Devil's nose train journey to Sibambe in Ecuador.

I think the best bit was when a seal actually came nose to mask with me; literally touched my mask and then swam around me like a cat winds its way around your legs. I could feel her whiskers on my arms and legs and it was amazing. I was less sure about the five sharks that were basking three metres below us (which was fine) but then they all started to move in our directions, which caused some concern - we all froze until they passed by.

Our acclimatisation plan to have a couple of extra days really did pay dividends.

How would you describe the trip in five words?

Once in a lifetime experience. . .

What point of advice would you give to other travellers that are thinking of travelling in South America? 

  • •    Ensure you are fit enough to enjoy the trekking, ours was graded exploratory trekking

  • •    Don't beat yourself up if you don't make the summit of the mountains over 6,000m this is just two days of a long holiday, there are other mountains to climb

  • •    If possible, plan in time for alternatives that are achievable, less subject to weather conditions and can be equally enjoyable

  • •    Stay flexible, things will and have to change

  • •    The guide knows best

  • •    If you are not a strong swimmer and you are going to Galapagos, take some swimming and snorkelling lessons - you really don't want to miss out on this opportunity to swim with seals, turtles and sharks

  • •    Anyone suffering from sea sickness should take appropriate medication for snorkelling trips as the boats are very fast and very bouncy

  • •    Take good warm clothes and waterproofs

  • •    We hired kit and it was of a very high standard

  • •    Take a good number of small domination US dollar notes, they will be useful

  • •    Some restaurants in the Galapagos wanted 7% extra for use of a credit card

  • •    The tea is dreadful, if you are a tea lover take your own tea bags. There were not tea/coffee making facilities in any of the hotels (except Refuges)

  • •    There are long periods driving between national parks, take some reading material

  • •    In Quito, stick to the pedestrian areas as some parts of the city are quite heavily polluted 

  • •    Go to the Quito museum, it is free and first class - it explains the social, political and geographical history, there is also a good art section

Furthermore, when you are visiting several countries in South America in one tour, be fully aware you are constantly moving around. The longest we stayed in the same hotel was three days. Your packing has to be minimal and organised otherwise chaos will ensue. Take several sizes of rucksacks to accommodate differing needs, eg. a very big, medium and small rucksack. Pack light and be prepared to do laundry.

Where would you like to go next?

Canada is next on my list of places to visit.

Keen to explore South America as well? 

Janet combined the Summits of Ecuador and Galapagos - Bike, Hike & Kayak trips with three of her friends.

Other popular places to go to in South America include:

Galapagos, Ecuador, Traveller Story

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