Jurassic perk SEE TRAVEL FROM P35
The mesmerising Galapagos Islands are a heady mix of lush forests, volcanic moonscapes and otherworldly beasts
Enveloped by dense forest on volcanic Isabela Island in the Galapagos sits Scalesia Lodge.
Mature pepper ferns, sword ferns, towering cacao trees and dagger-edged elephant grass are dominant in this arable landscape. Dotted about are 16 safari tents which wouldn’t look out of place on Africa’s vast open plains.
Suddenly a massive tremor jolts me from my inertia. The noise is deafening, like a train thundering through the open-plan reception. It lasts mere seconds, yet feels like hours.
Afterwards, manager Marco tells me this seismic activity is perfectly normal thanks to the geographical make-up of Isabela – which is 99 per cent volcanic.
It’s home to the world’s secondlargest volcano, the 3,680ft high Sierra Negra, which has been simmering away since November 2017 when it woke up. On June 28, 2018, it finally blew its top and is still active in varying now. I couldn’t resist a closer look. My guided three-hour tour led me through verdant farms, layered in volcanic mulch – oranges, bananas, guavas and livestock thrive here – up to the vast, lifeless sea of black lava.
We sat mesmerised on its southern rim watching puffs of gas rise escape.
Isabela’s only town, Puerto Villamil (pop. 2500), was formed by coalesced lava flows, with many houses literally balancing on their jagged foundations.
Elsewhere the wide beaches, dotted with bars and rustic restaurants, attract backpackers galore who come to surf and hang out on hammocks.
Many roads are still dirt and it’s home to a huge population of marine iguanas that have the run of the place.
At the Iguana Bar, they crawl up the seaside wall chasing the last of the day’s warm rays.
With luminous orange crabs scut- tling over smooth lava, pelicans diving for dinner, and sea lions enjoying siestas on park benches, you could easily believe someone had spiked your drink.
Particularly as you visit the neighbouring Tintoreras islets, reached by a small cruiser. Strolling along the boardwalk we spotted whitetip reef sharks resting in a collapsed lava tube, and iguanas gliding across the lagoon.
Many visitors come to nearby Santa Cruz to see the giant tortoises. Found in the ranches up in the highlands among the indigenous Scalesia trees, they live a charmed life. With open fields, muddy pools for wallowing and an abundance of grass to nibble, they don’t stray too far.
There’s no doubt the Galapagos Islands are isolated and sheltered from the modern world. Wildlife reigns supreme and the flora and fauna are fiercely protected.
Anyone caught taking home as much as a blade of grass faces a heavy
Marine iguanas have the run of the place, crawling up the sea walls, chasing the last of the day’s rays
fine or even jail. Arriving here takes some doing too: a direct British Airways flight to Miami, connecting on American Airlines to Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil, before a smaller hop to the Galapagos Islands’ army base on Baltra, followed by a boat and bus transfer. But it’s worth it.
Once here, accessing the archipelago is like entering a quarantine zone. Planes are sprayed before landing and disinfection mats are laid out on the tarmac. No food is allowed in. It feels as pristine as it looks. Even the hotels have biodegradable toiletries, recycled water and solar power.
Santa Cruz’s modern Finch Bay hotel has white interiors, natural woods and sandy walkways – it looks like a 27-room beach house.
A leisurely three-hour cruise out of Santa Cruz brings you to the iconic Pinnacle Rock. Shaped like a crystal, it’s fringed by two perfect beaches – a dreamy location for the celebrated blue-footed boobies.
Opposite, Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island offers another surreal encounter with iguanas.
And so on to the Ecuador mainland and the capital
Quito, a charming colonial city high in the Andes, founded in 1634. Hemmed in by the majestic mountains, this impeccably restored jumble of steep cobbled streets, ornate churches and lively squares was the first to be awarded Unesco World Heritage Site status, in 1978.
Ladies in traditional dress – long skirts, pinned shawls and fedoras – arrive from surrounding villages to tout their wares, from large chunks of creamy layered sponge to bags of fruit and colourful shawls.
Protecting this magical city is a 134ft high statue of the Winged Madonna, holding a dragon on a chain (the conquered Devil).
Here locals rely on natural remedies, as I discovered on a tour organised by Metropolitan Touring, with young Joselin Pavón who grew up in the steep San Roque area of the old town. She offered us a glimpse into their lives and traditions.
It’s fringed by two perfect beaches – dreamy for bluefooted boobies
We began at San Francisco market, which consists of food stalls serving local delicacies of meat and rice from large beaten metal pots. But off to one side are a few tiny stalls with towering stands of herbs. I watched “healer” Rosa Mercedes run raw eggs over the legs of a young baby to absorb bad energy and help with sleep.
She also rubbed bunches of mixed herbs over adults to help with detoxification.
I chose a “cure” of Ecuadorian chocolate from the Molino de San Martin Mill, where everything is organic. We continued our odyssey at Chez Tiff, whose speciality is passionfruit creams.
The sun shines as we head up to the cloud forest. Surrounded by jagged mountains, this is the dramatic road to Mashpi Rainforest Biodiversity Reserve, 10,000ft above sea level and a three-hour drive from Quito.
Mashpi Lodge is an oasis in the forest. All the eye can see is lush rainforest. What’s even better is that you can tailor your time to how active you want to be.
Dive into a waterfall pool? No problem. I wanted to see it all so I began with a gentle ride on the Dragonfly – essentially a gondola – with guide Estuardo.
Our “flight” took us 395ft above
the canopy and cloud forest. Gently we sailed over the 140ft high Mashpi magnolia, balsa wood and cocoa trees, over giant ferns and trees shrouded in moss, binoculars glued to our eyes. How Estuardo managed to spot, at a thousand paces, indigenous birds such as the moss backed tanager and choco toucan is beyond me.
The superb food back at the luxury lodge is locally sourced and evenings were lively with guests comparing notes on what they’d done that day.
On my last morning I was up at dawn, heading off through dense forest, along a narrow trail treading on old Coca-Cola crates repurposed as steps.
Our destination was the Life Centre, a breeding hub of some of the reserve’s 200 varieties of butterfly. It’s quite a science. We moved on to watch the vibrant hummingbirds dart back and forth between feeders filled with a water and sugar mix.
Finally, as we climbed the observation tower, the light rain began and we could just make out the only sign of civilisation for miles: Mashpi Lodge.
Right then, there was no other place I wanted to be... as long as the earth didn’t move.
FOREST OASISMashpi Lodge
LAVA CHAMP Volcanic landscape of Sierra Negra IGUANA DON Prehistoric lizards rule the islands
SLOW LANE Ancient tortoises are protected
HIGH PITCHED Scalesia Lodge
BLUE WONDER Explore Isabela Island by boat
MAGICAL Quito is a charming colonial capital