Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hosteria Mandala and the "Galapagos"!

One of the things on my bucket list is to go to the Galapagos, but it seems every time we plan to do it something always comes up, so we keep postponing it. But we know a sure vacation is always waiting for us at the Mandala. When we arrived in June for a week, Maja and Aurelio said, "We  moved you to another room, but I think you'll like it!" When she handed us the key, I screamed. The colorful wooden key ring was in the shape of a turtle with the words "Galapagos." I couldn't believe it! Finally our dream of going to the islands came true.

Our spacious bathroom in the Galapagos Suite
We couldn't have been more pleased with our new accommodations. The Galapagos Suite is one of the newest ones at Mandala and comes with its own private veranda with a gorgeous view of the ocean. The bathroom is huge with a walk-in shower and comes with a double bed and a single bed and also a refrigerator to store your snacks and drinks. Most of our days were spent out on the porch, lounging in the colorful hammocks, reading a book and listening to the ocean waves. I can't tell you how many wonderful naps we enjoyed as we listened to the ocean. Just writing about it makes me want to jump back on a bus and head to Puerto Lopez.

Galapagos Suite Overlooking the Ocean
Many folks have asked us how to get to Puerto Lopez and surrounding areas and I have to tell you that there's no easy way to get there, but it's definitely worth it. We break the trip up by heading to Guayaquil on the bus from Cuenca ($8.25). Our favorite bus lines are San Luis Executive and SuperSemeria. They come equipped with bathrooms (male and female), air-conditioning, movies and a water cooler. The seats are super comfortable and recline with lots of leg room. We've taken vans, but find that the bus is better than a plane ride. We took a van once and said "never again." We kept telling the driver to slow down and he went even faster. After a 3-1/2 hour bus ride, we arrived at the Guayaquil Bus Station which is more like a shopping mall with buses on the side. We headed immediately to Sweet and Coffee and enjoyed a Chai Latte and then took a taxi to our hotel. Since we collect Marriott points, we stayed at the Marriott Courtyard in Guayaquil which is next to the San Marino Mall. The taxi ride is about $5.00 from the bus station. The Marriott has a great restaurant, excellent service, a spa, gym and pool. We usually get a corner room which is floor to ceiling glass with amazing views of the city.

San Marino Mall

Sweet and Coffee

Restaurant at Marriott Courtyard

In the morning after breakfast at McCafe across the street from the Marriott, we took a taxi to the bus station. Normally, we take the bus to Jipijapa (3-1/2 hours) and then take a bus to Puerto Lopez. I have to admit that the bus from Jipijapa to Puerto Lopez is not a fun ride. The other option is to take the Ruta  del Sol Route along the coastline which is longer but more scenic (5 hours). Since we have done both, we splurged and took an air-conditioned taxi (not van) from the hotel to Puerto Lopez (3 hours). Our driver was amazing and gave us a guided tour along the way. The cost of a van would have been about 80 dollars and the taxi was $100. When we arrived at the Mandala, we treated our driver to lunch which is always appropriate when you arrive during the lunchtime hour.

We arrived refreshed and ready to enjoy the rest of the day without getting sick from the bus ride! It was worth every "centavo." During this trip we visited our favorite place -- a day at Los Frailes (the most beautiful beach in Ecuador). The Mandala will pack a picnic lunch if you ask them and the trip by mototaxi is $5.00 one way. Los Frailes isn't that easy to get to either, as the dirt road from the main road is fairly bumpy, so if you have a bad back you should hang on for dear life. The ride is about 20 minutes. My idea of paradise would be to build a house on the beach of Los Frailes! This jewel of South America is a must-see and plan to spend the entire day. The park closes at 4:30 p.m. so you'll want to get an early start. Unfortunately, it is best visited on a sunny day which can be unpredictable given the June-July weather on the coast. Most days are cloudy during this time of year, but we hit it on a perfect day -- lots of sun! We hiked up to the look-out point (Mirador) where we enjoyed a breathtaking view of the Ecuadorian coastline. There are micro-climates along the coast so if it's cloudy in Puerto Lopez it can be a spectacularly sunny at  Los Frailes. We've been fortunate to always have sun-filled days a Los Frailes.

Los Frailes

My Los Frailes Dance

View from El Mirador at Los Frailes

The rest of our time on the coast was spent relaxing in our hammocks, going for walks along the beach in Puerto Lopez, and taking a day trip to Montañita. We've heard that you will either love it or hate it. We just happened to love it and had an amazing meal at the Dharma Hotel (the only 5-star hotel in Montañita) with a beachs-side restaurant and great prices. After lunch, we walked through the hotel lobby, enjoyed the poolside view and headed on our way to the point of Montañita where we watched some surfers ride the waves. The bus trip was $2.00 from Puerto Lopez to Montañita and was well worth the trip.

Dharma Hotel at Montañita

The Point

Ceviche Carts

Souvenirs Anyone?

We enjoyed all our meals at the Mandala from breakfast with fresh fruit and homemade bread to five-course dinners at night. And, of course, my favorite indulgence -- coconut gelato! After living in Italy for six years, I give the Mandala five stars for the best ice cream in Ecuador. It was also our favorite "midnight" snack (three scoops and two spoons)!

The Cove at Puerto Lopez

Breakfast at the Mandala

Coconut gelato at the Mandala!

Leaving the Mandala is always sad because Maja and Aurelio are like family to us; Maja is Swiss in origin and Aurelio is Italian so it's the perfect combination. After we said our goodbyes we headed to the bus station in Puerto Lopez by mototaxi and took a "hopper" bus to Olon ($2.00 per person). In Olon we changed buses to the Libertad Peninsular Internacional (CPL) (cost $6.00 per person) and oh what a difference. This bus is is more like riding in an airplane complete with movies, reclining seats, beverage and food service (and I don't mean the vendors who hop on the bus). We took the Ruta del Sol which is much more scenic and we couldn't believe all the new developments -- row after row of gated communities dotting the coastline.

CPL Bus Service complete with "flight steward"

Gated Community near Guayaquil

Sunset at Guayaquil

Ruta del Sol

Lots of Gated Communities

Guayaquil Bus Station

View of Guayaquil from our room at the Marriott

It was about a four-hour bus ride into Guayaquil, which was all smooth sailing with the new road. After we got into the bus station, we took a taxi to the Marriott's and enjoyed a relaxing dinner at McCafe across the street. It was an overcast day in Guayaquil and the humidity was gone, so it was a pleasant and slightly cool evening in the city. The San Marino Mall is within walking distance to the hotel, so we did a little window shopping before we turned in for the night.

I'm not sure how it happened, but when we arrived at the bus terminal we got placed on the Oriental bus instead of San Luis Executive. Never again! The only buses we will ride are San Luis Executive and SuperSemaria. Thankfully, the scenic view over the Cajas on a crystal clear day made up for everything that was lacking on the bus (including a non-functioning bathroom).

 We never imagined that we would ever go to the Galapagos because we thought it was too expensive, but on my birthday (August 15th), we flew to Santa Cruz Island and spent a week. It was a trip of a lifetime and we would like to go back and visit Santa Isabela and Fernandina Islands. The cost was amazingly inexpensive because we got great tickets on TAME Airlines, stayed in a hostel, and ate out at inexpensive restaurants.

In the next few blog posts I'll share about our trip to the Galapagos on the cheap, but I have to say that staying at the Mandala and going to Los Frailes was my favorite vacation of the summer (our winter). There's nothing that can compare to the beach at Los Frailes and it's definitely the most beautiful beach in Ecuador. And the Poor Man's Galapagos (Isla de la Plata) has everything you can see in the Galapagos except for the flamingos, the large tortoises and penguins. In fact, Isla de la Plata is one of the day trips that you can take from the Galapagos!

Stay tuned for more on the Galapagos...

Until next time...hasta luego!

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