Clutching our torches, my family and I gingerly began our night walk through the Amazon looking for tarantulas. As wildlife enthusiasts, it was hard to imagine that any holiday experience could top this, yet it turned out to be only one of many highlights on our expedition to Ecuador.
As well as finding two large, hairy arachnids, there were countless frogs and other interesting insects, including fireflies, which my six-year-old daughter, rather delightfully, decided were fairies.
We are staying in Sacha Lodge, set deep within the Amazon jungle in a 5000-acre private reserve of primary forest, on the edge of a beautiful black water lagoon which has to be crossed by canoe on your arrival. The accommodation consists of large individual wooden cabins with balconies and hammocks which are connected to the main building by wooden walkways.
Our family of four was assigned an eagle-eyed local guide who helped spot the animals and birds, and an English-speaking naturalist.
I didn’t have high hopes of seeing much wildlife simply because of the dense vegetation, but by the end of our three-day visit I was overwhelmed by the number of animals, insects and birds we had seen. My first experience of the local wildlife we hoped to encounter came as my son and I decided to go for a swim in the lagoon after unpacking, only to find a notice advising us not to go in the water after 4pm and before 10am. I was told this was due to the nocturnal feeding habits of the lake’s caiman, a kind of mini-crocodile. We weren’t put off entirely, however, and returned the next day. With fellow guests fishing for piranhas from the sun deck and a caiman sunning himself beside it, we dived in for what was a lovely, refreshing, if slightly nervy, swim.
With more than 600 species of bird being spotted in the area, one of the main attractions which brings twitchers here is the lodge’s 30-metre high canopy walkway, the only one of its kind in the world. It is so high that from the ground it looks like a vapour trail above the trees. I immediately gave in to my entrenched and lifelong fear of heights and refused to go up, leaving my husband and two children accompanied by guides and equipped with a telescope to tell me all about it.
Unfortunately, they didn’t have much luck with spotting birds and wildlife from their lofty perch. Our best sightings came during ground walks and canoe trips we took over the following days. Walking through the jungle in torrential rain I picked up what looked like a small nut, which turned out to be an endangered baby tortoise, exciting even our guides. Another time we found ourselves in the path of a group of 50 or so squirrel monkeys travelling together across the branches just above our heads, a number of them stopping to have a look at the strange staring creatures with their mouths open below them in canoes. Seeing a sloth and a large caiman lizard was another highlight, as was hearing the deafening sound of the howler monkeys, the world’s loudest animal.
But my children’s favourite activity was visiting the lodge’s large butterfly house to see huge tropical butterflies emerge from golden cocoons, or just sit giggling as the insects licked them – yes, they were big enough and had tongues.
Then it was back to Quito’s old town where we had already spent two nights at the charming Casa Gangotena, with its grand architecture, pretty garden and terrace and its sumptuous rooms. We enjoyed a morning on a foodie tour, visiting markets and trying local delicacies. As a first-time visitor to South America I didn’t know what to expect of Quito, but I found the old town really beautiful. It’s the world’s first UNESCO-protected city and you could easily spend hours wandering around the cobbled streets, visiting awe-inspiring churches and gazing at the magnificent colonial buildings.
The final week of our trip was spent in the Galapagos with five nights on the fantastic MV Santa Cruz visiting five islands. As one of the larger ships operating in the area it has plenty of space and facilities on-board, as well as a great choice of activities, perfect when you’re travelling with children. I had read that the number of tourists visiting Galapagos had sky-rocketed over recent years so I was expecting a queue of cruise ships at each island, all jostling to off load their guests.
This wasn’t the case at all, as there is a limit on visitor numbers and time allowed on each island so as it turned out, our ship was the only one docked at each visitor site. We were in a group of ten so even though there were 90 people on the boat, we went around the marked trails separately, meaning it didn’t feel crowded. Although there wasn’t a massive variety of wildlife, what there was was there in huge numbers and they were utterly uninhibited, which meant magical, close-up encounters with fascinating, unique creatures. Marine iguanas would lie together in mounds, arms draped over each other, staring up at the sun with what looked like huge smiles across their faces. Blue-footed boobies, lizards, flightless cormorants and giant tortoises are all in abundance.
The highlight of my trip, however, was the snorkelling which you can do most mornings and afternoons, either from small boats or from the beach.
There were huge sea turtles, penguins, sea lions, rays and sharks, not to mention the hundreds of brightly coloured fish.
We spent our last two days on Santa Cruz Island, which didn’t feel like it was even part of the same archipelago we had just been exploring. It has a population of 20,000 people and is a bustling place. The award-winning Finch Bay Eco Hotel was lovely. It served delicious food and was set in great surroundings right by a beach, hedged in by mangroves. The pool, too, was a big hit with the children, making the stay a great way to end our trip. We did manage to drag ourselves away from the hotel to take the 50-minute walk to Tortuga Bay, where we hired kayaks and paddled with sharks and turtles. This huge swathe of white sandy beach is home to massive marine iguanas and popular with surfers and their families.
If you’re passionate about wildlife, and especially if you want to pass on that love to your children, this holiday, taking in two of the world’s greatest ecosystems on the one journey, truly is a trip of a lifetime.
Journey Latin America specialise in tailor-made holidays and group tours to Latin America and Antarctica. Its 15-day family holiday including three nights at Casa Gangotena, three nights at Sacha Lodge, five nights on the MV Santa Cruz and two nights at the Finch Bay costs from £3,142pp based on a family of four. This price includes flights from Edinburgh or Glasgow, domestic flights, transfers, excursions and most meals. For further information contact Journey Latin America (0208 747 8315, www.journeylatin america.co.uk).