Day 1-2: Arrive Quito & Explore
Day 3: Arrive Galapagos
Day 4 – 9: Galapagos (coming soon!)
Day 10: Arrive back in Quito. Drive to Hacienda Zuleta
Day 11 -12: Hacienda Zuleta
Day 13: Otavalo & Cotacachi Volcano. Arrive back in Quito
Day 16: Depart Quito
**click on the above links for more details on our itinerary
Booking With Butterfield & Robinson
Part of the fun in traveling for me is all the upfront planning and destination research I get to do. Once we selected our destination, The Galapagos Islands (post coming soon), it was clear to me that we needed to book with someone who knew what they were doing. I struggled with whether to book a cruise through the islands or stay at a hotel and be land based. I needed someone with experience to help me make the best choice for our family. I also wanted to make sure we made the most of our time. I wanted our itinerary planned out and I wanted a guide who could tell us the history of the area and teach us about what we were seeing.
I chose to book with Butterfield & Robinson because of their experience in the area and the level of service they provide to their customers. We considered extending our trip to include Machu Pichu, but instead decided to spend a week in mainland Ecuador. B&R has set group tours on specific dates, but we went with a private tour (just our family) because we wanted to customize it so much and had a specific date range when we could travel.
In hindsight, booking with B&R was a great decision. We had a guide in Ecuador (Xavier) who picked us up at the airport and was with us on the mainland the entire time. We also had a driver who navigated through the country and up & down the narrow hilly streets of Quito (in a manual car!). Having lived and driven in San Francisco for many years, I can safely say that those hills are nothing compared to the hills in Quito. Our amazing guide in the Galapagos (Fernando) felt like an extension of our family.
The best part for me was that I didn’t worry about any logistics or details because those things were planned by someone else. They told us what time to be ready in the morning and what we needed to bring with us for the day and that was it! I didn’t have to worry about when or where we’d eat, how we’d get there, if we were running late, confirming details, tipping bellmen, etc. Because this was all taken care of for me, I was there to just enjoy the trip! It was fabulous and more relaxing than normal.
My one big piece of advice if booking with a tour operator is to know what is included in your trip and what is not. B&R sent us a guide on exactly what was covered and what we needed to pay for ourselves. They told me that all tipping (bellmen, restaurants, drivers, etc) was covered and the *only* two people we needed to tip were our one guide in Ecuador and one in the Galapagos. However, when we got there I started to wonder about tipping the hotel staff/concierge and guides we had on boats and excursions. Theoretically this was all covered, but it felt uncomfortable to leave a boat tour and not tip our guides. I didn’t want to double tip, but I also wanted to make sure we acknowledged how fantastic their service was. In the end we did leave extra tips when we were unsure and the reality is we may have tipped some twice, some not enough and others not at all. This left me feeling very uncomfortable so when we do another tour like this, I will ask specifically about all the different services we may encounter and confirm exactly when tipping is included.
The Kids’ 3 Favorite Things
As I mentioned in my detailed post about Hacienda Zuleta here, this was the one part of the trip that I considered cutting from our itinerary. I just wasn’t sure the activities would hold the kids’ attention, but as it turns out, this was the highlight of their stay in mainland Ecuador.
1. Horseback Riding at Hacienda Zuleta
After our morning ride to visit a Condor Sanctuary, all 3 kids begged to go on another horseback ride. Our guide was great and gave the kids a lot of freedom to control their own horses and ride at their own pace which increased their enjoyment tremendously. We have been on other rides where the kids are on a lead rope and limited to a walking pace = no fun.
2. Cooking Class: Making Empanadas
The manager of the hacienda and one of the chefs gave them a personal cooking lesson. These three are not the most adventurous eaters so I was thrilled they were open to trying many new foods on our trip. They fell in love with empanadas (but really, what’s not to love?) and even brought the recipe home so they could make them again!
3. Waterfall Hiking
We took a beautiful hike to an impressive waterfall on Hacienda Zuleta’s property. It was a flat easy “walk” although with the altitude it tired us all out! We had the waterfall all to ourselves and one of the dogs from the property joined us so the kids loved that too.
Plus My Favorite: Visiting the Equator
Leading up to our trip, I would get completely giddy at the thought of standing directly on the equator or standing with one foot in the northern & southern hemispheres at the same time. And it was just as exciting in person as I had imagined! Even better, at the Itinan Solar Museum we got to watch demonstrations and participate in different experiments which showed the effect of the equator (trying to walk in a straight line on the equator, balancing an egg on a nailhead, and the Coriolis effect).
The Kids’ Least Favorite Things
The number one complaint was the elevation and resulting altitude sickness they felt. Our 12-year-old especially suffered from some headaches and general fatigue and we all had to stop to catch our breath after walking up several flights of stairs or exerting ourselves too much. Additionally, we spent much of our trip in wide open places so Quito, like any big city, felt very crowded and there was a notable amount of pollution & exhaust from cars and busses which the kids didn’t like.
Here’s What We’d Do Differently
1. Make only 1 stop in Quito
I wouldn’t have sandwiched our Galapagos trip in between 2 stops in Quito. Because our travel dates were fairly restrictive and the dates available for our hotel in the Galapagos didn’t align perfectly, we flew into Quito for 2 days, then flew to the Galapagos for a week, and then returned back to Quito for another 6 days. To fly from Quito to Balta in the Galapagos requires a stop in Guayaquil so I felt like this added a lot of extra flying time. Instead, I would have flown directly from San Francisco to Guayaquil and stayed there for a day or so and then flown to the Galapagos (only 1 flight). After the Galapagos we could have flown to Quito and completed that part of the trip. The B&R agent that I worked with to plan the trip suggested this as an option, but I didn’t think it would be a big deal and kind of disregarded her idea.
2. Include the Amazon in our itinerary
I would have only spent 2 days in Quito and cut out our day trips to Cotopaxi & the Mindo Cloud forest in favor of going to the Amazon. After a week in the Galapagos, I was afraid we all might be burnt out on animals and I was looking to add more culture by spending time in the Quito area. But after talking to many families we met on our trip who did both the Galapagos AND the Amazon I was sorry we had cut it. They all said it was incredibly beautiful and they learned a lot about the ecosystem and how it works in perfect harmony between the animals and plants. In the Galapagos, the animals were right in front of us, almost like a wild animal park. In the Amazon, they said they had to work hard to see animals and it wasn’t a sure thing they’d actually see any on any given excursion. For this reason, they all recommended going to the Amazon BEFORE the Galapagos because it could be disappointing for kids to see an abundance of animals and then only a few in the Amazon. I think by including the Amazon we would have felt like we more fully experienced Ecuador.
Overall it was a great trip and Ecuador was easy to get to. I would certainly stop here again as part of another South American adventure – perhaps the Amazon & Machu Pichu!
Tips for Traveling to Ecuador
The elevation of Quito is 9,350 feet above sea level. For those accustomed to living close to sea level this change is quite a shock. Expect to feel some effects of altitude sickness when you first arrive. Drink lots of water and take it easy the first day or two. While we mostly adjusted to the elevation after a few days, we still felt winded on occasion.
Traveling to Ecuador means packing for multiple climates. We were gone for a total of 16 days and were moving around a lot and staying in different hotels so we wanted to pack relatively lightly. We were going from the mountains at 10,000 feet above sea level where it was cool & rainy requiring boots, rain jackets, fleeces, and long pants, to the Galapagos Islands where it was warm & humid requiring water shoes, bathing suits, shorts & t-shirts. Which leads me to…
We packed enough outfits for a few days in each climate and then did laundry at our hotels. The laundry service at our hotels was actually more expensive than I anticipated. I just did laundry as we needed it and of the three hotels where I used laundry services (Galapagos Safari Camp, Hacienda Zuleta & Plaza Grande) Plaza Grande was by far the most reasonably priced. Overall, it probably would have been cheaper to pay the baggage fees to bring another suitcase with more clothes, but then we would have had another suitcase to lug around. Or we could have done more laundry in the hotel sinks. Although a word of caution in the Galapagos – it’s so humid that we found our bathing suits wouldn’t even dry if we left them out overnight. Luckily the hotel had a free “drying” service for this reason, but trying to wash many things in a sink wouldn’t have worked out so well here. In other countries we have found wash & fold services which tend to be more reasonably priced, but I didn’t research this option in Ecuador.
4. Bring Cash (US Dollars)
While we paid for most of our trip upfront, we did have to tip our guides and pay for any incidentals or souvenirs we wanted. The local currency in Ecuador is the US Dollar which means no currency exchange required! We brought more cash than we thought we needed and spent it all. Most of our cash went to tipping our fabulous guides and drivers. We had to pay cash at all the markets we went to and many stores would not accept credit cards because the associated fees are too high. The vendors that did accept credit cards would often offer a discount if we paid in cash.
We flew Copa Airlines from San Francisco to Quito with a 2-hour layover in Panama City. Our flight home was the same routing with a similar layover.
B&R booked our flights from Quito to Balta on TAME (with a quick layover in Guayaquil where we didn’t even get off the plane).
Casa Gangotena – Voted one of the best hotels in the world by Travel & Leisure readers. We loved it and it is overall very kid friendly. We had 2 non-connecting rooms that were right next door to each other. Upon arrival, they had 3 beds set up for the kids in their room with a welcome note, some chocolates and a hand knit stuffed animal for each of them. One evening we had a chocolate tasting with the chef who taught us how to properly taste chocolate, how the different levels of cacao and the region in which the bean is grown all affect the taste. We finished with a cup of hot chocolate. The restaurant was fancy, but they had a kids menu with some familiar items from home.
Plaza Grande – Another high-end hotel that is also kid friendly. Again we had 2 non-connecting rooms that were right next door to each other. There were 3 beds for the kids – so again no sharing. Mike & I must have been upgraded because we had a full suite with a living room, dining room and kitchen. The kids did not receive any gifts upon arrival, but still they preferred this hotel to Casa Gangotena. They loved the balconies (those were our balconies on the top floor – in fact our two rooms spanned that entire side of the hotel) and just thought overall the hotel was “fancier”. The hotel restaurant was still very nice, but more casual and I was more relaxed eating here with 3 kids.
Hacienda Zuleta – Extremely family friendly with many activities geared towards kids & families. Fernanda, the hotel manager anticipated all of our needs and made our trip so wonderful. They did not have a kids club, but they arranged for activities for our kids – even taking the kids for a couple of hours to make empanadas and then arranged for massages for both Mike & I. The kids were free to run & explore around the property. The rooms were beautifully appointed and spread throughout the 2 floors of the hacienda. There were sitting rooms for each section of the hacienda with fire places, drinks all day (juices & sodas for kids; coffee, tea, wine, spirits) and hors d’oeuvres in the evenings which always included a selection of the delicious cheeses made right on the property. For lunch & dinner there were usually two meal choices, but they were always willing to make accommodations for our kids if requested (which we tried not to do).