With an unbelievable amount of diversity in a such small area, Ecuador is branding itself as the green eco-friendly getaway of the continent. In Ecuador, it’s all about the nature.
Did You Know
Cuenca and the south
Visitors often find Cuenca to be a surprisingly lovely city with a small town and old world feel. A UNESCO world heritage city center, warm year-round temperatures and a proliferation of lush green riverbanks make this a very easy city to love. Cuenca has a reputation for artisans such as the panama hat makers in and around as well as guitar makers and artists of all kinds. Cobblestone streets and peaceful plazas plus a proliferation of good restaurants mean you may might not want to leave. If you need a nature break, you can get away just 20 miles (32 km) to the jagged mountain landscape and blue lagoons of Cajas National Park. This park is run with quiet efficiency by the local water authority. Another day trip will take you to Ingapirca, the Inca’s largest city in Ecuador, located on the edge of the paramo and the extensive Sangay National Park.
Just an hour south of the city of Lojas is the village of Villcabamba, world famous for its waters which are said to bring longevity. This valley and environs has become a magnet for anyone seeking relaxation and warm climes.
Quito and surroundings
The first city to be declared a World Heritage site in 1978, this restored colonial city is spread across a high Andean valley giving it a unique character. Pichincha volcano broods over the city and occasionally belching out some smoke. A worthwhile day trip is to take a teleferico (cable car) to the other peak for splendid views plus, at 4, 680 m, the experience of high altitude hiking without the exertion. Quito has the best preserved historic center in Latin America and is packed with picturesque old squares (plazas) and centuries old monasteries. For a taste of Quito’s vibrant art scene over the centuries don’t miss the Museo del Banco Central. Try out Gringolandia, or the Mariscal for some vibrant night life. 22km from Quito is the Mitad del Mundo: a kind of equator theme and park and learn all kinds of true and false facts about the equator. Quito is a fabulous base for nearby excursions with Cotopaxi, Otovalo and Mindo a day trip away. Papallacta can be visited in one day but you might want to stay overnight at these gorgeous thermal waters.
Much more than tortoises, the Galapagos is a paradise for nature lovers of all shapes and sizes. It was the differences in species between the islands that nudged Darwin towards his theory of natural selection. The islands are special for being a unique place where this relation between nature and environment is still in play, where due to centuries of isolation and then protection, the have relatively no fear of humans; there’s no doubt this is THE place to see wildlife up close. Swim with dolphins and sea lions, try not to trip over iguanas, get up close to tortoises and turtles and learn to tell your Blue Footed Booby from your Brown Noddy.
Northern Highlands and Mindo and Otavalo
The biggest must see are the three huge markets held in the traditional mountain town of Otavalo. There’s the food market, early morning livestock market, and of course the colorful and fascinating handicrafts market that bring villagers from all over in droves. The area around Mindo is a bird watcher’s delight with many ecological and community based lodges catering to ornithologists, hikers and mountain bikers. Lush cloud forest here gives excellent opportunities to see birds such as the Andean cock-of-the-rock, scaled fruiteater and golden-headed and crested quetzals. It’s also home to the latest craze: white-water tubing.
The Valley of the Volcanoes
Because of the bulge at the nearby equator, at 6, 310 meters above sea level, the peak of the Chimborazo Volcano is actually the highest point from the center of the earth. As the Pan-American Highway runs down the middle of the country, it passes no fewer than 9 volcanoes of more than 5,000m – hence the name of this stunning part of the country. Cotopaxi National Park has vast areas of paramo where wild horses and Condors roam, the glaciated volcano looming high above. The Quilota crater lake is a mesmerizing turquoise blue and said to be bottomless. In villages around Quilota, in Ilinizas National Park, see traditional mountain life played out amidst one of the country’s best national parks and stay in cozy, award-winning eco lodges.
Banos is a playground for lovers of hot springs, green beauty and waterfalls. The town is set up for hiking, mountain biking, rafting and then resting in the numerous thermal baths and spas. The road from here towards the jungle awards spectacular opportunities for mountain biking downhill past a series of thunderous waterfalls with views of the Amazon below. In nearby Riobamba hop on the Devil’s Nose train for a spectacular, thrilling ride past Chimborazo volcano and up a series of almost perpendicular switchbacks.
One third of Ecuador is Amazon rainforest and is home to a bizarre array of wildlife, and indigenous tribes such as the Achuar, protective Huarani and headhunting Shuar. Many rainforest lodges integrate environmental consciousness, excellent wildlife watching with some community involvement – offering an excellent opportunity to integrate with one of these fascinating communities. The best protected areas for jungle trips are along the Lower Napo River, the stamping ground of caimans, over 500 bird species including parakeets and macaws, pink dolphins, sloths, various kinds of monkeys, anacondas, jaguars, tapirs, harpy eagle and as many insects as you can shake a stick at. In the Southern Oriente the extremely isolated Kapawi Lodge is an example of sustainable tourism in action with the Achuar community being owners and managers.
Ruta de Sol - Route of the Sun (Coast)
Ecuador’s coast has a fabulous variety of beaches to suit all tastes. The north is famous for its Afro-Ecuadorian culture and foods. Inland lie still preserved areas of mangrove swamps and tropical rainforest such as the community run Playa de Oro Reserve. Canoa has a pretty beach, a tranquil laid back scene, Bahia de Caraquez is a sophisticated peninsular and eco city. Machalilla National Park contains one of the largest tropical dry forests remaining in the world. The park includes Isla del Plata, an island sanctuary for marine birds similar to those found in the Galapagos, and in June to October the area offshore is a mating ground for humpback whales. In and around the park are some of the loveliest unspoilt beaches in Ecuador. Montanita keeps itself small despite its reputation as the best surfing venue in Ecuador. As you continue down the coast along the Route of the Sun you’ll arrive at the highly developed resort town of Salinas. The continental shelf falls off just 13 miles from the beach, making this an excellent place for deep sea fishing for blue marlin, tuna and other very large fish!
This is the economic heart of Ecuador and has been reinventing itself as a thoroughly modern city in the last few years. The seafront Malecon is a well developed promenade of boutiques, parks, modern, world-class museum and galleries and new metro and improvements happening all the time. A good place for people watching, shopping and eating seafood. Its historic and nature park is becoming an increasingly attractive tourist option.
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