Dubbed by locals as ‘four countries in one’, Ecuador truly is a land of contrasts. Venture up volcanoes, encounter wildlife in the Galápagos, wander at the waterfalls, and explore Amazon rainforest
Ecuador’s capital Quito, the second-highest city in the world, offers constant contrasts between old and new. Founded in the 16th century, Quito has one of the best preserved historic centres in the Americas, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first city in the world to be awarded the distinction. Explore the Old Town’s beautiful narrow cobbled streets, peer in the plazas and marvel at the magnificent churches.
Once you’re ready to return to the present day, leave Old Town for the cosmopolitan hub of New Town. Spend the day browsing the craft shops and galleries. Take a visit to La Capilla del Hombre to see one of South America’s most important pieces of art; Guayasamín’s towering tribute to the indigenous people.
Outside town, cross the equator at Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World monument). Visit the charming market stalls nearby, selling colourful hand-crafted goods such as alpaca jumpers and hammocks. At the food stalls, taste the unusual guanabana fruit or dare to try the famous hot pepper Aji.
For a birds-eye view of the city, climb El Panecillo. Atop this volcanic mountain, the 30-metre angel-winged statue of the Virgin of Quito with chained lions by her feet is a sight to behold itself, but for really impressive views, climb to the top and look down at Quito. For a less labour-intensive view of Quito, hop aboard the TelefériQo (cable car) to be at the top of Cruz Loma within 10 minutes, and you'll be rewarded with panoramic views of the volcano-ringed city.
Cotopaxi is not just one of the most beautiful volcanoes in South America, but its surrounding national park is home to wild horses, llamas, foxes, and the awe-inspiring Andean condor. Just two hours from the capital, the 33,400 hectares of park offers wildlife experiences only second best to the Galápagos, with rarely seen pumas and bears living here.
Hike or horse-ride through the lower altitudes of the park for beautiful scenery as well as glimpses of wildlife. Don't forget to keep checking skywards to observe some of the 90 species of bird that fly around Cotopaxi, including the magnificent condors
Cycle alongside galloping horses, stopping at Laguna Limpiopungo to see birds nesting in the reeds on the water’s edges. Visit the museum near Campamiento Mariscal Sucre to learn about the history and geology of the park.
Don’t be fooled by Cotopaxi’s picture-perfect beauty. The ‘best climb in Ecuador’ is by no means easy, taking between six and ten hours from the refuge to the peak. Leave the refuge at midnight to start your trip to the over 5,000 metre summit. See the smoke, smell the sulphur and feel the rumble along the way. Once at the top, see breathtaking views of the sprawling park and look for Quito’s twinkling lights in the distance.
Built in the 1900s, the Nariz del Diablo, Devil’s Nose, stretch of rail track through the Andes is one of the most impressive feats of engineering in history, with some switchbacks so tight the entire train backs up just to get through. The track criss-crosses almost vertically from Alausí down to Sibambe below. Sitting on the right gives you the best views. Look out of the open window and gaze in wonder at the mountainous scenery as you chug past thundering waterfalls, glistening rivers, and knee-trembling gorges. Turn to watch the rest of the train snake around the mountain behind you.
Due to the early departure, spending the night before the ride in Alausí is advised. Set precariously at the edge of a gorge, this is a traditional mountain town of narrow streets lined with quaint houses, many over a century old. The town is dominated by the giant monument to its patron saint, Saint Peter, clutching his red bible to his white robes. Head up Lugli hill for panoramic views.
For a livelier experience, visit at the end of June, during the town’s annual festival. Staying in Alausí on a Sunday allows you to visit the busy market. See the locals of nearby villages gather in the town to trade their animals, fruit and fish, and enjoy the food court, where you can sample some of the homemade local dishes.
Baños, Ecuador’s adventure capital, with its views of the smoking Tungurahua (throat of fire) volcano is bound to send your heart racing. Hire a bike and peddle the Ruta de Las Cascadas. Ten miles later, you’ll arrive at Rio Verde; from here, hike to El Pailón del Diablo (The Devil’s Cauldron). This thunderous waterfall surrounded by thriving jungle will not fail to take your breath away, and not just becuase of the effort you have put into getting there. Slippery steps climb the rock like a castle’s tower, leading you behind the deafening fall. Face the dramatic waterfall, the highest in the Andes, from the huge suspension bridge hung over the cauldron within mist-reach.
For the best views of Tungurahua volcano, buckle into the Swing at the End of the World; hanging from a treehouse observatory, set 100-feet above a canyon, this is scarier than any swing you tried as a child. Look out for a smoking eruption in the distance as you’re swept off the edge of the mountain. For a closer look, trek to the summit. Although a relatively easy climb, it takes around five hours to reach the top, so leave early. Looking out at the views of the village below will make you understand why its called Pedacito de cielo (a little piece of heaven). After appreciating Tungurahua’s power, descend to the Virgin’s Basilica, dedicated to the Virgin Mary who is believed to guard the village, protecting it from eruptions.
For yet more adventurous activities, head to the Pastaza Valley to get your fix of cycling, rafting and bungee-jumping. Visit Casa del Arbol Park and zipline over the greenery for flashes of fantastic views. When your body starts aching, soak your muscles in the hot springs that gave the town its name. Test the huge range of temperatures before relaxing into one that’s just right for you.
Immerse yourself in the Amazon by sleeping in the heart of it. This doesn’t have to be as challenging as you may imagine, with a selection of renowned eco-lodges offering little tastes of luxury in the jungle.
If you’re after adventure, book Sacha lodge, where you can embark on an adrenaline inducing night trail on your very first evening, searching for giant insects and caimans. The daily adventure starts at sunrise, when the Amazon is most alive. Paddle canoes along creeks and luscious lakes, admiring the thriving plant life. Learn to cook with Yasuní locals, trek past howler monkeys in terra firme forest and stop for a spot of birdwatching after a thrilling canopy walk. Later, relax at your lodge while watching giant river otters playing, caimans creeping under the walkway, tamarind monkeys chattering in trees, and giant sloths lazing by the cabins, all without leaving your balcony.
For a chance to stay within the Panacocha Protected Forest, home to over 5,500 species of birds, 9 species of monkey, and the rare Amazon pink river dolphin, visit Dolphin Lodge. Listen to the night chorus of La Sera, paddle through the lagoon to find piranha and pink dolphin, and trek jungle fields to see toucans, parrots and innumerable reptiles.
Napo Wildlife Centre offers a spot of luxury within Yasuní National Park. Paddle the Napo River alongside giant otters, better understand the local culture by participating in a traditional Kichwa ceremony, and hike the Tiputini trail to spot capuchin monkeys, tamarins and sloths. For the best birdwatching, climb the canopy tower to find two of the most accessible parrot licks in Ecuador. After a long day, return to your cabañas and take a dip in your jacuzzi.
Although initially less impressive than Machu Picchu, the most intact ruins in Ecuador offer an important insight into the country’s past. Originally an observatory for the Cañari people, then a military stronghold by the Inca in the 13th century, the Ingapirca ruins are still in use today. Llama’s are let loose to graze the site and the indigenous Cañari run a museum, displaying ancient artefacts. Visiting the village of Cañar nearby proves the traditions are still alive today and the culture continues to survive.
The main attraction of the ruins at Ingapirca is the Temple of the Sun. This ceremonial centrepiece is the most intact structure of the site. The perfectly slotted together stones spiral neatly upwards to create a cylindrical tower, its importance marked with a guard keeping watch from the top.
Take a three-day trek through a section of the Inca Trail which linked Cuzco with Quito all those centuries ago. Stretching through Sangray National Park, the mountainous route passes through stunning nature, lagoons and ancient Tampus, small stone buildings left behind by the Incas hundreds of years ago. Alternatively, explore part of the trail on horseback.
Most people visiting Guayaquil, the biggest city in Ecuador, are enroute to the Galápagos. But you can get your wildlife fix here, as the city is overrun with land iguanas. These dragon-like creatures can be found all over the city, but the majority of them hang out in Parque de las Iguanas. Watch these 3-foot-long reptiles fall out of trees, lounge on benches and sunbathe on patches of grass.
While visiting the city, be sure to visit Malecón 2000. This 2.5km long square is a major hub, filled with monuments, sculptures, gardens, restaurants and a shopping mall. Enjoy river views from the square and enjoy entertainment in the performance space.
The museum of anthropology and archeology is well worth a visit. This riverfront museum not only showcases pre-Colombian pieces but also exhibits contemporary works by Ecuadorian artists.
If getting up close and personal with wildlife is your dream, then encountering the inhabitants of the Galápagos Islands is a must. The wildlife here has never learned to be afraid of humans, so you can body-surf with sea-lion pups, sunbathe with spitting marine iguanas, watch blue-footed boobies bounce from rock to rock, and snorkel with penguins. Yes, penguins... yes, on the equator!
The name Galápagos comes from the gentle giant tortoises who stroll these islands. There are several subspecies; find out more and get your first glimpse of the gentle giants at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora. You can even see baby tortoises in their incubators, awaiting release back into their natural habitat. Head to nearby Bachas Beach to spot other wildlife including flamingos and Sally Lightfoot crabs.
Every island and every season brings different wildlife experiences; you'll soon discover for yourself how the archipelago has had such an influence on our understanding of evolution. You'll find yourself awed by the differences between the different tortoises, iguanas, boobies and finches. And then you may also see golden rays, turtles, dolphins, whales and friendly sharks.
The most common way to explore the Galápagos is by cruising on a yacht or small boat, stopping at two or more different islands each day. Alternatively, more opportunities have become available to stay on land, but take day trips.
If you haven’t got time to do the Galápagos Islands, visit Machalilla National Park instead. Nicknamed the ‘poor mans’ Galápagos, the beachside park boasts blue-footed boobies, sea-lions and even humpback whales.