Ecuador and the Galápagos
Ecuador straddles the equator on South America’s west coast. Its diverse landscape ranges from Amazon jungle, Andean highlands and the wildlife-rich Galápagos Islands. In the Andean foothills at an elevation of 2,850 metres lies its capital Quito.
Overshadowed by the dramatic Pichincha volcano, Quito is a fusion of Spanish and indigenous influences. Set against an impressive backdrop, the capital proudly possesses one of the most extensive and best-preserved historic centres of Spanish America, with its largely intact Spanish colonial center decorated with 16th- and 17th-century palaces and religious sites like the ornate Compañía de Jesús Church. Pretty cobblestone streets, colonial-era architecture and huge plazas are all overlooked by the Virgin of Quito, a statue atop the Panecillo Hill. It isn’t hard to see why this attractive city was the first in the world to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
North of the city, visitors flock to pick up souvenirs at the colourful market of Otavalo and to stand with one foot in each hemisphere at the Mitad del Mundo. As Otavalo is famous for its textiles, many of the nearby villages and towns are famous for their own particular crafts. Cotacachi, for example, is the centre of Ecuador's leather industry. In San Antonio, the local specialty is wood carving. Away from the bustling market, be sure to visit local artisans in their workshops. Beautifully restored traditional haciendas make the perfect place from which to explore it all, and we particularly recommend this region for anyone interested in riding.
The central region of the Andes Mountains run straight down the middle from north to south, forming a string of some thirty volcanoes. These snow-capped peaks and rumbling volcanoes form the aptly named Avenue of Volcanoes, Ecuador’s indigenous heartlands. Cotopaxi National Park, around an hour south of the capital, surrounds the world’s highest active volcano. Dotted around the eastern flank of the park, traditional haciendas host annual cattle round-ups which are an attraction for intrepid riders. There are also several important markets in the area, such as Saquisilí, Pujilí and Zumbahua.
As Ecuador’s Andean backbone ends, lofty volcanoes give way to a softer, gentler landscape of lower elevations and warmer, drier climates. The chief urban areas here are Guayaquil and Cuenca. The iconic rail journey aboard the Tren Crucero is one of the best ways to travel from Quito to Guayaquil exploring some of Ecuador's charming towns en route. Cuenca, retaining its old colonial atmosphere is one of the most attractive cities in Ecuador, its historic centre contains churches dating from the 16th century. West from Cuenca is the Cajas National Park, whose glacial lakes are set amongst breath-taking scenery, making it an excellent area for walking and bird watching. The impressive ruins of Ingapirca, Ecuador’s most important Inca site lie a couple of hours north of Cuenca.
Two hours north-west of Quito sits the small town of Mindo, high in the moss-draped, mist-shrouded cloud forest. Here the 35,000-acre cloud forest, which ranges in elevation from 1,400m to 4,780m, is excellent for birdlife as well as butterflies and orchids. Although close enough to the city for a day trip, there are some simple yet comfortable lodges and walking trails to make a longer stay worthwhile. Slightly further afield deep in the cloud forests of Ecuadorian Chocó, Mashpi, Ecuador’s first ‘design’ jungle lodge allows for a luxury, immersive experience where guests have exclusive access to a large private reserve.
A short flight to the east of Quito brings you down into the Amazon basin. The Amazon boasts of the highest concentration of plant and animal life of any region on the planet, and while Ecuador's borders contain a small slice of the Amazon, the Ecuadorian rainforest is highly diverse, with quiet blackwater lagoons, raging chocolatey rivers, dense tree canopies and flooded forests. The wildlife here is both plentiful and diverse and with a number of comfortable lodges to stay at, guests can enjoy the unspoilt wonders of the forest.
For those who prefer to explore deeper into Ecuador’s unique slice of the Amazon by riverboat, there are a few vessels in the region. The 148 ft-long Anakonda Amazon, built in 2013, is the only luxury boat plying Ecuadorian waters and the perfect choice for those who wish to experience the Amazon in style.
There is no better way to explore all there is to see than from the comfort of a week-long small cruise around the Galápagos, where the experienced guides will introduce you to the archipelago's unique wildlife - both on land and in the water. The Galápagos is also a snorkeller's and diver's paradise! For those less confident in their sea legs or pushed for time, there are a selection of shorter cruises or land-based programmes. The best accommodation can be found on Santa Cruz in the form of remote highland lodges.
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We do not subscribe to the ‘one-size-fits-all’ philosophy. Sample itineraries and cost estimates are meant purely as a guide. To find out more, please contact one of our expert travel consultants to plan a customized itinerary based on your budget and interests.