Metropolitan Touring's Galapagos trip is a perfect mix of land, sea

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A sea lion lounging on the island of South Plaza in the Galapagos.
A sea lion lounging on the island of South Plaza in the Galapagos. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing

It was what social media users might call a #firstworldproblem.

Last fall, I was in the enviable position of having to choose between two assignments: a weeklong cruise in the Galapagos or a 10-day trip to Ecuador that included a shorter Galapagos cruise plus a few days each in the capital of Quito and a private rainforest reserve.

Curious to see more of Ecuador but leery of missing anything in the bucket-list destination of Galapagos, I went back and forth more than once, finally opting for the land and cruise option with Metropolitan Touring.

I made the right choice. For to travel to the Galapagos but miss out on the rest of Ecuador would be a shame, like going all the way to South Africa for safari without stopping in Cape Town or the country's famed wine region.

Our five-day cruise in the eastern Galapagos on Metropolitan's 24-cabin yacht La Pinta offered ample opportunity to learn about and explore the archipelago's smaller islands. We snorkeled with sea lions, delighted as their babies learned to "walk" and swim and watched the Galapagos albatross practice their mating dance and very awkward landings. We got up close and personal with blue- and red-footed boobies, land and water iguanas and, of course, the islands' famed giant tortoises. Me and a fellow traveler even got chased along the beach by a young, male sea lion, who one of our guides joked was in training to be a beach master.

A blue-footed booby perches on a cliff on Espanola Island in the Galapagos.
A blue-footed booby perches on a cliff on Espanola Island in the Galapagos. Photo Credit: Chris Gray Faust

But I also got to explore two other completely different worlds in Ecuador, all in the expert hands of Metropolitan, one of the region's oldest and largest tour operators, and all without the hassle or worry that comes with crossing borders at a time when pandemic rules keep changing.

We started in Quito at the Casa Gangotena, a Metropolitan-owned boutique hotel in an impeccably restored 16th-century, neoclassical mansion overlooking the square and historical churches and colonial architecture in the heart of Old Town.

Besides its 31 luxurious rooms with large marble bathrooms and soaking tubs, rooftop terrace and indoor bar and signature restaurant, the hotel (and Metropolitan) can arrange a variety of experiences. Our first morning we got a true glimpse into Ecuadorian life and culture on a walking tour of old Quito. 

Visiting Ecuador and the Galapagos

We visited an artisan who restores treasured family religious figurines, explored the city's oldest fresh food market, met a hat-maker and a curandera, marveled at the extensive gold-leaf lining that covers much of the interiors of the 16th-century Compania de Jesus and San Francisco churches and visited Casa del Alabado, a pre-Columbian art museum that houses more than 5,000 archaeological pieces.

The next day we explored the more cosmopolitan side of Quito, including the city's sprawling botanical gardens and the bohemian La Floresta neighborhood. And on our stop back in Quito before heading to the Galapagos, the hotel's chef taught us how to make Ecuadorian ceviche.

Metropolitan Touring's Galapagos trip is a perfect mix of land, sea
Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing

From Quito it was off to Metropolitan's Mashpi Lodge. While technically still in the Metropolitan District of Quito, the lodge set on a private rainforest reserve is three hours and two climates away. We left the moderate temperatures of 9,000-foot-high city of Quito, passed through warmer temperatures as we crossed the equator, then ascended into the drizzly, cloud-covered reserve.

Arriving at the lodge felt a bit like stepping into a luxurious glass treehouse. The central restaurant and bar area has two-story, floor-to-ceiling windows. And the rooms are situated for maximum privacy, so you never have to close the curtains on the glass exterior walls that also look out on to the rainforest.

The 6,000-acre reserve is essentially a private playground and scientific research center that is home to 400 species of birds, trees, frogs and other fauna and flora. The lodge's expert guides took us on hikes through rivers and hilly trails. One day we stopped for a swim beneath a waterfall. We took a leisurely ride on the Dragonfly Canopy Gondola and spotted a sloth while riding the Sky Bike that peddles through the treetops on a zipline. We drank wine while bird-watching, visited the reserve's hummingbird farm and butterfly house and took a night walk to experience the nocturnal world of the rainforest.

And did I mention the food? The cuisine at both properties as well as on La Pinta offers daily samplings of Ecuadorian dishes (think ceviche, potato soup and tigrillo, a breakfast dish made with green plantains).

To the sea

La Pinta was also a pleasant surprise. The upscale yet casual yacht has remarkably spacious cabins (176 to 247 square feet) for a boat its size and features what Metropolitan says are the largest windows of any ship sailing the Galapagos. There are also plenty of public spaces indoors and out, including a library where you can learn more about the islands. And as one of the pioneers of Galapagos cruising, Metropolitan's guides and onboard lecturers, like those at Mashpi, are top-notch.

The indoor bar and lounge on Metropolitan Touring's La Pinta.
The indoor bar and lounge on Metropolitan Touring's La Pinta. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing

We sailed the eastern islands, one of three different four-night, five-day itineraries offered by Metropolitan aboard La Pinta and Metropolitan's 20-cabin Isabella II. And while company officials say the shorter routes have become increasingly popular with guests wanting to also explore more of Ecuador or neighboring Peru or Colombia, guests seeking longer cruises can sail on its largest ship, the Santa Cruz II, which this year is being operated by Metropolitan under the Hurtigruten flag, or combine more than one of the shorter sailings.

One couple onboard was doing all three circuits, with a relaxation and spa stop between the activity-packed sailings at Metropolitan's Finch Bay hotel, the only beachfront hotel in the Galapagos.

Yes, in a perfect world with unlimited time and resources, the ultimate Galapagos bucket-list trip would include everything. But for the rest of us, the 10-day land and sailing itinerary offers more than enough time to sample the diverse worlds that make up Ecuador. 

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