Tiny as it may be, Ecuador is one of South America’s undisputed heavy-weights when it comes to adventure and natural beauty. The Ecuadorians like to say their country contains four different worlds; the Andes, the Amazon, the Galapagos islands, and the Coast. For a country roughly the size of Kansas, that’s a tall order.
Quito, Ecuador’s sprawling Andean capital of nearly 3 million is the political and cultural heart of the country. Quito boasts Latin America’s largest and best-preserved historic downtown and is an almost inevitable transit point for anyone traveling the country.
The historic center is charming but very touristy. The rest of the city is not too beautiful or interesting. Give Quito two days maximum.
The hill in the distance, El Panecillo, is crowned by an aluminum statue of the Virgin of Quito. Be careful in the neighborhood leading up to it. We almost got robbed there.
Here’s a typical inner courtyard of the traditional loma house found across Ecuador. This one was converted into a nice restaurant that I can’t afford. Cute.
Mitad del Mundo, Quito’s top attraction, is a cheesy tourist park centered around a monument demarcating the equator line ($5 entrance). There is not much to see, but it does make for a good photo opp.
Ecuador is the most biodiverse place on earth per square kilometer and boasts the most accessible and well-preserved swath of the Amazon rainforest in South America.
This is the reason I came to Ecuador in the first place; I wanted to gain exposure to NGOs doing conservation work in the region. I wasn’t competent enough to approach their headquarters in New York or Bogotá or Quito, so I ended up visiting the forests in person to get a feel for the field.
It was an unforgettable experience, and I adore everyone out there working to protect the forests, but I realized early on that being a good ally doesn’t necessarily mean working in conservation.
Yasuni National Park
Ecuador is the first country in the world to recognize nature as a legal person. According to the Ecuadorian constitution, nature has a right to “exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate its vital cycles.”
The country’s green ethos is difficult to square with its oil-dependency. A quarter of government revenue comes from oil extraction in the Amazon region, and the future of Yasuni National Park is threatened by petroleum companies and the politicians who pander to them.
Whereas most rainforests today are secondary forests (recently regenerated), virgin rainforests abound in Yasuní National Park allowing a unique glimpse into the rich biosphere of undisturbed forests. The only way to reach virgin forest is by boat.
Very little light actually reaches the forest floor, and in such darkness you cannot see much beyond your immediate surroundings. Most of the action in the rainforest happens in the canopy, which can be pretty frustrating for us earth-bound ground-dwellers.
Luckily the Kichwa locals built a 60 meter (200 foot) tower in the middle of dense forest allowing us see above the treetops. From this vantage point, we were able to spot toucans, sloths, macaws, and monkeys with our binoculars.
The mosquitos of the Amazon are easily capable of penetrating clothing and ordinary insect repellent does little to deter them. I was brutalized by the little fucks for my entire journey in the Amazon.
Located along the transition zone between the Amazon and the Andes, Baños is a popular tourist town known for its myriad waterfalls and outdoor adventure sports.
Unfortunately, tourist companies are working around the clock to spoil the pristine waterfall views by installing ugly zip line cables. Why is this legal?
Nariz del Diablo (“the devil’s nose”) is the most famous of Bano’s waterfalls. Warning: You’re going to get wet even if you try not to.
The Andean Highlands
Quilatoa Lake is a gorgeous sapphire lake formed in the crater of an extinct volcano. It’s also quite possibly the most beautiful thing you will see in Ecuador. Photos simply can’t do it justice.
Mount Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano in the world. I had to climb it several times to get half-descent shots because the weather was stormy on my first few attempts, and I couldn’t see a thing. Take a gander at my article on Cotopaxi so I’ll feel like there was a purpose to my suffering. Or don’t. I’m not the boss of you.
Cuenca is lovely gem of a town with a charming 19th century core and very little to actually do. I stayed here for 3 weeks because I found the weather and architecture nice and needed somewhere to write this.
El Cajas National Park
Less than an hour outside Cuenca is EL Cajas National Park, a pristine example of the unique Paramas biome that spans the Andes. Sparse tundra vegetation covers a jagged landscape of hills and valleys over 3,000 meters above sea level. Llamas, foxes, and deer roam here.
Isolated some 906 kilometers off the coast of continental South America, the far-flung Galapagos Islands are home to thousands of unique plant and animal species found nowhere else on earth. These rugged volcanic islands were once a haven for pirates and later became well-known for inspiring Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Most of the animals of the Galapagos evolved without natural predators and consequently do not have a healthy fear of humans. This means you can approach without them getting spooked.
Pelicans mob Porto Ayora’s tiny fish market hoping to nab some leftovers. As much as the national park strives to minimize human impact on the surrounding environment , you need not look far to see how human settlement has affected wildlife.
“Do not touch” is the golden rule of the Galapagos Islands, but what about when the wildlife touches you? Like a begging dog, this sea lion has learned to follow and nudge fisherman for a treat.
Ecuador’s most important commercial and financial center is Guayaquil, a bustling industrial port city in the Southeast coastal region with a Caribbean vibe. Guayaquil gets a bad rap for being dangerous, expensive, and boring, and many would-be tourists are discouraged from visiting. Personally, I quite liked Guayaquil.
Historic Guayaquil is gathered on two hills. One of them, Carmen Hill, is notoriously violent and unsafe to visit. The other, Santa Ana Hill, has a guarded path leading to a lighthouse on its summit. Santa Ana is safe enough to visit as long as you do not wander off the main path.
Santa Ana (foreground) was settled in the 16th century and was the epicenter of colonial Guayaquil. The neighborhood burned down many times thanks to pirate raids and invasion by other European powers.
Parque Seminario is a historic downtown park known for its iguana infestation. The once-timid iguanas have learned they can get lettuce if they come down from the trees and allow people to pet and feed them.
Compressing Ecuador into one article was a big challenge because there is so much to do and see in this little Andean republic. I came to Ecuador via Colombia and left via Peru. Ecuador is in easy reach of both countries with a short bus, and most nationals require no visa.
Daily expenses in Ecuador are not quite as cheap as in neighboring Colombia or Peru because Ecuador adopted the US dollar as its official currency in 2000. On the bright side, no currency conversion is necessary. You can use your greenbacks for everything.
Hostels (and even hotel rooms) for as low as $5-$6 abound in Ecuador, though I managed to find couchsurfing hosts even on the Galapagos Islands. A complete lunch or dinner in a low-end local restaurant costs around $3 in Quito, $4 in Cuenca, or $5 in the Galapagos. This usually includes soup, rice, beans, a small salad, and a glass of juice in addition to your entrée.
Given that Ecuador is a country with four faces, those with limited time will need to prioritize one or two parts that particularly interest them. Or, if, like me, you’ve got nothing but time, you might just lose weeks, months, years of your life exploring this magical corner of the continent.