Sustainable Travel in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands
Published on: October 10th, 2018
Last modified: July 28th, 2023
Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands are a responsible traveller's dream - sustainable travel is not only possible, it’s almost unavoidable.
Costa Rica might be Latin America’s conservation capital and Brazil might have the most endemic species, but Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands are also brimming with natural wonders. In fact, only 17 countries have made the World Conservation Monitoring Centre’s (WCMC) list of megadiverse countries, and Ecuador is one of them. That’s not all, this humble nation, the fourth smallest on the continent, constitutes a staggering 6.1% of all the species on the planet.
Simply arriving in the Galapagos is sustainable; the airport runs completely on solar and wind power and the local authorities issue strict entry regulations to protect this fragile marine haven. Elsewhere, some of the most chic and stylish properties have been constructed sustainably and green operating practices are the norm.
Here at Jacada we strive to create adventures that are sustainable and responsible. Preserving the destinations, wildlife and cultures we interact with, for future generations is important to us. With this in mind we've put together a list of experiences and accommodation options to help you make sustainable choices while visiting Ecuador and the Galapagos.
Sustainable Experiences in Ecuador
Conscious travellers can support Ecuador’s impressive sustainability ethos on their daily adventures. There’s wildlife conservation in the Amazon, fascinating scientific research in the Cloud Forests and multiple opportunities to engage in positive impact trips in Quito – famously the first city in the world to become a UNESCO world heritage site.
Explore the untouched Ecuadorian Amazon
Known to locals as Oriente (east) due to its location, the Ecuadorian Amazon is intensely biodiverse and a wildlife haven for a staggering number of species. It’s also mystical, undiscovered, spiritual and increasingly fragile.
Thankfully, there are many ways to help protect the region and its people. On an expedition through the forest, local guides lead you through their home, an intricate labyrinth of ancient pathways, lush jungle and winding waterways, sharing their ancestral knowledge.
There is also the possibility to meet local women to experience a wayusa tea ceremony. Traditionally, every morning at dawn members of the community bundle and boil dried guayusa leaves over an open fire. Everyone will then gather and share their dreams from the previous night with the taita (old wise men), while the women prepare the guayusa over the fire in large clay pots.
Beyond community-driven experiences, you can also help protect local wildlife by taking part in the Charapa turtle programme. This initiative is run by locals who help protect turtle eggs. Once hatched, visitors can choose to adopt and liberate their very own turtle to the river. Not only is it a truly rewarding experience, but it also helps combat the poaching and wildlife trade problem in the Amazon basin of Ecuador.
Discover the fascinating Cloud Forests
Everything about the Ecuadorian Cloud Forest is a surprise. Walking trees, cascading waterfalls behind thick curtains of vines, insects that seem artificially illuminous and moss that moves before your eyes. A combination of climates and ecosystems create unique micro-environments laden with over 1,200 species of flora (in the Mashpi area alone) and with only 450 formally identified, there’s a lot still to discover.
The lure of such a fascinating, unexplored natural world attracts an international crowd of researchers. In 2019 scientists from the USA were based in the region and discovered two new species of see-through (crystal) frogs. Scientists like these, and those who are local, welcome tourists, sharing their knowledge and passion in the form of educational based excursions. At Mashpi Lodge’s Life Centre, volunteers can help with research projects, actively work in conversation, and learn about butterfly and moth preservation, imperative protection of many species.
Immerse yourself in history and culture in Quito
Quito was the first city in the world to be made a UNESCO world heritage site. Described as a ‘cradle of Pre-Columbian cultures’ – it’s a city rich with ancient cultures and traditional way of life, still visible today among the cobbled streets and quaint alleyways.
Some of the most interesting activities and experiences in Quito allow travellers to ‘live like a local’ for the day and fully immerse themselves in this fascinating city. Expert guides share their experiences and insights into the livelihoods, traditions and beliefs of their city’s residents. Tucked away in a small alcove inside the bustling San Francisco market, the city’s herbal healers get ready to start their day. Surrounded by dried leaves, living plants and roots, these healers are visited by a steady throng of patients hoping to be cured of anything from serious medical conditions to bad luck.
Living like a local means eating like one too and Quito has plenty of small local restaurants serving traditional Ecuadorian snacks such as Llapingachos (fried potato cakes stuffed with cheese) and Mote (large kernels of boiled corn). Ripe, juicy avocados and plantains also feature heavily, brought into the city by local farmers who make their livelihoods from small-holdings in the valleys surrounding Quito. These farmers have been supported by Quitos locals for generations. Now, cultural excursions like this one, also support these local businesses while building an awareness around the local culture. This type of travel is an important part of sustainable tourism, directly helping local people both financially and socially.
Venture into the volcanic landscapes of Baños
A glistening green gem in the highlands of Ecuador, Baños sits in a valley surrounded by four volcanoes and shrouded in mist and steam from natural hot springs. Baños has a couple of nicknames; known as the ‘gateway to the Amazon’ as it’s the last town before Amazonian lodges and treehouses start to make an appearance and also the ‘adventure capital of Ecuador’, more on that later. The town was made famous in 1999 when the activity of the Tungurahua volcano caused a threat to the town’s 17,000 residents who had to evacuate their homes for a number of weeks.
The volcanic, mountainous landscapes surrounding Baños create a wondrous, natural, outdoor playground that can be explored on a number of low impact, sustainable activities. Thrill seekers launch themselves from the Bridge of San Francisco on a 120 metre bungee jump or career down the white waters of the Rio Blanco on canyoning adventures.
It’s not all high adrenaline here. People-watch the locals who come to the natural hot springs to socialise. Relax in the warm waters and take a lead from the townspeople who enjoy local refreshments from the cafe on site.
Outside of adventure sports and thermal waters there’s plenty of culture in the area with opportunities to support local communities through authentic exchanges. Just outside Baños, on the road to Ambato is the Salasaca indigenous community. Salasaca guides lead private excursions into the town to observe daily life in the colourful, buzzing market. Many of the items sold here haven’t changed since the pre-Columbian times. Local craftsmen and women hand-make esteras (straw mats), hemp fibre, clay-pots, herbs, medicines and weave tapestries on ancient looms depicting different aspects of their lives. In support of economical and social sustainability tourists can visit small workshops to learn about the creation process before purchasing items to take home and treasure.
Sustainable Experiences in the Galapagos
In many ways the Galapagos stand as a sustainability model for the world. Over a hundred islands, islets and craggy volcanic rocks form the national park, which is also a UNESCO Natural Heritage Site. The protected marine reserve that surrounds the islands is a massive 133,000 square kilometres in size, one of the largest in the world. Only 14 are for visitors to explore and just 4 are inhabited. However, an increase in tourism, particularly land based adventures, has had an undeniable impact on the environment.
Galapagos Land Activities
Striving for sustainability while on land means choosing reputable, often higher end, hotels who are concerned with the equilibrium between development and preservation. Small group sizes that don’t overwhelm wildlife and low impact activities such as hiking, biking and snorkelling instead of using jeeps and speed boats, helps to lessen the load on the fragile environment.
Here’s our list of top sustainable land-based experiences on the Galapagos Islands:
Go hiking on Isabela Island
Hike to one of the most active volcanic craters in the world, the Sierra Negra Volcano. Standing at 1124 metres it’s a fairly challenging full day climb but the views are more than worth it. All hikes on the volcano must be led by certified guides who not only help you to climb and explain the natural world around you but also help to preserve the environment. These expert guides will lead you only along the designated pathways, keeping untouched areas human-free. Where wildlife is concerned the guides help hikers obey the 2 metre rule, never getting closer than 2 metres to any wild creature, which can be tricky when they’re unafraid and curious.
Snorkel in Tagus Cove
One of the best snorkelling sites on Isabela is Tagus Cove. More like a natural swimming pool than a cove, it’s nearly completely surrounded by land with mill-pool calm waters. The waters here are deep and particularly rich in nutrients attracting a wealth of marine life to be explored beneath the surface. Sea horses, rockfish, large sea turtles and penguins all call this cove home.
Take a bike tour around Santa Cruz
Although it’s the most populated island on the Galapagos the roads have very little traffic, making it perfect for cycling. Gentle downhill tracks lead to beautiful beaches and craggy bays. A slow, sloping, cycle leads to Garrapatero beach where the water is clear, the sands are white and the wildlife is, of course, rich and varied. After a long cycle sit back and watch blue-footed boobies, frigates and occasionally flamingos too. Snorkelling is permitted in the shallow waters where naughty sea lions, colourful sally lightfoot and ghost crabs play happily.
Visit Charles Darwin Station
The research facilities at the Charles Darwin Station were first established in 1964 in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, the most urban island in the archipelago and just a short walk from the town itself. The public can visit the exhibition hall featuring an enormous Bryde’s whale skeleton, native gardens and a public library. Interacting with fascinating displays and visiting the library to learn about scientific findings is often the final piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding these fragile islands. There’s also an understanding around the sustainability practices needed to protect these important islands. In addition to being a tourist destination, the research station provides essential scientific knowledge to the government who use the information in the managing of conservation of Galapagos.
As with all travel, choosing where you stay can be the most important sustainable decision you make. Exploring the Galapagos islands on live-aboard yacht cruises, where you don’t stay on land at all helps to lessen the environmental impact on the islands. Services and amenities that put pressure on fragile ecosystems can be avoided altogether when staying at sea. In addition, yacht itineraries are strictly regulated with limited passenger numbers and cruises permits minimising impact on the marine environment.
Itinerary routes that visit more remote islands where day trippers from the main island of Santa Cruz can’t reach, are more sustainable. In the far west there’s Fernandina Island with its eerie cove graffitied by pirates and whalers dating back centuries. There’s also a massive colony of marine iguanas. In the east there’s Genovesa Island, known as ‘bird island’, teeming with unique feathered species. And then, Espanola Island in the southeast with the biggest colony of blue footed boobies and the only island with a colony of Galapagos albatrosses.
Our Top Galapagos Yachts
La Pinta YachtThe vessel has capacity for just 48 guests, striking a good balance between size and facilities. All of the twenty four staterooms are located mid-ship on the upper deck and come with spacious double or twin beds. As one of the newer boats in the Galápagos, La Pinta is kitted out with the latest equipment and has an excellent restaurant and bar, jacuzzi and a gym. All tours are conducted with small groups of just ten guests or less with expert naturalist guides. Travellers have exclusive use of snorkelling equipment, sea kayaks, wetsuits and trips in the glass bottomed boat.
Isabela IIThe Isabella II is a comfortable expedition yacht and also one of the smaller vessels of this standard in the Galápagos with capacity for just 40 passengers. The 20 cabins are relatively spacious with double, twin and triple rooms available. Decor is modern and sophisticated. On the main deck you’ll find the dining room, library and bar while the boat deck is home to the fitness room, an al fresco bar and hot tub. Guiding is excellent on the Isabela and there is state-of-the-art technology for multimedia presentations and natural history lectures. There are glass-bottomed boats, kayaks and pangas for exploring as well as snorkelling equipment for getting up close to the Galápagos’ incredible marine wildlife.
Origin, Theory & EvolveBilled as both the most luxurious and the most environmentally efficient yachts in the Galapagos, the Origin, Theory and Evolve feature panoramic windows, a hot tub and while on board you’ll enjoy locally sourced, gourmet meals. They are both the only Relais & Châteaux-certified yachts operating in the Galápagos Islands and have been built with environmentally friendly, zero-emission material. With ten deluxe double staterooms, each with large panoramic windows, private bathrooms, seating areas, local art work and satellite TVs, the yachts are able to accommodate up to 20 passengers in the utmost levels of comfort. The guide to passenger ration is one of the best in the Galápagos ensuring you enjoy first-class service. The spacious interior features a dining and bar area, lounge, fitness centre, library, boutique and a computer station. Outside, the large sun deck features outside dining space, loungers, hammocks, Jacuzzi, hot tub and BBQ. To ensure you make the most of your visit to the Galápagos Islands, daily excursions are led by two highly trained naturalist guides in small groups of no more than ten. You’ll enjoy nature walks with plenty of time for photographs and questions.
Sustainable Hotels in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands
Ecuador is home to many different styles of hotels, from small rustic lodges in the Amazon to modern, state of the art hotels in the cloud forests. Whether it’s through sustainable construction, green practices, responsible employment or economic support for surrounding communities, many of Ecuador’s hotels are taking sustainability seriously.
With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of forward-thinking properties to showcase the amazing work being done in Ecuador and the Galapagos.
Mashpi Lodge - The Cloud Forests
Mashpi Lodge is set in one of the most biodiverse places in the world, deep in the heart of a 3,200 acre private reserve. Run solely on hydroelectricity and constructed without damaging a single tree, it’s a contemporary, sustainable masterpiece.
Ecuadorian biologists lead daily wildlife expeditions and nature excursions, so visitors can responsibly interact with local wildlife. The majority of the lodge’s employees are local people who have been given specialist training and share their knowledge of the forests with visitors.
Hacienda Zuleta - Otavalo
Surrounded by rolling hills, patchworks of farms, rose plantations and picturesque villages, Hacienda Zuleta is a charming 17th century farm turned high-end hotel. Farm activities still continue with 2,000 acres of pasture used for cattle, a cheese factory and trout farm. There’s also a vegetable garden to supply the hotel restaurant.
The hacienda preserves traditional livelihoods, such as embroidery and cheese production and encourages visitors to interact with the community during activities. Visits to weaving workshops and wildlife rehabilitation projects supports the community and helps to conserve the natural world of the Otavalo region.
The Galapagos Safari Camp - The Galapagos islands
Perched in the misty highlands of Santa Cruz Island The Galapagos Safari Camp is a shining example of a sustainable hotel. There’s no concrete here, only natural materials so the human footprint is very light.
Green processes dominate daily operations from rainwater treatment, solar panels and intelligent design that keeps rooms cool, with no need for damaging air-conditioning. There’s no plastic used with only paper straws, cloth laundry bags, biodegradable toiletries and reusable metal water bottles at the camp.
Pikaia Lodge - Galapagos
With its own infinity pool, luxurious ‘Sumaq’ spa and fine dining restaurant, it’s hard to believe Pikaia is a carbon neutral hotel. With a resort atmosphere every creature comfort is taken into consideration, and so is sustainability.
The hotel has a private tortoise reserve where the species are protected and they can thrive away from large groups of tourists in their natural habitat. There are several social sustainability projects run from Pikaia and the most long standing is the extra teacher they employ for the local school each year, to make sure the children receive the best education possible in this remote corner of the world.