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Ecuador travel guide

It's South America in a bite-sized package – Ecuador has the wildlife, the mountains, the rainforest and even the Inca heritage, all in easy reach

Small but perfectly formed, Ecuador might be one of the smaller countries in South America but it packs a whole lot of attractions into its dramatically beautiful landscapes.

Bordered by the Pacific to the west, Ecuador’s coastline offers sandy beaches, great surf and fascinating wildlife: watch whales and sea lions galore in Machalilla National Park. Once dangerous, the city of Guayaquil has been thoroughly gentrified, with pastel-coloured buildings and a host of new restaurants, and is a good starting point for drives up the coast. 

Moving inland in Ecuador you soon hit the Andes, where snow-topped peaks soar to over 6,000m. This is where you'll find the capital, Quito, a majestic colonial settlement with churches and cathedrals, threaded with little alleyways and dotted with Indian market stalls.

South of Quito a line of volcanoes, many still active, run down the Andes past the hiking centre of Banos to the colonial city of Cuenca. North is the pretty little colonial town of Otovalo, with probably the best Indian market in South America. From here a network of trails thread past fields tacked onto impossibly steep slopes to reach remote mountain farming villages far off the grid.

Cross the Andes to the east and you're into the Oriente, Ecuador’s hunk of the Amazon basin. The Andes squeeze rain from the sky to feed a biodiversity hotspot, crawling with wildlife and dense, tropical growth. Indigenous tribes are now exerting direct control over this wild, remote region: stay at an ecolodge owned by the locals to learn the area's secrets.

And that’s just the Ecuadorian mainland. Offshore, the Galápagos Islands, Darwin's 'Laboratory of Nature', offer close encounters with a natural world that has never learned to fear man. Explore the archipelago on live-aboard yachts to meet blue-footed boobies and swim with sealions.

Wanderlust recommends

  1. Go Colonial in Quito. Explore Ecuador's capital, with its narrow alleyways and towering churches. The streets are always busy with Indian traders
  2. Hope for a Hummingbird. The cloud forest at Mindo is a great place to see iridescent hummingbirds, their wings a blur as they feed on outsized tropical blooms
  3. Early to Market. Otavalo market is best at dawn: stay overnight in town to catch it. The atmosphere spoils early as tourist coaches roll in. If you're around on a Thursday, nearby Saquisilí's market offers a more local experience
  4. Swim with a Sealion. In the wildlife haven of the Galápagos Islands, 1,000km off the Ecuadorian mainland, animals have never learned to fear man. Curious birds, penguins and sealions come close
  5. Vault a Volcano. Drive down the Avenue of the Volcanoes to gaze up at the snowy and still-active peaks, including the iconic cone of Cotopaxi, and end your journey at colonial Cuenca, a Unesco World Heritage site
  6. Jive in the Jungle. An Amazon ecolodge, owned and run by indigenous Ecuadorian tribes, is the best place to meet birds, caiman, monkeys and other wildlife

Wanderlust tips

Learn a little Spanish – the Ecuadorians will appreciate it and it's a great help when travelling in more remote areas. Research your Galápagos trip before you book and decide what’s important to you. You may be able to get cheaper deals if you book a cruise locally but by that time the best boats are likely to be booked up, especially in the peak months.

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