The smallest Andean country, Ecuador, is often overshadowed by its offshore offspring, the Galapagos Islands. And that’s too bad. Because mainland Ecuador has a lot to offer. From volcanic peaks to surfing meccas, once you look, you’ll be amazed by everything this mild-mannered country contains. Here’s just a sample.
Let’s start with the obvious: Quito. Ecuador’s capital city juxtaposes colonial charisma with a bustling modern economy, giving visitors the opportunity to sample and enjoy both. Quito was the first city to achieve UNESCO World Heritage statues. The reason behind the honor becomes evident once you make it to the old colonial center. Filled with expansive plazas, ornate historical churches, and a collection of narrow side streets leading to hidden delights, this area boasts some of the best Spanish colonial architecture in South America. Clean, safe, and well-maintained, it’s a pleasant place. Be sure to schedule time for two exceptional yet varying churches: Compania de Jesus and Basilica del Voto Nacional. One is acclaimed for its intriguing history and golden details, while the other is a striking assembly of neo-Gothic features with sweeping city view from the top gables.
This highland hub often connects international travelers to the domestic flights out to the archipelago. For those who can schedule more than a day or two in the city, the options expand dramatically. An aerial tram ride takes you to Pichincha Volcano. Stay here for panoramic views of the city, or set off on a longer hike to the volcano’s summit. Alternatively, you can head to the equatorial line. Ecuador sits along the equator, which runs just outside of the city. Two museums are dedicated to explaining the odd natural effects that take place along the equator, as well as the surrounding history.
Two of Ecuador’s star attractions are just a short road trip away from the capital city. Otavalo is a village with a famous market. This indigenous trading post where bartering has happened for centuries has morphed into a major international attraction. Despite the influx of tour buses and camera-welding foreigners, Otavalo maintains its authenticity as Ecuador’s leader in cultural crafts. This is the best place to sample Ecuador’s Andean culture for travelers short on time, and one of the best places in South America for artisan pieces, such as jewelry, tapestries, and carvings.
For thrill seekers, head south from Quito and into the Avenue of Volcanos; the most popular and picturesque of the bunch is Cotopaxi. As Ecuador’s second highest peak, topping out at 19,347 feet above sea level, Cotopaxi attracts those looking to experience the Andean outdoors. It’s possible to trek to the top, but for those not up to such a steep challenge, hiking or horseback riding options abound in Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, the most visited national park on the mainland.
Cuenca shares many of the qualities of colonial Quito. Beautiful colonial structures abound yet a whiff of modernity has swept the city, leaving hip bars and art galleries in its wake. Cuenca is Ecuador’s third largest city, but it was once the second largest settlement in the Inca Empire. Many churches that stand today were built with Inca stones, a slight irony once one realizes many of the Inca structures contain Cañari elements. The Cañari had lived in Cuenca for centuries before falling to the Incas, who called the city Tomebamba. Many museums are dedicated to detailing the area’s rich history.
A town devoted to tourism, Banos is a popular destination for local and international travelers alike. Probably because it’s pretty much perfect. Surrounded by lush jungle and plunging waterfalls, Banos is the best base for outdoor adventures, such as hiking, horseback riding, repelling, rafting, and cycling. Yes, there is a lot to choose from. If the options overwhelm, you can always stay poolside and enjoy the views, or take a soothing dip in some local hot springs. Looming over it all is Tungurahua Volcano. The extremely active volcano provides stunning natural firework displays, yet also makes the area unpredictable. Though Banos is a worthy standalone destination, its location on the edge of the Amazon means it also serves as a fine launching point for Amazonian adventures.
Mostly viewed as a stopover en route to the Galapagos, Guayaquil is a massive port town and Ecuador’s economic powerhouse. It’s the country’s largest city, but rarely entices visitors for reasons other than practicality. In addition to its airport access, Guayaquil is a convenient stopover for those traveling from the coast into the Andes. For those staying overnight, a visit to the riverside Malecon Simon Bolivar and attractive Cerro Santa Ana district are favorite pastimes.
Bursting with biodiversity, the Oriente (as the jungles of eastern Ecuador are called) is a wild and worthwhile adventure. Yasuni National Park, a 3,800-square-mile UNESCO Biosphere Reserve home to two uncontacted Amazonian tribes, contains over 600 species of birds. This swatch of prime rainforest has such flora and fauna diversity that it’s considered one of the most biodiverse forests in the world. It attracts bird watchers from across the globe, and its eco-lodges and river cruises are increasing in accessibility and popularity.
Keen to see Ecuador for yourself? Check out our Galapagos & Ecuador itineraries here or speak to one of our Destination Experts about crafting the bespoke vacation of your dreams.
Thanks to Maarten (c) for the title image of this blog.