Central / South America

The Essence of Ecuador

Photo credit: Davidlohr Bueso

Words are hardly descriptive

Though Ecuador is the smallest of the Andes countries, it is no less exciting than its neighbours. Here, you can visit South America’s most famous marketplace in Otavalo, see penguins on the Galápagos Islands, and learn how to fish piranhas in the jungle!

Ecuador is bordered to the north by Colombia, to the east and south by Peru, and to the west by the Pacific Ocean. Bisected by the equator, the “Middle of the World”, Ecuador is a land divided into three distinct geological regions – Sierra, Oriente and Costa. And this is what makes this mystical land so special. A country of contrasts and diversities, Ecuador boasts coastal banana plantations and snow-covered volcanoes, yet most destinations are within a day’s journey from the capital city of Quito.

Most visitors to Ecuador are attracted primarily by the Galapagos, but an increasing number of people are realizing that there is a much more to see and do, and often be enthralled by, mainland Ecuador, an astonishingly beautiful and varied geography that is worth more than just an extra couple of nights.

For example, you can combine Galapagos with visits to see highland towns such as Otavalo (one of the best outdoor markets in South America) or to see the world’s highest active volcano, the 19,300 foot tall Cotopaxi.

One of the highlights of travelling in the Ecuadorian Andes is the chance to stay at one of the first class historic haciendas (some are centuries old; one is built around an Incan palace), taking day trips to explore the countryside and small towns.

You can also visit the Amazon jungle, which starts just over the Andes Mountains from Quito and is easily accessible on a one hour flight.

In Ecuador, there’s an expression … Embark on a journey and follow the sun …

The Galápagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands were the world’s very first World Heritage site

The Galápagos Islands are situated some 965 kilometres off the western coast of Ecuador.
Made famous by Charles Darwin’s scientific voyage in the ‘Beagle’ during the 19th century, the islands’ unique wildlife – which includes giant tortoises, lizards and iguanas – remains the most interesting feature for the modern-day visitor. Some 50 per cent of the islands’ species are found nowhere else in the world.

The islands have been turned into a national park in an attempt to preserve their natural state, and, in 1978, UNESCO declared the Galápagos to be ‘the universal natural heritage of humanity’. Visiting the Galápagos Islands is two things – unforgettable and often inspiring. Accommodation and travel can be arranged either from the visitor’s home country or through local tour operators once in Ecuador.

Quito

The Cotopaxi Volcano, located just south of San Francisco de Quito, Ecudaor

San Francisco de Quito, most often called Quito, is the capital of Ecuador, set in a valley at 9,000 feet below the Pichincha Volcano. It is the gateway to this astonishing country and for the vast majority of trips to the Galapagos. The city’s historical center is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its large concentration of well preserved colonial buildings, several dating from the 1500s. Ecuador’s capital, and second-largest city (The largest city is Guayaquil) provides visitors a spectacular natural setting of great beauty, overshadowed by the twin peaks of the Pichincha volcano and the nearby Machángara River Canyon to the east. Quito used to be a major Inca conurbation that was destroyed shortly before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Although no Inca traces remain, the city has preserved much of its Spanish colonial character; the cathedral in the Plaza de la Independencia (the oldest church in South America) and the many other old churches and monasteries being among the most notable.

The Ecuadorian capital city’s mix of colonial and modern architecture creates a fascinating environment. In addition to being the site of the Ecuadorian government, Quito is also the nation’s cultural capital, with an impressive variety of museums, festivals, and nightlife.

The Amazon Jungle

The Ecuadorian Amazon is one of the most bio-diverse places on earth. An extraordinary range of species inhabit these rainforests, including the rare and elusive jaguar, howler and squirrel monkeys, toucans, parrots and many other tropical birds.

Fascinating is hardly descriptive … The Amazon Rainforest, the world’s largest remaining tropical rainforest hums, buzzes and chatters. Here you can find a monkey small enough to sit on your fingertip, an eight pound toad, a spider that eats birds, and the 30-foot anaconda, the world’s largest snake.

This rainforest is also home to thousands of indigenous inhabitants, who make up nearly 200 distinct nations, including the Siona, Secoya, Cofan, Shuar, Zaparo, Huaorani, and Quichua. The indigenous tribes that have lived here for some 10,000 years are the ancient keepers and guardians of our world’s biological heritage.

Ecuador, with its two percent share of the Amazon (known as the Oriente), provides unparalleled opportunities for experiencing the intrigue of the rainforest. Not only does it have one of the world’s best developed infrastructures for rainforest tourism, but most destinations are accessible within a day’s journey from Quito.

Otavalo

Colourful fabrics on display at the Saturday market in Otavalo, Ecuador

Otavalo is where one can find one of the most vibrant and successful indigenous cultures in the Americas. Otavalo is set next to a large lagoon beneath the towering (but extinct) volcano Imbabura. The market here is one of the best on the continent and draws thousands upon thousands of people. You can visit Otavalo either as a long day trip from Quito, or spend a night or two in the area, visiting the local villages such as Cotacachi, or hike around the volcanic crater lake of Cuicocha Lagoon.

Must dos …

You must visit the Andean Cloud Forest. Just outside of Quito, when you cross down over the crest of the Andes, you enter into an almost mystical environment with thick jungle and steep drop offs as the Andes fall away to the west towards the Pacific Coast. This is the Andean Cloud Forest, a unique high mountain rainforest that is home to an implausible variety of wildlife, and is one of the best places in the world for seeing rare tropical birds.

You must take a scenic train journey. Several of Ecuador’s railway routes, particularly those in the Andes, pass through spectacular mountain scenery, often at dramatic altitudes. The Ecuadorian custom of riding on the roof of the train makes the views even more breathtaking. One of the most famous routes, whose climax is the precipitous ‘Devil’s Nose’ passage, is from Riobamba down to the Pacific coast.

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