Sitting on the equator between Colombia and Peru, Ecuador may be the smallest Andean nation but it’s packed with the most startling contrasts of scenery. With its astounding biodiversity, impressive historical legacy, stunning colonial architecture, bustling highland markets and diverse mix of people – blacks, whites, indigenous and mestizo – travel to Ecuador and you’ll see why this friendly and exotic destination is often regarded as a microcosm of South America.
From the icy pinnacles of Chimborazo, to the tropical forests of vast reserves like Parque Nacional Yasuní and the palm-fringed beaches of the Pacific coast, Ecuador hums with life - all within easy reach of Quito, its jewel of a capital.
Thanks to its compact size, travelling around Ecuador is easy and relatively fast, with few places more than a day’s bus ride from the capital. Unlike the attractions found in larger South American countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Chile, Ecuador’s contrasting regions and highlights are within easy reach of each other, allowing for a more flexible approach to route-planning.
The majority of visitors fly in to Quito, whose glorious colonial centre – a maze of narrow streets and exquisite monasteries and churches – demands at least a couple of days to explore. Its modern new town is packed with hotels, restaurants and services that make it a convenient base for excursions.
Striking north from Quito, the northern sierra’s green valleys are dappled with glistening lakes and crested by volcanic peaks, and the area is famed for its artesanías, centres of native craftwork, leather goods and woodcarving, all within a short bus ride of each other. Of these, Otavalo is undoubtedly one of the best places to go in Ecuador, thanks to its enormous Saturday market – one of the continent’s most renowned – and flourishing weaving industry. The region also offers plenty of scope for walkers and horseriding enthusiasts, who should consider splashing out on a stay in any of several beautifully converted haciendas.
South of Quito, the central sierra is home to the most spectacular of the country’s volcanoes, including the snowcapped cone of Cotopaxi, and Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest peak at 6268m. Also in this rural region are some of the more exciting markets in the sierra, such as those of the villages of Saquisilí and Zumbahua, and the small town of Guamote. Rewarding off-the-beaten-track destinations include the dazzling crater lake of Laguna Quilotoa, with its remote páramo setting, while more established attractions include the busy little spa town of Baños, framed by soaring green peaks, and the train ride down the Nariz del Diablo (“the Devil’s Nose”) from Riobamba, the most fetching of the central sierra’s cities.
In the southern sierra lies the captivating colonial city of Cuenca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a convenient base for visiting Ingapirca – the country’s only major Inca ruins – and Parque Nacional Cajas, a starkly beautiful wilderness. Further south, the charming city of Loja is a jumping-off point for visits to the Parque Nacional Podocarpus, whose humid lower reaches are particularly sumptuous, and the easy-going mountain village of Vilcabamba, a popular gringo hangout.
The Oriente embodies one of Ecuador’s greatest wildernesses, a thick carpet of tropical rainforest unfurling for almost 300km, which was home only to isolated indigenous groups and the odd Christian mission until the discovery of oil here in the late 1960s. Since then, the region’s infrastructure has developed apace, allowing easier access to the Amazonian jungle than any other Andean country. Two of the country’s largest wild areas – the Reserva Faunística Cuyabenoand the Parque Nacional Yasuní– and a number of private reserves protect substantial forest tracts that have so far survived the incursions of the oil industry and colonists. Jungle lodges, many of them a canoe ride down the Río Napo, make for the most comfortable way of experiencing the thrill of this diverse and exciting habitat, but you can’t do better than staying with an indigenous community for a glimpse into the lives of the jungle’s resident peoples; some of the more isolated destinations can be reached only by light aircraft.
A few hours’ drive northwest of Quito on the way to the coast, a number of private reserves showcase the country’s beautiful cloudforests – otherworldly gardens of gnarled and tangled vegetation, wrapped in mosses and vines, and drenched daily in mist – and provide accommodation and guides for exploring or birdwatching, with some of the best sites on the western slopes of the Andes. The village of Mindo, enveloped in richly forested hills brimming with endemic species, is the birding capital of the country. Continuing westwards, Ecuador’s varied coastline begins at the Colombian border in a profusion of mangrove swamps, protected by the Reserva Ecológica Manglares Cayapas-Mataje and best visited by canoe from San Lorenzo, a down-at-heel town rich in Afro-Ecuadorian culture. The surrounding north coast is best known, however, for its beaches and the boisterous resort at Atacames is one of the most popular, though there are quieter places to enjoy the warm Pacific waters, including Súa, Same, Muisne and Canoa. Among the chief attractions of the southern coast is Parque Nacional Machalilla, with its dry and humid forests, superb beaches and impressive birdlife on its offshore island, Isla de la Plata.
Further down the coast, Montañita is rapidly gaining popularity with surfers and backpackers, while Salinas is perhaps the country’s most prestigious seaside resort. Guayaquil, the region’s main port and the largest city in Ecuador, is a frenetic and humid spot that’s emerging as a tourist destination, while quieter attractions include the mangrove forests of the Reserva-Ecológica Manglares Churute, the warm, picturesque hill village of Zaruma and the petrified forest of Puyango.
Finally, the Galápagos Islands are for many visitors the initial lure to the country, and arguably the most compelling nature spot in the world. Ever since Darwin dropped anchor at these forbidding volcanic islands and unlocked the enigma of their motley creatures, they have enchanted all who come. Beyond gawping at fearless land animals, there are great opportunities to get closer to the archipelago’s abundant marine life: swimming with turtles and sharks, peering through a glass-bottomed boat and looking out for dolphins and whales.
Unmatched by any country of its size, Ecuador’s considerable biodiversity includes more than 25,000 plant species, or ten percent of the world total, compared to around 17,000 for all of North America. Its 1600 types of birds are about twice as many as all of Europe, and half the total for all South America. The country also holds more species of mammals and amphibians per square metre than any other country on Earth.
This extraordinary concentration of wildlife is largely due to Ecuador’s unique geography, its position on the equator and the geologically recent appearance of Andean cordilleras, which divide the coastal and Amazonian basins and provide an array of habitats and isolated areas for the evolution of new species. The country’s highly varied terrain encompasses Andean mountains, parched semi-desert scrub, chilly high-altitude grasslands, subtropical cloudforests, tropical rainforests, dry forests, mangrove swamps, warm Pacific beaches and the unique environment of the Galápagos Islands.
There’s plenty of scope for spending fruitful time in Ecuador other than travelling. A huge number of possibilities exist for prospective volunteers, with a growing number of foundations and NGOs seeking outside help to keep running. Ecuador is also one of the top choices on the continent for learning Spanish. It’s easy to enrol, lessons are good value and the language spoken in the sierra is clear and crisp.
Many opportunities exist for volunteers, though most require you to pay your own way for food and accommodation and to stay for at least a month, with a donation of around $250–450 going towards food and lodging. Reasonable Spanish skills will usually be needed for any kind of volunteer work with communities, and a background in science for research work.
Someone without these skills should still be able to find places with no trouble, especially in areas of conservation work demanding a degree of hard toil, such as reforestation or trail clearing in a reserve. In fact, short-term, unskilled volunteering has evolved into a kind of tourism in its own right in Ecuador, so-called “voluntourism”. You can arrange to volunteer either from home – probably better for more formal, long-term posts – or on arrival in Ecuador, which is simpler and more convenient. The SAE in Quito keeps files on dozens of organizations looking for volunteers. We’ve listed below a few popular ones based in Ecuador, plus useful organizations abroad. If the main purpose of your trip is volunteering, you will need to have the appropriate visas before you go; those planning to work with children should allow enough time for Ecuadorian authorities to carry out checks before travel.
One-to-one Spanish lessons arranged in Ecuador cost around $5 an hour, offering tremendous value for money to prospective learners. Most language schools are based in Quito, with a few others in Cuenca and the main tourist centres. You’ll normally have lessons for the morning or afternoon (or both if you have the stamina), and there are often social activities arranged in the evenings and at weekends. To immerse yourself totally in the language, homestays arranged through language schools are a good idea, sometimes costing as little as $10 a day for accommodation and meals. You can arrange Spanish courses in Ecuador from home, but it’s unlikely to be as cheap as doing it when you get there. For arranging lessons and stays in advance, try Amerispan (wwww.amerispan.com) or CESA Languages Abroad (wwww.cesalanguages.com).
More adventurous linguists could also have a stab at learning an indigenous language, such as Quichua, which a few schools offer on the side. The reaction you’ll get from native speakers, even with some elementary knowledge, is well worth the effort.
Unless you have something arranged in advance with an international company or organization, you’re unlikely to find much paid work in Ecuador. Being an English speaker, the only type of job you can expect to get with relative ease is as an English-language teacher, especially in Quito or Guayaquil. It’s usually stipulated that English should be your native tongue for these posts, but completely fluent non-native speakers shouldn’t have much difficulty. Don’t expect to be paid very much, unless you have a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) or similar qualification, which will give you greater bargaining power. You’ll have to have a work visa, which can be expensive to get – enough to put most people off in the first place. If you have any training in ecology, biology, ornithology and the like, you could try to hunt around the jungle lodge operators asking if they need a guide. Fluent English speakers with such qualifications are often in demand.
Ecuador is one of the most volcanically active areas on the South American continent, and the highlands are studded with snow-crested cones looming into the sky either side of a broad central valley, which the explorer Alexander von Humboldt grandly called the “avenue of the volcanoes”. Though many of the country’s 55 volcanic peaks are extinct, eight remain active, while another nine have erupted in the last few thousand years and are classified as “potentially active”. Anyone who stays for a few months is likely to feel a small tremor or see puffs of volcanic ash curling into the air from a summit on the horizon. Every now and then volcanoes near population centres, such as Guagua Pichincha above Quito or Tungurahua by Baños, rumble into life triggering civil safety precautions. Nevertheless, Ecuador’s volcanoes – which include the furthest point from the centre of the Earth (Chimborazo), the highest point on the equator (Cayambe), and one of the highest active peaks in the world (Cotopaxi) – are spectacular fixtures, attracting mountaineers from across the globe and awe in all who see them.
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