ROYAL PALM GALAPAGOS THE SANTA CRUZ HIGHLANDS. A HIDDEN TREASURE Por: María Gracia Banderas The Galápagos islands are to Ecuador what the pyramids are to Egypt or Machu Picchu is to Peru. This marvel of nature has been the leading player in Darwin´s theory of the evolution of the species, in storied legends and in countless attractions. Each island in the Galápagos archipelago has its own unique charm and its special surprises. CLAVE! TURISMO offers its readers a very particular surprise, the highlands of Santa Cruz, the second largest island. Galápagos is known worldwide for its ocean and coastal species. However, in the scarcely known highlands, misty and drizzling, among dense vegetation, is the home of the Galápagos giant turtle. Various birds are also found here, storm petrels and Galápagos rails (“pachay”), in danger of extinction, Darwin finches (“pinzón”), pintail ducks (“patillos”), yellow warblers (“canarios María”), cattle egrets (“garzas bueyeras”), barn owls and short-eared owls. Among the plants, the most notable are Galápagos miconia, lechoso scalesia, white ginger lilies and bamboo forests. In this wonderful setting lies the Royal Palm hotel, a private and quiet place with impeccable service and complete luxury. On 385 acres (156 hectares), the Royal Palm has spread a number of guest villas, instead of one central building, making the hotel blend easily with its natural environment. Carlos Dighero, the Property Manager, emphasizes that the key reasons to choose the villa concept were privacy and views. “Because the rooms are spread out over a large area, the feeling of being alone in the middle of a 385 acre property is incomparable.” “The hotel has 21 villas in different categories, 8 small houses, 8 highland villas, 2 highland family villas, 1 royal villa, 1 presidential villa and 1 Prince of Wales villa,” explains Daniel Contac, General Manager. “The nature of the terrain and the layout of the buildings provide utmost privacy to our guests, as they are literally surrounded by natural local vegetation.” The decor is understated. One remarkable detail is the wooden furniture. “It was built on the spot by local carpenters”, says Daniel. “We´ve made a real effort to highlight the environment around Royal Palm, so much so that the key element in the décor is the natural local foliage.” Three years ago, the hotel began a reforestation project by planting “miconia robinsoniana”. The plants and trees around the hotel are the habitat for several migratory and resident species. “We also have some eleven geological sites, among them our main lava tunnel,” says Carlos proudly. “You can walk underground a distance of 2,625 feet (800 meters) along a natural tunnel over 1.5 million years old, with different types of minerals and stalactites, a fun activity for young and old alike, including scientists.” Guests at the Royal Palm can hike along ecofriendly paths to appreciate the wonders of the surrounding environment. Of course, the hotel also has the usual facilities for events and conferences, a gym, a spa and a restaurant. The large bedrooms, as well as the public areas, were built with an open design to take advantage of the cool highland breezes. Closed areas are air conditioned. Staff service is friendly and relaxed. For an uncommon experience, an outstanding choice is to live a few days in the luxury of the Royal Palm while enjoying the lush vegetation and the geological sites of the Santa Cruz highlands, under the magic spell cast by the Enchanted Islands. What tour packages do you recommend for a proper visit to the islands? The best is a five night stay. In this case, our guests can mix their activities in Santa Cruz with visits to other nearby islands that belong to the Galápagos National Park. How long from the hotel to the beach? And to the nearest town? To the town of Puerto Ayora takes 25 minutes. To the best beaches in Santa Cruz, Tortuga Bay and Garrapatero, takes one hour by car with a final stretch on foot. Galápagos beaches are marvelous and, to keep them so, they are apart from urban areas. Since this is a discovery destination, practically all tourist activities involve long hikes designed to appreciate the wonders of Galápagos. What type of cuisine does Royal Palm offer? We use local and national ingredients to prepare international dishes, cooked over grills or in a wooden stove. However, our commitment and passion is focused on ecuadorean cuisine. Naturally, we have a wide selection of wines and other spirits. Which is the most popular cocktail? It´s called Highland Mist, an infusion prepared daily with homegrown herbs such as white ginger, mint, peppermint, plus other spices in a secret recipe. Can visitors who are not guests eat at the restaurant? The hotel´s area is large but designed entirely for the comfort of our guests. So, while we are open to the public, we require a reservation in order to ensure our top quality service. Any nighttime activities? Night hikes along flagstone paths with lamps the hotel provides. On clear nights, star gazing is superb because there is no pollution in the atmosphere or local lights to hamper observations. Walks along the hotel´s paths, without need of a guide, allow sightings of barn owls and short-eared owls. Special activities for children? The pool and tennis courts. We have pizza afternoons and pastry days, plus pirate themed activities. Which is the best time of year to stay at Royal Palm? It really depends on the guests and their interests. If it´s sun and beautiful sunsets, the best period runs from December to May. For guests seeking nature in its full splendor, the cooler months from June to November are recommended because most species seek shade during the hotter days. Once it turns cooler, animals can be more easily observed, including their unique and captivating mating dances. Nevertheless, at any time of the year, all tourists leave amazed by these islands. What should be packed? For hiking, tennis or trekking shoes, since the highlands have frequent rain showers and, at certain periods, the ground is muddy. Windbreakers, sunscreen lotion and mosquito repellant are musts.