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Ecuador & Galapagos holidays
For most people, Ecuador is considered to be the gateway to the Galapagos Islands, but there is so much more to discover on the mainland as well. Here are just a few of the highlights.
First and foremost, the Galapagos Islands. Consisting of 13 major and 12 minor islands, they lie off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. Charles Darwin wondered at the unique wildlife here in 1835, which led to his theory of evolution. Visitors today continue to marvel at species that have developed without influence from the mainland and which cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
The lack of predators and contact with humans means that you can get up close to the wildlife – one of the most extraordinary features of this truly unique destination. Apart from the varied wildlife, the islands offer distinctive geography and geology since they are all relatively young volcanic islands.
Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is a colonial city located high up in the northern Andes surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. On a clear day there are magnificent views of snow-capped Cotopaxi volcano. Explore the old city, a Unesco world heritage site, with its elegant mansions, beautiful churches with golden interiors and magnificent plazas. North of the city, visit the Middle of the World monument that marks the equatorial line.
The fertile valleys, deep gorges and soaring snowy peaks of the Avenue of the Volcanoes stretch south of Quito. Take a day trip to the Cotopaxi National Park, home to the highest active volcano in the world and the enormous Quilotoa crater lake, or stay longer in a historic hacienda. Visit small villages and their colourful weekly markets, the lively trading of Riobamba and Alausi, and take a thrilling train ride along the switchbacks of the Devil’s Nose.
For bird lovers, a visit to the Mindo-Nambillo cloud forest, located 2 hours’ drive west of Quito, should not be missed. 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 as many of them are only accessible by light aircraft or by river. A huge variety of excursions from these lodges are on offer, from early morning walks, river trips and visits to the parrot clay-licks, to canopy walkways and observation towers which take you up through the treetops. Spot a wide variety of wildlife including howler monkeys, frogs, caimans and many parrot and parakeet species.
The charming town of Cuenca is a Unesco world heritage site packed with cobbled streets, colonial houses, flowered plazas and elaborate churches. Beside colonial heritage there are also some of the best Inca ruins near to Cuenca at Ingapirca archaeological site. A visit to some of the little towns of the Gualaceo valley 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 still relatively off the beaten track. Stay in the charming colonial university town of Loja. From here visit the picturesque valley of Vilcabamba, a pretty patchwork of corn and sugar cane fields, orchards and cattle pastures. Nearby Podocarpus National Park is home to 600 bird species and spectacular scenery, including pristine Andean lakes and waterfalls. There are also distinctive local communities, such as the indigenous Saraguros community, who maintain centuries-old traditions, dress and customs.
Combine exploration with relaxation on Ecuador’s mid-Pacific coast. The coastline around Manta offers long stretches of soft sand beaches, beautifully blue waters and sunshine – the perfect place to round off an active holiday.
Stays in this region also offer a wealth of nature excursions but with the benefit of fewer tourists than in the Galapagos Islands. South of Manta is the coastal wildlife refuge of Machalilla National Park, which comprises a number of habitats as well as several off-shore islands such as Isla de la Plata where blue- and red-footed boobies, sea lions and iguanas can be spotted. South of Guayaquil are the mangrove forests of the Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.
Buy local handicrafts at Otavalo's indigenous market. Just north of Quito, this town has a fantastic daily market selling colourful handicrafts. On Saturdays the locals descend on the town to buy and sell fruit, vegetables and livestock. Throughout Ecuador there are villages with vibrant markets selling hand-woven textiles, ponchos, jewellery, panama hats, hand-woven textiles and more.
Swim with sea lions and sea turtles, watch penguins zip past and flightless cormorants plunge in beside you. You will never feel so close to marine life as in the waters of the Galapagos Islands.
Travel all the way from Quito in the Andean highlands to Guayaquil and the steamy coastal plains, aboard a vintage train. The Tren Crucero is a restored heritage train, pulled for part of the journey by an early 20th-century steam locomotive. It offers a luxury rail experience with overnight stays in traditional haciendas or hotels and guided excursions to places of interest en route. The scenic journey includes the infamous hairpin bends of the Devil’s Nose.
Explore the Amazon rainforest from the comfort of the Anakonda, the only superior river cruiser to sail in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Navigating along the Napo river, make your way through the waterways of the wild Yasuni National Park and various smaller nature reserves, discovering the wildlife and local communities.
Between mid-June and November, whale-watching expeditions are possible along Ecuador’s mid-Pacific coastline. This is when humpback whales come near to the shoreline to breed.
See Ecuador & Galapagos come alive in this image and video gallery, showing off some of the best areas that you can visit and explore.
Discover the temperatures and rainfall you can expect when visiting the main areas of Ecuador & Galapagos, along with the best time to travel.
Find out more about what you can expect from travelling in South America – from internal flights to accommodation standards and local transport.
Learn more about the airlines we use to fly to South America, chosen for reliability and good service; as well as any available upgrade facilities.
Before travelling to South America, please read more about the entry requirements for each country, as well as any general health advice.
Get to know our expert South America travel consultants, their personal recommendations and favourite hotels around the world.