Lonely Planet writer, Chamidae Ford, just returned from a 10-day adventure through Ecuador with the help of Elsewhere. Here, she shares a killer first-timer itinerary and tips for experiencing the most of this varied destination.

Elsewhere by Lonely Planet is a planning service that connects travelers with locally based experts who craft and book personalized travel itineraries. My mom and I used it to arrange our recent 10-day visit to Ecuador. Living on opposite coasts of the US, I have to say, this has been my favorite meeting point so far. From Quito to the Galápagos Islands to Cotopaxi, we experienced some of the country's most beautiful sights.

Twin-spires of a cathedral loom over a hilly city
The views from the top of Quito's Basílica del Voto Nacional are spectacular © Noradoa / Shutterstock

What was your route? 

We touched down in Quito, where we spent two nights. This mountainous city was the perfect introduction to Ecuador. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, I had never seen heights so high or mountain peaks devoid of snow. Led by our exceptional on-the-ground tour guide, Santiago, we climbed to the top of the Basílica del Voto Nacional and watched the Virgin Mary look over Quito's rolling hills. 

In the Galápagos, we learned that wildlife runs the town — from sea lions jumping into your boat for their afternoon nap to the evening swarm of pelicans when the fishers return from a day on the water. We spent our five days there dodging the lizards and crabs weaving between our feet and watching cars wait for iguanas to cross the street on their way to the beach. I hadn't anticipated the way nature is woven so visibly into daily life.

We finished our visit with three days in the Andes Mountains at El Hacienda Provenir. This multigenerational, family-run hacienda acts as an oasis in the heart of four surrounding volcanoes. We rode horses, relaxed at the spa, braved a ropes course, and planted trees to support local conservation efforts.

What did you book in advance of your trip? What do you recommend others do?

We booked everything in advance with the help of Maria Augusta, an Ecuador-based travel expert at Elsewhere. She spoke with us after we made our trip request to gauge what kind of travelers we are and what we were hoping to do and see. She went on to craft an unforgettable itinerary that balanced what my mom and I wanted from our trip. With plans in place for each day and all of our transfers organized, all we had to do was be ready on time for pick-up, making it the most carefree travel experience I ever had. 

Two large seabirds with blue feet stand on a rocky shore
Blue-footed boobies watched on from the shore as we went out snorkeling in the Galápagos © John Sullivan / Alamy Stock Photo

Favorite activity from the trip?

Let me be clear: I have snorkeled many times, but never like this. Seeing colorful fish up close is one thing, but the Galápagos’ extensive wildlife takes it to a whole new level.

We snorkeled around Tintoreras, an islet off the coast of Isabela Island. Wearing fins and goggles we watched sea lions zip past, twirling in the water. You can’t help but laugh at these playful and mischievous creatures. 

Penguins, pelicans, and blue-footed boobies watched us from the rocky shore as turtles moved gracefully through the water, and when we locked eyes, I wished I had an underwater camera with me. 

The finale of the experience was venturing between a crevice in the lava rocks. Our guide told us to swim quietly, careful not to splash our fins, as white-tipped reef sharks rested along the ocean floor. While they aren't interested in humans, our guide was trying to avoid a flurry of sharks darting around us and the inevitable panic. Lucky for us, it went smoothly. I could feel my heart pounding the whole time, but the payoff of seeing them up close was worth the nerves.

Left: a plate of homemade empanadas; right: a cup of tea drank on a horseback ride
The empanadas we made were delicious, as was the tea we drank on our horseback ride © Chamidae Ford / Lonely Planet

What is the best thing you ate?

My favorite thing I ate was most likely because it was a labor of love. While staying at Hacienda El Provenir in the Andes Mountains, we took a cooking class with Lucy, the chef at the Hacienda. She taught us how to make some Ecuadorian classics like empanadas, her secret house salsa, and naranjilla tea. It was fantastic! 

While my empanada-folding skills need some work, it was a great experience that ultimately gave me new recipes to make at home when I am in need of culinary transportation back to Ecuador.

I must also give a special shoutout to patacones (twice-fried green plantains), which now have my heart.

What was the handiest thing you packed?

Don't forget to pack a long-sleeved button-up and a hat – they are necessary! It is hot, so breathability is essential, but the sun is intense. You can notice a local versus a visitor simply by how much skin they are showing. The people who live and work outside are covered up. Long sleeves, hats, gators, and copious amounts of sunscreen are a part of the everyday wardrobe. Despite being someone who tans easily, I managed to be sunburnt a few times during my trip. Those UV rays are not playing around.

Three horseback riders, all wearing striped ponchos and riding hats, ride through long grass
Our horseback ride through Cotopaxi's landscapes was a highlight of the whole trip © Chamidae Ford / Lonely Planet

What’s your favorite photo from the trip, and where was it taken?

I love this photo of my mom and me on horseback on our journey to the fleeting but stunning view of Cotopaxi. We were dressed in traditional chaps and ponchos, channeling our inner chagra (Andean cowboy). As the wind roared at the viewpoint, we sipped fresh muña tea (a local remedy for altitude sickness) as the owner of the Hacienda, Maria, taught us about the changing landscapes around us.

What was the most under-the-radar activity you enjoyed?

Hiking to the Sierra Negra caldera in the Galápagos was a favorite moment during our visit. At roughly 45-minutes each way, we opted to ditch the main trail for the slightly steeper but more wildlife-spotting route. Our on-the-ground tour guide on Isabela Island, Emma, is an expert birdwatcher, whistling to lure the most elusive species out for us to catch a glimpse. We saw a handful of vermilion flycatchers, which promise good luck (who can’t use a little extra luck?), with their bright red bellies poking out between the lush green trees. Once we reached the caldera, watching the fog pour in was a mesmerizing sight. 

Things I wish I knew before I went

The impact of the elevation in Quito and the Andes is no joke. Drink water nonstop and mentally prepare for the lack of oxygen your body will experience. As someone who lives basically at sea level, being 12,000ft up took a toll on my energy levels more than I anticipated.

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