In early January we had to opportunity to sail with Hurtigruten Expeditions on its inaugural Galapagos cruise. We saw 13 of the “Big 15,” including giant tortoises, sea lions, and blue-footed boobys; we ate plantains in one form or another for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and because of our incredible guides, we learned day by day and hour by hour about the pure magic that is the Galapagos ecosystem.
For many, the Galapagos Islands are a bucket-list, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and so all of our initial energy and attention was focused on the sailing. But the real surprise — ok, apart from seeing a flamingo fly — were the land experiences that bookended our expedition cruise.
A full day in Quito is already included in the cruise fare when booking a Galapagos sailing with Hurtigruten and most other cruise lines. However, Hurtigruten’s 2023/2024 pre- and post-options in the Galapagos will expand to not only include more itineraries, but also the rare opportunity to stay in the heart of Ecuador’s preserved cloud forest. Mashpi Lodge, owned and operated by Metropolitan Touring (Hurtigruten’s partner in Ecuador), was once recognized by National Geographic for its unique location and biodiverse programming.
Casa Gangotena. Photo: Brittany Chrusciel
If you think your clients might need a little respite from their high-energy Galapagos adventure, Casa Gangontena is another special Metropolitan property and the only Relais & Chateaux hotel in Quito. From the center of Old Town, guests can explore Ecuador’s surprising capital by day, and wine and dine in luxury by night.
The incomparable allure of the Galapagos Islands, its wildlife, and its stunning surroundings, are of course more than enough reasons to book clients on a cruise. But back on the mainland, Ecuador has so much to offer it’s a shame not to extend the experience while you’re there. In fact, Metropolitan refers to the Galapagos, the Old Town, and the cloud forest as the “Golden Triangle.”
The following are just snippets of what to expect from possible land extensions in Ecuador, based on our recent experience with Hurtigruten Expeditions and Metropolitan Touring.
It’s important to know that currently, Hurtigruten does not offer packaged trips pairing a Galapagos cruise with an extended land stay in Quito, but according to a spokesperson for the expedition line, it’s an option that they’re exploring. Silversea, for example, does offer an all-inclusive package, but it’s only two nights in Quito plus a tour when one night is already standard. Regardless of if passengers individually book extra time ahead of their sailing — which we would recommend — the jumping-off point for any Galapagos excursion is Quito.
Guests will arrive into the city’s immaculate, new Mariscal Sucre airport, just shy of 10 years old. A popular pre-cruise hotel is the JW Marriott, which is about a 45-minute drive from the airport, depending on traffic. We arrived in the absolute middle of the night, but a bellhop wearing a top hat served us a welcome drink (a bottled hibiscus infusion) on a silver platter — it was an excellent start. Standard rooms are spacious, comfortable, and feature deep soaking tubs. You quickly realize roses are one of Ecuador’s top exports — hundreds of them are gathered everywhere you look, and the effect is rather stunning.
The included day in Quito is jammed with goodies — a visit to a local market, a hike around Cotopaxi National Park, multicourse lunch at an hacienda, some four-legged surprises (ok, there was a llama parade) — but keep in mind it’s a single day. Also keep in mind that depending on flight schedules, it’s a very late night followed by a very early morning. We were in bed at 3 a.m., up at 7 a.m. for a mandatory COVID-19 test at the hotel, and were treated for our altitude sickness while in line for the test.
Quito Market Visit. Photo: Brittany Chrusciel
Yes — the most sensitive of us can have an immediate reaction to the high altitude, which feels like the equivalent of a bad hangover. You can take pills prior to landing if you think this might be an issue, and it does wear off, but you might be struggling through that entire first day, as I was (hours in a bus are required to get to and from Cotopaxi, which is at an even higher altitude than Quito). Having additional time in Quito at the end of our cruise, once we’d adjusted, meant we were able to finally indulge in some serious cocktail wizardry at Casa Gangontena.
Nestled in a historic mansion (originally built in 1600 but rebuilt after a fire in 1914), this boutique hotel features stellar views across the Plaza San Francisco of Old Town. We would have to say they’re best enjoyed at the wraparound rooftop terrace, accompanied by an inventive cocktail from a menu inspired by regional fiestas. Try the Carnaval de Flores y Frutas and you’ll be admiring the vessel as much as the delicate concoction inside it.
From Casa’s prime location, Metropolitan Touring offers a “Quito Like a Local” walking tour that introduces visitors to the unexpected offerings of the city, from a healer who is looking to reset your energy with stinging nettles to a man who lovingly restores Baby Jesus figurines and also uses his paints to also hide scars or blemishes on human customers. Lunch is also included at a nearby restaurant. It’s an eclectic but thoughtful overview of a lively city.
We were, however, advised against women traveling alone, especially at night. It’s something to keep in mind for clients when planning their time in and around Quito.
There’s perhaps no place we’ve ever stayed that’s quite like Mashpi, which means “friends of water.” (It is a rain forest, so if your clients don’t like getting a little wet, this experience is likely not for them.) Getting to this eco-lodge is its own venture, three-plus hours by van circling the Andean Mountains from Quito — we highly recommend pills for motion sickness. Of course, it’s all worth it very quickly as you arrive at the lodge, something out of Jurassic Park, nestled in the middle of the Choco cloud forest and behind large wooden doors.
Whether you start your journey here or end it, Mashpi is home to its own incredible species, especially birds, that will either continue to wow you or instantly take your breath away. Your guide will become a friend in a very short amount of time, helping you wade through rivers, serving you hot tea after a waterfall swim in the middle of the forest, and guiding you through the darkness on a treasure hunt for frogs, snakes, and more on a thrilling night hike.
Other highlights for guests include the butterfly sanctuary, the hummingbird garden, and the Dragonfly, an extensive gondola system that takes guests into the clouds above the cloud forest. As with nearly everything in Ecuador and its Galapagos Islands, you will be closer to nature than you ever thought possible.
Mashpi Guide with Butterfly. Photo: Brittany Chrusciel
Important to note that while the stunning, floor-to-ceiling views of the forest are alone worth the journey, the pace during our time at Mashpi was equally rigorous to that of the ship, with little downtime. Make sure to plan a schedule with a few moments to take a breath between the endeavor to see everything in a few days.
Back on solid ground, the food and drinks here will spoil you, and it’s because F&B master Jossimar Lujan is a gastronomical genius and orchestrates the culinary and cocktail programs across all of Metropolitan Touring (hotels, lodges, and ships). Like Casa Gangontena, the cocktail menu is in another stratosphere and is inspired by regional ingredients.
We liked that the app used by Metropolitan Touring to provide programming info and all of its menus is the same across the cruise product and on land; if guests use the app to make dining choices on their ship, it will feel natural to continue to do so in the restaurant at Mashpi.
For guests looking to extend their Galapagos cruise into a full-fledged South American adventure, Hurtigruten offers packages that bundle the Ecuadorian Amazon or Peru’s Machu Picchu. The Amazon option follows the sailing and includes three nights at a rainforest lodge in Coca along with two nights in Quito, for a minimum of six guests total. The Machu Picchu extension precedes the Galapagos cruise and offers one night in Lima, followed by two nights in Cusco, for a minimum group size of 10 total.