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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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In my travel podcast series, I have a podcast interview about the rainforests of Ecuador you’ll hear how to enjoy how to enjoy your rainforest experience, as well as the many other diverse areas of of the country, the Avenue of the Volcanoes, the Indian markets, and the beaches of Manabi province where you can see migrating whales.
While I was at the World Travel Market recently, I met up with my friend from Ecuador, Luis Hernandez who was part of the Ecuador country stand, promoting his travel business and Cuyabeno Lodge. When I visited Ecuador with two friends two years ago, we spent an amazing week travelling by canoe down the Rio Bobonaza and stopping at the Rainforest Community at Sarayaku for a few days, all of which was organised by Luis and he also accompanied us.
Luckily Luis had made the journey before, so he knew the local communities and also had military connections which smoothed our journey through the lower river military zone near Peru considerably. Luis had also been elected as a member of the Ecuadorian Congress, just before our trip and so he was the man the rainforest communities wanted to meet, to put across their point of view and speak in the schools to their students.
I thought Luis with both his military jungle experience and knowledge as a tour operator and guide would be a great person to talk to about the best of Ecuador. I hope you enjoy the interview.
In this interview with Luis Hernandez we discussed;
- The Cuyabeno Lodge in Ecuador; where it is, how you get there, the type of accommodation and what you would do while you are there
- The steps the Cuyabeno lodge take to be eco-friendly, such as using solar energy, using biodegradable products and recycling waste, as well as employing local people or transport by canoe and guides.
- The variety of Flora and Fauna you can find at Cuyabeno Reserve and lagoon, such as birds, plants, flowers, river turtles, cayman and even pink dolphins
- How to deal with a snake, cayman or anaconda if you should meet one in the forest
- The equipment that you might need in order to be comfortable in the jungle, such as wellington boots, hat, suncream, insect repellant, torch and what health advice Luis gives to his visitors.
- The problems in Ecuador with oil exploration and logging and how supporting tourism in the rainforest areas will put money into the local economy and prevent the destruction of the rainforest.
- Other areas of Ecuador to visit, such as the mountainous Andean area of the Avenue of the Volcanoes where you can hike and walk on the volcanoes of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo staying in old haciendas.
- The Indian markets of Otavalo on Saturdays and Saquisili on Thursdays
- On the coastal area, Luiz recommends the south of Manabi province which has the Machalilla national park and the beach of Canoa in the north and Isla de las Plata where you can see migrating whales in July and August.
- The political situation in Ecuador which is generally calm and stable – although the factions within the government may dispute among themselves, the situation for tourists is calm. The government is also creating a good network of roads and infrastructure, which makes it easy for visitors to get around.
- The music on the podcast was Venus as a Girl by Andy McGee on Musicalley.com
Cuyabeno Lodge and Neotropic Turis – Travel company in Ecuador the organises tours throughout Ecuador as well as to Cuyabeno Lodge
Sarayaku Rainforest Community that we visited on my trip to Ecuador
Ecuador Tourism website
See all my Ecuador Photos on Flickr
Read all my Ecuador articles
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If you enjoyed this travel podcast please check out my other podcasts in my Travel Podcast Archive
This week I met up with an old friend from Ecuador at the World Travel Market and it reminded me of the happy few days I spent in Banos on my trip to Ecuador a couple of years ago. The town is known for being a holiday centre, both for Ecuadorian families and for backpackers. It’s a great place for cycling, hiking, white water rafting and of course the hot baths that give the town it’s name.
These baths were just along the road from our hotel and were really an out-door swimming pool that were packed with families at weekends. The green colour is caused by the minerals, and there was a tepid pool, like a warm bath, a hot pool and an icy cold pool. You could also take a cold shower under the waterfall coming straight down off the cliff behind the baths.
I liked the fact that this was not a chi chi kind of place but just a public baths where you could take a shower under the waterfall. That’s not the sort of experience you could get just anywhere in the world. You can read my full post about my time in Banos in my article Warm Baths and Waterfalls at Banos in Ecuador