We're still splattered in mud as the Quasar staff hosts a private asado, or Ecuadorean–style barbecue, at the ranch. The asado's delightfully fresh and simple offerings—grilled fish, steak and vegetables—are heavenly, the best meal I've had in months. But maybe I'm just in a good mood because I got so close to a giant tortoise that I could have touched him. Not that I would. This is the Galapagos, a place where conservation and respect for plants and animals is paramount.
Boutique hotels on the mainland
On either side of the Galapagos cruise, Quasar Expeditions recommends that passengers spend at least a night or two in Quito or Guayaquil. It's part of the Ecuadorean cultural experience, of course, but it's also an insurance policy: if your plane is delayed into Ecuador and you haven't allowed yourself any extra time, you could miss your subsequent departure for the Galapagos islands.
The best hotels on the mainland fill up quickly, though, with travelers from all of the Galapagos cruise lines vying for the same rooms. I'm fortunate enough to score accommodations at two of the best-loved boutique hotels in Quito. Before the cruise, I spend a few nights at Hotel Vieja Cuba, a lovely colonial-style house that's been transformed into a 26-room B&B. My room has exposed-brick walls, immaculate white linens and a private balcony with dramatic views of the nearby mountains. Downstairs, in a cheerful breakfast room where the wooden shelves are lined with vibrant tropical fruits, ceramic pitchers of rich café con leche form the centerpiece of a delicious continental breakfast. The adjoining eatery, Orisha, is a cozy meeting place in the evening - and hotel guests can order the same Cuban-style cuisine from the room service menu.
While the Vieja Cuba is a stylish and lively place to stay before the cruise, the quiet, sophisticated Hostal de la Rábida is a perfect place to stay when I'm pleasantly exhausted after a week in the Galapagos. My all-white room, one of just eleven, is petite and pretty, with a high skylight in the bathroom; it opens out onto a tranquil interior courtyard where the rabbit–in–residence, Brownie, hops around freely. In the evening, there's no reason to leave the hotel—a fireplace warms the central living room, where a few guests drink wine and browse through the hotel's impressive collection of local art books. The onsite restaurant and bar is only open to guests.
I dine with the hotel's owner, Sergio Chiesa, an Italian gentleman who purchased the building just a few years ago. He and his wife, Judy, completely restored the hotel, but the property retains much of its old-fashioned charm; they left plenty of details untouched, like the antique family framed on the wall. Their fading faces smile down on us as we dine on freshly baked bread, homemade spaghetti with shellfish, and locro, a cheese, potato and avocado soup for which the hotel's chef is locally famous. It's a lovely spot—elegant, cozy and locally grounded—to finish my weeks of adventure in Ecuador.
If you go
Quasar Expeditions runs a variety of upscale Galapagos cruises on the Evolution and Grace, as well as land tours in South America.
Spend some time in the capital and surroundings before or after: see the Quito Tourism website for ideas and travel info.
Story & photos by Bridget Gleeson.