Travel to the Galapagos Islands: An Essential Guide

Few destinations rival the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador for up-close encounters with mother nature. Rocky landscapes, often sparse of vegetation but blessed with abundant and unique wildlife, these little gems  are also famed because of the work that Charles Darwin did there, which contributed to his development of the evolution theory.It is a superbly protected and fragile eco-system, and travelers can only enter the boundaries of the Galapagos National Park (about 97% of all the islands, which are uninhabited) if accompanied by an official qualified guide.Here's an essential guide to help you plan your perfect Galapagos adventure.OverviewThe Galápagos archipelago consists of 13 big islands, 6 small islands, and more than 40 islets. Santa Cruz is the most inhabited island; its main town, Puerto Ayora, is a key city in the Galápagos. From here, you can book tours around the islands, plan day trips, and scuba-diving excursions. Santa Cruz is also home to the Darwin Research Station, where you can meet the famed giant tortoise  of the Galapagos. San Cristóbal is the second-most populated island. Several tour boats begin their journeys from its port, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Isabela is the largest island, but only the third-most populated. It’s also the most popular pit-stop for visitors.There are basically three options when it comes to getting around the Galapagos Islands; land-based tours, an island-hopping tour or an expedition cruise/voyage.To enjoy the best of what the Galápagos have to offer, we strongly recommend exploring the islands by boat. Being on a smaller boat will enable you can to access some of the smaller islands that the larger ships can’t get to. You can take day trips from Puerto Ayora to Santa Fe, Plaza Island, North Seymour, and Bartolomé.When to goThere’s no “bad” time to visit the Galápagos. Due to its location near the Equator, temperatures don’t change drastically. But the timing of your visit will totally depend on what kind of experience you’re looking for. The dry season is from June to November (busiest months for tourism, although some of these months can mean cold waters for swimming and diving), and the wet season is from December to May. What to Pack/CarryThere is no comprehensive packing list that works for everyone, but here are some essentials that one must definitely consider:Clothes: During the day, you will most likely be wearing shorts and a loose comfortable t-shirt or tank top. A hat and a pair of sunglasses are absolutely essentials for protecting your face from the blazing equatorial sun. For the evenings on boats, particularly cruise ships, go a little formal, and a dress shirt a simple sun dress might be a good idea (most cruises don’t follow any sort of dress code; daytime clothes will be fine.)Consider bringing only one or two pairs of light trousers to the Galapagos. The weather is usually warm, but it can't hurt to carry a light sweater or sweatshirt if you intend to do a little night star-gazing. If you plan on partake of hiking activities, we advise you to pack a jacket, preferably a waterproof one that can double as a raincoat, in case it rains.Footwear: Without a doubt, sandals or causal flip-flops are the handiest footwear you can bring to the island. They are perfect for wet landings on the island (off a boat), and also to protect your feet from the harsh volcanic landscape. Leave the heels at home. You might want the protection and support of sturdy closed-toe walking shoes with a durable sole. Though land excursions are generally short and trails generally tame, you will be walking over jagged volcanic rock and other obstacles from time to time.Sunscreen: It may be obvious, but it deserves a mention because it’s so vital. You’re right on the equator, and even though it doesn’t feel too hot, you will fry to a crisp unless you foam up at least 4 to 5 times a day. Hence, we recommend you to bring at least twice as much sunscreen (SPF 45 waterproof sunscreen if possible!) as you think you will need.Swimming & Snorkeling: Carry at least a couple of swimsuits so that you’re not always putting on a still-damp pair. Getting your own snorkel & mask is optional, as you will be able to rent these, or they may be included in your trip costs. If you already possess a pair, carry them; you’ll be spending a lot of time snorkeling (depending on time of year), and you don’t want to have to mess around with an ill-fitting mask.Pack Necessary Medication: While your tour guide will carry first aid kits, you are responsible for carrying your own prescription drugs or any vitamins you regularly take (make sure to fill prescriptions before you travel). A few recommended over-the-counter drugs you might want to carry are pain relievers, motion sickness pills and indigestion tablets.  Also consider bringing sea-sickness medicine, or check and see if your chosen tour cruise has it.What Not to Pack/CarryThe introduction of non-native plant species is considered THE top environmental hazard to the Galápagos Islands, so do not bring any fruits, vegetables, plants or pets of any kind with you. In fact, you have to sign an affidavit swearing that you’re not bringing in any food, animals, seeds, or even unclean camping gear that may have live insects.Book a TourWhen planning a trip to the Galapagos Islands, everyone asks about the boat, many ask about the itinerary, and very few about the guide. And yet, there is perhaps no greater influence on the quality of your Galapagos cruise experience than your guide. Besides, visits to most of the islands aren’t permitted without a naturalist tour guide licensed with the Galapagos National Park. Strict protocol on tourist access is maintained in an effort to protect the natural habitats.Important Tip: The Galápagos Islands are a major tourist destination, so book well in advance. Dive boats, in particular, tend to fill up fast.The next step: Ship or Shore?For many, the most essential decision to make when planning a trip to the Galápagos is whether to take a cruise or visit the islands from a hotel base on land. For those who are prone to seasickness you’re better off staying on land.If you intend to take day trips from Santa Cruz Island to any of the other popular island sites, you will most likely be doing so on a very small boat. On the contrary, if you book a cruise on one of the larger ships, you will be on a boat that is much steadier in rough seas, and most of the travel is done at night, when you’re fast asleep.How to Get ThereWith very rare exceptions, travelers travel by air to the Galápagos Islands. You can board a flight from Quito or Guayaquil to Baltra airport, from where your chosen local guide will take you to Puerto Ayora or Santa Cruz Islands, two of the most popular tourist hubs in the region.Ask your chosen travel operator to book flights through a cruise company (many tours don’t include flights in their package but some do make an exception). Some companies include internal flights in their package, since they have pre-arranged group flight bookings with airline companies to get the best rates.  What to DoWith the many, many islands to cover, it is recommended to take an extended trip so that you can visit them all. Between active volcanoes, tranquil beaches, and exotic wildlife reserves, you definitely don’t want to miss any of it. Also, if your time is limited and you want to see the most popular and sought-after spots first, here is a list of activities to look out for.Visit the Charles Darwin Research StationIf science fascinates you, you’ll certainly want to visit the center and learn all about Darwin’s observations. Take a tour around the center, where staff members are available to answer questions about the islands and the continuing restoration process, particularly in regard to preserving the many species that are exclusive to these islands.Meet the Giant Tortoises (Key Highlight of Ecuador) Holding pride of place as the quintessential symbol of the Galapagos Islands, spotting these magnificent creatures is a must-do for all animal lovers. Most famously seen at: the Charles Darwin Research Center in Santa Cruz or the Galapagos Interpretation Center in San Cristobal.However, the less crowded and more appealing breeding center can be found in Puerto Villamil on Isabela. Here, you can hold a baby tortoise egg and learn about the different types of tortoise endemic to different volcanic areas on the island, each with distinct-shaped shells. One can even see little eggs hatching if they get lucky.Scuba Diving and SnorkelingIf you’re an aquatic enthusiast, suit up to take a peek below the ocean surface; the underwater Utopia can be just as enthralling as the world above it. The Galapagos presents an unbelievable diversity of marine wildlife for activities like scuba diving and snorkeling – a must do, when visiting Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabela Islands.Your chosen travel experts in Ecuador will take you to the best dive spots on Wolf and Darwin Islands, where you might see hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, eagle rays, large schools of jack fish and much more.  If you go snorkeling, you’ll likely be swimming alongside sea lions and Pacific sea turtles. Spots around Isla Lobos and San Cristobal Island are excellent for snorkeling.Important Tip: Due to challenging conditions, diving and snorkeling is recommended only for those who are already experienced. Beginners must go through crash course demonstrated by experienced diving instructors before entering the waters.Trekking the Sierra Negra Active Volcano Trek over dried lava beds along the rim of one of the archipelago’s active volcanoes around Sierra Negra (world’s second largest crater) on Isabela, the biggest island which also boasts 6 other volcanoes. By far the best trek route around the islands is to follow the dirt trails to Volcano Chico to observe the puffing fumaroles and extraordinary lava formations, or hike longer into the yellow hills of the pungent Sulfur Mines.Explore Bellavista’s Lava Tunnels in the GalapagosExploring the naturally hollowed lava tubes in the Galápagos is an adventure not to miss. Hike through beautiful tunnels, explore the intriguing structures and marvels of mother nature’s work. Learn about the formation of these tunnels (it’s best to explore with a guide). Be sure to bring sturdy shoes as it can be slippery, and some areas may require some crawling due to limited visibility (carry a good flashlight too). There will be water dripping on you from time to time, so carry a rain jacket if that bothers you.Discover the Beaches of the Galapagos IslandsWitness some of the world’s most remarkable beaches surrounded by mangroves, hidden coves and black lava, along with friendly animals like pelicans, iguanas and sea lions frolicking in turquoise blue waters unadulterated by pollutants; you will also find many colorful sand beaches, including powdered white, mixed coral, Pacific black, red, and olive green sand beaches.Here are a few notable mentions:Puerto Villamil (Isabela Island)Located near the Puerto Villamil village, it’s probably the most secluded beach of the islands, away from the hustle-bustle and backed by a lagoon where flamingos and marine iguanas thrive. If solitude is what you seek, spend some time here, enjoy the views of the dry tropical forest and bask in the sun underneath the coconut palms – absolute bliss guaranteed!Gardner Bay Beach (Espanola Island)Allow yourself to be enchanted by Gardener Bay (the oldest beach of the islands) as you enjoy activities like snorkeling and kayaking. Get up-close and personal with sea lions; spot white-tipped reef sharks and countless tropical fish in the turquoise waters. It is also a great beach for bird watchers, particularly famous for pelicans.Red Sand Beaches (Rabida Island)Located south of Santiago, the stunning red rock beach gets its color from the high iron content in the volcanic material, which makes it stand out from the other beaches on the islands. Upon arrival, you will be welcomed by sea lions and marine iguanas lazing in and around the nearby caves. The pink shrimp larva makes the beach a perfect hunting ground for flamingos and other birds like Darwin Finches and the Blue-footed and Nazca Boobies.  Tortuga Bay (Santa Cruz Islands)Have the local guide take you to the white coral sandy beach with good waves, and practice some surfing. The captivating Tortuga Bay beach has both, calm waters and waves of impressive magnitude; paddle alongside playful sea lions, glide above white-tipped sharks, watch blue-footed boobies plummet into the sea; an ideal place for kayaking too!And Finally – The Wildlife of the Galapagos!Galapagos is a natural playground for wildlife exploration. Everything here lives free and is scared of nothing (most important, man has not established himself as a predator) which is why you can get close to all the animals here. There is truly no other place on the planet quite like it. Contact a good travel expert who will guide you through intricacies of this wild and wonderful place. Being the meeting point of three different ocean currents, the marine life is bountiful. And it’s no surprise why these islands fascinated Darwin, leading to one of the world's greatest scientific breakthrough discoveries that changed the way we saw ourselves!

Ecuadorian Food: Best restaurants & places to eat in Quito

Often regarded as the "most beautiful big city in South America", Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is located in a valley cupped between colossal Andean peaks, and was the first of two cities to be declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1978 (the other was Krakow, Poland). The architectural splendors of this city are numerous, of course: the ancient thick-walled, tile-roofed colonial buildings, the museums, the Gothic churches and cathedrals, you can go on and on, but a lesser known and hugely understated attraction of this city is its food, scrumptious dishes worth writing home about. A travel expert in Ecuador would be your best bet in guiding you through the food culture scene of Quito, but here's a little taster to get the saliva flowing.Traveling to a foreign location and not tasting its delicacies is like missing a part of a painting. Expect a fair amount of potatoes and root vegetables; there is a traditional hot sauce to go with it, found on almost every dining table in the city. But the piece de resistance here is pork; there is arguably no better destination that can compete with Quito in lip smacking exotic pork cuisine. Important Tip: If you are a habitual veggie who indulges in meat every only every once in a while, start out easy with the vegetarian offerings; move on slowly to the chunkier non-vegetarian options. If you're a meat lover, well, go nuts.We recommend you include Quito's food culture as part of your larger itinerary through Ecuador (to the Galapagos, the Andes or the Amazon); it is an experience that will rate as high as anything in the country.CevicheYour first reaction is, 'Hey, that's Peruvian.' True, but the Ecuadorians do it in their own style. What differentiates it, and makes it arguably a lot more relishing than its Peruvian counterpart, is that here they prefer marinating it in the original seafood juices, giving it a more soupy feel. It is then garnished with corn nuts and plantain chips, making it one of the appetizing meals the city has to offer.Best had in: Zazu Restaurant, regarded as one of the best fine dining restaurants and the darling of Quito's dining scene. HornadoThis luscious meal consists of a roasted pig cooked whole with an apple or tomato in its mouth and red chilies in the ears, and it is served with tortillas with cheese. The best part of this dish is the sweet juice made from different types of onions and tomatoes, mixed and drizzled over the Hornado. Best had in: Achiote RestaurantLocro de PapasThis is one of the few vegetarian dishes Quito is famous for, a potato based soup with cheese, avocado and cooked with garlic and onions. The Ecuadorians feel this steamy broth tastes the best in cold, rainy weather, but we call it a soup for all seasons. Best had in: Casa Los Geranios where it is served in a small bronze pot on a bed of flaming salt.CanelazoEditorial Copyrights: ar hotel salitreFinally, a tipple. In Ecuadorian culture, no party is complete without pitchers of the spicy Canelazo (also consumed in Colombia, Peru and northern Argentina). It contains rich flavors of cinnamon, sugar, Naranjilla (Ecuadorian citrus fruit) and Puntas (a strong Ecuadorian drink with alcohol content 30%-60% made from sugar cane). When in Ecuador, ditch your usual cocktail, drink like a local and do yourself proud. Best had in: Calle La RondaEditorial Copyrights: /Shutterstock.comThe Street Food of QuitoIt is rightly said that street food is the real fuel of the populace; also, there is also hardly any better way to know a region's cuisine than by hitting up a food stall of mouth watering goodies.Important Tip: Street foods in Quito form a very important highlight of any vacation (almost as much as the architecture), can be very delicious and inexpensive compared to the restaurants, but they can be unhygienic too, and henceforth you should be cautious before venturing forth. Again, the importance of a travel expert here cannot be stressed more.Editorial Copyrights: /Shutterstock.comStreet foods can be found in almost every other corner of the city, but to save time and too much hoofing around. head down to Mercado Central and El Ejido Park. Some of the goods on offer: LlapingachosEditorial Copyrights: Leon SierraRegarded as Ecuador's signature dish, Llapingachos are small orange-yellow colored pancakes made of grated potato, cheese, stuffed with herbs, and served with peanut sauce (those allergic: beware). Usually considered a side dish, they are best had with Hornados, but they can hold their own when served with fried egg, chorizo sausages and avocado.FritadaThis golden crispy meal is a combo of Tortilla (mashed potato cakes) with spiced pork, boiled and fried in its own fat. The perfect on-the-go lunch.HumitasOne of those delectable traditional dishes you should not miss out on. This all-in-one breakfast dish is made with local corn, onions, egg and fresh cheese made from cow's milk, all of it boiled in corn husk. If you ever wish to try this at home, here's a tip: try it with goat's cheese instead.  EmpanadasEven if you happen to be in Ecuador and don't visit Quito, be sure to try the Empanadas, which can be both sweet or savory, depending on your palate. The most common fillings include mushrooms, chorizo, and chicken or beef along with lots of veggies and fresh cheese to taste. Crisp and crunchy on the outside, soft and squishy on the inside, that is the hallmark of a great empanada. To give them variety, Empanadas are known to taste even better when sprinkled with sugar or dipped into Aji hot sauce (an Ecuadorian Tamarillo, aka Tree Tomato sauce). Editorial Copyrights: /Shutterstock.comNow that you know what to look for, get a local expert to customise a food tour for you. After all, when done with all that gorgeous heritage architecture, every traveler's got to eat.

The Amazing Animals of the Galapagos Islands

An archipelago of 18 islands, the Galapagos are situated about 1,000km away from the mainland of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, easily the most important highlight of the country, attracting travelers in droves to its beautiful landscapes filled with the most easily accessible wildlife in the world (by this we mean really close encounters). That, plus the legend surrounding these islands of being single-handedly responsible for our understanding of where we come from, easily one of the biggest breakthroughs by the scientific community ever, thanks to the painstaking efforts of a young and committed geologist, Charles Darwin (this is also where the phrase 'survival of the fittest' was historically coined), makes it top the list of best things to do in Ecuador. Below are a list of the prominent land, sea and air-borne creatures that you will encounter on an island-hopping trip through the Galapagos. Not much has changed since the HMS Beagle left these islands for the last time in 1836, leaving them pristine and untouched (and we have the redoubtable endeavours of the Ecuadorian conservationists to thank for that). Even today, the number of travelers are restricted, which means you will probably have to book your trip almost a year in advance, through a travel expert that can provide you the best possible experience.  The Reptiles:The Galapagos Tortoises are the most adorable and majestic animals of the island. They have life spans of 200 years (give or take) and are easily the largest tortoises in the world. Having a common ancestor, they spread to different parts of the archilpelago and began to adapt based on available vegetation and landscape, leading to approximately 13 sub-species today. The most visible differences are in the different sizes and shapes of shells and the reptiles themselves; some sub-species even have different diets (all entirely herbivorous, of course). Among the largest islands of Galapago, Isabela Island is home to five different sub-species that have evolved differently on the slopes of five different volcanoes.One of the most remarkable animals on the islands are, undoubtedly, the marine iguanas. It is only in this part of the world that you will find a species of aquatic lizard that considers algae its main food. Usually black or a dark colour, these reptiles can stay under water for an hour (often startling - or charming - snorkellers with their subaquatic foraging) before they have to surface. Clearly this odd diet evolved and adapted due to the lack of nutritious vegetation on land; the iguanas here even have a specialised nasal gland that separates the salt and expels it from the nostrils. A stand-out even among these unique species are the “Christmas Iguanas” (from their red and green appearance) that are found on Española Island. Needless to say, despite their rather fearsome appearance, these creatures are extremely shy, docile, and interested in nothing but algae.Another reptile that can be spotted throughout the islands is the Lava Lizard. It gets its name from its peculiar lava-red neck, is small compared to the iguana (sometimes they grow up to a foot long), very quick on its feet and mostly eats insects; they have adapted and evolved into more than 26 sub-species and counting. The other endemic reptiles scurrying around the landscape are various species of snakes, all completely harmless and shy. Note: the reason for the benign nature of all animals here is they've never had to fear from humans.The Mammals:Hop off a boat at any of the islands, and chances are, you will be greeted by a welcome-committee of happy, barking sea-lions, as friendly and eager to make contact as waggy-tailed dogs. Not a wonder then, that they are a hit with the kids and even adults. The pups being nursed and pampered by their mothers make for an adorable site to see. They can be found throughout the year and the best places to spot them are Bartolome, Isla Lobos, North Seymour and Punta Espinosa. If you happen to be a Puerto Ayora, do make a trip to the fisherman’s dock and see the famous “Pancha”, a sea lion that has been adopted by the local fisherman community. They mostly splash around in the surf, chomping on sardines, but often voyage out 13-15km off the coast for food, and that is where they sometimes run into trouble with Killer Whales and sharks; you can see battle-scars on those that survive these encounters. Dolphins and whales abound here, the most common species being the Humpback and the Bryde’s whales, primarily found in the channel between Isabela and Fernandina Islands, and around the isalnds of Bartomole and Española. Look out for the bottlenose and striped dolphins leaping around everywhere, almost inviting you to jump in and snorkel/swim with them.The Marine Life:One of the best things to do in Galapagos island to snorkel and dive to witness the magic of the marine life that thrives here. Like their land-based counterparts, they are friendly and curious (as friendly and curious as fish can be), completely unafraid of humans, nets and hooks, because their genetic memory has never known of these things. The Galapagos are one of the very few areas of the planet where a snorkeller or scuba diver will encounter the largest fish known to mankind: the gorgeous Whale Shark. These gentle giants, particularly the Galapagos variety, love to have humans swim along with them. If you are one of the lucky ones, we hope you have an underwater camera handy.  There is no shortage of other sharks either, the most common being the White-Tipped Reef Shark; in addition, imagine healthy populations of sea-turtles and rays. The most prominent dive sites are The Devil’s Crown (Floreana Island) and a small channel off Isabel Island which local experts will happily take you to.Among the Rays, there are four main varieties: Golden Cownose Ray, Spotted Eagle Ray, Manta Ray and the rather common Sting Ray. The Sea Turtles found here mainly are seen in shallow waters near the coast (prominently in Devil’s Crown and Bartholomew) and can grow almost as large as the Galapagos Tortoise. In addition to these main features, you can expect a profusion of crabs, lobsters, eels, jellyfish, octopii and many of the usual suspects of a spectacular, untouched marine ecosystem.The Birds:The island has some of the most unique birds in the world that are found only over here. Let us start by focusing on the flightless species that call these islands home. First and foremost are the Galapagos Penguins that are meant to live in Artic weather, but have remarkably adapted to these relatively tropical waters; this particular species of penguins, not seen anywhere else, are the smallest in the world.The Flightless Cormorant are another species that are endemic to the island. The only Cormorant In the world to have lost its ability to fly and also the largest in the world, they can be spotted mostly on the islands of Fernandina and Isabela. Why flightless, you may ask? Because they have no natural predators to escape from (read man, and other indiscriminately added feral animals like cats and dogs).Another favourite among the visitors are the Blue-footed Boobies that happily display their nests in the open like museum artefacts. The chances of you coming across one (or several) is very common; just walk around and carry on, under the casual and unperturbed eye of Mom Booby. Look out for them mostly along the coastline throughout the year. The other sub-species of these are the Nazca Booby and the Red-Footed Booby.A common sight of the Galapagos is, surprisingly (or not; you may cease to be surprised by anything by now), the Greater Flamingo (a name given to the Galapagos Flamingo in particular, more vibrantly colored than its African and Asian counterparts) that can be seen at Floreana Island, Isabela Island, Santiago, Rabida Island and Santa Cruz. Look out for the wonderful Frigatebird (above), known for its notorious reputation of stealing food from other bird species, including other smaller Frigatebirds. They are also known for their unique appearance and are found only on this island.Moving on to birds that fly, the Galapagos Finches are the most interesting. They all came from a common ancestor, have evolved into 13 different species spread all over the island, and are a text-book lesson in adaptation to the environment; the different species, while having many similarities, have entirely different lifestyles and diets. Some eat shrubs and others insects, or whatever is available to them in the region, adapting beak-sizes and shapes to suit function and efficiency. The other prominent birds found here are Mockingbird, the Galapagos Hawk, the Waved Albatross, Short Eared Owl and the Galapagos Dove.Safe to say that the Galapagos Islands are home to some of the most beautiful and unique wildlife that can be seen anywhere in the world. The combination with the remote and spectacularly unspoiled location makes it a once-in-a-lifetime must for any traveler. If you wish to know more, you can get started with planning your trip almost right away.

Top 10 Things to do in Ecuador

The Republic of Ecuador may be rather small in size but it has it all: to begin with, 10% of the plant species of the entire world, and more than 6000 species of animals, a lot of them indigenous (and we are not talking just the Galapagos). From volcanic mountains to golden beaches, Andean peaks to the Amazon rainforest, this place is quickly making its way to the top of every adventure-loving family’s bucket list.Here are just 10 things that you must do, see, explore and experience in Ecuador. That is just the beginning; worlds open up when you actually get there, and a great travel expert will go a long way in showing you sights and attractions that don't always make the lists. 1) Explore The Galapagos Islands:Situated in the Pacific Ocean, the Galapagos, Ecuador's premier travel highlight, are a volcanic archipelago of 18 wonder-filled islands, roughly 2.5 hours flying time from Quito via Guayaquil. No trip to Ecuador, ideally, should be complete without exploring these beautiful islands, however do note that there are tons more things to see in the eastern interiors, and very often a Galapagos trip is a stand-alone (that's all you may have time for). It is home to some unique landscapes that include volcanic black barren mountainous terrains and also white sand beaches with the brightest blue clear water. Primarily it's the wildlife that attracts visitors of course, from sea lions, marine iguanas, penguins, lava lizards, dwarf whales, and that magnificent lumbering ancient Giant Tortoise; there's literally wildlife at every turn of the head. And that's just the land and sea creatures. It is also paradise for bird lovers, being home to over 100 species, most of them unique (and not to mention, delightfully quaint). Here, you can spot flamingos, the famous Darwin Finches, Galapagos Rails, bobolinks, the adorable Blue-footed Boobies, and barn owls etc, just to name a few. Diving and snorkeling around the islands to observe the thriving marine life is strongly recommended. Check the best time to go to get the best of both, land-based explorations as well as some great snorkeling and diving. 2) Stay In The Cloud Forest:A trip to the Cloud Forest of Mindo, an oft-overlooked highlight of Ecuador, is truly an escape into nature. Known for its unbelievably lush greenery, it is situated high up in the magnificent Andean ranges and covers an inordinately large area of the country (not to be mistaken with rainforests, which occur lower down). The forest is moist, green and receives heavy rainfall during the monsoon months (usually from January to May); expect thundering waterfalls, fast-flowing rivers and streams, and gorgeous swollen lakes. The best way to experience these wonders, of course, is by staying in the thick of it, at the many lodge facilities (from basic to luxury) that are available here.  It is also home to number of species of plants, of which orchids and rascadera are found in abundance. Rascadera is a plant with enormous leaves, also affectionately known as “elephants ears”, large enough to be used as umbrellas by the locals. If the great, wild outdoors appeal to you, then look no further.3) Shop At Otavalo Market:The city of Otavalo, situated in the shadow of the extinct Imbabura volcano, is mainly known for its eclectic market. The place comes to life on Saturdays, starting as early as 6AM, so plan your day-trip from Quito accordingly (1.5 hrs by road). This historic market has been a prominent highlight and a place of great significance for over a hundred years as the main place place of trade and business for the various indigenous tribes that live in and around the city. It used to focus on farm produce and equipment once upon a time; nothing so boring these days. Today the main attractions are local handicrafts: silver jewellery, woollen shawls, wooden carvings, and the ubiquitos Panama hat; yes, these are made in Ecuador. (You will also come across multiple animal markets that sell pigs, chickens, llamas and rabbits, harking back to days of yore.) 4) Visit Quito's Old Town:The capital of Ecuador, Quito (a UNESCO Heritage Site, all of it), was established by the Spanish on the ruins of the Inca Empire in the 16th century. Over the years, the city has managed to maintain most of its historic architecture, culture, and way of life. Even today, a stroll through the streets of the Old Town full of numerous churches, cathedrals and monasteries will take you back in time. As important a travel highlight as it is, it is relatively small, perched on the eastern slope of the Pichincha Volcano, and can be covered within a day with a bit of energetic walking. Don't miss the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, also known as the “Golden Church”; the entire interior of the church is spectacularly decorated using gold leaf and wood carvings, doing complete justice to its nick-name. Editorial credit:  / Shutterstock.comVisit the Mercado Central (the main marketplace famous for local food and drinks), El Peneccilo (a statue of the Virgen de Quito, with a breathtaking view of the city), and the Covento San Francisco (one of the largest churches in Ecuador, with over 20 chapels). Once done with the churches and museums, go for a walk down La Ronda where the locals play live music in the narrow streets outside the multiple bars; a perfect place to relax, people-watch and kill time. 5) Hike The Quilotoa Loop:The Quilotoa Loop, a prominent highlight for adventurous travelers, has become increasingly popular among hikers and trekkers. The beautiful area spread over 200 km does has not have any official routes and can be covered by anyone with just a little planning and research. The best way to explore Quilotoa would be to start your hike from Latacunga in the south and go all the way to the crater lake at Quilotoa (above). The entire stretch can be covered in two days, or you can even take up to two weeks (the flexibility of this terrain is one of its best perks). Distances between villages is around 15km; to break the monoty of a hike, you can even rent a motorcycle. There are many hostels and inns with breakfast and dinner facilities, and they even pack lunch boxes on request. The hike, apart from the magnificent views, is not short of its attractions; will find many local markets, and be able interact with the indigenous people living their life as they have been for centuries. 6) Visit Mita del Mundo:Take a trip to the Centre of the Earth. Situated around 30km to the north of Quito is the Mita Del Mundo Monument, which marks the equator and, well - the centre of the earth. The monument was constructed based on calculations done by the French explorer Charles-Marie de La Comdamine and his team in the year 1736. The yellow line represents the line that divides the northern and the southern hemispheres, aka the equator (for which the country is named after, naturally). Check out live demonstrations of the Coriolis Force (for those interested in the wonders and vagaries of our planet's rotation on its axis). In recent times, it was found that the actual equator is a little ways north of the monument, but it still makes this a must-visit place. 7) Hot Spring Therapy At Baños:Baños de Agua Santa which translates as the "Bath of Sacred Waters", and popularly known as Baños, is a town situated on the foothills of the Tungurahua Volcano. The town is known for its many waterfalls, dense green plantations, and also often referred to as the "Gateway to the Amazon". Apart from the natural beauty, what makes it stand out are the many naturally formed hot springs (hence Baños ) rich in mineral content, and perfect for a relaxing dip. Baños has also become popular for adventure sports like river rafting (down the Rio Pastaza), rock climbing and hiking.8) Surf at Montañita Beach:Editorial credit:  / Shutterstock.comMontañita, Ecuador's premier highlight for sun-seekers and surfers, is place to be for anyone looking to have a good time by the beach. The golden coast is claimed to be one of the best in all of Latin America and has some of the most challenging waves, making it the perfect turf to surf. The town is known to be quite laidback, compared to the rest of Ecuador which is quite conservative of its customs. 9) Trek up the Cotopaxi Volcano:This volcanic range can be seen from anywhere in Quito, and the Cotopaxi National Park of the same name is around 55km from here, definitely a must-visit on any trip to the Ecuadorian Andes. Apart from the wonders of the park itself (horse-rides, treks, wildlife), a trek up the Cotopaxi Volcano is a rewarding experience. It is the second largest mountain in Ecuador and one of the highest volcanoes in the world at 19,347 ft. It is generally considered to be an easy climb which can get a little tricky and technical in parts, nothing a good guide cannot get you around and over. Sadly, after the 2015 volcanic activity, climbing all the way to the top of the mountain is not allowed (this is the current status, and adventurer's are waiting for a go-ahead from volcano experts). You can still hike up to The Refuge (the base camp, where climbers would spend the night and hit the summit at daybreak) though.The trek can be attempted throughout the year (the best months being June and July). Without the summit push, it is a day-activity, and is something that every adventurous traveler must experience in Ecuador.10) Cruise The Amazon:The Amazon is the largest remaining tropical rainforest in the world today, best known for its huge diversity of flora and fauna, and Ecuador own 2% of its overall area. It is here that you will find a monkey that is small enough to fit on your palm and spiders that eat birds. Everything here is truly exotic, from the birds, animals, plants, and even the people; the basin is home to a number of indigenous tribes that have been living in isolation for more than thousands of years, and are protected by Ecuador’s constitution. There are many national parks that have been established inside the forest, making one-day trips to the Amazon easy and convenient, but the best way to explore the river basin, hands down, is by cruising it on a riverboat. There are a number of options for cruise operators and itineraries (they range from between 2-3 days and going up to 12 days). Your travel expert will find and tailor the right one for you.There you go; you're ready with enough information, if you so desire, to start planning your customised Ecuador vacation. Like we said, the number of things to do and places to go will multiply manifold when you actually get there, but this is as good as any a place to start. 

Travel to The Peruvian Amazon: An Essential Guide

Let's face it, Peru is pretty large; more so in terms of the different things you can do, depending on your travel-appetite. Just planning a trip to the Peruvian Amazon can be challenging, and can easily take up all your holiday time if you really wish to explore and soak up all it has to offer.First off, you will need a knowledgeable travel expert who knows everything about the Peruvian Amazon. But before you take the plunge, here are a few things to get you started - how to get there, where to stay, eat, things to do – we all have that covered, so you know what to ask for.  HOW TO GET THEREThe Peruvian Amazon is endless; literary it’s a country-within-a-country. How you get to the Amazon Jungle mainly depends on which area you intend to visit. So here's a tip: focus your serach on the national parks and protected reserves, especially if you are traveling with family; everything that is in the Amazon is right there, and you're safe at all times to boot (no running around and exploring things on your own; that's how a lot of 'explorers' never came back). A couple of places of note:Manú National Park Manú National Park is accessed primarily from Cusco, the nearest major city. Depending on the time of the year you travel, you can either fly or travel by road. The journey by road is about 165KM (100 miles) and takes about 8 hours, with plenty of rest stops en-route.Flights are adversely affected during the wet season. A good step would be to find out when to go, and combine that with the travel operator's suggestions.Tambopata National ParkTambopata National Park is also very close to Cusco, and most visitors prefer to take a short 50 minute flight from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado, before heading towards their chosen accommodations by a riverboat from the main port. The roadtrip from the airport to Puerto Maldonado will take approximately 30 – 60 minutes.Again, weather is a key factor to consider getting around this part of the world, so mull over the possibility of having a word with your travel operator beforehand if you are unsure about which route to take.Pacaya-Samiria National ReserveOne of the most popular tourist attractions in the Peruvian Amazon is the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve (an important highlight of Peru) located 110 miles (180 km’s) south-west of Iquitos. The fastest route to the reserve is first by road to the small town of Nauta, and then downriver by boat to the reserve.Note: Your operator will inform you of this in the planning stages, of course, but it is very likely you will need a permit to enter the reserve, which can either be obtained from INRENA (the Peruvian National Parks Authority) or by the local guide himself.WHERE TO STAYInkaterra Reserva Amazonica - An Exclusive Amazonian GetawayThe eco-luxury lodge (a key highlight of Peru) overlooking the Madre De Dios River and adjacent to the Tambopata National Reserve, with 35 wooden cabanas, is the perfect way to experience the wondrous Amazon. Upon arrival, you have a wide choice of adventures before you based on individual interests, the kind of traveler group, desired activity levels, weather conditions, and length of stay. Perfect for families, the lodge offers a variety of hikes, canoeing, visits to local villages, and a thrilling walk through their treetop canopy bridge. The reserve also boasts several nature trails and a first class spa on the grounds, along with a restaurant that serves exotic Peruvian cuisine prepared using only fresh and local ingredients. You can even relax during the day on the second floor lounge, or have sundowners at the bar.Cruise The Amazon By RiverboatThe best way to travel around the vast eco-systems of the rainforest up close is on a floating luxury riverboat, easily one of the most sought-after highlight of Peru travel. Travel experts will introduce you to many rainforest cruises with five-star amenities like fine-dining by top Peruvian chefs, massages, private rooms and bathrooms, and hot showers and air conditioning. Explore remote destinations in the Amazon that you otherwise couldn’t get to and also avoid locking horns with mosquitoes and other native animals that you would rather not share your living quarters with.Tree House LodgeStaying in a tree house lodge comes pretty high up on the excitement list when it comes to staying in unusual and quirky places, and there is nothing better than observing the Amazon rainforest from the treetop canopy. Wake up every morning to the melodic symphony of exotic birds and monkeys in the comfort of your relaxing canopy bed. Each of the private tree houses is connected by suspension bridges, sometimes as high as 70ft up in the trees, equipped with bathrooms, showers, comfy beds and electricity.If you want to see the rain forest from an entirely new perspective that has rarely been experienced before, ask your travel experts to book accommodations in an all-inclusive, luxury Treehouse Lodge located at the confluence of the serene and protected Yarapa and Cumaceba rivers near the Pacaya Samiria Reserve. HIGHLIGHTS OF THE PERUVIAN AMAZON RAINFORESTThe Amazon is a hotspot for biodiversity, with more species of plants and animals in one acre than can be found in entire continents. Apart from flora and fauna, there are a host of exciting activities to look forward to as well:KayakingEnjoy a tranquil journey down the countless beautiful creeks, flowing tributaries, and pristine lagoons in a kayak. Witness the tremendous biodiversity of the Amazon Rainforest, paddling in search of wildlife on Challuacocha and Pañacocha lakes; fish for the impressive Peacock Bass, an enormous awe-inspiring Amazon catfish, and other exotic sporting species. If you are keen for a dip there is a magical natural swimming pool, just perfect for bragging rights of actually swimming in the Amazon’s warm, welcoming waters. Needless to say, do not attempt this in the main river.Swimming Alongside Pink River DolphinsIn the designated swimming areas (just ask your guide), the only animals curious enough to get close are the elusive, yet beautiful Pink Dolphins. Social, friendly and extremely intelligent, these remarkably rare species thrive and frolic here (certainly not a sight you see every day).Your guide will brief you on the rules which should be strictly followed, in case you decide to brave the waters of this mighty river system.Fishing For PiranhasWhen traveling along the Amazon, make sure to spend an afternoon fishing for the feisty little piranha; the stuff of legend, this razor-toothed fish is a bucket-list sighting for any Amazonian adventure. Editorial Copyrights: /shutterstock.comFishing for them is actually relatively easy and always fun; your guide will take you on a canoe to a prime fishing spot and teach you the art of piranha catching: all you need, apparently, is a stick with some line and a hook at the end of it with raw red meat. If you are lucky enough to catch one, cook yourself a super tasty meal.Experience Village LifeEditorial Copyrights: anoldentHiking into an Amazonian village and getting to experience how the locals live is an unparalleled enriching experience. It’s fascinating to learn how these people thrive on the water in their stilted villages that protect them from the flooding waters of the Amazon. We highly recommend interacting with the super friendly locals of the Amazon, as they invite you into their homes and give you a glimpse of their unique lifestyle.Bird WatchingEditorial Copyrights: ApolloThe best way to spot birds in the Amazon is by taking a rainforest cruise through the Manu Biosphere Reserve (home to some relatively unknown tribes and bird species that are continuously being discovered). With over 2000 species of birds on offer, the Amazon is a bucket-list location for keen birdwatchers to see some of the world's most unique creatures in their natural habitat, some of which are completely unique to their location.To improve your bird sighting experience, we urge you to invest in an informative local guide who will book the best birding tour that will help you understand what to look for, and what you are looking at.Discover ShamanismPsychedelic tours aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but there is no place on Earth where so many shamans (healing priests) serve such magical brews as they do in Peru. If you’re seeking spiritual or physical healing, have our local experts take you to Kapitari, a beautiful healing center in the Amazon rainforest close to Iquitos. Learn about the amazing healing power of medicinal plants and be part of the magic rituals performed by the local Master Shaman.There are no doctors, hospitals, or pharmacies out the in the Amazon rainforest; a shaman will demonstrate how people use native insects, animals, and plants to basically cure any illness that you can think of. Fun and fascinating, a walking tour through the jungle to spot these plants and animals is a unique experience in itself.Visit The Manatee Rescue CenterThe Amazonian Manatee is a freshwater species of manatee which inhabits the Amazon Basin.  Over the years, they have almost become extinct due to hunting, boating and fishing accidents. Visiting a rescue centre for these gentle creatures is a must-see experience before or after taking any Amazon River cruise into the Pacaya-Samiria National Park.Editorial Copyrights: /shutterstock.comAt the center, you will receive a brief introduction to the rescue project. You will have the chance to bottle-feed the young orphaned manatees (kids will love this), and believe us when we say that this is quite simply a touching and beautiful experience.Canopy ClimbingThe rainforests of the Amazon are filled with countless species of plants, insects, and animals. Although many species live in the undergrowth of the forest, a majority of life occurs in the roof of the rainforest. Ironically, despite this being the part of the rainforest with the most species, it’s also the least explored part of the jungle.And what better way to see the amazing biodiversity then by climbing up in the jungle canopy and taking a walk around! You can enjoy a canopy-adventure at various lodges across the Peruvian Amazon to get a 360 degree perspective of the rainforest. Your trained guide will outfit you with a harness and show how to hoist yourself up the rope. Once you’re ready, you will be led to the climbing area from where you begin your journey, high above the forest floor.Dine At Al Frio y al FuegoTake a boat out to this floating foodie paradise in the middle of the Amazon River to sample some of the city’s best food platters. The emphasis is on river fish (such as the delectable doncella), and the parrillas (grills) are tempting too. Book a table and sip cocktails, eat amazing, fresh, locally sourced cuisine. The restaurant also boasts poolside cabanas, where you can sunbathe, swim, or dance to the tunes played by the local DJ – truly a unique dining experience!Cayman SpottingIf you fancy looking for the many nocturnal species of the Amazon, especially the famed Cayman Crocodiles (only spotted at night), then you have to either do a night-walk or a night boat ride with a local guide around the Cayman Lodge deep in the Amazonian forest, near Puerto Maldonado.The jungle truly comes alive at night: colorful tree frogs, snakes, insects, tiny mammals, the menu for night-spotting is vast and unpredictable. Keep your eyes open and make sure to bring a powerful flashlight!There you go; if you are ready for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, contact an expert who can tailor the perfect travel itinerary just for you.

Main Attractions and Must-Dos in Hokkaido

Hokkaido, the northern-most island of Japan is bestowed with a natural beauty that makes everything in it, cities and countryside alike, look like an exquisite oriental painting. The landscapes and mountains here make it the perfect ground for various activities (skiing, treks, mountain-biking, motorcycle tours) that attract crowds from all over the world .Here is some basic information about Hokkaido that will help you plan your trip with an expert in order to have the best possible experience of this remote magical island.An overview: Hokkaido is famous for its profusion of wild flowers and flora in general, throughout its summer months. Come winter, the snow here is considered to be the best for downhill and cross-country sports, a paradise for skiers and snowboarders. The mountainous terrain is perfect for treks and hikes. There are multiple natural hot water springs to relax in. The island also has a huge range of delicious sea food preparations and local delicacies that one must try.Japan has four distinct seasons and they can best seen in Hokkaido. The best time to visit the island really depends on what you want do and the places you want to see. The region receives intense winters (perfect for winter sports) and in summer it never really gets too hot, always ensuring a pleasant stay.  Hokkaido is huge and has many landmarks and beautiful spots scattered throughout the island. Take a roadtrip to Cape Kamui for a dose of that pure crisp northern air and untouched natural beauty, located at the tip of the Shakotan Peninsula, about 100km from Sapporo.  Take the kids to the Asahiyama Zoo in the city of Asahikawa. One of the largest and most famous zoos in Japan, it features more than 800 animals. Apart from that, here are a few more major attractions in greater detail.1)The Lavender Gardens:  One of the major highlights of Hokkaido during summer are the Lavender Gardens. It is at this time, typically between July to October (July being the most preferred month) that huge landscapes of the island get covered in bright, unbelievably vibrant floral colours. Furano and Biei are considered to be two of the best places to see this phenomenon; this owes itself to the temperate summer climate here, as opposed to Japan's southern islands where it can get uncomfortably humid and hot.  There are various ways to get to Furano and Biei. In order to explore the place at your own leisure, the best option would be to rent a car. Alternatively there are various buses and railway routes; both Furano and Biei are rural towns due to which the frequency of the public transportation is low. This requires a little research and planning in advance but the view is definitely worth the effort. 2) Abashiri:  Situated on north-eastern coast of the island is the town of Abashiri. In summer, drift ice floats down from the Arctic owing to ocean currents and gathers here, making it quite a spectacle to behold: crisp, clear skies and a million ice-panels reflecting and twinkling under a summer sun. Take the kids on the Abashiri Cruise on a sturdy ice-breaker ship that ploughs through an entire sea of these floating ice-mirrors; the colours due to reflection and refraction of sunlight are truly spectacular. Editorial credit:  / Shutterstock.comAnother must-see place here is the prison museum dating back to the late-19th century, once considered to be one of the hardest prisons to breakout from, and also hard to survive in, due to the weather here. The installations put up within the museum, along with fascinating factoids of pre-20th century Japan, a land of early-day Yakuzas, outlaws and brigands, makes it a very interesting visit. Further, check out the Koshimizu Gensei-kaen (a wildflower preserve) where you can find around 40 different kinds of flowers. Head out to Lake Saroma which is famous for its swans. The abundance of sea food in the area has led to a profusion of cafes and eateries, all uniquely Hokkaido in ambience and food preparation.  3) Sapporo Snow Festival: Editorial credit:  / Shutterstock.comImagine huge ice and snow sculptures, snow slides and delicious food. That’s what the annual Sapporo Snow Festival is all about. Attracting more than 2 million visitors from within the country and out, the sculptures are known for the mind-blowing skills behind them, the creative aesthetics and attention to detail. It takes place from 5th - 12th February at Odori Park.  Editorial credit:  / Shutterstock.comThere is also a sculpture competition where more than 10 teams from around the world compete. The sculptures are often decorated with lights which enhance their beauty and they can be seen by anyone who drops in at the park. 4) Skiing and Snowboarding:  The cold air that blows in from Siberia brings heavy snowfall to the inland region of Hokkaido, and is credited by skiers around the world to have some of the best powder in the world. The main ski resorts are Niseko, Rusutsu, Furano and Kiroro, among many others. Niseko and Furano are known for the huge amounts of snowfall they receive, and Rusutsu is considered heaven for cross-country tree-terrain skiing.  Most of the ski resorts are geared for single and couple travellers which makes it essential to check with the resort in advance in case you are going on a family ski trip. Big resorts like Niseko and Furano have some of the best facilities to provide for all kinds. Even if you don’t ski, a trip to Hokkaido Island gives you the perfect opportunity to give it a whirl. As for people who do it regularly, the consensus has been that it really does not get better than this.  5) Trekking: Editorial credit:  / Shutterstock.comKnown for its mountainous topography, the terrain offers a variety of options for anyone who loves to trek or hike. From hot springs, breathtaking views, camping, hidden lakes, waterfalls, the numerous accessible peaks, Hokkaido has it all. The terrain is great for first timers as well as seasoned trekkers. Few peaks such as the Mt. Haruka Dake and Mt. Maruyama can be trekked up to throughout the year. Both of these treks start at Sapporo and come under the gradation of easy to medium.  Another famous hike is the Ruben Island Trail which is in northern Hokkaido and takes place between the months of May to October. It takes about 8 hours in total and is considered to be of medium difficulty; that's an outdoorsy day of beautiful landscapes, camping, wildflowers and hot springs. There are numerous lodging facilities en route that are available.  5) Cuisine: The prodigious water-bodies (the Pacific Ocean and the Arctic-fed Sea of Okhotsk) that lap these shores makes Hokkaido almost unparalleled in fresh seafood produce. Uni (sea urchin), kani (crab), ikura (salmon roe) and hotate (scallopes) are found in abundance here and are an integral part of Hokkaido cuisine. Apart from this, the island is also known for its dairy, producing almost 20% of the cheese that is used by all of Japan. Dig in, is what we say.   One of the famous delicacies found here is Genghis Khan or Jingisukan. It is lamb and mutton grilled on a cast iron dome, served in multiple restaurants across Hokkaido. According to legend, the iron dome that is used to grill the meat looks like the helmets of the Mongolian Army, hence the genesis of the name.  Another staple around here is Corn Butter Ramen, a simple and aromatic dish fairly bursting with flavour. This, again, is found almost everywhere but if you really want to know all the varieties possible, then the Asahikawa Ramen Village is the place to be, situated in the - you guessed it - second largest city of the island, Asahikawa; it has eight of Hokkaido's most well-known noodles shop, all in one location. There are many other dishes local to the island such as Kaisen Don (raw seafood on a bed of hot steam rice), Yakiniku (assorted grilled beef), the Crab Platter, etc. Editorial credit:  / Shutterstock.comAll of these dishes are best had with Sapporo Beer, one of Japan's oldest and most famous brand. For those who love a cold brew, the Sapporo Beer Garden even offers beer tastings. Transportation and Accomodation: The main entry to Hokkaido Island is from New Chitose Airport for anyone flying in from another country. If you are travelling from within Japan, there are various rail options available; cars and ferries are always a good idea for road-trippers. For transportation within Hokkaido, public transport works best. Motorcyclists, please be advised that Hokkaido has some of the finest motorcycling terrain in the whole wide world, and in peak summer, there is simply no better way of getting around.   Accommodation is plentiful in all the main cities of Sapporo, Asahikawa, Hakodate and Rusutsu. They range from luxurious resorts, ski resorts to youth hostels and even home stays. Outside of these main cities, budget hotels and ryokans are scattered throughout the island. So now that you know what to expect from Hokkaido, we hope you start planning a trip to this beautiful and rather unexplored region soon. We can assure you that a trip here will leave you wanting to come back again.