Beyond the Galapagos Islands – Ecuador’s Forgotten Treasures

Ecuador is one of the countries that you’ve heard a lot about, but maybe would never consider visiting. Why go to Ecuador on holiday, when there are the exciting destinations of Colombia, with its rich jungles and famous beaches, and Peru, with its Inca history and Andes culture, both nearby?

One fabulous destination that Ecuador does offer, and one that you have probably seen countless times on TV documentaries and in wildlife, travel and photography magazines, is the Galapagos Islands. The islands will forever have their position in history due to their astounding array of endemic wildlife species and their connection with Charles Darwin and his infamous work on evolution following his trip to the islands on the Voyage of the Beagle.

Galapagos in Ecuador Photo: Blinking Idiot on Flickr

Galapagos in Ecuador

However Ecuador has so much more to offer the discerning tourist than these islands, and the many tourists that fly in to Ecuador, transfer to the islands for a tour or cruise then immediately fly home, are missing out on so much! Having had the pleasure of travelling through Ecuador and experiencing the delights that this country has to offer, over and above the Galapagos Islands, I realised that many people are missing out. Here’s my brief guide as to the best of the rest of the fabulous country of Ecuador:

Basilica del VotoNacional Quito

Basilica del VotoNacional Quito

Quito

Quito is one of two main stopover points for international tourists travelling to and from the Galapagos Islands (the other being Guayaquil), but is potentially a destination in itself. If you ever get the chance to visit Quito (and you should give yourself the opportunity!) then try and stay in a hotel in the old-town city centre rather than in the new modern region – it might cost a little more but you won’t regret it.

This region of the city is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, due to its outstandingly well-preserved, ancient and beautiful central region. To explore this area is like stepping back to colonial-era South America – labyrinthine cobbled streets wind through white-painted buildings, leafy plazas, and ancient churches and religious buildings. You can get lost here for days, exploring, and soaking up the history. Make sure to visit the Basilica del Voto Nacional, if only for the adventurous climb through the rickety old roof for fabulous views of the city from a viewing platform on top near one of the spires.

Equator Quito

Equator Quito

Also worth visiting, although a little touristy (but good for a laugh!) is the equator visitor centre, only a few kilometres from Quito – stand on top of a painted line on the earth for a memorable, if a little corny, photo. Just don’t tell your friends and family that this isn’t “technically” the equator (they built the site in the wrong place – the true equator is a few hundred metres away!). Finally, for those that have fully acclimatised (don’t visit this if you’ve only just arrived), Quito’s “TelefériQo”, a giant gondola that travels from Quito, at 3117m above sea level, to the top of one of the valleys, at 3945m above sea level, offers excellent views of the city stretching away from you far below.

Guayaquil

Okay, so this may be a metropolis, and quite a large one at that, but if you’re going to pass through a destination (many international flights and connections to Galapagos use Guayaquil Airport), then it would be a shame not to visit the best of this city. Maybe not worth visiting for more than a couple of nights, but in that extra day or so you will be able to experience modern Ecuador – how Ecuadorian people see it and live it. Head down to the “Malecon 2000″, the walkway overlooking the Guayas River, built in 2000, lovely in the evenings.

View from Cerro Santa Ana Guayaquil at Night

View from Cerro Santa Ana Guayaquil at Night

During the day Guayaquil can be a sweaty and humid affair, but as dusk begins to set and the temperature falls this modern river-side getaway stretches for a few kilometres along the river-front, and contains many monuments, mini parks, restaurants, art displays and plenty of space for a relaxing stroll. At one end of the Malecon there is the fabulous district of “Las Penas”, which is a regenerated area of the city, full of many mini streets built up the sides of a hill, complete with perfect little art galleries, salsa bars and restaurants, and other delights abound – explore to your heart’s content! A walk along the streets of Las Penas will eventually lead up towards the hill at Cerro Santa Ana – there are fabulous views of the city below and a lighthouse at the top of the hill.

Art at Malecon Guayaquil

Art at Malecon Guayaquil

Unspoiled Beaches of Ecuador

There are many fabulous areas of South America that are not that well known by the English-speaking world. Take the beaches of Uruguay for example – very popular with Argentinians, and with Spanish wanting to escape the humdrum of Europe in the height of summer, but not really on the radar of other Europeans. The same could be said for Ecuador’s beaches, and it was tempting to not even mention the beaches on this list for fear of increasing their popularity – some places are best kept secret! The benefit of Ecuador’s beach regions, compared to many of their equivalents in the Mediterranean or other similar locations, is their relative quietness without the crowds and without high-rise hotels of purpose built resorts.

Beach at Montanita Ecuador

Beach at Montanita Ecuador

Of course, there are exceptions, with the city of Salinas being one example (a resort-town if ever there was one)… however a journey north from Salinas up Ecuador’s beautiful coastline (simply a delight at sunset) will take you past endless fishing villages, all sitting atop beautiful sandy beaches – just take your pick. Montañita, once a well-kept secret complete with lovely sandy beaches and fishing shacks serving up cold beers, has over recent years started to grow in popularity (the secret got out!), but is still worth visiting for those seeking a surfing style holiday, cheap beach-side villas, and glorious sun. As you head further north, travel along the “E15″ road and either stop wherever takes your fancy – try Mompiche, Cojimies, or countless others.

Cotopaxi in Ecuador Photo by Ainhoa Bilbao on Flickr

Cotopaxi in Ecuador

Cotopaxi National Park

There are many national parks in Ecuador, and all are probably worth a visit if you have the inclination, and time. Cotopaxi is probably the most well-known of the mainland parks, because of Cotopaxi stratovolcano that sits within the park and gives the park its name. The volcano features the beautiful symmetrical cone shape that is synonymous with volcanoes in general, and sits majestically on the Andean plateau (resembling that other equally beautiful volcano – Mount Fuji in Japan). Visitors to the national park are greeted by stunning Andean landscapes – rough tundra shrubbery, grazing llamas, indigenous farmers, sporadic farming buildings offering limited shelter – all with the sight of the giant conical volcano on the horizon. This is a landscape unlike anywhere else. The best way to experience this area is to get up close and personal with the region, and go on a horse-trekking adventure through the lands. For the brave, the volcano can be climbed on a guided climbing excursion, worth it to experience the awe-inspiring views from the top.

Horse Riding in the  Andes

Horse Riding in the Andes

Stay in a Hacienda

Not really a destination, but more of a way of life, haciendas were, and still are, large self-sufficient estates situated across much of the Ecuador mainland, around Quito and the surrounding area. Although their traditional ways have started to disappear, many of these haciendas have adapted and provide exceptional, and unique, tourism opportunities. Many excellent haciendas are close-by to Quito, so can easily be visited, and they provide an excellent way of experiencing what life might have been like for colonial people in Ecuador hundreds of years ago. The centre-piece of these large estates is usually the central mansion, some of which contain ancient Inca walls that were used in the construction of the mansions when built by the land-owners, and these mansions have been converted into wonderful and delightfully decorated accommodation.

Many thanks for this article to Jonathan, who spent time living in South America throughout 2008 and 2009, and who has travelled extensively in Ecuador. Since returning home to the UK, Jonathan has taken up photography after being inspired by the fabulous landscapes of the Andes, and works for Go Andes, a specialist holiday company that offers cruises and tours to the Galapagos Islands, as well as many other destinations through South America.

Photo Credits: Galpagos by BlinkingIdiot, Cotopaxi by Ainhoa Bilbao Other photos by Jonathan at Go Andes

For more South American stories:

Ecuador and the Amazon Rainforest
Coca tea or Cappuccino – in Peru
South America Backpacking with Indie Travel Podcast

This article is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com – Read the original article here

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More than Machu Picchu – Alternative Inca trails to try in Peru

While Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail in Peru are on everyone’s bucket list, our guest author Jonathan from Go Andes discovered alternative trails that are  just as stunning and rewarding, as well as far less crowded.

Peru is one of those destinations that is synonymous with travel, and I have always had a passion for a travel, and a desire to travel to Peru. This started when I was a young boy and I had been stupefied by a TV documentary showing the wonder of Machu Picchu. At the time, around about 13 years of age, I don’t think I could admit that I knew where Machu Picchu was, only that it was some mystical ruin in some faraway place!

Fast forward 15 years or so, and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit Peru, so I jumped at the chance and included plans to visit Machu Picchu during the trip by trekking on the infamous Inca Trail.

Machu Picchu on the Inca trail in Peru Photo: Jonathan Lillie

Machu Picchu on the Inca trail in Peru

A life changing challenge

The Inca Trail did live up to all expectations: it somehow managed to be amazing and life changing, whilst simultaneously being very tough-going and painful all at the same time! The Inca Trail starts at Ollantaytambo, and is a 4 day trek through rolling hills, that eventually ends up at Machu Picchu early on the morning of the 4th day, just in time to watch the sun rise over the splendid ruin – undoubtedly the best way to experience the site. What a lot of people don’t know (I certainly didn’t, at least before doing the trek) is that the route of the Inca Trail allows you to visit 3 or 4 other impressive Inca ruins that are situated along the route of the trek that can only be visited by doing the trek itself. This alone makes the Inca Trail a very viable option.

Walking the Inca trail in Peru Photo: Jonathan Lillie

Walking the Inca trail in Peru

Of course, Machu Picchu is a world famous UNESCO Heritage Site, and the most visited tourist destination in South America, which inevitably means that it is very busy. The Inca Trail is also one of the most famous treks on the planet, and one of the problems I had with the trek was simply the sheer number of people that were doing the walk with me. Every day, except February when the trail is closed for repairs, 500 people start the trek, which means there are up to 2000 people per day at some point of the trail. Although the trail was amazing, and an experience I would do again and recommend to others, after I completed the trial I started to wish that I had had the experience “to myself” a little more, to experience trekking in Peru for real, with a little more isolation. I started to research other options for trekking either to Machu Picchu or in and around Cusco and Ollantaytambo in particular.

A few years after completing the Inca Trail I returned to Peru with the aim of doing some more trekking, and I eventually chose to do two of the “alternative” treks to Machu Picchu: the Lares Trek and the Salkantay Trek. I was successful in finding very good alternative options to the Inca Trail, so I want to share my findings with you here.

Horses graze in the Andes, Peru Photo: Jonathan Lillie

Horses graze in the Andes, Peru

More solitary treks to try

Both the Lares and the Salkantay treks start in Cusco, which is the best place in the area to get a good hotel (and a good nights sleep!) ahead of a hard trek at altitude. I did the Lares trek first and immediately realised that this was exactly what was missing from my Inca Trail experience – there was only a small group of us doing the trek (around 8, including guide and porter) and we hardly saw any other people for the whole of the trip! The route took us through rolling valleys and slowly increased in altitude towards some frightening mountain peaks in the distance.

Inca man in Peru Photo: Jonathan Lillie

Inca man in Peru

The first night was the best, as the trek stops near an traditional village, so if you want you can head into the village to see a real Andean indigenous community, meet them, try and talk to them, and learn a little about where they live, what they farm, what they wear – I found the whole experience empowering and felt very privileged to have met these wonderful people. The hardest part of the trek was trying to get a good nights sleep, as the campsites on both the first and second nights were at altitude (around 3800 – 4000m), but the views made up for the lack of sleep.

Camping in the Andes, Peru Photo: Jonathan Lillie

Camping in the Andes, Peru

The Salkantay Trek is a little longer, with 4 full days of trekking against 3 days for the Lares option, and, although longer, I actually found this trek a little easier and more enjoyable. With the exception of the first night of camping, which is at a high altitude of around 3800m, the remaining nights were all lower altitude so I found it easier to sleep which made the trekking experience a whole load more enjoyable. The best thing about the Salkantay trek is the outstanding views along the route – this trek heads deeper into the Vilcabamba mountain range and has some stunning views of snow-capped mountains stretching into the sky over 6000m high (including the famous Mount Salkantay). Although we didn’t get the opportunity to stop at a village for some time and meet people, as I had done on the Lares trek, this route does pass many farming communities and indigenous people so offers opportunities to see how traditional people still live and work in this challenging environment. Probably the best thing about the trip was also being able to visit the Inca ruin of Llactapata on day 4, which I stunning both from afar and close-up.

The inca site of Llactapata in Peru Photo: Jonathan Lillie

The Inca ruin of Llactapata in Peru

Although there is only one official “Inca Trail”, what I discovered through my love of Peru is that there are more options available. If you want to tick the “Inca Trail” off your travel check-list, then clearly you will need to do the official trek (so make sure when you book that you are on the Camino Inca – as some Peruvian trekking agencies have been known to mislead tourists with alternative treks), but if you only want to experience trekking in Peru but aren’t bothered about the route and want to visit Machu Picchu but don’t care about the official trek, then one of these options is a good idea as it will give you more of an education on the traditional way of life in this part of the world, has similar or arguably better scenery, and will avoid the crowds of people that start the Inca Trail every day.

A view of the Andes in Peru Photo: Jonathan Lillie

A view of the Andes in Peru

Next on my list of treks…? The trek to Choquequirao, the Inca ruin that some people think rivals Machu Picchu – I can’t wait!

My thanks for this guest article to Jonathan who works for the travel company Go Andes. Jonathan has travelled extensively, and lived and travelled throughout most of Peru in 2008 and 2009. Since returning back to normality Jonathan likes nothing more than a bowl of ceviche and a bottle of Peruvian beer to remind him of his travelling days!

More trekking tales

How to choose the perfect hiking boots for the Tour de Mont Blanc (and other mountain trails)
My teenage daughter’s trek in Nepal
South America Backpacking with Indie Travel Podcast

This article is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com – Read the original article here

You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey

Subscribe to Heatheronhertravels Don’t miss out – subscribe to Heather on her travels

Finding Paradise in Ilha Grande, Brazil

In this Guest post, Neil Robertson explores the remote island of Ilha Grande in Brazil, discovering breath-taking beaches, rainforest trails, the deserted ruins of a prison and takes a hike up to the island’s highest peak.

I think that every traveller has their own definition of paradise in mind. If you have ever been to Ilha Grande in Brazil, you might just agree with me when I say that I think I’ve found mine.

I visited the island after a hectic week in Rio de Janeiro, which was an incredible experience in itself but left me desperately yearning an escape from the clamour and din of such an immense metropolis. A three hour trip down the coast and I found exactly what I was looking for.

Looking down over Abraao, Ilha Grande in Brazil Photo: Neil Robertson

Looking down over Abraao, Ilha Grande in Brazil

Abraao, a quaint coastal village

A bus and a boat later and we arrived at Ilha Grande’s village of Abraao, the main hub (as in a handful of dirt tracks) of what is a surprisingly remote island. Although very much on the rapidly developing Brazilian tourist trail, a short walk of a few minutes in any direction will bring you into solitude and, outside of Abraao, I felt very much alone with nature on the island. Only around 5000 inhabitants and 20 small villages are spread over a huge area. The island is a protected national park and there are barriers to development, including the absence of any roads and cars (officially at least).

Abraao. The parrot shaped rock on the right is the Pico do Papagaeo Photo: Neil Robertson

Abraao. The parrot shaped rock on the right is the Pico do Papagaeo

The image of island tranquillity develops with the beaches, some of the very best I have ever seen. There are well over 100 white sand beaches on the island and almost all are fantastically quiet. Lopes Mendes is the most famous and is absolutely stunning, but through a combination of boat trips from Abraao and some rainforest hiking, you can find breath-taking beaches all to yourself. Depending on the time of year, you may even be joined by passing Southern Right Whales, I’m sure you would not mind their intrusion. Even at night, I remember drifting off to sleep and hearing the waves lapping outside, as much of the available accommodation is right by the shore.

Accommodation by the beach on Ilha Grande in Brazil Photo: Neil Robertson

Accommodation by the beach on Ilha Grande in Brazil

Take a guided trek to Pico de Papagio

The most memorable day of my stay on the island was spent hiking through the rainforest to the highest peak, Pico do Papagaio, a trek that took most of the day and required the assistance of Joao, a fantastic local guide. There are no paths, just jungle floor and you can no doubt imagine my face when Joao helpfully assures me that snakes are rarely seen, and very rarely are they killers.

Atop the Pico do Papagaeo Photo: Neil Robertson

Atop the Pico do Papagaeo, Ilha Grande, Brazil

Thanks for that Joao, that will do the phobia the world of good! Joao also passes on his scornful amusement when telling us how tourists regularly get lost on hikes (sometimes, terrifyingly, for several days on end), failing to gauge just how vast this green haven is. Imagine being lost in the rainforest, with only the circling snakes and blood-chilling cry of the howler monkeys to keep you company as the sun goes down…..

Monkey in the rainforest, Ilha Grande, Brazil Photo: Neil Robertson

Monkey in the rainforest, Ilha Grande, Brazil

A notorious history

One of my favourite things about travel is learning about the history of the places I visit. ‘Colourful’ would be the word to describe Ilha Grande’s past I think. Piracy, slave trafficking, smuggling, you name it, it has all passed through here over the centuries. The story I found most enthralling is the history of the notorious Ilha Grande prison. Originally built as a penal colony for the country’s political prisoners in the 1930s, it soon became home to the very worst of Brazil’s offenders. A Brazilian Alcatraz if you like. In a story fit for any Hollywood movie, one of the residents, a legendary drug baron referred to as Escadinha (“The Stepladder”) actually escaped by daring helicopter rescue on New Year’s Eve 1985. While wondering if anyone has the movie rights, you can still visit the prison ruins (it was finally closed in 1994 and yes, they literally blew it up to avoid any ambiguity) to this day on a walking day trip from Abraao.

One of the unmanned docking points around the island Photo: Neil Robertson

One of the unmanned docking points around Ilha Grande, Brazil

Fresh seafood and produce are delectable

Such exertions and learning about the island’s enthralling past works up an appetite and, with fishing so essential to the local economy, the fresh produce is a joy to behold. Most memorable is a melt-in-the-mouth salmon cooked in a passion fruit sauce, with a delectable fresh caipirinha on hand. Needless to say, as hard as I’ve tried in the kitchen since, I have not been able to replicate the experience.

Lopes Mendes beach Photo: Neil Robertson

Lopes Mendes beach on Ilha Grande, Brazil

Maybe it’s my being British that makes me feel so comfortable and familiar on an island, I don’t know, but there is something very special about being somewhat isolated from the rest of the world. Ilha Grande was an incredible experience. As a lover of hillwalking, nature (except snakes), remote but beautiful beaches, some thrilling historical tales and simply delicious seafood, this, for me, is paradise.

NeilMy thanks for this Guest article to Neil Robertson, an avid traveller who in recent years has lived and worked in Italy, China and Belgium. Loving nothing more than to experience different cultures and ways of life, Neil is always planning the next trip. Football, 80s rock and good food are never far from his mind wherever in the world he finds himself. Neil is now primarily based back in his hometown of Glasgow, Scotland and is a founder of Locomotion Travel.

More tales from remote locations:

A beach paradise at Cabo Polonio and Valizas in Uruguay
Swimming the turquoise blue at Porto Limnionas – Zakynthos
A snowy break at Laswern Fawr holiday in the Brecon Beacons, Wales

This article is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com – Read more travel articles at Travel Blog Home and the original article is here.

You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey

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