Ecuador – one of the more interesting emerging destinations in South America. The country is colourful, exotic, wild and laidback. The country is named as such because it sits on the equator, and sandwiched between Peru and Colombia. It might be the smallest country in the Andes region but compensates for its lack of size in its natural beauty coming from the remarkable contrasts of its scenery. When you first set foot on Ecuador, you will be amazed by its colonial architecture, its human diversity, historical legacy and its magnificent biodiversity. Ecuador is a country that will appeal greatly to those who love the outdoors. It boasts of the icy tops of Chimborazo, tropical forests, palm lined beaches facing the Pacific Ocean, steamy jungles and cloud forests in the lowland that are often shrouded in mist. Ecuador has an astounding array of fauna and flora and the extraordinary wildlife found in its most captivating attraction, the Galápagos Islands. The remarkable archipelago was explored by Charles Darwin and inspired his theory of evolution by natural selection or transmutation of species. One of its famous citizens was named Lonesome George, a male Pinta Island tortoise, the rarest one in the world and believed to be the last of its subspecies. He died of old age on June 24, 2012.
You’ll find the country’s more than 15 million residents very interesting, with a mix of mestizos, Montubio, Afroecuadorian, Amerindian and Whites. The majority speak Spanish, which is the official language while others also speak Kichwa and Shuar, two of several regional dialects that are also officially used. Residents are friendly, inviting and courteous towards visitors.
Compact and full
It’s a wonderful treat to visit Ecuador. It is a small country that is just 109,484 square miles or 283,520 square kilometres in size. This makes travelling around the country quite fast and easy. Some of the further areas can be reached by bus from Quito, although it could probably take about a day to reach the destination. With the regions and favorite destinations close to each other, it is very easy to plan your itinerary, whether you will be staying for a few days or longer.
Just like most visitors to the country, you fly in to Ecuador via Quito, a wonderful colonial center where you will see extremely beautiful churches and monasteries and numerous narrow streets that resemble a giant maze. At the modern side of the city are the restaurants, hotels and other service providers catering to tourists.
From Quito you can travel north to the green valleys of the sierra region and be dazzled by its volcanoes and sparkling lakes. The region is quite famous for woodcarving, leather goods, native arts and crafts and artesanías. The biggest attraction is Otavalo, famous for its weaving industry and its huge market every Saturday. You can stay in a converted hacienda and enjoy the countryside, where horse riding and walking are some of the major past times.
On the central part of the sierra, which is south of Quito is where you will find spectacular volcanoes, such as the country’s highest peak, Chimborazo and the snowcapped Cotopaxi. Wander around the town and visit the exciting markets in the villages of Guamote, Zumbahua and Saquisilí. Particularly beautiful is the remote Laguna Quilotoa crater lake with its páramo landscape (alpine tundra ecosystem). From there you can visit the Baños, a busy charming spa town surrounded by tall green volcanic peaks or take the train from the very captivating Riobamba city in the central sierra to the Devil’s Nose (Nariz del Diablo).
South of the sierra is Cuenca, the wonderful colonial city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can have your base here if you plan to visit Ingapirca, the only major Inca ruins in Ecuador and the utterly beautiful wildness of Parque Nacional Cajas. As you head further south you will arrive at the city of Loja, a wonderful place from where you can start your journey to Parque Nacional Podocarpus, a rainforest with huge trees that soar up to 40 metres, including the Guatemalan Fir (romerillo), whose scientific name “Podocarpus glomeratus” gave the park its name. More than 4,000 plant species in the forest have been identified. It is home to Ecuador’s national tree, Chinchona, a valuable source of quinine and other medicinal compounds. About 68 species of mammals live here, enjoying the bounties from the forest and its more than 100 lagoons. Guided tours into the cloud forest are available.
Another place not to miss is the historic and scenic town of Vilcabamba, the former playground of the Incas, protected by the Mandango Mountain, fondly called the Sleeping Inca. The residents of the area are known for having longer lives, attributed to hard work in a higher altitude, together with their low-animal-fat and low-calorie diet. The mineral content of the water the residents drink is also a factor in their longevity and good health, according to medical research. The town though is getting seized up by Westerners who buy property to build vacation homes and spa resorts.
The greatest wildernesses of Ecuador are at the Oriente where some 300 kilometres are covered by tropical rainforests. It was formerly home to several Ecuadorian indigenous groups before oil was discovered in the area. Taking a tour of the place is more pleasurable when you ride a canoe on Río Napo to see Parque Nacional Yasuní and Reserva Faunística Cuyabeno. It is possible to stay with an indigenous community in the area to experience local lifestyle.
Driving from Quito towards the coastal region you will pass by Mindo, a village that is known as the country’s birding capital. You will also pass by the mangrove swamps before you reach the beaches along the Pacific coast. Popular places are the Atacames resort, but if you want quieter places where you can have more time and space to enjoy the warm waters of the Pacific, go to Canoa, Muisne, Same or Súa. Do not miss going to Isla de la Plata within the Parque Nacional Machalilla where you will be amidst humid and dry forests while enjoying the birdlife and still more fantastic beaches. For surfing, head off to Montañita and have more fun at Salinas, an illustrious resort by the sea. The region is where you will find the largest city in Ecuador, Guayaquil, albeit a quiet one although it is the country’s major port. Here you will see several mangrove forests at the Reserva-Ecológica Manglares Churute, the interesting and intriguing Puyango, a petrified forest and the picturesque village of Zaruma.
Perhaps the best part of your visit to Ecuador is a tour of the Galápagos Islands, which is one of the world’s most interesting and admirable spot of nature.
Prepare for all types of climate condition when you visit Ecuador as the temperature varies by location. Do bring plenty of sunscreen and head cover, rain slickers as well as thicker clothing when you plan to go to the mountains. Also be prepared to sample some Ecuadorian dishes, even if you are averse to trying the barbecued guinea pig or “cuy.” The seafood dishes are excellent, as well as the yucca (cassava) bread, tamales, churrasco (grilled meats) and llapingachos (potato patties).