The beautiful Galápagos Islands (Dreamstime)
Article Words : Ben Box | 18 November

Four worlds in one: How you can explore the best of Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands

A land of rumbling volcanoes, wildlife wonders, Amazonian jungle and epic coasts – it's a wonder how you can cram in everything that Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands has to offer. Follow our guide...

Our final instructions at Sacha Lodge were, “Leave your bags outside the door of your cabin before breakfast”. After 48 magical hours exploring forest trails, canopy walkways and creeks, we paddled off across the lodge’s serene lake at first light. Taking a launch up the Río Napo, we continued our journey by bus through remnants of jungle and land cleared for agriculture and oil extraction to reach Lago Agrio Airport. From there, our plane climbed from green lowlands to Andean heights, hardly descending at all to touch down at Quito’s brand new airport.

Ecuador, they say, is small enough to start your day with howler monkeys in the rainforest, lunch with llamas on a volcano and watch pelicans on the Pacific at dusk. But while you can do that, it’s a bit of a rushed job – we managed two-thirds of the challenge (the pelicans will have to wait). After lunch – not on a mountain, but in a mall in Quito’s eastern suburbs – we took a detour en route to Otavalo to visit the Pre-Columbian archaeological site of Cochasquí. Taking up a commanding position, these four-sided mounds with long tolas (ramps) dedicated to the stars and the moon are popular with amateur astronomers and UFO hunters. We didn’t see any spacecraft, but we did see plenty of llamas.

A red howler monkey at Yasuni National Park, Ecuador (Dreamstime)

A red howler monkey at Yasuni National Park, Ecuador (Dreamstime)

Reaching the outskirts of Otavalo, we drove around Lago de San Pablo beneath Imbabura volcano to Hacienda Cusín in time for dinner. This 17th-century hacienda, with its own chapel set in gardens with ancient trees and cobbled paths, has religious-themed bedrooms and huge beds to lie back on.

The next morning we headed to Otavalo’s livestock market, where traders sell everything from cattle to guinea pigs. We, though, were saving our cash for the textiles in the Plaza de Ponchos, renowned as the best market in Ecuador.

Wandering among its stalls, the handicrafts portrayed the culture and history here – a vast and wild land steeped in legends and folklore that we grew to love through our travels.

The Galápagos Islands

Sea lions relaxing on the beach on the Galápagos (Dreamstime)

Sea lions relaxing on the beach on the Galápagos (Dreamstime)

Best for: Wildlife, landscapes, snorkelling and history

Duration: 5–10 days

Route: Fly from Quito or Guayaquil to the Santa Cruz or San Cristóbal islands, then take a cruise or island hop.

Why go? On everybody’s bucket list, the wildlife of the Galápagos is second to none.

When to go? All year; hot Dec to May; cool Jun to Nov. High season Jun to Aug, Dec to Jan.

There are two options for visiting the Galápagos: take a cruise or base yourself on an island and visit other stops from there. Each island has its unique wildlife – birds, reptiles, marine mammals and fish – and anyone intending to visit will be familiar with the fundamental role these creatures played in helping Charles Darwin develop his theory of evolution. The fragility of this environment in the face of human activity is undeniable and all visits are strictly controlled by the National Park authorities.

Snorkelling with a turtle in the Galápagos (Dreamstime)

Snorkelling with a turtle in the Galápagos (Dreamstime)

Did you know?

The Galápagos are volcanic in origin and La Cumbre on Fernandina and Sierra Negra, one of five volcanoes on Isabela, have both erupted this year.

A cruise will take you to more remote islands, sailing at night and giving access to the wildlife at its most active, with opportunities to snorkel with the likes of hammerhead sharks and sea lions. There are also cruises specifically for diving. Four islands have accommodation: Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Isabela and Floreana. You can stay in one of the towns (such as Puerto Ayora or Santa Cruz), on the beach-front or inland in luxury safari-style tents. From there, you can then take day trips to nearby islands with more scope for activities such as water sports and hiking. There are inter-island flights, but much cheaper (and rougher) are the scheduled boats connecting the four inhabited islands.

Quito and around

A group of 'cucuruchos', at the 'Semana Santa' parade, Quito, Ecuador (Shutterstock)

A group of 'cucuruchos', at the 'Semana Santa' parade, Quito, Ecuador (Shutterstock)

Best for: culture, landscapes, markets and wildlife

Duration: 7–10 days

Route: Quito • Otavalo • Mindo • Papallacta

Why go? To binge on colonial architecture and daytime and nighttime culture; to straddle two hemispheres and to visit markets, cloud forest and hot springs.

When to go? All year; rainy season Oct to May

Quito, one of UNESCO’s first ever World Heritage Sites, has a split personality. The Centro Histórico’s steep, narrow streets link colonial churches, museums, markets and grand houses, several of which have been converted into hotels. Calle La Ronda is typical: a maze of craft shops by day and buzzing with nightlife after dark. On the other hand, modern Quito, a bus or taxi ride away, is the business, hotel and entertainment quarter and stretches north almost to the Mitad del Mundo, a monument marking the equator.

Two hours north, Otavalo is home to Ecuador’s premier market. Every day the Plaza de Ponchos fills with stalls selling textiles and other crafts – Saturdays are normally busiest. It’s worth spending three or four days in the area to visit weavers’ villages, lakes and the northern highlands.

Quito beds down for the night (Dreamstime)

Quito beds down for the night (Dreamstime)

Did you know?

The railway from Quito to Durlán, near Guayaquil, has a chequered history but is now privatised. It offers a full, four-day Sierra-to-coast experience, plus short tourist excursions north and south of Quito and in the lowlands.

To the north-west of Quito lies the active Pichincha Volcano. From the city, the TelefériQo cable car takes you up to the 4,000m Cruz Loma viewpoint, while the western flanks are a bird-rich cloud forest. You can overnight in wildlife-oriented or community-based lodges, or stay a few days in the little town of Mindo, a playground for Quiteños at weekends but quiet the rest of the week.

East of Quito are the Papallacta thermal springs, with public pools and an exclusive spa and hotel. It makes a good day trip, but also a relaxing base for the start or end of your Ecuadorian journey.

The Oriente

Cascada de San Rafael, in the middle of the jungle with a height of 160m (Shutterstock)

Cascada de San Rafael, in the middle of the jungle with a height of 160m (Shutterstock)

Best for: Wildlife, culture and rafting

Duration: 3–10 days

Route: Quito • Baeza • Coca or Lago Agrio; Baños • Tena • Misahuallí; Loja • Zamora

Why go? To stay in lodges offering all-inclusive packages in some of the most biodiverse places on earth.

When to go? Driest months Oct to Feb, but expect rain at any time

Reaching the Amazonian lowlands in the north of the country often requires a river boat trip after a flight or road journey from Quito or Baños. The highway from Quito passes Papallacta and descends to Baeza, a kayaking and rafting centre, before heading north-east past Ecuador’s highest waterfall, San Rafael. Further south, the Baños to Tena road is also truly spectacular, decorated with tunnels and waterfalls. A paved road gives access to the whole Amazonian region, from Lago Agrio in the north to Zamora in the south.

Scenic view with a tree forming a perfect circle with its shadow on Lake Grande, Cuyabeno National Park (Shutterstock)

Scenic view with a tree forming a perfect circle with its shadow on Lake Grande, Cuyabeno National Park (Shutterstock)

Did you know?

Panama hats are made from paja toquilla, which grows in Manabí province on the Pacific lowlands. They're woven either there or near Cuenca and finished in factories. The finest weaves come from the town of Montecristi and sell for four-figure sums.

Local lodges are reasonably comfortable, providing three good meals a day, high-quality guides and a wide range of activities (birdwatching, jungle treks, canopy walkways, boat trips). Many are associated with local communities.

The two main areas of interest are the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, reached from Lago Agrio, and the Yasuní National Park and Río Napo, reached from Coca. Both zones offer opportunities to see wildlife. Another popular area is around Tena – also a kayaking and rafting centre – and Misahuallí, one of the original starting points for jungle tours. Although many parts of the Oriente are competing with oil exploration, ecotourism is fighting hard to keep areas pristine.

Central Ecuador

One of the world's highest volcanoes at 5,897m, Cotopaxi last erupted in August 2015 (Dreamstime)

One of the world's highest volcanoes at 5,897m, Cotopaxi last erupted in August 2015 (Dreamstime)

Best for: landscapes, culture, trekking, riding and markets

Duration: 7–10 days

Route: Quito • Cotopaxi • Latacunga • Quilotoa • Baños • Riobamba

Why go? Good for active pursuits, de-stressing in hot springs and train buffs.

When to go? All year; high season Jun-Sep

Due south of Quito, Ecuador’s volcano avenue begins. The first giant is Cotopaxi, near the towns of Machachi and Lasso. Haciendas and lodges in and near the volcano’s national park offer accommodation, hiking and horse riding. A bit further south, Latacunga is the starting point for some excellent trekking, biking and horse-riding circuits around the crater lake of Quilotoa and the surrounding villages (these can also be done by car or bus). On the route is Saquisilí, whose Thursday market is a major indigenous event. Latacunga celebrates La Mama Negra in September and November, a riotous but confusing affair honouring the Virgen de la Merced, whose central figure is a man dressed as a black woman.

People enjoying the swings at the Treehouse near Baños (Dreamstime)

People enjoying the swings at the Treehouse near Baños (Dreamstime)

Did you know?

Each region and town has its typical dishes, and if you are hungry, always choose the soup – Ecuadorians make them hearty. Today’s chefs are fusing local ingredients and modern trends for an adventurous new cuisine.

One crop, though, has pioneered international fame: cacao. Several cacao brands have outlets offering tastings of the three regional varieties: El Oro, Los Ríos and Manabí. Tren Ecuador even has a Tren de la Dulzura Plus, which calls at a cacao estate.

Head south-east to the hot springs at Baños, situated in a valley of waterfalls, bridges for bungee jumping and a thriving expat community. From here you can head east to the Oriente, or turn south to Riobamba. This chilly city gives access to another relatively easily accessible volcano, Chimborazo, and to the Devil’s Nose train ride, whose switchbacks form the most famous section of the Quito-Guayaquil railway. The Alausí to Sibambe stretch is only a short section of the 450km line, but it’s undoubtedly one of the most spectacular 12km of railway in the world.

Cuenca and the far south

The New Cathedral in Cuenca was large enough to house 90% of the population of Cuenca when it was designed. The church took 90 years to complete construction, finally opening in 1975 (Dreamstime)

The New Cathedral in Cuenca was large enough to house 90% of the population of Cuenca when it was designed. The church took 90 years to complete construction, finally opening in 1975 (Dreamstime)

Best for: culture, history, landscapes and wildlife

Duration: 3–7 days

Route: Cuenca • Loja • Vilcabamba • Zamora

Why go? For the colonial city of Cuenca and Ecuador’s main Inca ruins, plus handicrafts and a healthy climate.

When to go? All year; driest months Jun to Sep and Nov

Beyond the avenue of the volcanoes lies a region of mountainous national parks such as Cajas and Podocarpus and the beautiful southern city of Cuenca. Much colonial architecture has been preserved in its centre, as well as the Pumapungo remains of an Incan and earlier Cañari settlement. But lying about two hours north is Ecuador’s top archaeological site, Ingapirca, which features fine stonework situated in a strategic position on the main ancient Incan road (Capaq Ñan). Cuenca lies at the heart of a major area for craft production, including ceramics, textiles, gold and silver, and is also the centre of the Panama hat trade.

A rainbow shines above the Temple of the Sun with rainbow at the famous Inca ruins of Ingapirca (Shutterstock)

A rainbow shines above the Temple of the Sun with rainbow at the famous Inca ruins of Ingapirca (Shutterstock)

Continue south for four hours, via the indigenous town of Saraguro where the local people are known for their black dress, to Loja, a major highland town, famous for its musical traditions.

Ninety minutes further south is Vilcabamba, once said to be home to the longest-lived people in the world. True or not, the area has a lovely climate and ample scope for walks and horse or bike rides in beautiful countryside. To the east of Loja, two hours over the Podocarpus National Park, lies Zamora, the gateway to the southern Oriente.

The Pacific Coast

Urban day scene at Malecón 2000 in Guayaquil (Dreamstime)

Urban day scene at Malecón 2000 in Guayaquil (Dreamstime)

Best for: landscapes, water sports, wildlife and cuisine

Duration: 5–10 days

Route: Guayaquil • Puerto López • Canoa • Quito

Why go? To see a different aspect of the country, with lively traditions, laid-back surfers, agro-industry, shrimp farms and Afro-Ecuadorian culture.

When to go? All year; the best weather is Dec to Apr, though busy

Guayaquil is the country’s largest port and business centre. The city’s Malecón 2000 riverfront development is a revamped promenade with gardens, restaurants, a handicraft market and Latin America’s largest Ferris wheel, La Perla. At its northern end lies the bohemian Las Peñas district, a reminder of how the city used to be.

A surfer catching a wave in Montañita (Shutterstock)

A surfer catching a wave in Montañita (Shutterstock)

West of here are Ecuador’s main resorts, Playas and Salinas, but the coast road soon heads north to lower-key destinations and a string of fishing towns, including Valdivia, site of a culture dating back to 3,300 BC. Montañita has a perfect surfing beach and, in town, all the requisite shops and nightlife. Next is Puerto López and the surrounding Machalilla National Park, where you’ll find hills, the fabulous Los Frailes beach and trips out to Isla de la Plata, known as “the poor traveller’s Galápagos” for the similarity of some of its wildlife. Manabí province’s main port is Manta and just a short way inland from there lies the Panama hat-making town of Montecristi. A few kilometres further east is the hang-gliding and kite-surfing spot of Crucita, while across the Chone estuary lies Canoa, a thriving resort until it was decimated by the 2016 earthquake. It’s rebuilding now and has yet another of Ecuador’s wonderful beaches.

From Chone the main road to the Sierra heads towards Aloag, near Machachi, but if you wish to see more of the coast, continue from Canoa to Mompiche, another surfers’ hangout, and on to Esmeraldas (also reachable from Ibarra, north of Otavalo), whose beaches are favoured by Quiteño and Colombian holidaymakers.