By Tori Keating
Rising out of the Pacific Ocean and straddling the equator some 900kms off the coast of Ecuador, the enchanting Galapagos Islands is the most unique bio diverse habitat in the world. Famous for helping Charles Darwin shape his theory of evolution, they are home to numerous species of endemic birds, animals, plants, fish, reptiles and corals, and are one of the few places where it’s possible to get close to the wildlife as they show no fear of us bigger creatures.
I’m fortunate to be ticking off a big bucket list item by travelling aboard the lovely yacht La Pinta- a boat which will maximise my time here, seduce me with excellent Ecuadorian cuisine and cocktails and expand my understanding of this unique area with knowledgeable naturalist guides and onboard staff- all of whom are passionate about ensuring you experience the trip of a lifetime.
Like Africa’s Big 5 the Galapagos have a Big 15 – 15 species endemic to the islands, including blue footed booby’s, the giant Galapagos tortoise, Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants and the salt sneezing marine iguanas to name a few.
It’s unlikely you’ll see all 15 on a short trip, so the longer you have the more chances there are to enjoy the abundance of life here. Any less than 5 nights- in the humble opinion of someone who has visited- will only leave you disappointed and wanting more.
I’m treated each day to watching marine iguana swim in natural rock pools, snorkelling with turtles, wizzing along in tiny tenders to see nesting birds, and at night I relax in the outdoor Jacuzzi, attend lectures and even watch the incomparable David Attenborough on the big screen.
But it’s on my last afternoon that I really have to pinch myself swimming at one of the top 10 beaches in the world between a sea lion frolicking in the surf on one side and a blue footed booby dive bombing the waves for his dinner on the other- a truly magical experience which will stay with me a lifetime.
After the islands I’m blessed to discover one of Ecuador’s very unique and special places buried deep in the Choco Cloud
Forest- Mashpi Lodge. A luxury lodge rising up from the forest floor, Mashpi is so extraordinary National Geographic have awarded it their very discerning stamp of approval, naming it one of the Unique Lodges of the World (damn, I love my job!).
3 hours north of Quito, Mashpi blends seamlessly into the surrounding landscape. It is a sleek, contemporary 5-star lodge with walls built almost entirely out of floor to ceiling glass windows bringing the forest right into your room and enhancing your experience of the contiguous forest. Here there are vine snakes, blue morph butterflies, howler monkeys, tree frogs or elusive ocelots and puma, though you are more likely to encounter toucans, moss backed tanagers, broad billed marmots and any number of the estimated 400+ native and endemic bird species who call Mashpi home.
A typical day begins on the rooftop terrace early in the morning as the forest awakens from its slumber. Here you’ll find naturalist guides pointing out the birds who come near the lodge to greet the guests `good morning’. Later enjoy a visit to the fascinating `hummingbird station’- home to 32 different species of hummingbirds- or the educational `Life Centre’ to be covered in butterflies (having them walk all over your face, arms and head is a strange but lovely experience). You might climb the observation tower for a view of the forest canopy or trek through virtually untouched forest and creek beds, or you could try out the `sky bike’ or the new `Dragonfly’ ride- a peaceful open air cable car ride high in the treetops.
If you don’t wish to step too far from your comfort zone you can relax in the Jacuzzi, enjoy an outdoor massage by a waterfall, or wait for the sumptuous 3 course evening meal- which, like breakfast, lunch and all of the activities, is included in your stay- before falling into bed to drift off to the nocturnal symphony of the surrounding forest.
It is truly difficult to depart Ecuador and say goodbye to new friends, wonderful gastronomy, gorgeous scenery and the lap of eco luxury. I’m not a fan of getting up before dawn unless it’s for something truly special but I’d happily wake up early for a few more days in the Galapagos to watch the sun rise over the horizon or at Mashpi over the forest and have the animals greet me `buenos dias’.