There are few places in the world that truly have it all. Ecuador is one of those places.
South American Travel: All You Need is Ecuador
The country can be neatly divided into four key regions: the Amazon, the sierra, the coast, and the Galápagos. And between UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the world’s highest active volcano to the birthplace of Darwin’s theory of evolution and one of the most biodiverse expanses of forest on Earth, each region has something unique to offer visitors.
Quito and the Andean highlands
Most people visiting Ecuador land in Quito, the world’s second-highest capital city (after La Paz) at an altitude of 9,350 feet. One of its most popular attractions is ‘el centro de Quito,’ the best preserved historic center in the Americas and, along with Kraków, Poland, the first official UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area is home to many popular attractions, including the presidential palace, the Cathedral of Quito, Basilica of the National Vow, and the San Francisco Church and Monastery facing its namesake plaza. A 45-meter-tall stone sculpture inspired by the famous ‘Virgen de Quito’ overlooks the city from atop a 200-meter high hill called El Panecillo.
There’s plenty to see outside the city, too. La Mitad del Mundo marks the spot where the equator is – though GPS positioning has determined that the equator actually lies about 240 meters north of the monument. Those who want indigenous crafts will find them at the Otavalo Saturday market, while adventure-seekers should head down to Baños, which sits at the foot of a volcano and boasts rafting, canyoning, bungee jumping, horseback riding, zip lining, mountain biking, and just about any other activity you can imagine. Climbers also have no shortage of choices in the sierra region, and there are often guided climbs to Ilinizas, Chimborazo, Antizana, Cotopaxi, and Cayambe, the highest point on the Earth’s surface.
Deep into the Amazon
To the east of the highlands lies Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest. While it’s possible to venture into this area yourself, it’s best to travel with a knowledgeable local guide who can keep you safe and properly introduce you to the incredible biodiversity found here.
In this region lies Yasuní National Park, which is arguably the most biologically diverse place on Earth and hosts two uncontacted Huaorani tribes. The Yasuní is home to about a third of all reptile and amphibian species, 382 known fish species, a third of the total native birds in the Amazon, and over 4,000 vascular plant species per 10,000 square kilometers. In a single hectare of land here, there’s over 100,000 species of insects – about the number that can be found across all of North America.
Of course, the main attraction of the Amazon is the larger fauna. Whether on foot or by boat, it’s possible to spot caiman, toucans and macaws, various species of monkeys, sloths, tapir, anacondas, and many others. The park is also home to 130 threatened species, including the giant otter, golden-mantled tamarin, giant armadillo, and jaguar.
Unfortunately the Yasuní sits on top of nearly a billion barrels of oil, and increasing exploration and drilling has put both species and indigenous tribes in the area at risk. While there are attempts to further protect the pristine tropical rainforests, there’s a lot at stake and visitors should be mindful to choose reputable tours that positively contribute to the local economy.
Ecuador’s Pacific coast
While the country’s largest city, Guayaquil, is the main port city and a popular place to visit along the coast, there are plenty of other coastal areas worth checking out. Machalilla National Park contains tropical dry forest and cloud forest and is one of the few protected coastal regions in Ecuador, and nearby Isla de la Plata sees humpback whales converge on the waters throughout the summer months. Those looking for a Miami Beach vibe will find it at the resorts in Salinas, while party-seekers should head to Montañita, a surfer haven that draws a younger crowd for its drinks and dancing. Mompiche is a fairly quiet pueblo with an off-the-beaten-track feel and lots of interesting places to stay, offering those who visit good surf and uncrowded beaches.
Ask any Ecuadorian and they’ll tell you that the main draw to the coast is the food. Seafood is king here, and nearly everywhere you go you’ll find dishes like seafood rice and ceviche. Tigrillo is a typical dish from this region – cooked and mashed green plantain mixed with egg and cheese. There’s also a wide variety of tropical fruits.
The Galápagos Islands
This archipelago about 1,000 kilometers off the coast of South America is perhaps one of the best-known ‘exotic’ destinations in the world, due in no small part to its role in inspiring Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is renowned for its unique wildlife, which includes giant tortoises, sea lions, penguins, marine iguanas, and birds like blue-footed boobies.
The islands each have something different to offer visitors. Santa Cruz is home to the Charles Darwin Research Station and tortoise research and breeding programs, while San Cristóbal is the geologically oldest island and has some of the most incredible landscapes in this region. The ‘flamingo lagoon’ is on Floreana, and five species of giant tortoise inhabit Isabela, the largest and one of the most volcanically active islands. Bird enthusiasts head to Fernandina for the flightless cormorant nesting site and Española, where almost all of the world’s 12,000 pairs of waved albatrosses breed. The island also has mockingbirds, blue-footed and Nazca boobies, Darwin finches, Galapagos doves, and hawks. North Seymour Island has a large colony of frigate birds and is packed with cute but not-so-cuddly sea lions. Two of the most remote islands, Darwin and Wolf, are accessible only by liveaboard but well worth it – they’re considered two of the best diving sites in the world and offer plenty of megafauna, like whale sharks and hammerheads.
No matter what kind of vacation or travel adventure you’re looking for, Ecuador probably has it. Perhaps their tourist board wasn’t exaggerating when they said #allyouneedisEcuador!