Out of the long list of countries to visit in South America, it’s fair to say that little old Ecuador doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Sandwiched in between the innovative Colombia and the ever-popular Peru, Ecuador’s mainland can be overlooked by travellers and is often used as a gateway to the Galapagos Islands. Yet, the truth is Ecuador has far more to offer than many people think. Diverse landscapes, volcanoes, mountains, islands and Amazonian jungle. There is so much to see and do here and with a restored railway network you can be easily be transported into a world of culture, horticulture and observe the outstanding bird and wildlife that inhabits this amazing place.
City of Quito
The capital of Ecuador, Quito was the first worldwide city to be fully endorsed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Constructed on the foundations of an ancient Incan city Quito stands at 2,850m above sea level officially making it the highest capital city in the world. As a base, Quito is ideal to reach Laguna Quilotoa, Otavalo Market and Cotopaxi National Park. Downtown Quito is where you will find the Plaza Grande. This is a great place to begin your tour around this fascinating city. Two historical and cultural landmarks not to be missed are the Basilica of the National Vow and the Virgin of El Panecillo in the Old Town. Take a cable car to Pichincha for epic city views and you can even continue to hike Mount Pichincha itself, although we would advise a guided tour planned in advance to do this. Quito is a pretty colonial city with a lively atmosphere both during the day and at night. Quito’s cuisine is a mixture of European and Andean influences – why not try the locro de papas? A potato soup with cheese and avocado.
One of Ecuador’s biggest highlights, the Otavalo Market is arguably the best in Latin America. Only a couple of hours from Quito, the market is centred in the Plaza de la Ponchos although it spills into the surrounding streets especially on Saturdays. Otavalo market is open early every day, but the main days are Wednesday and Saturday. You can expect to find many artisan items with vibrant textiles galore – from leather goods to ceramics to handmade jewellery.
Just on the outskirts of Otavalo you can also get the chance to visit the animal markets with plenty of livestock available. Otavalo is a wonderful town to visit anyway with the awesome Imbabura Volcano as the its main backdrop. If Lonely Planet labels Otavalo as a must visit across South America (and they have), you know it’s unmissable.
Editorial credit: Ksenia Ragozina / Shutterstock.com
In the past, the Laguna Quilotoa was a thundering active volcano, but today the crater is very different. Now filled with turquoise serene and ripple-free water, this Laguna Quilotoa is a peaceful spot. If you fancy it, try your hand at kayaking across its 1.8-mile diameter or for experienced hikers there are several treks to follow. Its location within the Andes is lesser well known, however the elevation of Quilotoa is nearly 4,000m above sea level and altitude sickness medication is recommended. You can visit the Laguna Quilotoa on a day trip or as part of the 3-day Quilotoa Loop.
If you like hiking, Cotopaxi Volcano is the ultimate challenge within Cotopaxi National Park. Arguably a test which many outdoor adventurers want to take conquer whilst travelling Ecuador, it isn’t an easy excursion. With elevation levels in Ecuador varying, to even do this hike it’s best to acclimatise yourself in preparation. You are not recommended to do this hike alone unless you’re a professional mountaineer. The elevation is the second highest in Ecuador at over 5,000m above sea level and takes several days with professional equipment to complete. Cotopaxi is an active volcano and in the top 30 of the highest active volcanoes in the world. Still, achieving this will be one of your biggest highlights in Ecuador, not to mention the epic views!
The city of Banos de Agua Santa is filled with deep valleys perfect for paragliding, wild rapids to tackle white water rafting, special swing-bungee jumps to make your heart skip a beat and epic biking trails.
Banos is the #1 adventure location in mainland Ecuador. After going extreme in Banos, it’s recommended to visit the city’s famous, mineral-rich, hot springs, which are a must-see in this city.
For the thrill of a lifetime, head to Casa del Arbol aka ‘the swing at the end of the world’, 2,600m above sea level, hold on tight to this long roped wooden swing as it’s only attached to a small tree house. It allows you to swoosh forward over the deep depths below – whilst Tungurahua Volcano peers at you in the distance.
The Amazon is the last remaining tropical rainforest in the world and Ecuador has 2% of the share. The Cuyabeno Reserve is the second largest Reserve of the 45 national parks and protected areas in Ecuador. Popular with tons of exotic species to be spotted including monkeys, piranhas and anacondas. Canoeing along the river, exploring the rainforest, you should expect typical rainforest conditions; humidity, mosquitos and tropical weather. Yasuni National Park is the largest of its kind on mainland Ecuador, with just less than 1 million hectares. Yasuni is home to generations of indigenous families, living amongst the plentiful flora and fauna and exotic wildlife.
Only 3 hours from the city of Guayaquil, Montanita is a place to let your hair down. The sandy paths make up the centre, with a whole bunch of restaurants, bars, street stalls and surf and scuba shops. Locals typically use Montanita as a holiday resort town, whilst it has a pretty strong reputation for having great breaks for surfers in the ocean. The beaches are golden rather than white, but with a good holiday vibe, it’s a great place to spend a few days. The parties tend to go all night in the centre of town, but if you want to get away from the buzz there are plenty of beachside resorts and hotels to choose from.
Tip: Tiki Limbo arguably serves the best food in Montanita at affordable prices!
Montanita – Editorial credit: Diana Zuleta / Shutterstock.com
Undoubtedly the cream of the crop and arguably one of World’s foremost destinations for wildlife viewing.
On land, species such as the Galapagos Giant Tortoise and the Black Marine Iguana are the most iconic you’ll see native to the area, whilst don’t be surprised if any of the land animals are curious but friendly about your presence.
If you’re a keen scuba diver or just like the odd spot of snorkelling, the wonders you’ll witness in the Galapagos waters are many. Don’t be surprised to see formations of manta rays, turtles and flurries of fish. However, for avid scuba divers, you’ll be happy to know the areas you’ll be taken to, as there’s a good chance to spot Hammerheads and even Galapagos Sharks. There is an abundance of boat trips, cruises, and liveaboards available across the islands to consider, making the most of your stay.
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