What to see
For most people, Ecuador is considered to be the gateway to the Galapagos Islands. 150 years since Charles Darwin published his research on the unique wildlife there, the islands offer visitors the chance to see species that cannot be found anywhere else and at an incredibly close distance. Apart from the varied wildlife, the islands offer distinctive geography and geology since they are all relatively young volcanic islands. The best way to see the islands and all they have to offer is by boat. There is a wide range of boats of all sizes and styles offering 3, 4 and 7-day cruises each with slightly different itineraries. If there is a particular species of animal you want to see it is important to make sure the boat you choose sails to the island it can be found on. For those who prefer to sleep on dry land, there are several hotels on Santa Cruz Island and even a luxurious tented camp in the highlands from where you can then take a boat out each day to some of the islands located close by.
On mainland Ecuador, the capital Quito is located high up in the Andes surrounded by mountains, and on a clear day there are magnificent views of the snow-capped Cotopaxi volcano. An obvious must-see for any visitor to Ecuador is to the Middle of the World equator line. Just 20 minutes drive from Quito and you can stand with one foot in the Northern hemisphere and the other in the south. In the north, the town of Otavalo has a fantastic daily market selling traditional handicrafts and colourful hand-woven textiles. On Saturdays the locals descend on the town to buy and sell fruit, vegetables and livestock.
For bird lovers, a visit to the Mindo-Nambillo cloud forest, located two hours west of Quito, is a must, either as a day trip or as part of a stay at a lodge. The region’s biodiversity is superb and the cloud forest has one of the largest concentrations of bird species in the world, as well as an abundance of orchids, bromeliads and butterflies.
The lodges in the Ecuadorian Amazon give perhaps the most authentic Amazon experience in South America. There are some fantastic lodges accessible only by light aircraft and river but the journey along the tributaries does offer a chance to spot interesting flora and fauna. The lodges all offer different excursions such as early morning walks and visits to the parrot clay-licks. Some have canopy walkways through the tree-tops or observation towers from where a wide variety of birds and animals can be seen and heard such as Howler monkeys and macaws.
The fertile valleys, patchwork fields and soaring snow-capped peaks of the Avenue of the Volcanoes lie just to the south of Quito. Take a day trip to the Cotopaxi National Park, home to the highest active volcano in the world, or stay longer in a historic hacienda, visit small villages and their colourful weekly markets and then ride the train along the Devil’s Nose.
Further south lies the charming colonial town of Cuenca, a Unesco world heritage site packed with cobbled streets and colonial houses. A visit to some of the little towns in the surrounding valleys is highly recommended as they produce beautiful shawls and scarves, traditional panama hats and gold and silver jewellery.
The remote, southernmost province of Loja is a hidden gem, still undiscovered by mainstream tourism. Stay in the capital, the charming colonial university town (and namesake) of Loja, which is steeped in history, and then visit the picturesque valley of Vilcabamba, a quilted patchwork of corn and sugar cane fields, orchards and cattle pastures. Travel on to Podocarpus National Park, home to 600 bird species and spectacular scenery, including pristine Andean lakes and waterfalls, before exploring the indigenous local Saraguros community, where you can witness traditions, dress and customs that have been maintained for centuries.
When combining relaxation and exploration along Ecuador’s mid-Pacific coast between mid-June and November you can take a whale-watching expedition too. Nature lovers can find a variety of different coastal habitats including wetlands, mangroves, dry forests and cloud forests. South of Manta lies the Machalilla National Park, which comprises a number of habitats and includes several off-shore islands. Stays in this region offer a wealth of opportunities for nature excursions, yet, with fewer tourists than in the Galapagos Islands, you can often feel that much closer.