River deep, mountain high ... exploring Ecuador
From the heights of the Andes to the verdant heart of the Amazon, via buzzy foodie capital Quito, travel writer Joanna Hunter experiences the best of Ecuador.
Northern most outpost of the Inca empire, straddling the equator on South America’s west coast and with an abundance of wildlife that inspired Darwin to reconsider man’s very evolution, there are endless reasons to visit Ecuador. And happily, the country is relatively small and easy to travel around. But with attractions varying from splendid colonial towns to dramatic volcanic vistas, where should you go?
Ecuador’s capital was the first city in the world to be awarded Unesco world heritage status, and it’s not hard to see why. A picturesque patchwork of whitewash and pastel buildings topped with terracotta tiles, Quito was built at 9,350 feet (2,850 metres) above sea level on the eastern slopes of the Pichincha volcano, and named after the Quitus who lived in the region before the Inca and Spanish empires.
The old city you see today dates back to the 16th century, when the Spanish created a city out of the ashes that the retreating Incas left behind. Its magnificent historical buildings, from the cathedral and the government palace to the monasteries of San Francisco and Santo Domingo – and the many other churches, monasteries, convents and elegant squares the Spanish built on their arrival – are in the old Spanish style and the baroque school of Quito, a mix of European and local influences. This is, as Unesco declares, “the best-preserved, least altered historic centre in Latin America”.
And yet this is no museum. A trip to one of the capital’s many markets will ensure you get a feel for a living city. Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal sells handicrafts, jewellery and textiles as well as Panama hats – which are, in fact, Ecuadorian. Tianguez, in the Old Town, sells fair trade goods. Or head to Mercado Central for a mix of fresh fruit, veg and flowers, and the chance to try some local specialties, from corvina con papas, (sea bass with potatoes), to locro de papa, a potato soup with avocado, cheese and egg.
Quito and Cotopaxi volcano
There are also a range of fantastic views on offer: at 655 feet (200 metres), try El Panecillo, with its magnificent winged Madonna; Parque Itchimbía, a spot best enjoyed with a picnic; or take the popular TeleferiQo cable car up to some 13,000 feet (4,000 metres) to Cruz Loma.
And don’t miss the Middle of the World, an imposing 100-foot monument topped by a giant globe and surrounded by immaculate gardens. A bold yellow line runs right along the equator – the location that gave the country its name – marking 0 degrees latitude, 0 minutes and 0 seconds. Except that it doesn’t – developments in GPS technology have revealed that this isn’t actually the case, and the real equator is a few hundred feet further to the north. Some blame their tools, claiming the error was made when the original monument was built in 1936; or perhaps the builders knowingly chose this spot because it didn’t have a ravine going through it. Either way, the Middle of the World has become a much-loved local landmark and is well worth a visit.
Peaking at 20,564 feet (6,268 metres), the snowcapped Andes stretch in two magnificent rows across the country, a formation that has earned them the name the Avenue of the Volcanoes.
Travelling through them is, of course, an awe inspiring sight. One of the most elegant (and luxurious) ways to do this is aboard the Tren Crucero, a vintage train that travels from Quito to Guayaquil, or from the Andes to the Pacific. Known as ‘the Train of Wonders’ (or, going the other way, ‘the Train of Clouds’), it includes many spectacular and vertiginous highlights, including the Devil’s Nose, a mountain with almost right-angled slopes that could only be ascended by zigzags, creating a route that climbs over 1,640 feet (500 metres) in under 12km. As you can imagine, it provides quite a view.
Baños is the main jumping off spot for hiking, mountain biking and rafting, and its hot springs are well worth a visit for their own sake. Most famous is Cotopaxi volcano, its perfect cone belying the turmoil within. Now part of a national park, it’s been quiet for the last century and has become one of the country’s most popular climbs. Equally don’t miss the hike to Quilotoa, a lake formed in a crater and famed for its brilliant emerald-green waters.
Quilotoa Crater Lake
Slightly further down the slopes of the Andes you’ll discover a very different experience: the cloud forests at Mindo-Nambillo and Mashpi, not far from Quito. Here you can spot up to 400 species of birds, from chestnut-mandibled toucans to hummingbirds.
The Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos archipelago, arguably the world’s most famous wildlife destination, was a bit of a dud when Ecuador first claimed sovereignty in 1832. Volcanic, nearly 1,000 km from the mainland and seemingly uninhabitable, they were an unappealing prospect, good for only pirates and whalers. And then, three years later, Charles Darwin paid a visit.
Of course, a large part of the Galapagos islands’ success, in terms of wildlife at least, is that humans failed to thrive here. It’s also what makes the wildlife so fearless of visitors, allowing them to come remarkably close. Now a 133,000-km marine reserve, the flora, fauna and seismic activity – this is where three currents meet – that so inspired Darwin’s work have made this an unrivalled destination. It was also, along with Quito, one of the first locations to be designated a Unesco world heritage site, in 1972. Six years later it was declared a world biosphere reserve.
Whether you want to see a blue-footed booby, flightless cormorant, marine iguana, the Galapagos penguin or the legendary giant turtle, here you have the opportunity to encounter some of the most unusual creatures on Earth. It is believed there are some 9,000 different species to be found on and around the islands, and of those the Galapagos Conservancy estimates over 80% of land birds, 97% of reptiles and land mammals and 30% of plants are unique. Still more new species are being identified: the conolophus marthae, a rare pink iguana, was only discovered in 2011.
Giant tortoise, Galapagos Islands
With tourism has come community, and just over 25,000 people now live on four of the 20 islands: Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Isabela and Floreana. Most visitors will fly into the airports on Baltra or Santa Cruz. In the interest of protecting the wildlife, the other islands have restricted access only, with many designated visitor sites reachable only by boat and with a park-certified naturalist guide. Within those restrictions visitors can choose between staying on a live-aboard boat, basing themselves in a hotel on Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal or Isabela and going on day trips, or the increasingly popular island-hopping option, where visitors use public or private boats to access different parts of the archipelago and stay on a different island each night.
But wherever you stay, there are extraordinary opportunities to experience wildlife close up. Visit Isabela for its tortoise population and stunning dive sites; Santiago for the chance to see Galapagos fur seals and flocks of flamingoes; North Seymour for land and marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies and frigatebirds. And if you crave a bit of human history too, visit Floreana. Not only can you snorkel in the Devil’s Crown – a volcanic crater – alongside sea lions, eagle rays and sea turtles, but you can investigate the mysterious (and scandalous) disappearance of some of its former settlers as well as send a letter home via its unusual post box – a 200-year old barrel where homesick whalers used to leave notes for passing ships to carry home.
There are more magnificent birds – an estimated 1,300 species – to be found to the east of the Andes in the Amazon basin. But that’s just scratching the surface: there are also believed to be 40,000 different types of plants and over 2.5 million kinds of insects. Hardly surprising then that the shores of this mighty river are a popular place to spot wildlife, from monkeys to river dolphins.
Squirrel monkey, Amazon
Most people stay in a forest lodge from where they can explore either on foot or by boat, but there is another option: the Anakonda, a superior river cruiser. Not only does the Anakonda offer cocktails – and if you’re in the right suite, a jacuzzi – but it will also take you along the Napo river, an Amazon tributary, and through the Yasuni National Park, believed to be one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world.
Best of the Rest
Discover vibrant local culture in Otavalo, a small town north of Quito. One of the first things you’ll notice is the locals’ traditional blue clothing, but the big draw is actually its indigenous market, held daily and selling traditional crafts such as locally made leatherwork and woodcarvings. Come on a Saturday when stalls sell local fruit, vegetables and livestock too.
For those of you looking for a traditional Panama hat (at one point Ecuador’s biggest export), head to Montecristi, generally regarded as the city with the best weavers. Only you’ll want to ask for a sombrero de paja toquilla, the local name for a Panama. Having said that, one of the most famous Panama hat shops – and worth a visit even if you’ve no intention of buying – is Homero Ortega in Cuenca. Arguably the country’s most famous milliner, the shop also houses a small museum devoted to the Panama hat’s history.
Of course, the main reason most people visit Cuenca is because it’s Ecuador’s most beautiful city. A colonial gem, it’s also the nation’s second Unesco world heritage city, and, like Quito, boasts an architectural legacy stretching back to the 16th century. Highlights include the ‘new’ cathedral with its magnificent domes, dating back to 1885 but finished almost a century later, and on the other side of the park, the old cathedral, built in the mid 16th century using stones from Tomebamba, an Inca ruin nearby. There are also some fantastic museums here, including Museo Pumapungo, which reveals the country’s indigenous cultures and includes access to what’s left of Tomebamba, and the Museo de las Culturas Aborígenes, which houses more than 5,000 fascinating archaeological finds dating back 13,000 years, from cooking pots to jewellery.
Church of the Immaculate Conception, Cuenca
Only a short day trip from Cuenca is Ingapirca, Ecuador’s best-preserved archeological site. First settled by the Canari people, it was destroyed and rebuilt by the Incas before being largely dismantled again by the Spanish. The most impressive ruin here is the oval-shaped Temple of the Sun, although the surrounding remains help give an impression of Ingapirca’s size and status. This is also the end point of the Inca Trail to Ingapirca, which roughly follows the Inca Royal Road between the Inca capital of Cuzco, Tomebamba (now Cuenca) and Quito. A relatively uncrowded three-day trek, it offers a picturesque and tantalizing glimpse into what was once part of one of the most extensive and impressive communications systems in the world.
Recommended C&K tour
Ecuador & Galapagos Experience
11 Days & 8 Nights from £4,095
Explore the colonial centre of Quito, visit a colourful local market and see one of Ecuador’s most impressive volcanoes – Cotopaxi. Finish with a 4-night cruise in the Galapagos for close encounters with remarkable wildlife. See more >
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Ecuador at a glance
by Cox & Kings' Ecuador expert Nick Wilkins
Find out the best times to explore Ecuador, where to stay, what to eat and what to do. See more >