As the world slowly recovers from COVID-19 and borders gradually start to open, families are increasingly anxious to again set out exploring the world.
However, these intrepid souls are much more cognizant of the need for destinations that make it easy to maintain social distancing, avoid public transportation and evade crowded tourist areas. In this same view, preferred sites focus on remoteness and outdoor activities where travelers are less likely to come into contact with others. Additionally, travel in one’s own “bubble” of family members increases the possibility of safe and secure vacationing.
These factors make the distant-yet-awesome South American nation of Ecuador (and its Galapagos Islands) ideal for privately chartered family vacations as we return to the long-awaited post-pandemic “old normal.”
As this out-of-the-way land cradles an astonishing array of contrasting landscapes, wildlife, and adventure activities, we have selected nine of the best Ecuadorian vacations that we’re sure you and your family will find thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding.
1. Cuenca: Hotel del Vado
Unquestionably one of Ecuador’s most attractive colonial cities, Cuenca not only offers a step back in time but the laid-back culture of local people here is both endearing and addictive. This UNESCO-declared World Heritage site — and one of the best examples of well-preserved colonial and indigenous heritage in the country — has cultural and architectural influences dating back over 3,000 years.
Today, any family trip to Cuenca can easily be spent quietly wandering cobbled streets and historical buildings. Many of the old structures have since been turned into museums and cafes, so soak up the atmosphere of this ancient place while casually sipping a cappuccino! Cuenca is rivaled only by Quito in terms of its rich past, though without quite the same level of urbanization one might find in the capital.
Hotel Cruz del Vado: Located in one of Cuenca’s first neighborhoods, and very close to the Cruz del Vado monument, the hotel of the same name was painstakingly fashioned using a fusion of traditional and modern construction techniques, preserving the essence and history of this heritage building, while giving it our own identity.
Built 90 years ago, this property has walls 50 centimeters thick; those of the ground floor are of adobe and those of the second, third and fourth floors are of bahareque. Its facade is entirely covered with pink marble imported from Italy, an undeniable symbol of the lavish lifestyle of the period in which it was built. Its interiors are similarly full of unique details due to its republican style and influence by French architecture. Hotel Cruz del Vado’s facilities and 26 rooms are a reflection of true luxury hospitality.
The property offers all the services expected from a boutique hotel of this category, right up to the top floor where the restaurant and rooftop bar are renowned for having the best views of the city and excellent cuisine. In short, Hotel Cruz del Valdo achieved success in the restoration of an emblematic building of historical significance, drawing attention to and reactivating an iconic location and a traditional Ecuadorian neighborhood.
2. Otavalo: Hacienda Zuleta
A 2-hour drive) north of Quito, the highland town of Otavalo is best known for its famous traditional market where, for hundreds of years, people have come from all over the Andes to trade and pick up locally produced goods such as pottery, garments, fruits, and spices. Today, the sprawling array of vendors, stands, and merchants are as much for the benefit of visiting tourists as for the indigenous Andean population, though it’s just as colorful and hectic as ever!
This rich creative heritage is owed to the indigenous locals of Otavalo, who have been skilled craftspeople for hundreds of years – even before the arrival of the Incas.
Outside of Otavalo, you’ll all find rolling hills, lush forests, waterfalls, world-class haciendas, and plenty of activity offerings too. The expansive though rugged terrain of the region is wonderfully scenic, with picturesque lakes making way for sharp cliffs and volcanic peaks – including the 4,630m-high Imbabura Volcano. The wider province of Imbabura in which Otavalo sits is also known for the range of working haciendas and horse ranches that punctuate the landscape; we highly recommend staying a few days to get a full and authentic experience of this wild and beautiful place.
Hacienda Zuleta: One of the most renowned ranches outside of Otavalo is Hacienda Zuleta, which is also unquestionably one of the finest all-round accommodation experiences anywhere in Ecuador, regularly voted as one of the best hotels in the country, and indeed in all of South America.
The hacienda’s 14 spacious guestrooms feel as meticulously maintained, perfectly in character, and authentic as the communal areas, grand lobbies, and of course the manicured gardens and balconies, creating an atmosphere of attention to detail, worthy of Hacienda Zuleta’s honored reputation.
Having previously been in the hands of President Galo Plazo Lasso and his family for more than a hundred years, this 16th-century working farm enjoys an almost unrivaled prestige to add to its prime location, set within 2,000 acres of private, high Andean farmland – ideal for any number of outdoor activities and picturesque walks.
The ranch’s restaurant is known for producing the best of Ecuadorian cuisine, through a menu naturally designed around ingredients grown on Zuleta’s own pastures, adding to the all-encompassing nature of this distinct property.
3. Quito: Hotel Illa
Flanked by snow-capped volcanoes and verdant peaks, Quito sits at 2,800 meters above sea level, making it one of the highest cities in South America.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site which is Quito’s old town is certainly the jewel in the capital’s crown, with many believing it to be the best-preserved historic center in Latin America as well as a fully thriving neighborhood to this day. With a rich colonial past and connection with Ecuador’s indigenous heritage, Quito is awash with ethnic markets, historical plazas, tight ancient streets, and well-weathered buildings, many of which are now comfortable, luxury hotels.
Hotel Illa: Among Quito’s astonishing array of hotels is Hotel Illa, a stylishly-restored building that dates back to 1700. The 10-room hotel showcases key periods in the capital’s history, the rooms and suites on each floor decorated in Colonial, Republican, and contemporary styles respectively.
But beyond bricks and mortar, beds and breakfasts, the hotel is situated within the capital city’s warmest and most welcoming traditional neighborhood: San Marcos. This location adds to Hotel Illa offering a unique cultural experience for its guests as this barrio has been home to many of Quito’s artists, writers, and musicians for generations, while the present-day charm owes much to the tight-knit community of residents.
Perhaps most enticing of all, savor innovative Ecuadorian cuisine at the hotel’s award-winning restaurant partner, Nuema. In their previous location, the restaurant earned a top-recommended spot on Trip Advisor thanks to their refreshing take on Ecuadorian cuisine. The brilliance of the hotel’s dishes comes from finding ways to respect traditional products without being traditional. Farm-to-table with ancient ingredients and modern innovation.
4. Cotopaxi National Park: Cotopaxi Sanctuary Lodge
Standing in the presence of the imposing Cotopaxi Volcano represents one of the most iconic experiences in Ecuador and all of South America. With its snow-covered summit sitting at nearly 6,000m above sea level, the still-active peak dominates the landscape and the skyline.
The national park which surrounds Cotopaxi is just as stunning, with expansive open plains, deep lakes, mountain streams, and no end of hiking, biking, and horse-riding opportunities on offer.
Despite Cotopaxi National Park’s relative proximity from Quito, you and your family will feel a world away while visiting this untamed wilderness, known for panoramic vistas at every turn, fantastic working haciendas, and of course the four major volcanoes which dot the landscape.
There are less-strenuous hikes in Cotopaxi National Park too, such as walking to Lake Limpiopungo where Andean Gulls flourish. You can also enjoy horse riding or mountain biking, and there’s plenty of wildlife-watching to be done here too since the national park plays host to Pumas, Condors, rabbits, wild horses, and foxes.
Cotopaxi Sanctuary Lodge: Located in front of the Cotopaxi Volcano, but on the slopes of the Sincholagua Volcano, the Cotopaxi Sanctuary Lodge is a unique and special place found. The lodge is located at an altitude of 3,600 meters above sea level and surrounded by beautiful and wide-open grasslands in the Andean paramo with a combination of forest, streams, waterfalls and rivers such as the Pita the passes by peacefully near the lodge.
The property is found in the middle of a private hacienda of more than 3,000 hectares of land where wildlife roam freely including red-brocket deer, Andean fox, Andean pumas, White-tailed deer, and even the rare Andean-speckled bear, along with wild horses and a huge variety of endemic birds. The most famous bird species seen in this area is the Andean Condor, the national emblem of Ecuador.
The lodge itself offers both luxury domes and lavish guest suites. The contemporary 50-square-meter domes feature large windows displaying spectacular views of the Cotopaxi Volcano.
Alternatively, the four luxury suites are situated in the main house, all interconnected with floor-to-ceiling windows and views of the Andean grasslands. These 43-square-meter suites feature double and twin beds, elegantly designed bathrooms with hot running water and towel warmers, a stove, and a seating area within each room.
Before savoring a private family dinner served in your dome or suites, sip a glass of wine while watching the sun set across the Andean highlands, with the Cotopaxi volcano spectacularly displayed against the changing colors of the horizon.
As for outdoor activities, the property surrounding Cotopaxi Sanctuary Lodge has more than 10 km of private trails for hiking, horseback riding, biking or simply walking and exploring the natural beauty of this incredible environment unique to Ecuador.
5. The Amazon: Napo Wildlife Centre
Located in Ecuador’s eastern Amazon Rainforest region, the Yasuni National Park is the most biodiverse place on the planet. Just two acres of Yasuni – which spreads over more than 9,800sq km – contains a greater range of living organisms than in all of Europe combined. This protected stretch of primary rainforest houses over 600 different tree varieties, 4,000 native plant species (so far discovered), more than 120 reptiles, 150 amphibians, 600 species of birds, and 200 mammals.
Among this mind-boggling array of species are Spider Monkeys, Jaguars, Toucans, Giant Armadillos, Macaws, and Caimans, which you can seek out on a wildlife-watching safari through the jungle. In fact, the very beginning of your Yasuni experience will probably involve a canoe ride down from the town of Coca (where you and your family can fly in to from Quito) towards the national park, with all manner of flora and fauna to observe around you as you glide over the water. Look for Kingfishers, Herons, Terns, and much more, then of course enjoy many more boat tours and nature walks while staying at your jungle lodge.
There are some fantastic eco-friendly Amazon lodges in Yasuni National Park, some of which will invite you to learn about the local communities that have existed here for many years. Because Yasuni is not just home to a staggering array of wildlife, but also the indigenous Anangu Kichwa tribe, who peacefully coexist with the environment, doing what they can to protect their “casa grande” (big home): The Amazon Rainforest.
Napo Wildlife Centre: Located in a biodiversity-rich area of the Amazon rainforest, the award-winning Napo Wildlife Centre is a luxury lodge that offers a truly first-class wildlife experience.
The only lodge on the Napo River located within the Yasuni National Park, this scenic lakeside eco-lodge that’s owned and managed by the local Añangu Kichwa indigenous community.
The most luxurious eco-lodge in the Amazon, the Napo Wildlife Center possesses all the comfort you need to enjoy the most biodiverse spot on the planet.
Built according to traditional architectural principles — but with all the modern conveniences — the Napo Wildlife Center Lodge consists of 16 luxury thatched bungalows, each with a private bathroom, insect screens, mosquito nets, and lakefront and forest views.
The astounding sights and activities at the Napo Wildlife Center Lodge include viewing from the ecological observation tower, parrot clay licks, visits to the local indigenous community, birding, the canopy tower, forest trail treks, and canoe exploring. The nearby Interpretative Centre is part of a cultural activity organized by the women of the community. It is located within the heart of the community. There, you will be introduced to the community culture and traditions, as antique practices such as hunting and commercial trade, use of medicinal plants, etc.
6. Chimborazo: Chimborazo Lodge
In the Ecuadorian highlands, the chunky, snow-capped profile of the Chimborazo volcano is an obstinate presence on the horizon. Visible for miles, on a clear day, it can even be seen from the coastal city of Guayaquil. This inactive volcano sits robustly in the center of Ecuador, resolute in its status as the highest mountain on the planet (at least, when measured from the Earth’s core that is).
At a height of 6,263 meters, Chimborazo is Ecuador’s highest peak but is dwarfed by many of the Earth’s mountains. So why do Ecuadorians delight in boasting that this volcano beats even Everest’s impressive statistics? Put aside what you learned at school about the Earth being round and they actually have a point. More spherical than round, the Earth swells at its center around the equator. So, if we’re not measuring from sea level but from the Earth’s core, Chimborazo is indeed the highest peak on the planet. Better put, to stand atop Chimborazo is to be at the furthest point from the Earth’s center and, with feet still on terra firma, the closest point to the sun.
This thrilling idea has encouraged many a mountaineer to scale its heights, and you don’t need to be a pro to do it. There are in fact four summits, the highest being the Whymper peak, first scaled in 1880 by the English climber, Edward Whymper. The top is completely covered by a glacial cap while, down below, the volcano is encircled by a nature reserve protecting Alpacas, Llamas and Vicuñas, which make a pretty picture against the powerful silhouette of Chimborazo.
Chimborazo Lodge: The closest lodging to the Chimborazo Wildlife Preserve, the Chimborazo Lodge provides easy driving access to the hiking trails that go to the Polylepis Forest and to the hiking trails at the Chimborazo Refugios. Just a drive along the highway in between the lodge and the entrance to the nature preserve can be exciting with almost guaranteed spotting of herds of wild llama-like vicuña grazing the paramo grasslands.
Without ever leaving the lodge grounds, it is possible to hike to high mountain ridges and gain views of the surrounding region, to walk deep into the valley and flush deer from hidden spots, find the male Star of Chimborazo hummingbird in his feeding grounds, or just enjoy the views. Then too, you and your family members might choose to just sit on the back porch and enjoy the antics of the llamingos, a local word that describes the blending of alpacas and llamas in a single herd, and watch a local hummingbird flit back and forth from the small creek ravine to the feeders hanging from the lodge eaves.
You’ll also find European touches here that are so readily blended with Ecuadorian hospitality. The staff are local Ecuadorians with a love for their region and a knowledge of the land that can only be found by people born and raised there.
7. Guayaquil: Hacienda la Danesa
Far more than merely a gateway to the Galapagos, the city of Guayaquil is a characterful coastal center in its own right. The largest of Ecuador’s city-ports and affectionately known as the “Pearl of the Pacific.” Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil has a rich collection of museums, fantastic restaurants, and great nightlife, enough to rival any Latin American metropolis. Getting away from town, the wider Guayaquil region is perfect for relaxed horseback rides, secluded beach trips or hacienda stays, and visits working cocoa and banana plantation, giving you and your loved ones the chance to unwind after a few busy days in the city!
Hacienda La Danesa: Only an hour’s drive from Guayaquil, Hacienda La Danesa is a traditional dairy and cacao farm with a rich history that dates back more than 145-years. Situated on a 500-hectare (1,200 acres) estate, this family-owned and managed hacienda provides a unique range of activities for guests during their one-day or multiple-day stays. These “local experiences,” day-trips, and train rides include horseback riding, river tubing, bicycling, hands-on chocolate making, cow milking. In addition, bio-secure trips are organized to scenic mangroves and ancient Inca ruins, while contacts with nature can be experienced in cloud forests, awe-inspiring national parks, and at a water buffalo ranch.
For its multi-day “resident guests,” accommodations at the hacienda consist of Heritage Bedrooms within the historic charming farmhouse, luxurious Restored Stables Rooms, and a Garden Cottage. All guest quarters are provided with private bathrooms and neutral linens complemented by teak furniture crafted by local artisans.
The “Farm-to-fork” dining from the Hacienda’s Teca Terrace kitchen — built with organic materials such as teak, bamboo, and river stones — offers mostly traditional Ecuadorian cuisine mixed with a pinch of fresh international influence to bring exceptionally transcendent flavors to the table. La Danesa is one of the few venues in the world that serve award-winning Ecuadorian Chardonnay wine and other outstanding local microbrewery beers.
8. Galapagos Island Cruises: Alya Catamaran
A cluster of volcanic outcrops strewn off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are home to some of the most extraordinary flora and fauna in the world. This is owed to their general isolation up until the mid-20th century, allowing an astonishing array of creatures and plant life to evolve according to the unique geography of these far-flung islands. So, you can expect the unexpected on a wildlife tour in the Galapagos, with the chance to encounter everything from languid Giant Tortoises to playful Sea Lions, loved-up Frigate Birds to brightly-footed Boobies; and much more in-between.
A custom-designed adventure cruise in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador is a must for any budding scientist or nature-lover, what with their exceptional marine life and landscapes. The archipelago, made up of 13 main islands encircled by swathes of azure sea, is famous for its totally unique endemic species which were paramount in the development of Charles Darwin’s evolution theory. Today, it is more enticing than ever.
Such a cruise in the Galapagos can be tailored to suit your family’s every need and taste. You can wake up in a different location each day on a luxury Galapagos cruise, packing in as many nature walks, snorkeling excursions, and beach visits as possible. Each cruise sails a predefined route, but there is a wide array of vessels, itineraries, and cruise durations to ensure you find the one that’s right for you.
The Alya Motor Catamaran: Enjoy your Galapagos vacation on board this first-class, Smart-Voyager-certified catamaran: The Ayla. While cruising on this well-designed yacht, you and your family can enjoy full days of exploration and adventure in the living laboratory of this legendary archipelago.
This new catamaran has 9 comfortable cabins (8 of them with private balconies), 4 cabins on the upper deck and 5 on the main deck. All the beds can be double or twin. Private facilities in each cabin include a private bathroom with cold/hot water, air conditioning, a hairdryer, a telephone for internal communication on board, a safety deposit box, and a loudspeaker.
The Alya motor yacht offers a spacious sun deck with a fantastic area to enjoy Galapagos’ landscapes, a dining area, a lounge, bar, and a small library. The ship’s activities include hiking and animal-watching on daily land excursions led by a bilingual guide, as well as snorkeling, swimming, and kayaking. The yacht provides free snorkeling gear (mask, snorkels, and fins) and kayaks to complete your adventure in the islands.
The experienced and professional staff and crew will be your hosts during your journey on board the Alya motor catamaran, where they will make your stay an unforgettable experience. The staff is always ready to help you and provide you with delicious food, while the ship’s bartender will serve you delicious cocktails and the cooperative guides while introducing you to the amazing sights of this legendary archipelago.
9. Galapagos Islands land-based tours: Pikaia Lodge
To discover the Galapagos Islands, your family bubble might prefer to stay on terra firma, opting for one of the many sumptuous Galapagos eco-lodges found across the region, hopping from island to island and making the most of fantastic day trips.
In whatever way you decide to experience the archipelago, prepare to enter an utterly unique world, beloved by explorers, scientists, and Charles Darwin himself.
Pikaia Lodge: Designed for the physically active eco-adventure traveler seeking close contact with the unique natural wonders of the Galapagos Islands – while enjoying the highest level of comfort and services in a remote, eco-sensitive location – the Pikaia Lodge promises an ideal stay in the enchanting Galapagos Islands.
Located near the center of Santa Cruz Island, itself in the center of the Galapagos archipelago, the lodge is situated on 31 hectares of property that rise to 450 meters above sea level – a transition zone that provides panoramic views of the surrounding sunny, arid savanna and the lush tropical mist forest of the volcanic highlands. Due to this central location in the archipelago, the lodge is close to, secluded white sandy beaches and wildlife sites of the most interesting islands of the Galapagos, thus making it the perfect jumping-off point for daily land and sea tours on the lodge’s private yacht.
Pikaia Lodge’s 14 beautiful and spacious suites and rooms are nestled on top of the small plateau of the property’s main crater, providing some of the most spectacular views of the islands’ mountains, forests, volcanoes, and the sea. Lie on a daybed by the pool and absorb the scenery. Then further unwind with a purifying body massage in the spa. Completing this inviting package, the Pikaia Lodge has its own giant tortoise reserve as well as a beautiful pool, a gourmet restaurant, and a bar.
Alfonso Tandazo is President and CEO at Surtrek Tour Operator. Surtrek Tour Operator is a well-established firm, specializing in custom-designed luxury tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and throughout the rest of South America.
Source: A Luxury Travel Blog