The Galapagos Islands are among the most popular tourist hot spots of South America, topping the list with Peru’s Machu Picchu and the shared Brazilian/Argentine wonder, Iguazu Falls. As a consequence of the islands’ appeal, mainland Ecuador is often relegated to a short stopover enroute to the coastal launching point. Visitors choosing to skip the continent and tour only the islands are missing a country with some of the most diverse tourism offered in such a small radius. Within a few hours bus ride, travelers to Ecuador can climb a snow-capped volcano, trek the humid rain-forest, and sip a cocktail on the sunny beach a list not many countries could claim, especially where you can remain on the American dollar (Ecuador’s currency) and speak a bit of English.
Here is a list of continental Ecuador’s highlights. Travelers could hit these major points in a solid 3-4 week trip, or chose specific regions for more relaxed, in-depth exploration.
Quito. Soak in the Ecuadorian culture touring it’s colonial capital. A walking tour through the old city will take you through a UNECSCO world heritage site including several historic churches. The basilica of San Francisco is not to be missed- climb the stairs to the top for full-city views. The barrio (city region) most known for nightlife and shopping is the Mariscal- it is chock full of bars, restaurants, and stores.
Quito’s teleferico (cable car) is 8USD and takes riders to over 4000m in elevation. From there you can see picturesque views of the sprawling city set in a wide mountain valley. On a clear day a look to the south reveals the Cotopaxi volcano in the distance.
If you have time: a fun afternoon includes a trip to the Mitad del Mundo (the Equator!) There are two entrance parks for a photo opp with the official equator line- — the firsts site, which is little more than a rock monument, takes backstage to the fun and games found at the official GPS site, Inti Nan Solar Museum. There you can participate in various challenges demonstrating the altered physical state at zero degrees latitude- try out the egg balance, watch water drain without circling, and give your weakened strength a test. You even weigh less at the equator.
North of Quito: Otavalo & Mindo. Both the little jungle village of Mindo and the famous market city of Otavalo can be done as separate day trips from Quito. With Otavalo’s cultural flare and Mindo’s tranquil calm, I’d recommend packing a small over-night bag, leaving everything else in your hotel/hostel in Quito, and heading off for a night’s stay in each (or maybe two if you have it).
Otavalo is best on Saturdays when the market is full-scale. A two-hour bus ride through scenic mountains and you’ll be dropped in the city center, just blocks from the market’s hustle and bustle. Otavalenos are world famous weavers and prosperous exporters of their crafts- the market is a souvenir seeker’s dream. Bargaining is acceptable although prices are already low and travelers should make sure to remain fair and respectful in their offers.
Mindo is a tranquil jungle city surrounded in lush, tree-covered mountains and cross sectioned by rolling streams. Visitors can do a host of hiking including a two-hour trek outside of town to the cascadas (waterfalls). The Mariposa Garden hosts hundreds of species of beautiful butterflies, and Mindo has two orchid gardens. Those not interested in flora and fauna might consider some of the more active adventures like canopying, trekking and biking.
The Jungle. When thinking of the Amazon rainforest, most people think Brazil, but in reality the jungle ecosystem spreads over portions of nine nations including Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Columbia. Visiting via Ecuador could save considerable money on plane tickets over the trek to Brazil’s popular Manaus.
Many Quito locations offer bookings for 4 or 5 day trips to the Cuyabeno nature reserve. There, jungle activities include fishing for piranhas, tarantula spider treks, native dancing or a lazy afternoon in a hammock under the canopy. Bug spray recommended!
South of Quito: Cotopaxi Volcano. At 5890 meters Cotopaxi is the second highest mountain in Ecuador and the most popular to climb. While not considered as difficult to climb as Mt. Everest or the monstrous K2, climbing a snow capped volcano is not for the faint of heart. Adventurers typically begin their summit at 4800m where there is a small refugio to spend the night and store gear. Camping is also available, but be prepared to forgo the restrooms and fire warmth of the paid accommodation. Like with jungle tours, Cotopaxi climbs can be booked through most travel agencies in Quito; booking includes guide and gear ( crampons, ice axe and rope.)
Banos. Amidst the Ecuadorian Sierra (south central mountainous terrain), Banos is an outdoor junkie’s haven. Most known for its thermal baths and hot springs, there are various spas and outdoor thermas where travelers can soak away the aches of climbing or the sweat out the previous night’s drink. Rent a bicycle and take a scenic and speedy downward ride from Banos to Puyo- bring your camera for shots of crashing waterfalls and crystal streams.
If you have time: Cuenca is another colonial city, 8 hours to the south of Banos. Cuenca boasts a well -preserved colonial square, but possibly more interesting than the architecture, is the very apparent cultural heritage existing in everyday Cuencan life. Many women still wear the traditional dress- puffed skirts and white brimmed hats- in general, the city seems to be living in a slower, older time than Quito.
Guayaquil. Guayaquil is the most modern city in Ecuador and one that may have little appeal for American tourists looking to immerse themselves in more traditional culture. That said, the newly constructed Malecon (river-side pedestrian path) is both beautiful and tourist-friendly. At the north end visitors can walk up a 444 stairway path sandwiched by shops and restaurants to reach a lighthouse viewpoint at the top and a viste for miles and miles.
Coastal Ecuador: Montanita & Puerto Lopez.
There are many beautiful beach towns that travelers could park themselves in and relax indefinitely, but given a choice I’d recommend these two. Montanita is a surfer’s paradise- maybe more for the atmosphere than the swell. Here you can truly live the beach life, shoeless and never without a drink in-hand. Don’t miss the fresh fruit batidos (smoothies) and cocktails- you’ll be hard pressed to have a better one anywhere else in the world.
People watching is at its best on Montanita’s main calle (street) with jugglers and street vendors on every corner. The party can be counted-on seven nights a week in the tree-house style bars. Those seeking more R&R should stay in the north point outside of town.
Surf boards are rented by the day from stands on the beach. Divers can set up excursions through a local PADI agency; snorkeling is available too.
Puerto Lopez is a bit more tranquil and a possibly better base-point for families. The real draw here and one that should not be missed is a venture to see the ballenas. Each year, June through October, the humpback whales come off the coast to breed and provide an opportunity to glimpse these beautiful creatures in their natural state. The luckiest travelers will see them saltando (jumping) – snap a photo and capture a moment that few people around the world can claim to have witnessed.
Andrea Wilson is a cultural writer and photographer. She can be contacted for story assignment or content at email@example.com.